let me tell you a story: i had a hell of a (weird) wine in London. i was kicking around in soho, intending to go to this udon place* of which i had heard positive reviews, but it turned out to be closed and so i ended up stumbling by chance into this tight, friendly looking little resto called Ducksoup. the menu looked (gastronomically) thoughtful and (financially) reasonable, they stocked a lot of (exclusively, it turned out) biodynamic wines, and there was a Bowie live record on the turntable. i had a scallop and guanciale appetizer that for all its being just a fancied up bacon-wrapped scallop, was excellent (you know when scallops get so big that their anatomical simplicity starts to seem inappropriate?), then braised rabbit and pancetta w/ pappardelle which, despite the almost chicken-like boringness of rabbit, was actually really good. but fresh pasta will do that to you. what reeeally grabbed me, however, was the wine.
since i’d been on tour, i’d been keeping an eye out for ‘orange wines’ (which, to keep it simple, are basically white wines where the juice is left to macerate with the skins for a while, resulting in some weird-ass flavours atypical of whites. the Italians have been rolling deep on ’em lately, and wine dorks are eating it up.), because you don’t see them very often here in QC, but go figure, none of the vegan squats we played at had it for having (perhaps because it doesn’t come in a bag?). so, when inquiring about the Vino di Anna Bianco they had by the glass i was told that it was some kind of crazy orange wine from the slopes of an ACTIVE VOLCANO in Sicily, i was understandably like “yeah, okay. cool.”
and it was cool, you know? cool as in wtf. as you can see above it was a deep, almost cloudy, asparagus+B50-urine-yellow, and i swear it even had some urine faintly on the nose. it was all mineral and tannins and so dry it almost tingled. it made my mouth feel like a white leather jacket. it was so good in fact, i said to the server, that if i had bought it from a dep i probably would have thought it had gone bad.
which i meant, and he knew i meant, as a compliment.
but behind the humour and reflexive self-deprecation (self-reflexive-deprecation?) of the above, there is a kernel of fear, and that is the real fear of the amateur. the amateur who loves sincerely, but worries that perhaps he is loving above his weight. i’ve been seeing this happening with myself, because ultimately i don’t know shit about wine, but i’ve been developing some intense affection for a few wines that are quite challenging. i then learn a bit about these wines, to the extent that i can converse semi-intelligently about them, but am of course all the time running the risk that such a conversation will lead into a more general discussion of wine, for which i am hopelessly unqualified. i know roughly what wine should taste like, am able to form vague expectations based on what i know of the climate of a wine’s origin, but i really know very little of the World of Wine. i couldn’t recognize a grape to save my life (i -could- recognize a grape in isolation. it looks like a large berry. what i mean is i cannot taste a wine and tell you what grape it is or where it’s from. who can do that? robots. empaths. professionals.). i’ve never had a Great Wine. i’ve probably barely had any Good Wines.
it is at base, perhaps, a fear of being pretentious. it leaves one open to the accusation, at least. one is in a sense trapped by one’s own fascinated ignorance – for the wines are truly fascinating (Vino di Anna, Denavolo’s Dinavolino, Olivier Lemasson’s R10, that i have mentioned elsewhere on this blog), but do i really understand what i am drinking? could i tell if this really was a -bad- wine instead of an amazing, iconoclastic, crazy wine? am i merely a dupe? a believer of the hype?
on a certain level – that of the naïf – i don’t think this is a problem. if my pleasure obtains under false auspices, so be it. the fooled tongue is not necessarily the foiled tongue. it has gotten what it wanted.
but on another, there is the suspicion that one is lacking something in one’s appreciation. the fear, perhaps, of a pleasure impoverished. we have a tendency to de-intellectualize pleasure, but for all that it is immediately and immanently sensory, i think wine-drinking is one of those pleasures (like reading or music-listening) that can be . . . elaborated through some amount of education.** to intellectualize need not be to kill or chill pleasure, and our readiness to take this zero-sum experiential game for granted seems to me one of those vestiges of mind-body dualism that i am surprised remains so tenacious.*** i think a useful analogy might be found in scotch: when Scotch Club threw our A Night in Corryvrecken party and invited a bunch of non-members to sample what we had tried over the past year, one of the bottles we brought in especially for the night (that we had not yet tried) was Bruichladdich’s BLACK ART II.
i won’t get into the marketing insanity that is Bruichladdich generally and the BLACK ART specifically. yes, i’m glad i tried it; no, i wouldn’t pay 230$ for it. but in tasting it, i’m glad that i had the background in scotch that i did. many people tried the scotch that night who had little organized experience to frame their impressions of it – they enjoyed the whisky to greater or lesser degrees, but absent was that sense of surprise encountered among the veteran drinkers at how truly strange the BLACK ART was. there was red fruit, cooked but bright still, almost acidic, and to my tastes a woodiness, but confusingly not like the wood i was used to perceiving in scotch. i am not saying that i enjoyed it more than others (in fact i may have -liked- it less), but that different pleasures were produced. some of which were the pleasures of encountering a mystery, but a mystery especially apparent as the result of our education. which, of course, is the point often made about education (in the best, least didactic sense), that it is less about Knowing All The Stuff than it is about the kinds of questions it allows you to ask – the proliferation of such questions and the seductive unfolding of uncertainties.
there is nothing the matter with opaque pleasures (those of which we can only say that we like something, but can’t say why), and indeed it is not only through “education” that pleasures develop complexity (experience is almost unavoidably layered), but i think it is important not to buy into either the pat dualism that keeps pleasure and reflexivity mutually isolated by a sort of metaphysical gulf, or the ideology of mandatory refinement that often accompanies “fine” drink. i guess what it comes down to is a question of how comfortable i am fumbling my way through the enjoyment of things that i know have a complexity of their own that i may not have the capacity to fully appreciate, which i guess is just life, right?
* i did eventually make it to Koya, and it was awesome. except they were out of shiso preserved turnips and i had a cucumber in lieu, which i can tell you was -not- worth 3£.
** i think Terry Theise believes more or less the same thing as me, even though we may seem to be coming at it from totally different perspectives. but neither of us is talking about submitting pleasure to gross rigour or systematization (as in, say, wine ranking systems), although i think he is more inclined to slide into mysticism, which can be pretty awesome.
*** strange that only recently have i realized that intellectual work provides access to certain forms of pleasure that i consider constitutive of my identity. we are familiar with the idea that our selfhood is in part given shape by our preferences and inclinations, but it came to me as something of a shock to realize how much i had excluded pleasures from that conception.