(Please be aware that these are merely ponderings to which I am putting this blog to use for. As writing and thinking are intertwined (publishing is a different story I guess) I have thought about this as I typed it out, so please indulge me with the problems that quite obviously raise their heads, and add critiques and suggestions as you will. This is not an academic essay, just a simple portal for exorcising things that have been on my mind)
I have been thinking lately about the similarities between books and wine, reading and drinking, authorship and wine making.
When I first had the moment that I am sure all wine enthusiasts have had, you know the second when you sniffed, slurped, spat and wham the penny dropped against the ball which got rolling and bumped into the switch that turned on the light bulb above your head. I had that moment and wine became no longer a mere vehicle for social and cerebral lubrication but a subject of study, a line of thought, a link between earth and mouth, simply, an obsession. From that moment the link was also made between books and wine.
For me, a past Eng Lit student, the connection is a fairly obvious one. Take, for example, the subjective nature of both activities that simultaneously ask for objective critique. There are books that sell millions of copies that are the literary equivalent of coffee Pinotage: formulaic, lacking individuality and generally make critics gag. Say Harry Potter for example.
Another way that I have linked the two has been through the almost limitless ways, through time, that we engage with both items. As a reader I draw on all my experiences that I have gained through life to understand a text, thus when I have read a book at fifteen and again at twenty-six the second reading must be different. The same goes with wine, but not only does the drinker/reader change the wine/text changes as well. We can never read the ‘same’ book twice, and neither can we drink the same wine.
Is there a way to interrogate these similarities more substantially or is it just a tenuous link that I would be mentally masturbating over? I’m not sure, but no one can argue that masturbating isn’t fun.
Basically what I have been briefly pondering is whether there is any value in reading a wine? Or, should I start approaching wines as I do a literary text. There is the author (winemaker), the text (wine), the reader (drinker) and then, this is the one that makes me wonder: is the terroir of literature language, or conversely is the language of wine terroir?
Yes and no, I guess. Yes because the text is produced by language, without it, it could not exist. Similarly a wine could not exist without terroir (although the concept of terroir is manufactured I am taking it to mean everything natural that affects the vines’ existence). No, because there are many examples when terroir is not expressed at all in a wine or even attempted to, but then this doesn’t negate its existence, rather, it simply makes the comparison a bit shaky. Maybe the word terroir is just too easy to go to. The real language of a wine is all the ways in which each wine expresses itself: fruit, alcohol, tannins, oak, acidity etc. Basically everything that constitutes a wine. Terroir, as I have understood it or how am using it doesn’t completely cover this, oak and yeast are obvious examples.
The author and the winemaker I feel are easier companions. Rereading Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” makes me think of those wine makers who push for as little intervention in the wine making process as possible. I find these winemakers are more likely to speak about wines that express their origins. For Barthes “it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite personality . . . to reach the point where only language acts, ‘performs’, and not ‘me’.” Comparing terroir and language is quite flawed, but for this simple post and comparison I am indulging in it.
Should winemakers be considered as authors of their wines, or rather channels through which terroir is expressed? When we read a literary text we know that we cannot take from the text the beliefs and ideas the author herself holds. Yet, we constantly attempt to research various writers’ lives in order to help us better understand their oeuvre. Does it help in reading/tasting a wine if we are knowledgeable of how the winemaker sees herself in the winemaking process? I think it does, yet we must be careful, as in literature, not to let this knowledge cloud our judgement of the final work.
One of my favoured aphorisms about reading is this: you do not read a text, the text reads you. This I guess can be used in any form of engagement. As I said earlier reading a book when you are 15 and again at 26 are different activities altogether. The text reads me through my understanding of it; it plays with my preconceptions. A good example is Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body where the protagonist’s gender is never revealed. But you as the reader inevitably envisage a female or male character and in doing so the text examines your preconceptions about gender.
This understanding must also hold true with wine to some extent. Obviously one has to engage with the wine; if you are simply quaffing then I think no reading takes place at all. Which reminds me of Umberto Eco writing in the introduction to The Role of the Reader that “[i]t is possible to be stupid enough to read Kafka’s Trial as a trivial criminal novel, but at this point the text collapses – it has been burned out, just as a ‘joint’ is burned out to produce a private euphoric state.”
When, however, you are ‘reading’ a wine and looking to its colour, aromas and flavours to try and establish its inception, place, and makeup it is then that your understanding is scrutinised. My – and others’ thankfully – knowledge of what makes French Sauvignon Blancs French, for example, was called into question recently at a big Sauvignon Blanc tasting, where the vast majority of tasters thought that at least one of the wines in a flight of ten was of South African origin. We were wrong, they were all French. The wines had read us. They had showed that we either had a deficient understanding of French Sauvignon Blancs, or that South African Sauvignon Blancs were closer to French examples than we had previously supposed.
This is all just play, and for me a way to look at books and wine from a slightly different angle. I need to think of both differently sometimes in order not to get bogged down by competitions, stickers, top tens, best sellers, fashions and so forth. What do you think? Do you find this endeavour in any way useful?