Wednesday, July 24, 2019

"Leave poetry to poets… I want to know whether I'll like a wine or not"

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio, c. 1602

"Wine writing is horrendous. I am a relatively young (in my mid 30s) and a neophyte to the world of enjoying wine, and the vocabulary of wine criticism is all but useless to me. Only about 5 of these terms convey anything remotely concrete about the way a wine tastes, smells and feels. The rest are hazy evocations of the emotional state of the author and so subjective that they completely fail to communicate anything. Leave poetry to poets, and write clearly and simply about wine. I want to know whether I'll like a wine or not, and the layers of abstraction and mystery pushed in guides like this make it impossible for me to know what to actually ask for and identify why I liked another bottle. I appreciate that we must rely on metaphor and simile to communicate some of the nuances of flavor and odor. However, unless it's being shot out of a spray gun into my mouth, it's hard to see how wine would feel propulsive. Wine is not a mystery, and rhapsodizing about it as a transcendental mystical experience and not a (humble, delicious) drink just leads to people like me thinking we lack the capacity to understand and enjoy it. Telling me a wine is tense, precise, energetic and alive tells me everything about you, and almost nothing about the wine" - Max – NYC - July 15

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Eric Asimov penned, “15 Helpful Words for Talking About Wine - Here is a practical lexicon that helps to describe the elusive characteristics of wine, without eliciting eye rolls and forehead slaps.” Inevitably, there were eye rolls, head slaps and comments. Max’s comment (above) was one of the top comments in terms of the readers choice for “likes, recommends and replies.”

In the same comment section Nandini Sankar from Mumbai asked, “How about an article on 15 words to use when you are asking about wine? I stumble a lot here, despite having some pretty specific likes and dislikes, and am always lost at a wine shop!”

Nandini is asking for practical advice in the form of words. Eric is offering a thought piece, as he sees it, and Max, well, Max is being Max. None of these folks are wrong. All are seeking a simple solution to understanding and, hopefully, loving wine.

I’m sure Max is earnest, as well as direct and confident (as someone “relatively young in my mid-30’s” can be) in his opinion. There is a lot about what he says which is plain common sense.

What Nandini and, I believe also, Max are asking, are for a few practical words of advice on how to get to the point where they can enjoy the poetry. But we must give them something to sink their teeth into. First the bread, then the poetry?

When I worked the floor as a server and then a sommelier, and as well in retail shops, I would encounter people looking for a solution. There was a time limit, and there were other things more important happening. Either it was a dinner, a celebration, a date, a proposal, or a feast was going to be prepared, a holiday was coming. In other words, life events. Wine was not the centerpiece, but in the last 30 or so years of observing here in these United States, wine has moved closer to the spotlight. So, it has become more important. Nonetheless, an economy of words to describe the needed solution was one I found best suited to these occasions.

The Cardsharps by Caravaggio c.1594
Questions I’ve heard on the floor:
1) I’m having a dinner for four people tonight. We are having lasagna. What wine should I serve?

2) I need a wine tonight for friends who are coming over and we’re having light snacks.

3) I like Cabernet. Do you have Italian Cabernet?

4) I like Pinot Noir. Do you have Italian Pinot Noir?

5) I love Super Tuscans but hate Merlot. What do you have under $20?

6) (at a table in a restaurant) What wine would you recommend with what we are having? One of us is having a steak, one of us is having Fettuccine Alfredo, one is having the Dover Sole and one of us is having the Eggplant Parmigiana. What do you suggest?

7) He’s having the salmon and I’m having a chopped salad. He likes big buttery Chardonnay and I like crisp, high acid wines. What do you suggest?

8) I like dry wine, something like a Riesling. What do you suggest?

9) Do you have anything like Puligny Montrachet that doesn’t cost over $100?

10) I’m on a diet and cannot drink high calorie wine. Is there anything I can drink?

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio c.1598–1599
Holy crap, it’s like I am dying and my life (on the floor) is flashing right before me! This is terrifying!

