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Those emotional components of wine? Not going anywhere

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There’s been much analytical writing lately about the mental, psychological, intellectual and emotional aspects of wine, such as this think piece in Decanter, in which Andrew Jefford ruminates on the concept of wine “as a dream.” He writes of the way wine “commands our emotions” and of its “cultural depth,” referring to historical effluvia well-known to most wine writers, such as Napoleon’s love of Chambertin. As an example of this “cultural depth,” he claims, justifiably, that one cannot drink Stag’s Leap Cabernet without thinking of the Judgment of Paris. Certainly, that is true for me.

(Interestingly, Jefford puts more emphasis on wine’s alcoholic content than I would. Surely, getting buzzed, in precisely the way that wine stimulates the brain and spirit, contributes to the human capacity to experience emotion. Yet non-alcoholic consumables, such as movies and athletic contests, also stir up our emotions, so the presence of alcohol doesn’t seem to be necessary to make us feel strongly.)

Anyhow, I agree with Jefford’s line of thinking and have written about it frequently, suggesting that wine’s emotive and associative force—and not its objective hedonistic content—is the reason why people are willing to spend so much money on certain bottles. But the fact that this topic, of wine’s subjective and cultural bases, has arisen so much in recent months and years begs the questions, Why? And why now?

It used to be that the superior price of Haut-Brion, for example, was explained as a function of its superior quality. The First Growths cost twice as much as the Seconds because they were twice as good. All the experts said so; everyone believed it, because we lived in an age of expertise that applied to everything from art and economics to religion, governance and wine. People did not question the expertise of the experts, or their right to proclaim their views with rigid certainty. You might not particularly care about those views; but you, as a non-expert, were not free to disagree with them. Or, to be precise, you could, but at the risk of sounding like an idiot.

In retrospect we can see that this Age of Expertise was a minor chord in a larger symphony of hierarchical ranking, in which what was was would be. God reigned supreme over the Universe. The Kings and Queens who ruled empires were second in order, their rule “divine” and thus unassailable. Below the Kings and Queens were the Princes of the Church, Generals of the Armies and Admirals of the Navies, and so on and on, down through the pecking orders, in which peons and slaves occupied the lowest rung. These latter had no views, or none at any rate worth considering. This mechanistic view of the world and its inhabitants was reflected supremely in Newton’s mechanics.

We know what happened next: with the advent of Einstein, relativity, the Internet and social media, the old order has more or less totally collapsed. Authority means little these days, in an age when the autonomy of the individual, coupled with that anonymity of autonomous individuals called crowd sourcing, is promoted above all else. In wine, this disintegration of authority leaves the inheritors and defenders of the new order a challenging task: to explain the hierarchies of the old order. How did some wines get to be so much more famous and expensive than others? Proponents of the new order, who generally do not have the ability to taste wine widely, tend to resort to a radical explanation: that the old order was wrong. They say that when their grandparents drank Haut-Brion or Chambertin, the wine’s “cultural depth” actually became “freighted” (Jefford’s word, and not a flattering one) with a dream-weight-anchor that utterly prevented Grandpa from experiencing Haut-Brion for what it was, as opposed to the “dream” his brain conjured it to be. In Jefford’s words, “the dream modifies our reaction to the taste of the wine.”

That’s pretty radical. We wouldn’t allow someone who was racially biased to sit on a jury. We rightfully recoil when a Supreme Court Justice seems to let religious beliefs interfere with a “justice is blind” interpretation of the law. We don’t like it when news “anchors” let their politics blatantly color their reporting. So why is it that we trust wine “authorities” who speak from a dream-world?

This, at any rate, is how proponents of the new order think; and it explains why these arguments of the subjectivity and emotive power of wine are so frequent nowadays. If this tendency towards relativism in wine—an undermining of authority, a calling-into-question of the very notion of quality—continues, the world of wine will find itself in a very peculiar place that has no precedent in recorded history, in which wine always has existed within a hierarchy more or less agreed upon by everyone.

