Monday, August 31, 2015

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Spitbucket--Part One

Oliver Sacks died over the weekend, and I suddenly remembered that a few years ago I wrote a parody of his fascinating works describing the remarkable landscapes of the human brain. I've read nearly all of Sacks' books, and they are travel books of the most human kind, travels through our strange minds. I felt a pang of great sadness upon reading of his death. And when I reread this piece, originally published in April 2012, I found that I actually liked it. Which shows you how perverse and unpredictable human consciousness can be. So, from 2012, my insignificant tribute to Dr. Sacks, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Spitbucket."

The brain of a wine connoisseur is not particularly complicated. It works the same as any other person’s brain only much slower. What is seen as contemplation, the thoughtful gaze of a wine expert as he sniffs, the eyes gazing into an unknowable distance as he tastes, the slow, measured writing of his tasting notes, is actually a sign that his brain is working more slowly than most. We are on DSL, the wine connoisseur is on Dial-Up. Neuroscience is only now beginning to understand why.

In the Fall of 2009, I received a letter from a renowned wine critic. It was almost unreadable, in the manner of wine blogs.[i] That is, it was dull and plodding, and overflowed with vestigial adjectives that made little sense in the context. For example, what did “hedonistic” have to do with “Merlot?” Or “unctuous” with “Jancis’ piehole?” It was apparent that the author of the letter, I’ll call him “Tim Foyer,”[ii] was desperately in need of help. I agreed to meet with him.

Tim had the haggard and world-weary look I associate with wine experts. Liver disease had given him a lovely yellow glow that kept away moths. When he smiled, his teeth were stained like he’d grown up chewing betel nuts[iii] and just this morning he had decided, like James Brown, that “Papua Got a Brand New Bag” of them. He was distracted, and I alertly noticed that, instead of pulling out his chair when we sat down, he pulled out his penis, twirling it around like a lasso, and then fell squarely on his buttocks. I was to learn later that this was a greeting favored at meetings of Master Sommeliers, though Tim wasn’t an M.S. and it was strictly a symptom of his illness.

I was to continue to meet with Tim to try and diagnose his condition over the next few months. During that time, I learned how his condition had slowly developed over the years; so slowly, in fact, that he didn’t really notice any changes in his behavior himself until the fateful day he mistook his wife for a spit bucket. It was that episode that finally sent him searching for help.

Tim had started his career as a sports writer, but drifted into wine.[iv] Through hard work and passion, he was soon one of wine’s most influential critics. A great review from Foyer was certain to sell hundreds of cases of wine. Wineries both courted him and feared him, but he had the sort of disposition that could handle the notoriety.[v] Yet he was starting to change, he told me, change he only now sees in hindsight.

It began with numbers. Tim often tasted a hundred or more wines in a day. He had trained his palate to work with his brain in an efficient manner, and he could quickly write descriptive, if unnecessarily florid, paragraphs about every wine he tasted. And then one day he couldn’t.

One day he put a particularly expensive bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in his mouth and a number appeared, “96.” He couldn’t taste anything. Not cassis, not olive, not black cherry, not plum… His brain insisted on a number. Tim tried another Napa Cabernet, from a less prestigious winery. Slowly, remember he is a wine connoisseur, the number “93” was the result. He had no idea what the wine tasted like, it could have been Italian wine, or, God Forbid, Lake County wine, for all he knew. All that registered from the interaction of the wine on his tongue was “93.” He wrote it down. He would manufacture a description later.[vi]

For many decades now, wine publications have used numbers to convey the quality of wine. Could this be masking some kind of brain parasite spread at industry events? Perhaps as part of its reproductive cycle, the parasite alters the brain chemistry of the critic, rendering him unable to experience wine as normal people experience it, that is, with pleasure and without passing numerical judgment. Were all wine critics brain injured? Many wine lovers would say yes, and most winemakers as well.[vii]

I decided to first investigate whether Tim “tasted” numbers on other occasions. I asked him to lunch. I had him order a bottle of wine, which took him a very long time considering the fact that we were in a Vietnamese restaurant where the wine list was 90% Gruner Veltliner, which left only 10% wines made from actual wine grapes. When the wine arrived, I had Tim taste it. I asked him to describe the wine to me, its smell, its flavor, its texture. All he could say was, “88.” So the jerk ordered an 88 point wine that set me back $75. At that point I was sure his condition required Electro-shock Therapy, applied to his favorite lasso.

When our food arrived, I asked Tim to describe the flavors. He was quite articulate, describing his Clay Pot Catfish as tasting of “lemon grass, Thai chili, and a fellow bottom feeder.” He could describe the flavors of each dish, and he also commented on how my cologne smelled like “RuPaul’s gaff.” Yet the wine was a simple “88.”

It was obvious that something was going wrong in Tim’s brain. And that he didn’t know that much about wine. 88?


