Thoughts on Wine

For the past 18 months I have developed an interest in wine – particularly what are termed “natural wines”. This approach emphasizes expressing the features of the vineyard sites where grapes are grown with minimal intervention in the grapes’ fermentation.

I tasted a bottle of French, vin natural for the first time in November of 2011, and I can safely say that it changed what I thought wine was or could be. In ways, that only my closest friends know, that experience also changed my life – a big, but accurate, proclamation.

I often want to write about the experience of exploring this subject, the new friends with whom I share this interest, and the merchants and winemakers who make the most interesting bottles available. Despite my neophyte status, I hold many opinions about the ideas that circulate through contemporary wine culture.

In the end, one reason I want to write this post is that exploring wine reaffirms my core beliefs about the inter-relationships between writing, cities, nature, perception and perception’s relationship to criticism. What sometimes troubles me is that these core beliefs are often at odds with the rhetoric, beliefs and statements that surround contemporary wine culture. Since exploring wine, I often argue more than I drink! These arguments include modest debates about whether wine is agricultural or urban, the formation of sense, among other issues.

So, if you are a fanatic, as I’ve become, or want to learn a little more about this subject, let me leave you with three beliefs that I hold. These are somewhat controversial; I have some of my biggest arguments concerning these issues; but I think these potentially make wine a more surprising and interesting experience.

1. Wine is language as much as liquid

It’s impossible to have a direct and unmediated experience of the liquid in a bottle of wine. In the most obvious way, a bottle always comes with writing on it – from the label to the back label (with the importer’s name) to the price. All of these things impact experience and it is something to be embraced. There are no pure experiences of wine and no experiences of it outside language. If we taste “blind” (not knowing the maker or grape of a particular bottle), someone still introduced the – now mysterious – beverage to us, and we drank it within some context. All of these things inform our thoughts.

More significantly, almost every modern wine-maker produces a “cuvée” in response to modern criticism. My favorite wine writer – Alice Feiring – brilliantly acknowledged and critiqued this phenomenon. Her first book examined how modern wine criticism generated a negative effect on production. Wine-makers increasingly manipulated the liquid fermenting in their barrels to appeal to the palates of a small handful of critics. But instead of denouncing criticism itself, she inserted her own form of critique – calling for a less interventionist (what she and others call a “natural”) approach.

Today, natural wines are, in fact, highly mediated; the people who make them responsed to the writings of a diverse group including Feiring, the theories of Jules Chauvet, Fukuoka, bloggers, and others. Some of these makers – such as Eric Texier – respond to historical writings on long-lost wines – such as his amazing Brezemes. They essentially reconstruct taste-experiences that they never, and can never taste. But writing (from the 18th and 19th centuries) drives their own efforts to reconstruct vineyards and practices of long ago.

What’s the ultimate point about language and wine? The more language we insert into the already language-filled world of wine the richer it becomes — less a thing in a bottle and more of a phenomenon. It would be interesting to see new forms of writing intersect with new forms of production.

But in terms of everyday experience, when we explore wine with friends, we might consider grabbing some bottles that make people speak. Arguing, talking, and reading forms core aspects of “seriously” drinking wine. Bring the computer, phone, ipad, and examine where something you enjoy is sold, who drinks it, where it circulates. The less purely we try to interpret wine, the more original the language we bring to the experience, the more interesting for all of us.

2. We don’t have wine palates; we always have someone else’s palate.

Because wine circulates within a context of criticism, writing and mediation, none of us truly develops our own palate. Critics use the term “palate” to describe one’s perception of wine and the overall quality of one’s ability to taste. Many people claim that to appreciate wine, we need to develop our own palate, but I don’t think we should so earnestly develop our own palate. Any one desiring to learn, needs to taste, drink and remember what he or she tasted to better understand it. But I don’t feel we should put all the responsibility on ourselves.

Instead, think about it this way: we need to find palates that inspire us. And when we do find the inspirational palate…take, steal, and/or grab that palate and run with it. Over the past 18 months I have immersed myself in the palates of the wine writer Alice Feiring, the importers Kermit Lynch, Joe Dressner, Guillaume Gerard and Cory Cartwright, Return to Terroir, distributors Jay Latham and Rachel Goldman, and the wine director Greg Borden. Many of these people have some pretty amazing palates. In the case of Feiring and Lynch, I read their writings, bought bottles they wrote about, and tried to taste in ways that they did. Whatever palate I have is simply a mash-up of their ideas and others (including blogger-friends like these guys). Their “expert” palates are mash-ups of people that they read and drank with too. No one has their own palate.

3. Wine is urban.

Because wine is mediated with such intense pastoralism (images of vines and rural cellars), many people believe that knowledge about it is contained in the countryside. To learn more, we almost instinctively believe that we must travel to a vineyard or a winery. But I think we should also consider moving in an opposite direction: In whatever way we can, we should go more deeply into the city and urban experience.

In the most simple sense, expand the possibility of visiting an urban wine bar or a wine shop. For me, photographs of chalkboards in bars and shops (or the endless lists of wines on a menu) are as educational as photographs of the soil in a vineyard in Chablis. The chalkboard demonstrates fascinating and complex inter-relationships, compromises, the local culture. And the person who took that photo of the vineyard in Chablis, first fell in love with Chablis, and really understood Chablis, talking to someone at a shop or bar. I “discovered” wine talking to a staff person at a restaurant about their wine. It was the person and the context.

But the urbanity of wine is more complex – a historical and contemporary phenomenon. Vineyards were planted by people from cities, growing grapes for people in cities. Most wine today is consumed in cities. Of course it is made by someone – a wine-maker – but that person is not some romantic loner. Rather, they are part of a complex social and economic network that ties them, and their labor, in a reciprocal relationship to the life of cities.

The city is almost always left out of discussions of wine-making. If you understand or want to understand wine as a more purely agro-technical phenomenon, then you should go to the vineyard (I some times travel to vineyards). But if you simply want to understand wine less technically, or expand your notion of what it is and could be, your time’s as well-spent in the city.

So, in the end, after the longest post I’ve written in months, I wish you all an urban, language-filled experience of wine in which you read, steal, and become intensely influenced by each other’s opinions and ideas about wine. Santé


    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: