Beyond analysis: In search of the “what,” not the “how”
People who are seriously getting into wine–who’ve crossed over from being “mere” wine likers to wanting to know more about what they’re drinking–often start by becoming interested in technical aspects. What’s the residual sugar? How much new oak? How many cases were produced? What clones did you use? Winery representatives who pour at public events or who work in tasting rooms are used to these questions. I often feel sorry for them because they have to say things like “It’s a mix of Clone 667 and Pommard” about 400 times a day.
I went through this technical phase in the 1990s. I would ask the kinds of questions I thought a wine journalist should ask. How many buds per spur? What’s the rootstock? Do you pump over or punch down? But somehow my questions bored me, and so for the most part did the answers. I was thinking about wine rather than feeling it, and over-thinking it, at that, which was a barrier to understanding the essence of wine, which is: Not numbers, but heart, life, soul, essence.
At some point, I decided to jettison that part of me. It wasn’t a conscious decision, like waking up one day and thinking “I’ll never ask a technical question again.” And it isn’t that I no longer ask technical questions; I do, when there’s a reason to. I simply found myself asking less about technique and more about the winemaker’s motives, perspectives, aspirations and understanding. Not “Is the wine fined or filtered” but What is the winemaker trying to do? What’s her vision, her ideal, her dream? Why that, and not something else? How has she evolved over the years? How does she reconcile the natural tension between the commercial aspects of her job and the artistic ones? How does she perceive her wine as an expression of its terroir? These are not technical questions; they are inquiries into the winemaker’s thought processes and practices, and their answers shed more light, I think, on why the wine is the way it is than any laboratory analysis. Besides, I think my readers, who always are foremost in my mind, would rather read about these things, and not numbers.
Writers obsessed with technique suffer from “paralysis by analysis,” which Wikipedia defines as “over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation, or citing sources, so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome.” It also is the title of a blog Terry Theise wrote last week in the Huffington Post. While I’ve had my differences with Terry, primarily over his disdain for California wines, here he’s right on when he says “I’ve reached a place in my drinking career where I find…analytical stats otiose.” He quotes a German winemaker who once told him, “You don’t need these [numbers] anymore, Terry. Analyses are for beginners.”
Now, many wine drinkers are beginners, of course, as Terry rightly points out, and he observes that it would be “peevish of me to deny them the understanding they seek.” Yet he lets us know that “technical minutiae” are not what he wants to write about, nor are they the things wine lovers ought to obsess over. “If you’re stuck in the ‘how,’” Terry writes, with epigrammatic lucidity, “you’ll have a rough time finding your way to the ‘what.’”
What is the “what”? It is what the wine really is: its meaning in this world. That meaning need not be grandiose; it can be ordinary. Whatever it is, it can be written about–and it can be inferred by others. The “what” is, of course, what every wine writer ultimately wants to capture. It also is what true wine connoisseurs seek, yet it will never be obtained by statistics. Many people who taste wine at public events and in tasting rooms seem insecure, and asking a technical question is a form of compensation for their fear of appearing ignorant–it makes them look like they know what they’re talking about (to themselves, to the pourer and, often, to the others in their group). (By the way, writers can feel insecure, too, especially when talking with winemakers.) But really, technical information doesn’t advance the amateur’s understanding of wine. If anything, it impedes it–paralysis by analysis.