Which is why I don’t believe this worst-case scenario will happen. Human nature doesn’t change, despite fantastic advances in science. We are still the same people our distant ancestors were. Today’s wars and preoccupations mirror yesterday’s; only the particulars have changed; not much else. In wine, the hierarchies of authority (French classification systems, Famous Critic point scores) are under assault, but I don’t believe they’ll fail. These cultural re-assemblings occur from time to time; the rise, in fact, of Bordeaux to the summit of the hierarchy in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was precisely a reassembling of a prior order, more chaotic but for all its disorder, more real. The particulars today change; the underlying reality—that hierarchies always will emerge, official and unofficial, yet understood by all—remains the same. To resist them is to form the stuff of future hierarchies.

  1. I don’t think the “dream” is nearly as specific to label, but more generic to white and red, the time and place the wine is consumed and occasionally the varietal (if one is in Puglia for instance, it’s a good guess you drank Primitivo if it was red wine).

    I’ve forgotten about more labels than I can recall. But what I do remember is the time and place…that trip to the Amalfi Coast drinking a blended red wine out of a demijohn. The time I was at Clio in Boston with my brother, pairing course after course with bubbles, white, red, and port. Sipping red wine and bubbles paired with guinea pig in Peru on New Year’s Eve. Or another NYE drinking wine in Zion National Park out of my girlfriend’s purse, because the selection at the Park’s Official Restaurant was something out of a CVS! I remember laughing about serving wine in her purse, I don’t remember the wine; the wine was probably Pinot because she loves Pinot.

    I don’t remember plenty of bottles or labels or their significance in the wine world. I do remember the “dream” of the moment, who I was with and why and even some of the dishes we ate. Notice the WE. Never a solitary moment.

    While the significance of Stag’s, Ridge, or Montelena doesn’t escape my attention, I’m not captive to it each time I enjoy a bottle of Ridge Monte Bello or Chateau Montelena Cabernet. A Ridge Monte Bello, will be enjoyed at the table with friends and with food in a setting that I probably will remember. I wouldn’t just crack open a Ridge on a Wednesday by myself. The Ridge is an actor in a larger play, not the star of the show. The Ridge paints a backdrop on the atmosphere of the stage. The stage is set, deliberately, for the Ridge to play a part. I wouldn’t be caught dead serving some $3 plonk, I’d rather drink Pellegrino. But the Ridge, despite it being one of my favorite wines, I may forget 10 years down the road, in the hypothetical event I’m crafting as the “dream”.

    There are always exceptions…I remember exactly what I had as my first “legal” drink when I was 21…Booker’s Bourbon. At 40, I served my own Cabernet Sauvignon. Of course there are others.

    But dreaming about “cultural depth” each time a pull a cork on a top notch Bordeaux or cult Cab? Nope. It’s exciting, yes, but the reality is, it’s still gotta be good first, no matter its pedigree or what the critics say.

  2. In speaking about the “old order” and the “new order,” you need to stretch out the historical timeline.

    The “old order” dates back to the classification of Bordeaux in 1855, when at Emperor Napoleon III’s request brokers from the wine industry ranked the wines according to a château’s reputation and trading price.

    A hierarchy defended by the highly ranked producers and the English wine merchant trade for generations.

    The “new order” started with Robert Parker having the temerity to question the shibboleths of Bordeaux’ classification. Quality in the glass, he averred, and not some 100-plus year old antiquated ranking system established the new pecking order.

    Other wine writers on both sides of The Pond ultimately aligned with Parker. New voices, not beholden to the English wine merchants, blossomed.

    The “newer order” of online wine reviewers lack the media reach/marketplace sway and business revenue (from subscriptions and/or ad sales) of The Wall Street Journal “On Wine” column, New York Times “The Pour” and “Wines of the Times” columns, San Francisco Chronicle “food and wine section” columns, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, The Wine Advocate, International Wine Cellars (Vinous), Decanter, Burghound, Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine, The California Grapevine, The Wine Cellar Insider . . . et cetera.

    Can the newer order “move the needle” on driving consumer demand for wines?

    The wine industry remains largely unconvinced on a linkage between online publicity and directly attributable sales transactions.

    (Aside: a debate not dissimilar to one that has been raging for decades between ad agencies and their clients on whether paid media advertising drives consumer sales.

    See: http://adage.com/article/special-report-super-bowl/study-80-super-bowl-ads-sales/290907/ )

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