Musings on Thinking and Drinking in 13 Tangos
by Chad Arnold
“To know is to be able to name.”
—Emile Peynaud, Le Gout du Vin
Wine is important, but why study it? Why think about it when you can just drink it?
In a session of a class I taught at The University of California, Berkeley Extension, called An Introduction to the Wines of California and Europe, a student told me that he had been reading professional tasting notes in an effort to better understand how to talk about wine. He, like all budding wine aficionados, wanted to describe accurately what he tasted and then share what he learned with his friends and colleagues.
The trouble with reading professional notes, which you can now find on shelves in retail stores, and online everywhere at any time, as well as on the backs of bottles, and some restaurant menus, is that the power of suggestion is powerful. We know this because so many people say the same things about wine, indeed about different wines.
We often, perhaps unconsciously, base our purchase decision and our assessment of the quality of the wine we buy on whether we can find the flavors of ‘black cherry’ or ‘tar’ the author told us were there. That is, we begin to look for nothing other than what we’re told to look for—and oftentimes, find less.
The student then asked me what the difference between ‘bright’ and ‘vibrant’ acidity was. I responded, turning to the class, and said, “Now that is a good question!”
I suggested that there must be at least some difference between the two terms because they were spelled differently. After some polite laughter from the class, I told them that the key to making the world of wine easier was to find as many different ways to approach it as is reasonably possible. The more approaches we have, the better our chances are of being right at the hip parties we all go to will be. This wisp of witticism was met with more polite laughter. I told the class I would draw my answer. There wasn’t any laughter, but I heard the click of ballpoints.
“First we begin by marking two points” (P1 and P2) I said, “which denote the duration of the experience (perhaps; the ‘attack,’ the ‘mid-palate,’ and the finish’). Then we imagine how and where that ‘bright’ acidity (BA) might manifest itself in that experience.” I then drew a wide vertical line just to the right of ‘P1’ and said, “Here. Bright acidity is like turning on a light as you enter a room.” It’s illuminating and seems to suggest that it (the bright acidity) can reveal something we can’t yet clearly see. The way this ‘room’ is lit is an indication of how the wine will age, because greater acidity means, in most cases, better ageability. If a wine has bright acidity it will be evident nearly immediately, hence the thick band, the illustration of the bright acidity, to the right of P1 near the left of the diagram.
“Now,” I paused, “vibrant acidity (VA) reminds me of the word ‘vibrate,’ and so I imagine a wave.” I then drew a narrow wavy horizontal line that nearly connected P1 to P2, and continued, “and so this line, vibrant acidity, is my way of approaching and distinguishing the term ‘vibrant’ from ‘bright’ with regards to the overall acidity in the wine. They intersect because they both denote perceived acid levels in the wine in question.” Bright acidity is perceived first, but behaves differently on the palate and, at least to my brain, they should be drawn differently so as to be understood as discreet entities having, to some degree, different functions. Though they actually arrive in our olfactory glands at the same time, the ‘vibrant’ qualities of the acid act differently than the ‘bright’ qualities. Vibrant acidity carries the other flavors of the wine down the palate, whereas bright acidity alerts us to, among other things, the vibrant acidity.
Remember, too, that acid is but one component of a wine. Furthermore, it is not enough to say that a wine has ‘acid;’ it’s a start, but all wines do, and there are at least two ways to understand what acid is and how it behaves on the palate, and, further, how we might recognize it when we taste it. But do we have to diagram our analysis for each term we consider? We could, but the real-world answer is no, there simply isn’t time. Wine tasting is a skill, and as you develop your skill set, you will find you can easily keep all of these tools in your head. Soon enough, it will be second nature.
For me, this mental exercise illustrates one way to think about wine deeply. It shows, among other things, that there is more in any one wine than you might guess! This is why the study of wine is so exhilarating. After all, great wine is great art, and should be approached accordingly. To say that Queen Dido was a pyromaniac, or that Don Quixote simply loved exercise are gross over-simplifications. Similarly, we can’t reduce a complex wine to a few words or, worse yet, a number.
