Childhood fantasy as the basis of wine writing
I heard Roger Rosenblatt, the writer, on NPR yesterday, being interviewed about his new memoir, The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood.
(I haven’t read it, but plan to.) In the interview, Rosenblatt described how he used to pretend to be a detective when growing up in Manhattan’s Grammercy Park neighborhood, and how that sense of imagining later helped inform his writing.
When I was a boy, growing up in the borough of The Bronx, just north of Manhattan, I too used to play in the park, across the street from our apartment building, and would pretend to be an archeologist. I’d find scraps of discarded materials–the top of a cola bottle, a rusty nail, a crumpled piece of cardboard–and pretend that they were treasures I’d unearthed on an archeological scavenge or dig. I would make up, spontaneously and in the greatest detail, complete histories of those artifacts: who had owned them, how old they were, what they were used for. It was all silly, harmless pretending, but, looking back now, I can see that I was developing the intellectual tools (curiosity, improvisation, the elaborate construction of a narrative) that were later to prove so useful in my own career as a writer.
You might think that wine writing has nothing to do with imagination, but you’d be wrong. At first glance, talking about wine seems to have nothing to do with anything but facts: where was it grown? What is the alcohol? What kinds of oak was it aged in? What are the specific flavors? But of course, such a recitation of facts would give nothing of value to consumers, who want to know: What do you think about the wine?
This is where imagination comes in. When I used to pick up a rusty piece of metal in the park, that was all it was: a rusty piece of metal. Garbage, most people would say. And in fact, if you simply looked at it as a rusty piece of metal, that’s all it was. It took imagination to see it as something left over from the Stone Age, a scraping tool to carve out a lump of stone formed into the shape of a fertility goddess. Yet that’s how my mind worked.
It’s pretty much the same with a glass of wine. At the most fundamental level, it is what it is. Even the greatest wine doesn’t blow your mind if you don’t know what it is. Wine is just fermented grape juice, sometimes elaborated with winemaker bells and whistles such as malolactic fermentation, lees aging and barrel fermentation and/or aging. There’s not much more going on, whether it’s Two Buck Chuck or Petrus. What you find in it depends in large part on what you bring to the experience: your expectations and imagination.
When I was a young druggie [yes, let’s get that out], Dr. Timothy Leary used to say that the acid experience depended on the combination of set and setting. “Set” was the underlying psychology you brought. “Setting” was your immediate environment. “Set” was unchanging: you are what you are. “Setting” varied enormously and could be the determining factor in whether you had a good trip or a bad one.
What all this has to do with imagination is that the judgment of a particular wine has to do with subjective factors. I believe that there is no “external reality” to a wine. The ultimate judgment is dependent on the setting: what do you know about it? How are you experiencing it–at the winery, tasted openly with the winemaker? Blind, in a paper bag among a flight? When you taste blind, you are in the same boat as an archeologist who comes across an artifact in a dig. What is it? You know very little, but your mind desperately tries to put the pieces together. And so you come to a conclusion: it’s early period Egypt, or pre-Columbian Native American, or a Neanderthal tool. You make inferences based on your knowledge, and your excitement level rises or falls with your conclusions. If you have no knowledge, you can make no inferences. You simply like the wine or you don’t, which is useless from the point of view of helping others understand it. If you understand a great deal about wine, you can develop a historical narrative that others will find useful and compelling. But to do so requires imagination. The wine writer’s seeds are found in his or her childhood fantasies.