25 February 2010

Scaling Olympus

[tour de france sculpture]Other than the rings left on a tablecloth by sloppily-filled stems, I can’t claim that there’s an obvious connection between wine and the Olympics. If anything, it should be the opposite: athletic endeavor, pushed to and beyond the limits, isn’t often served by the liberal application of pressed grapes. Something I believe Bode Miller once demonstrated

But as a certified Olympic junkie (I’ve got a membership card and a halfpipe terminology decoder ring), I’ve been musing on connections and parallels, which I intend to explore over the next few posts. One that comes immediately to mind is a difference in what people expect from an Olympic broadcast.

For the results-oriented viewer, sports (and I don’t want to get into debate about which competitions in the Olympics are and aren’t sports, because it’s not relevant to my point) are about the play and its results. The fewer filters between the action and the viewer, the better; everything else is just baggage, distraction, and time-wasting. In the end, all that matters are the results. Who’s #1? Who’s off the podium? There are winners, and thus there are losers.

This hierarchal view of the world – who’s up? who’s down? – is appealing in its binary simplicity, is in some ways the very essence of athletic competition, and is very popular. It’s also responsible for the ratings phenomenon in wine. Whether it be stars, upturned glasses, or points on any scale, the desire for quantification and ranking is and will always be with us.

But there’s a downside to this desire. It’s one thing to wonder, about a group of wines, “which is the best?” It’s another to attempt to objectify this assessment, which is subjective. The sports analogy here would be to judged, rather than measured, competitions. (Was that figure skater better than the other? Was there an undue compression in that aerialist’s landing?) Wines do not and cannot compete in a vinous 100-meter dash; instead, they’re competing on the gymnastics mat. Wine ratings are not analogous to the number of seconds on the clock in a sprint. They are not etched in stone. They are not “truth.” They’re just opinions. (Is this wine balanced? Is it good because it’s an exemplar of its type, or because it’s not?)

Worse, they lead to the wholesale dismissal of any quality other than quantitative superiority. It’s not just that there’s more interest in number one than in number three, it’s that there’s no interest in number four. It might as well not even exist. Many viewers will interpret any competition through this lens…and the motivation to do so extends to wine, as well.

Anyone connected to the wider world of wine consumers knows these folk. When they buy wine, they’ll only buy the best (and “best” is usually defined as the highest rating assigned by a favored critic or set of critics). To judge by their drinking habits, only JL Chave makes Hermitage, there are only two or three vintages per decade in Bordeaux, the entirety of California wine is represented by a few pricey producers in Napa, and so forth. The mantra of the questing wine consumer – “life’s too short to drink bad wine” – is recast in the narrowest possible terms, leaving everything below the magical 100-point threshold as an easily-dismissed afterthought.

Obviously, such consumers drink very well by their own lights. But they stand on a peak, surrounded by self-created clouds that obscure everything else. Are they missing something? A more important question is: how would they know if they were?

There’s another sort of Olympic fan, and proceeding from the assumption that bottom line-focused networks will do whatever the majority of viewers want them to do, one might presume that they are the majority. They’re the fans of narrative, of storytelling, of the flow and sweep of something beyond the moment of performance. Not just those created and prepackaged for the purposes of hype, as reflected in so many of the “up close and personal” videos, but also those that develop organically from the process: the superstar who wins everything but seems cursed on Olympic soil, the athlete who performs through unimaginable pain, the surprising triumphs (and failures), and those for whom a personal best is the only goal that may realistically be set.

For such fans, sports in general (but especially the Olympics), are a rich tapestry of experiential opportunity that goes well beyond the raw metrics of performance. It’s not that achievement doesn’t matter. It’s just that it’s only one part of a larger story.

Wine appreciation of this sort is populated by those who want to know what lurks behind and within their wine. Less important than whether one pinot noir is “better” than another is the reason for that judgment, and even the label “better” is itself replaced by a fluid scale of intellectual and emotional complexity. Difference is not the blank page on which quality is charted, but a quality in itself. History, culture, personality, context…all these matter more to the lover of narrative than they do the lover of achievement.

This division is most starkly evidenced in the sometimes subtle, sometimes stark, differences between wine criticism and wine writing, which I’ve discussed before. But it goes beyond that. It’s a difference in worldview. It’s not that one is right and the other is wrong (though that might necessarily be the view of those that most vehemently inhabit the hierarchical world), nor that a given consumer of either sport or wine may not shift allegiances from time to time, but rather a reminder that our experiences of wine and sport are not always based on a common set of assumptions.

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