The World of Fine Wine
What a silly, bonehead question right? It’s one of those self-evident “Why is there air?” types of questions that people use to produce noise (or “copy”) masquerading as substance. Or is it? The apparent answer, of course, is that a wine is worth drinking if you like it, if it gives you pleasure. But I am really not so sure. Inasmuch as a Triscuit, that little quotidian cracker, has been exquisitely designed and manipulated to have an aftertaste that will get you to eat another Triscuit, it is clear that commercial wines can be similarly designed and manipulated by experts who know your taste better than you do. If a wine has been formed to access your reptilian or infantile pleasure centers by some swami who’s trained to hypnotize unaware subjects, would you insist such a wine is “worth drinking”? (The wine writer Stuart Pigott brilliantly calls this effect “fluffy-white-bunny taste.”)
The key word, of course, is “worth.” And to talk about worth, you have to make value judgments. So I’ll make mine, and you’ll see if you agree.
To start, you should know that I am the product of a classic Jewish mother, whom I could only survive by learning to withstand and, ultimately, resist the guilt trip. It entails a certain amount of collateral damage—just ask my wife—because you evolve a rhinoceros skin that’s damn hard to dissolve later on, when you actually need to let others’ messages in. But it has a positive side; it makes you extra-sensitive to manipulations in all forms and better able to recognize and resist them. The more you are impervious to manipulation, the more you are free. It doesn’t mean I can stop myself being
manipulated. I wish I could! But it does mean that I consciously choose to be manipulated and can consciously choose not to be, by avoiding Triscuits, among other things.
Last year I had a condo to sell, and it was telling to talk with the realtor and learn the many ways potential buyers could be manipulated, to the point of making pumpkin pie on the day of an open house, so that your place had an inviting aroma. Manipulation isn’t inherently evil, but I have serious reservations about stealthy and dishonest forms of it. All viniculture is manipulation; wine doesn’t actually make itself—except in certain peoples’ romances (the marketing of which is its own form of manipulation). But a useful dichotomy exists between either preserving inherent flavor or adding flavor that wasn’t there to begin with.
A typical commercial wine begins with grapes with little taste of their own other than generic “grape” flavor. If you ferment them as they are, you get a bland wine. So, your winemaking Svengali starts by adding yeasts and enzymes to the juice to create “attractive” aromas. The cute little bunny appears. You then set about manipulating the alcohol and texture of the wine—which marketing types refer to as mouthfeel—by various externally derived means. You can also add flavor by using oak, or its semblance, and you can ramp up the yummy factor by adjusting or adding residual sugar. This is how the bunny gets its fluff.
The final “wine” is little more than a device—a thing by which a consumer is seduced; a peek at cleavage, but the breasts aren’t real. It has been designed to “appeal” to you and, even worse, to leave you blissfully unaware. It cannot address your intelligence or discernment or imagination or taste. It cannot address you at all. It whispers to you subliminally. And the next thing you know, you’re drinking the stuff and calling it wine.
Have you ever manipulated someone in your professional or private life? How did you feel afterward about the person or people you manipulated? The brutal, honest answer is you held them in contempt. You duped them, the simple fools. So, ask yourself this: Do the people who fashion all these wines to appeal to the masses do it because they respect the masses? As if! You are just a drone that responds predictably to stimuli that they know how to engineer. I suggest you rebel. Unless, of course, you’re content to be a consumer unit who submits to having your infantile pleasure centers diddled. In that case, at least surrender knowingly.
Put it this way: If I was a poet and I gave readings, I would hope my audience found the poems interesting and maybe even moving. If I was a good reader, I could juice the poems a little, read them theatrically; I could sequence the poems so that I captured my audience early on and encouraged them to follow the flow. All of this is manipulation, but none of it is objectionable. Indeed, the audience is hoping to be moved, to fall into a spell. But what if I played somber music? What if I played it below audible threshold but it still registered with the audience? What if I showed pictures, on a screen behind me, of sad puppies or limbless children or rainbows and waterfalls? I’d be a poet who didn’t trust his poems. Don’t you ever get irritated by movies where the big swollen music arrives at some big moment just so you’ll know exactly how you’re intended to feel? All I know in those moments is that you’re a poor filmmaker who doesn’t trust that your unadorned material is enough to make me feel, or that you need so badly to have power over me that you’ll take any shortcut you can find.
So, if I’m that kind of winemaker, I need that power over you because I want to sell as much wine as possible, and I will do anything necessary to guarantee that power and those sales. And if that means I press buttons you don’t even know exist, then that’s what it means. I need the business. I have shareholders to answer to, or debt to service, or I’m just good at aesthetic propaganda and I like to strut. You don’t even exist, except as a lemming to whom a depletion is attached. I argue, therefore, that such wines are not worth drinking, even if people “like” them or can be induced to think they do.
Honest and authentic
What makes a wine worth drinking is that it is honest and authentic. That and nothing more. Once we are confident a wine is true, then we can make all kinds of judgments and discernments and maybe discover that some wines are more worth drinking than others, according to our tastes or frames of reference or systems of values. With all the sad commercial dross swept away, the real discussion can begin. And it begins with a new question: What makes a wine honest and authentic?
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