[i] I wrote about wine bloggers previously in “The People Who Mistake Typing with Writing—Brain Damage or Cry for Help?”
[ii] Wordplay is an important tell when diagnosing raving idiots. What’s a synonym for “foyer?”  Yes, you’re on the right track, but the critic is not Jim Vestibule.
[iii] Not to be confused with Yoko Ono, who grew up chewing, well, you get the idea…
[iv] There are many drifters in the wine business. Most reputable wine writers acknowledge this and often put the wines they review in brown paper bags, the drifter’s trademark.
[v] Like many actors, sports figures and elected officials, other occupations loaded with people on Dial-Up.
[vi] It turns out to be common practice among wine critics to simply make a list of numbers for wines and then write some kind of imaginary description later. No one reads the descriptions anyway, sort of like footnotes, so this isn’t seen as disingenuous.
[vii] Though winemakers themselves often suffer from a different kind of parasite, which the French call “sommeliers.”

Thursday, August 27, 2015

EPHEMERA: Let Your Gizmos Go!

One of the questions I’m asked frequently is, “Do aerators work?” The answer is no, they’re a fraud, a simple trick, but, like placebos, if you believe they work, they work. But that’s not what’s on my mind, really.

Why do so many people who love wine feel the need to try and improve the wines they’ve purchased? Where’s the joy in that? Where’s the sense? You have to serve it in the proper stem or you’re missing something. You need to aerate it using Bernouli’s principle to release all that the wine has to offer. Bernouli’s principle, really?—don’t you know a con when you hear one? Maybe use magnets to change the tannins. Hell, my refrigerator is already covered in magnets—no wonder my white wines aren’t tannic! Or stick a weird piece of metal in the wine, stir it around, rub your neighbor’s nuts, pet your cat against its fur to put a static charge in your fingers, and then your Pet Nat will taste less funky. Or pump the air out of what’s left in the bottle so that it’s fresher the next day, and makes that satisfying queef when you open it. Or spray argon in it—it’s your baby, it needs a blanket overnight.

When did wine become so fragile, so needy? It’s part of the culture of worshiping wine, which wine in no way deserves, to see it as something almost ethereal, an entity always near death, the Blanche DuBois of alcoholic beverages. In the summer months, customers would often bring wines back into the wine shop that had leaked a bit from being left in their cars. They’d want me to replace those bottles. “So,” I’d say, “let me guess. You bought the wine first, then went to the grocery store to buy dinner, and you left the wine in your car when it’s 97 degrees outside. For an hour. And that’s my fault? If you did that to your kid, would you ask the hospital for a refund?” Besides, I’d go on to say, the wine will be fine. It’s not that fragile. It leaked because it’s mostly water, and water, we all remember from junior high school science class, expands as it heats. Take it home, cool it off in the fridge, then drink it with dinner as you’d planned to. It will be fine. And it always is.

There’s something sad about all of this that I can’t put my finger on. I’m a failure because I didn’t drink my Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir from a Riedel Oregon Pinot Noir glass. It would be better for the wine if I could—it’s tasting delicious, but how much better could it be if I only had the right glass? Or I forgot, and I didn’t decant it early enough, but at least I have a Vinturi to make it all better. All of these gadgets, all of them useless from a scientific point of view, but all of them aimed at making us feel more sensitive than the next guy, with a more evolved sense of smell, a better palate, a better and more savvy kind of wine connoisseur. But all of these gizmos simply prey upon our insecurities, our fear that we just don’t really “get” wine. We want so badly to be thought of as a wine expert by our friends, we pursue equally intellectually dishonest initials after our names—WSET, CSW, HMW (which one is fictional—kinda hard to tell, right?). We “educate” our less knowledgeable friends when they come to dinner with our glassware and our aerators and our vacuum seals. Yeah, there’s a lot sad there.

Wine, like all of the best things in life, is a simple pleasure. And you do it honor by treating it simply. Open it, enjoy it, share it, listen to everything it has to say. You don’t need to fuck with it. Humans are not really that good at smell and taste, those are our worst senses, except for common. Accept that with the appropriate humility, and move on. Stop pretending you can tell the difference after a wine is aerated, after it’s had a magnet stuck in it. Even if you can tell the difference, it doesn’t matter (and whatever difference you can sense is trivial, though more likely imaginary). Wine will change constantly whether you screw with it or not. Give it the room to go where it wants to go without you diddling it. Start drinking your wines humbly and joyfully. Let go of your neediness. You don’t need the expensive glasses. Any nice glass will do. Find a favorite one and drink all of your wines from it. Throw away your aerator, stop sticking it on the top of your beautiful wine so your bottle looks like a refugee from the Folies Bergere. Opening and drinking a bottle of wine isn’t major surgery. All those tools are getting in the way of your enjoyment, not enhancing it. Plus, you look like a jackass fussing over a bottle of wine like that.