Wine is more than a physiological catalyst for unleashing inhibitions; wine is a muse. Even a simple wine that displays neither bright nor vibrant acidity allows us to ask what makes it so. But great wine allows us to ask ourselves deeper and more important questions about things other than wine—and further to offer informed, articulate responses to those questions. In my wine classes I always oscillate between the particulars and the big picture. I try to make things easy, giving my students details they can connect with their lives outside the classroom. I’ll begin a class session with a statement like, “there are only two kinds of wine: Indoor wine and Outdoor wine.” I’ll follow that with a timely pause…then unpack my provocations by reminding them that Indoor Wines are made (or are usually made) in a laboratory. A laboratory. The winemaker pays more attention to the technical aspects of the wine than the characteristics the weather and soil impart on that wine while it’s growing. In making Indoor wines, the winemaker pays more attention to the idea that he can correct any natural shortcomings in the winery. That is, he pays more attention to telling the wine what he wants than to letting the wine speak for itself. By contrast, Outdoor Wines are made in the vineyard—in fact they are an extension of the vineyard—and are only minimally handled by the winemaker.
I’ll then ask them if they know what I mean, wanting nothing more at this point than their gut response. They always get it because they have tasted the difference before. The making of Indoor and Outdoor wines illustrate totally different methods of winemaking and winethinking as well as equally different modes of communication, ultimately yielding different quality wine. And that is because great wine—outdoor wine—can speak. It is the winemaker’s job, as well as the consumer’s, to listen.
To deeply understand wine, with all its involved, attendant language, it helps if we think about wine as an expression of place. To say a wine truly expresses place is to say, “I can taste in this wine things other than fruit; I can taste things like wind and rain, or the stone of the pension I’m staying in.” To taste these things is to taste terroir, a term variously described as “somewhereness” or “everywhereness” and, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine (1994), “no precise English equivalent exists for this quintessentially French term and concept.” (Perhaps there are only vinous translations…?)
Whether indoor or outdoor, wine is ultimately a cultural phenomenon; people who live in specific places and who have specific agendas make it, sell it, buy it, and drink it. But the advantage we have as consumers is that so-called Outdoor wines are made by people who tend the same vines year after year, people who celebrate their place by eating and drinking the fruits of their land and labor. All of this means when we buy and drink Outdoor wines, we get more than just an alcoholic beverage. Simply shake hands with a local vigneron and you will understand the place. The vignerons and the vines inform each other, because they grow together.
In fact many of the world’s great wines come from places where the winemakers were born, and where their mothers and fathers were born. Many winemakers have memories of walking through the rows of vines as children, with their parents talking and pointing. They know the workings of the land and the land itself like kin and, as such, their wines are family ambassadors. The wines and winemakers offer varied and vital inroads that any thinking person can travel. Drink their wine with them and you will come to a much deeper understanding of that place. It is a special experience to tastehistory. Great locally made wines allow us to do this in a particularly intimate way by embodying, in the Platonic sense, the very Form of wine. I think it is important to note that great wine, like great literature, requires the taster or reader to work. Any lasting relationship is a two-way street and, after all, all communication is based on two things: generosity and trust.
We must also make clear the distinction between drinking and tasting. Drinking is something that does not involve (to any great degree) our brains. Tasting, by contrast, is predicated on active intellectual and emotional involvement. Furthermore, I think it is important to note that tasting and drinking are not mutually exclusive activities. It is also interesting that when the Spanish talk about making wine they use the verb elaborar, to elaborate, not fabricar, to manufacture. To elaborate something, Spain’s winemakers say, implies an understanding of that thing (here, the fruit) and its relationship with the soil and weather.
At this point in the class, it is time (finally) to pour some wine. I pull the cork from a bright Albariño from Rias Baixas to get the class thinking.
We taste in two primary places: the olfactory gland and the brain. It is important to recognize that these two organs work in conjunction with each other to produce a deep response to the stimuli. I swirl the Galician delight. Sniff deeply. But the inviting aromas that bound from the glass seem to ask, ‘why study wine? Why read about it? Why not just drink it?’ There is a short answer: the more you can engage with a subject, the more you can give back. Which is to say that through study, indeed through different modes of study, comes understanding. And with the study of wine comes the understanding of the world we live in, and this is, I think, a good thing.
