Separations: A Wine Manifesto
Back before wine woven tapestries had become a regular part of my life, I little understood the world around me, let alone a bottle of alcohol, as an echo of the material on which human endeavor has thrust itself into the forefront of our conscious mind. It seemed as though I was but walking through the world as it was presented to view and, though vast, things were available for me to experience directly.
That naivete soon wore off with a little life experience and a good dose of philosophy – but I can’t say I ever fully understood the distance between expression and material until I began to consider my wine drinking with more nuance than simply as a vehicle for hedonism and pleasure. It is common parlance in wine circles to talk of wine as the expression of a particular place, with its unique geology and topology. There is also talk of wine as the expression of history – how, for example, a group of simple monks over a thousand years ago sowed the seeds for what has become one of the wine world’s greatest enigmas and obsessions: Burgundy. And, not to be forgotten is the view of wine as the expression of personality – whether it be a consultant’s bravado or a humble family’s simple pleasures.
However, less thought is put into thinking of wine as choice, as a series of interactions through which human endeavor moulds and particularizes the expression of something enigmatic and unreachable. Some may be quick to pipe in that this enigmatic material from which wine leaps into the world is best understood as ‘terroir’. Over time, however, I’ve come to think of it as something far more.
The soul of wine is simply not comprehensible with reference to soil types, sun exposure, and topography. There is no doubt these things play an important influence in how a wine tastes – but that is quite a different question from the soul of a wine, what makes a wine live (or not) when you finally pour it into your glass.
Separation can be painful, it can produce longing, fear, anticipation. We struggle with separation all the time both in our personal lives, as a society (or societies) and as a species. But despite our endless attempts to control and predict, we can never escape the inevitable distances that ultimately form an important part of our life experiences. How can wine be any different?
The making of wine is in many ways a struggle against separation – that between the material that ends up in the bottle and the perceptions of the drinker; that between a natural world that often conspires to destroy crops and produce less than perfect ripeness or freshness and a product meant to evoke pleasure. The remoteness of so many vineyards and the solitary work of small vignerons is off set by the ever so important companionship that lets many of the world’s most unforgiving wine regions survive and even thrive.
But the great irony lies in that in spite of this struggle, the greatest wines (and I’m not talking high scores or prices here) are those that revel in distance, in being ungraspable. It is this unbridgeable gap that makes the best wines so compelling, that draws us closer even as it keeps us away. This special character is one that we will never pin down, never translate into language and one that will certainly never become a formula for success. There is no doubt in my mind that history, terroir, and personality are fundamentally important to and a part of wine and wine appreciation. But what keeps us up at night is the excited anxiety we feel when we, impossibly, experience the expression of something we cannot grasp. Like ghosts, these wines become sources of exhilaration as much as they haunt us, never letting go – everything else becoming far too solid in a world where the ethereal lies hidden before us in the everyday if only we can notice.
These days I approach things with a greater sense of humility, I pause more often, reflect, and accept that what I see and experience is but a glimpse not only of what is, but also of what is possible. I think the greatest compliment I can give to wine is that it’s helped me discover this side of myself in visceral experiences, which is an accomplishment that has alluded some of the greatest thinkers in the history of thought. In the end, it seems, we do need to experience and feel just as much as think. And so I gladly embrace the simple yet compelling creed: think less, feel more.