28 February 2010

Life is the variety of spice

[dry goods at la boqueria]Just as politicians and propagandists twist perfectly serviceable, harmless words into mnemonic abbreviations for whatever and whoever they oppose, the completely understandable phrase “food wine” has been pummeled into a state of mockery by concentration-loving critics. As part of my little series on the Olympics and wine, I’d like to reclaim the phrase…or at least, its intent.

I don’t wish to defend all the practices that, allegedly, led to the term’s downfall. As with “elegance,” there is a difference between the intended meaning of the term and its employment as an excuse for overcropping, too-early harvesting, or overly-timid winemaking. Of course, some wines are elegant, and some wines are better with food than without, and the modern redefinition of both terms (by critics and their acolytes) into synonyms for “bad wine” is as unfortunate as it is wrong-headed. It’s oenological demagoguery.

There exists a large segment of the wine-drinking population who believe not just that wine can be a cocktail, but that it must be a cocktail. That is to say, a wine has achieved its ultimate destiny when it can be sipped, pleasurably, in isolation, and any wine that cannot live up to this standard is somehow lessened.

Cocktail-supplanting is indeed one of the many possible functions of wine. But to insist on its primacy, dismissing all other uses as subordinate, is an exceedingly narrow view. It’s a little like claiming that the important function for mustard is to top a hot dog.

After all, there’s more than one kind of mustard. The fluorescent yellow glop that American children squeeze on their tubes of mystery meat would ruin a carefully-constructed French sauce that calls for a finishing swirl of Dijon. Likewise, those same children probably wouldn’t want a Swedish brown, or beer-infused whole-grain, or spicy English mustard on their hot dog. Mustards exist in both industrial/commercial and artisanal forms, and the latter come from a wide variety of source and ingredient variants, the better to tailor mustard to a wide variety of individual uses and tastes. No one who loves the condiment thinks that there’s one mustard to rule them all…a mustard that must perform at its peak in all situations, supplanting all others, or that there’s only one function for that ruling mustard. The same is true for aficionados of tea, of honey, of bread, of…well, I could go on for a long, long while.

Shaun White is the best at what he does. But at the Olympics, we don’t see him doing snowboard cross or the parallel slalom. It’s not that he’s not capable of competing, or even succeeding, at either, it’s that he’s unquestionably the king of the halfpipe. Part of the reason he’s so good is that he specializes in it, devoting the majority of his time and attention to that singular purpose. Other events have their own specialists and stars that are fashioned in the same way, and who one won’t find in the halfpipe competing against White, either.

Bode Miller doesn’t do aerials. He doesn’t do moguls. He doesn’t do the biathlon. And he doesn’t snowboard. Oh, he might give any of these activities a shot in his free time, but when it comes to demonstrating the pinnacle of his skills, you’ll find him on the steeps, competing in the Alpine disciplines. It’s what he does, and he’s among the best in the world. We don’t need or expect him to be good at anything else, and in fact to attempt to change sports would likely lessen his ability to perform at the highest level of Alpine skiing.

The same is true across the various Olympic disciplines. How many Nordic skiing events are there? With guns, without guns. Skating vs. classic. Sprints and marathons. Off the jumps and on the flats, or sometimes combining the two. Individual and team. And that’s just one small category of sport. Do Samuel Kamau Wanjiru and Usain Bolt compete against each other? No, and no one asks them to, nor thinks less of their abilities because they don’t do so. Is the standard of greatness for either somewhere in the middle…say, their ability to run a 1500 meter race? No.

Athletes specialize. It’s how they achieve greatness. Once in a great while, there’s a multidisciplinary success (e.g. Michael Phelps, though even he isn’t to be found on the archery field, much less paddling a kayak or atop a horse), but these are rarities. Usually, the 50 meter freestyle and the 200 meter butterfly stars are different people (and even Phelps doesn’t excel at the former). We don’t expect a sprinter to win the marathon, and we don’t expect a bobsledder to strap herself to a snowboard. And yet, many of us expect the wine in our glass to be judged first and foremost as a cocktail, no matter its intended form, function, or specialization. Why?

Wines can be specialists as well. They have different situational uses – a prosecco, a Madiran, and a liqueur tokay are rarely interchangeable, for example – and they have different qualities within those specializations. Sauvignon blanc and gewürztraminer do not go with the same foods. No, there’s no law against pretending otherwise, but there’s a measure of disrespect for the intent of the wine by insisting on their interchangeability. A high-acid, unoaked red from a region lush with tomato-based sauces is not intended as a sipping wine, it’s intended as a counterpoint to, and partner with, those sauces. No, there’s no rule that one can’t have a glass before or after dinner, but that glass is missing something of its purpose and intent.

We might be able to put Michael Phelps on skis and find that his innate athleticism would allow him to perform with some measure of skill. But he’ll likely never achieve what he can in the pool. And we can put a Taurasi in our cocktail glass, but it’s not likely to express everything it does with a slow braise of wild game. To insist otherwise is to insist that Phelps does, in fact, belong on a horse. And who wants to see that?

Benjamin Wallace on the price of happiness

Benjamin Wallace says some stuff we all should know, but either don't or sometimes forget.

The counterpoint to this, of course, is as the Stanford study he references suggests: some large portion of the pleasure of a luxury good is the simple act of possession or consumption. This is why the question, which any devoted wine geek is asked with great frequency, "yeah, but is your wine X times better than what I buy at Trader Joe's?" is only marginally relevant. Often, the wines are better by some identifiable measure of the sort of things that wine geeks value (which is, of course, not the same as saying they're objectively better), but whether or not they're enough better to justify the price increase becomes less and less likely as the price escalates into the stratosphere. At that point, the lessons of the Stanford study come into play: the experience and/or the "having" are, of themselves, a measurable value. It's impossible to separate the two.

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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