20 December 2009

Mystify me

[ghostly vines]Didn’t I just get done saying that no one wants to read (or write) yet another holiday wine column? OK, this is me swallowing my words – mea gulpa – and starting off with a seasonal theme. Don’t worry, it won’t last long.

This is a time of year in which many celebrate the various mysteries and miracles particular to their beliefs. The rituals will differ, but except where it is disallowed almost all of them will involve an alcoholic beverage, even if only as part of a communal gathering of like-minded celebrants. Sometimes, those beverages will be mere quenchers. But in many cases, there will be something else at stake…some sort of symbolism or cultural/historic reference.

Throughout the history of our species, we’ve had no problem assigning liquids this sort of secondary meaning and import – not just ferments or brews that sate our thirst and alter our mood, but something more – within the boundaries of practices spiritual, ritualistic, and social. And in fact, it’s probable that wine has fulfilled this transubstantiative role more than any other beverage.

So it passes strange that the first thing just about every journalistic wine writer must promise, as they make their entry into the field, is to “demystify” wine. This promise is usually extended to the readership, as well. Hell, I’ve done it myself, back when I was first starting out.

The appeal of the idea of obvious. Wine’s a reasonably complicated subject around which there has been built an unreasonable amount of cultural fear, and in most cases those with expertise and a forum are inherently charged with the duty to make themselves understandable to other than their peers.

But let’s once again compare fields of inquiry. A newspaper column on the merits of, say, a pitcher acquired by a baseball team does not stop to define the position, iterate the various pitches that can be thrown and their most accomplished practitioners, and delve into an explanation of how the physical structure of the baseball interacts with the pitcher’s musculature to produce certain physical effects. Why not? Because no one interested in baseball wants to read those explanations time and time again, no one interested enough in baseball to write about it wants to write those explanations over and over, and the practice itself would bring any interesting narrative to a screeching halt. Yet a wine column on Crozes-Hermitage will almost always have to locate the appellation, define its cépage, identify its best producers, and talk about its uses with food.

The same is true for coverage of equities, in which a columnist need not explain and define the workings of the stock market and the history of the Dow versus the S&P 500 to cover the day’s news, and in most other fields as well. Yet a column on how to select a wine by identifying its importer will inevitably find itself mired in an explanation of just what it is that importers do (which should be obvious, I would think) and their role in the three-tier system, which will start referring back to Prohibition…and suddenly, we’ve got the history of the alcoholic beverage industry in the United States, when all we wanted was an explanation of what Neal Rosenthal vs. Eric Solomon means for the consumer.

No, for some reason wine writing, unlike other types of specialist coverage, must somehow appeal to the lowest common denominator or risk the heavy hand of an editor’s (electronic) pen. Referring to Morgon in a column? Better explain that it’s a Beaujolais, that’s it’s made from gamay, that all Beaujolais isn’t Nouveau (and the yearly ritual of Nouveau must then be explained for what must be the ten-thousandth time), and so forth. Is a micro-buying guide for spätlese-level riesling on tap? It’s not sufficient to talk about balance as if everyone knows what that is, it’s necessary to attempt a ground-up explanation the interaction between acidity and sugar in wine, why that is of particular interest along various German riverbanks, how this philosophy differs from that operative in the Wachau or the Bas-Rhin, and so forth. In other words, wine writing in its journalistic, general-interest form, must be presented as if utter novices comprise the entirety of the audience, novices who must be gently coaxed from square one with the first paragraph of each new column, and led no further than square two by the conclusion.

But aren’t (you might object) novices the actual audience? Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. The question remains: why does this matter so much when the subject’s wine, and not hockey? Mergers? Senatorial shenanigans? Contract negotiations? All may occasionally hold back on the most arcane terminology, but none will suffer the editorial supposition that the reader is new to this planet, that the audience is comprised of dull children, that it might not be interested enough in the subject to read more than just the one column, as if it would be impossible to infer information that’s not spelled out in painstaking and word count-chewing detail.

I have little idea why this state of affairs should be, though I have theories. But those theories aren’t actually the point of this little rant. Instead, I propose an alternative philosophy to all this wine-for-dummies pandering.

Knowing that Morgon is Beaujolais, and that Beaujolais is gamay, is – I suppose – useful. It may, to the dedicated seeker of vinous knowledge, even be interesting, though in all cases I’d argue it’s reference material, and not the sort of thing one expects to find in the immediacy of a journalistic or columnar setting. But it is certainly nowhere near as interesting as the story of Marcel Lapierre and what he represents for all three of those above-referenced nouns. And it is unquestionably less interesting that the sensory revelation possible in a glass of Lapierre’s Morgon.

Wine writing limited to the first of these three modes of inquiry will never be more than a pale shadow of what’s possible. It should aspire to the latter, even if this isn’t quite achievable without providing samples of the wine in question. But the potential stories in a glass of wine are myriad, they’re very much beyond a rote recitation of facts and figures, and they’re best told from a position not of mere expertise, but of expertise fired by passion. They’re something elevated, something symbolic, something more.

The mere act of experiencing a wine that, more than any before it, somehow reaches or speaks to the taster can be as powerful and as unquantifiable as any mystery. We celebrate, honor, or at least respect those mysteries elsewhere in our lives. Why must wine suffer the dishonor and disrespect of demystification?


Vinogirl said...

Mea gulpa...love it :)
Merry Christmas and keep up the great writing.

Iron Chevsky said...

Well said and amen!

The Wine Mule said...

If the didactic is off limits, and we know that tasting notes are useful only to that portion of the population who experience aroma and flavor the same way we do, what's left?

It's true that not long ago I compared a bottle of Freisa to Catarina Sforza, and while I may have felt inspired, I also felt a bit ridiculous, because anyone would think I was being both precious and pretentious, and not providing much practical information about the wine.

And anyway, I'm not sold on the idea that a lot of people really do know that Beaujolais is gamay. Yesterday I had a customer come into the store, point to a bottle of Syrah, and ask whether I "had any White Sierra."