Strictly speaking, wine begins with the science of fermentation, but quickly expands to include other seemingly disparate disciplines and concepts like geography, philosophy, and generosity. But the study of wine only begins with demonstrable interest and informed analysis of the contents of the glass on the table. While wine has its origins in agriculture, this relationship changes and broadens when the winemaker and connoisseur enter the equation. They make art: the winemaker by, among other things, controlling the fermentation and making sure the cellar is free of excessive bacteria, and the connoisseur and wine writer by rigorously applying both creative and analytical language to the experience of tasting a particular wine. Together they create new language for us with every vintage and bottle. And that is something we can talk about.
And we might also talk about the following selection from The Planet on The Table by Wallace Stevens,
His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.
It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,
Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.
Then I ask the students to swirl their glasses and close their eyes.
So, what do we talk about when we talk about wine?
We usually talk about other things; which is to say interpretation is oblique, anecdotal, metaphorical, and tangential. And after years of teaching my understanding is that most people do in fact get it, but don’t know how to apply accurate and meaningful language to the particular experience.
When we are searching, as Pound said, for the right words in the right order, we must relax and be open-minded. And because I repeat myself, I tell my students, again, that if they are not sure what they actually taste they should make something up, because we don’t always know what we’re thinking until we actually say it. Far too often, however, the fear of falling short of a complete or final description prevents many people from saying anything at all.
Furthermore, saying something less than brilliant is something I tell them not to worry about, because all speech gestures contribute to the understanding of any one wine—even the occasional grunt. Certainly the moan. I tell them to just begin; wiggle your way into the wine.
For example with this Albariño, you might begin with: ‘fruity,’ then move to ‘stone fruit,’ and still farther with, ‘ripe stone fruit….’ A second student says ‘yes, I see what you mean, but the ripeness came before any stone fruit for me.’ Now that’s thinking and drinking!
Another one of the wine classes I teach is called Thinking & Drinking: The Philosophy of Wine. Aside from the cool colon and ampersand in the title, the most important aspect of the course is the inferred relationship between the terms ‘thinking’ and ‘drinking.’ It is here—at the outset, in the title—that we begin to see the difference between merely quaffing and being a connoisseur. After all, every good wine class, indeed every good wine, aims to do two things: offer information and foster insight.
You cannot taste a wine and hope to approximate its flavors with language without thinking about it. It is also, with this distinction, that we are perhaps further tuned to the idea that enjoying wine is something we must think about beyond the glass with dinner. The majority of my students, when asked what they hope to learn in the class, say without exception that they want to learn “how to taste.” They assure me they have excellent palates, but just aren’t sure how to go about verbalizing it.
So because wine must be considered beyond the glass, and because I always ask my students to remember everything I say (and everything they smell), verbalization is always a difficult proposition. It helps if you can practice it a few hours every day—the trouble is most of us don’t have the time—or the wine. So what do we do?
We must learn to learn from everything around us—that is, we must learn to go beyond wine, to hone our descriptive skills in order to hone our tasting skills. And so far as food and wine are concerned, the midday and evening meals are great places to broaden our descriptive skill sets. So I often ask my students to describe what they ate for lunch that day—and then ask them to tell me about the wines we’re tasting.
I often hear people describe wines as either being simple or complex. Simple wines are one-shot wines. They usually have one discreet flavor, and that’s it. This does not mean, however, they are innately bad wines or poorly made wines. Complex wines, by contrast, are sequential: you taste one discreet flavor, then, after an interval of time, another. It is here that the brain and olfactory gland are truly working in concert. Much the way Dvorak is said to have said, “music is the space between the notes.”
I have often been asked if there are wine experts, and the short answer is: yes. To be informed and up-to-date with the production, distribution, and taste of the world’s many thousands of wines made each year takes a lot of time. Therefore, consulting an expert in your local wine shop, reading a wine magazine, or asking a sommelier a few questions is often a good idea. As professionals, they have the opportunity to taste thousands of wines each year and talk about them all day, every day.
But what else can we do to learn about the roughly 81,000 different wines produced every year? For those outside the wine trade, even tasting 1% would be a feat! If, however, we remember how to taste wine, we remember that tasting involves, significantly, the brain and we use our brians all the time. Keeping that in mind (pun intended) it now seems possible to gain at least some knowledge of most the wines produced annually—though still not all the knowledge.