I’ve come to a place where I use one glass all the time for every wine I drink—red, white, sparkling, rosé. My wife loves a stemless glass. We open a bottle of wine, we talk about it, we often disagree as to its quality, but we enjoy its company. If we don’t finish it, we put the cork in it and stash it somewhere until the next evening. Expensive or not, pedigreed or not, Grand Cru or plonk, each bottle gets the same treatment. It’s dinner company. We welcome it, we listen to it, we don’t screw with it. Simple.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Blind Book Review: Karen MacNeil's "The Wine Bible 2nd Edition"

The only bibles I’ve ever read were television bibles, which are the keys to the characters and plotlines, written by the series’ creators, of individual television series. Television bibles teach us to worship Mammon, and Norman Lear. Mammon has more hit shows. As well as the leading Republican candidate for President. The Bible, capitalized, and usually qualified by the word “Holy,” as in “cow” and “shit,” is a book that, ashamedly, I’ve never read. The publisher refused to send me a review copy. Coincidentally, I haven’t received a review copy of Karen MacNeil’s soon to be released The Wine Bible 2nd Edition either. Which means that I am able to evaluate and criticize it completely objectively, much as wine critics claim to evaluate wine. They’re mostly lying. But they are on the right track. Actually reviewing wines blind is honorable work, though far too humbling to pursue for a living. The many folks who will ultimately review MacNeil’s newer version of The Wine Bible will also claim to have read it. They’re mostly lying, too. This is the beauty of the wine business. We like drinking and lying. Not necessarily in that order.

In her press and on her blog, MacNeil says she “is the only person in the United States to have WON EVERY MAJOR WINE AWARD (her capitalization, which is a lovely measure of journalism in itself) in the English language.” So, fuck you Roederer International Wine Writing Awards! MacNeil hasn’t won a Roederer Award, therefore they are not MAJOR WINE AWARDS by definition. Pretty sure she hasn’t won a Wine Blog Award either, but there’s that damned “MAJOR” in there, so I guess she’s off that particular hook. Not to mention “the English language,” to which most wine blogs have only a vague resemblance. I’ve won three Wine Blog Awards, and they’re to wine writing what lethal injections are to the death penalty. This from a guy who has WON EVERY MAJOR WINE BLOG AWARD in the English language. If there were any.

Wine has more guides than Everest has Sherpas. The Oxford Companion, World Atlas of Wine, A Connoisseurs’ Guide, Essential Guide, a Dummies Guide, an Idiot’s Guide, a Jerk’s Guide, an Asshole’s Guide, Riedel’s Guide (which is a compilation of the previous three)… And all the guides will tell you that buying their guide will help you understand wine. Maybe. But what they really help you understand is that wine is hard to understand, even in alphabetical order. That wine writing is couched in mystical and incomprehensible language, impenetrable metaphors and dumbfounding similes. Which is why wine guides are exactly like The Holy Bible—books that are filled with mythical stories and bizarre language with the intent of making you believe in your own insignificance in the scheme of things. Only MacNeil is the one who figured that out first and grabbed the catchy title, and is now releasing The Wine Bible 2nd Edition. I’m just surprised she didn’t call it The Wine New Testament.

The wine world is expanding faster than Subway’s Jared at the Kid’s Choice Awards. And MacNeil has expanded her guide to cover wines from regions that are new to most wine lovers. There’s a section on Mexican wines, wines derided by Donald Trump as “smuggled into the US by Mexico’s countless grapists.” MacNeil defends Mexican wines, and, in her inimitable voice, calls them, “Up and coming, like your taco truck lunch.” There’s an incisive entry about the wines of China. “Better than you think. Wines to make you smile. The Mao, the merrier.” She even visits the obscure country of Brangelina to taste their wines. “Lovely, pink and effervescent,” she writes, “like Elton John in a hot tub.”

The Wine Bible 2nd Edition is not just for the beginning wine lover, it’s also for experienced wine lovers looking to spend that annoying $25 Amazon gift card just to get rid of it. It’s fun and lively in a way best summed up by the word, “comprehensive.” It’s more than 1000 pages, each numbered! It’s a wine book heaped with praise.

“It’s the greatest wine book I’ve ever seen. Makes me wish I could read.”—Danny Meyer

“A guide that has all the answers—like your annoying 16-year-old.”—Bobby Flay

“You don’t have to be an Idiot or a Dummy to buy this wine guide—but it sure helps!”—Hugh Johnson

Fortunately, I’ve never read the first edition of The Wine Bible. It might have thrown me off. I hear it’s about wine. Endlessly about wine. And I would guess, since I haven’t read it, and thoroughly enjoyed not reading it, that The Wine Bible 2nd Edition even has Ten Commandments.

Thou shalt have no other guides before me.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any trademarked images.

Thou shalt not take the score of the guide, thy God, in vain.

Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt only unscrew.

Thou shalt not stink of ambergris at a wine tasting—perfume is just whale Preparation H.

Thou shalt not steel, especially when making Chardonnay.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s DRC.

Honor thy mother and thy father and thy sommelier.

Thou shalt not kill, except for 100 point wines.

Thou shalt not forget to wipe.

I’m not sure about the last one, but it’s damned fine advice.