In reality, those who serve on the floors have to deal with this all the time. Not a lot of time. Some distraction. A made-up space, insofar as a retail shop and a restaurant is a contrived zone. We pass by here, but we do the bulk of our living elsewhere. It’s a way-station. That said, people need solutions. And fast!

First off, I attempt to put the person(s) at ease, making sure there are no wrong questions and no wrong answers, hospitalitas being the guiding principle.

Secondly, I try and find a baseline for what they routinely enjoy. There’s no “mystery or abstraction” here, but there is a little bit of magic, in seeing a pattern and taking it out past the 2-dimensional checker board and onto the 3D chess table.

Next, I try and find a range of affordability. A good wine list or wine shop should have good (or even great) selections at all price points. Why buy crap? Find something for the young couple who can only afford $30 at the table. Or for the pensioner on a tight budget. That might not be the sweet spot for the beverage director’s profit model, but it is a gateway for folks who will get to feel more comfortable with discretionary spending on wine. And there are plenty of us out there willing to spend $60-150 on wine, especially the top cats with their expense accounts. So, have it all for all of them, all of us. Remember, hospitalitas.

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio c.1601
In the case of the table of four (or anything more than one), when they eat different foods it can be a challenge. At a retail shop, usually the person who has a need is making something for (more than one) that will be eaten by all of them – all the same food. Usually. It is easier to come up with a quick solution. But the four people/four entrées dilemma isn’t insurmountable. It’s about being creative. And also knowing those people probably are not going to put a microscope over your advice. They are there for other reasons, wine being not the most important one.

With all of these 10 questions it was fairly easy to find a creative solution with a wine or wines. The only one that gave me a moment was the last one. And then I thought, “How about a kombucha?” Wine isn’t always the right answer – or the only answer.

The wine trade and by extension, wine writers, are the ones bringing out the microscopes. Or these days, more likely the colonoscopes. We’re the ones going down the rabbit hole. People like Max and Nandini are asking for help, simple, clear, communication. Bread first, then the poetry.

If we are going to help shepherd the newer generations into a wine culture, we indeed need the poetry of an Eric Asimov or a Thierry Theise. They are the knife that carves the bread. And likewise, the younger generation needs to be communicated to in a way in which it will be transmitted and imparted. Trust must be earned, even if those of us who are elders know what an arduous path it was to have arrived at this point. Not everybody is there, at the mountaintop, some of them are just beginning the climb. Let’s hand them a guide-line, one which they can see and feel and handle and get a grip, for the big climb.
Madonna with the Serpent by Caravaggio c.1606

P.S. the answers to the other 9 questions, to come...

Much thanks to Terroirist and Wine Industry Insight for recommending this article on their sites.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Samantha Dugan said...

Ohhhh I might have to come down a bit on the side of poetry. Wine at its dullest is a drink and at its highest it's ethereal. Life changing for some us...affirming as well. Coco, berries and cherries cannot replace, for many of us, (nor stick with us) a description like my favorite of Camille Saves when I am teaching a class, "Reminds me of a librarian in fishnets, intellectual but sexy, as, fuck" Cannot think of a time when someone asked me about, "That wine that tasted like tobacco" but hundreds have asked for that librarian. I'm no poet, clearly, but to evoke a feeling or emotion for many of us is more than half the experience.

magnumvino said...

This would be a great topic for discussion. I dig Asimov's writing and I am an artist by trade and temperament. However, our olfactory capacity can vary by degrees of 10 to the fourth power. So, the more precise a description the less likely it is to have a general appeal. Perhaps that is what many of us want, to feel like our efforts over all these years have led to some mastery and some sense of satisfaction. But there might be a better way to communicate our knowledge so that those without the years and the bottles tasted and the studies completed can better benefit from what many of us have spent so much trying to better understand. Wine reviews still very often to me read like a contest in esoteric adjective use.

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