For example, if you taste a Sancerre that you like, it may remind you of other wines you may have had from that region—or other Sauvignon Blancs you may have had. It may even remind you of a Chardonnay you had! That Sancerre may even alert you to the differences between two vintages in Sancerre. The point here is that we remember discreet flavors as connected to a particular wine, but come to recognize with experience, that those seemingly singular flavors have tangible connections with wines from all over the world—and therefore to many cultures. We also learn that wine and the study of wine are huge undertakings that cannot possibly be managed by any one person. The lesson here is: taste and drink frequently with friends!
At the first class meeting I will always say that wine is essentially but not exclusively subjective—it’s just that nagging objective aspect that is the difficult part of the whole process. That is, that you like a wine makes it good for you—but not good absolutely. Once again, the Form of great wine is that thing that is common to all great wines—not an easily quantifiable thing, because good taste, unlike hearing or sight, can’t, or hasn’t yet, been measured.
In addition to the number of wines produced each year, and the exciting cultural scope they represent, one of the most appealing aspects of wine is precisely that it is Protean; it’s always changing. It is changing on the vine, in the winery, in the bottle, and even in the glass. It is shipped and trucked all over the world, and goes from the cellar to the dining room, from the bottle to the glass, and from our mouths to our brains and bellies. So in the final analysis the study of wine is the study of culture and culture like wine, is always changing. And so to study wine is to study the relationship between one’s self and one’s society.
I usually begin the second session with another provocative statement, saying, “the two ‘I’s’ of the 21st century are information and insight.” Information is what is given, what is outside ourselves: it’s the wine itself. Insight is what we bring to the experience of drinking the wine, that is, what is inside us before we taste a particular wine. We need to embrace both thinking and drinking as well as information and insight to form a deep understanding of wine education and its importance to the diversity and progression of the culture from which it comes. Without one we cannot know the other.
In some simple sense, wine is a lot like lemonade. They both strive for a semblance of balance between acid and sugar. But balance is like two children on a seesaw—which is good, but for a wine to be great we need harmony. We need to think of this seesaw as a complete circle, one where all points are in balance. Where everybody has a glass and gets it. It is ambitious, to be sure, but the possibility of making great wine, and having everyone enjoy and see its connective capabilities is well worth it.
To understand wine, in all its myriad and artful complexity, it is therefore valuable to study the study of wine. To do this we need to learn some of the finer details about the history of beauty and the complexity of accurate description. By that I mean, we need to search out good examples and apply language to the experience of seeing, hearing, or tasting those examples.
To study the study of art, then, it is necessary to exercise and allow your vocabulary and open-mindedness to work in concert, much in the way the tag team of the olfactory gland and the brain work together. And because there is a fundamental relationship between how much you know and how much you like, I tell my students to look for the good qualities in every wine. It helps to taste as much wine as possible, which is to say, we need to practice.
Whether at my house with a few friends or in the classroom with a large group of students, a wide range of lasting connections are formed through the open engagement of ideas, and whatever the catalyst—wine, politics, or art—it is through such discourse that society moves toward The Good. And because learning is not limited to the duration of the experience, a typical evening at my house involves both recollection and anticipation (the past and future), which we then share throughout the evening (the present).
I am fairly certain my friends and students alike remember more than just the Ph level and total acidity of the wine I serve! I think it’s important that we learn how to ask questions like, “What is the difference between ‘bright’ and ‘vibrant’ acidity?” because it makes a difference in the way we understand Picasso or Plato. Cubism and the Cave.
After I introduce myself on the first day, and ask everyone to do the same, I ask my students to contemplate a few so-called “big-picture” concepts. I do this for two reasons: to give them a gesso ground from which they might begin to paint a world-view through wine--because it is possible—and, further, to give them something with which to agree or disagree (which is why I wrote this article!)
I then tell them, as we share the Albariño, to think about everything and to share their thoughts. Disagree with me if you like, I say, but speak! I tell them to embrace speaking out in class as an act of generosity, and trusting your peers to respect your ideas when you offer them is an act that fosters community. There is some laughter but the tone has changed. This class isn’t so easy after all—and after all, it’s not just a wine class on Friday nights in San Francisco.
We raise our glasses, and then talk about wine.