Opinion, Rants, and Stories

Drinking or Reading?

(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?

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4 thoughts on “Drinking or Reading?”

  1. How would you factor varietal into your equation? To me it almost fits the role of language as well – although when considering blended wines it does bring about the question of an equivalent in literary terms? Anyone know of an author that makes use of multiple languages in a single book? I would immagine one could pull it off well if you could play off the different ways of saying things in different languages.

  2. Hmm, hadn’t really thought of varietal, possibly as language, but then what about everything else?

    Umberto Eco writes in Italian, but when translated into English one novel ‘The Name of the Rose’ is made up of English, Latin, Spanish, and Italian.

    I’ll give the varietal a little more thought.

  3. Your musings are the wine equivelant of Haruki Murakami’s “what I talk about when I talk about running”.

    Writting from my current context ( a medical trial invstigation pain perception) my thinking is this: some sensations, experiences, texts are more similarly percieved than others. What I mean is some texts are read fairly similarly, or read us fairly similarly. A block of ice -50 degrees Celsius feels cold to most people most of the time, at 16 or 25 years of age. Your experience of it may differ slightly, but not much, not nearly as much as one glass of the same reisling to the next just 20 minutes later.

    Even from sip to sip the wine and I read each other differently.

    Coming back to the block of ice, it may feel different if I came from a significantly colder environment to begin with, and the wine will differ in taste just after I have brushed my teeth. So this is a physical factor thy influenced my “Reading” which is completely divorced from the concept of understanding being the thing that illuminates the text to me.

    This morning I had to put. My hand in a bucket of hot water, I lasted 7 seconds ( normal by the way) and the next guy lasted 30. I don’t think understanding brought us to this Reading… But rather genetics.

    I’m not saying that understanding is involved in Reading a wine, I’m just simply asking how much. When someone says a book is bad and gives a reason that displays ignorance we can call them ignorant… But when it comes to a Reading based on the taste receptors on our tongue there is a mixture of understanding and just pure subjective physical experience based on genetics that we can’t ignore completely.

  4. Hey Bevan,

    A Murakami comparison. A high compliment indeed.

    I agree that when tasting wine a subjective physical experience informs our opinions, which differs quite a bit from reading. Fine. But I do think there is some common ground.

    Here’s an example. I was at a tasting recently at Raats Family Wines where we were tasting the building blocks of their Original Chenin (unwooded) which come from three different vineyards.

    These wines had finished fermentation but were still quite a way from being complete. The first two came from vines that had been planted in decomposed granite, and the third was from sandstone with a high clay content.

    Bruwer Raats, the wine maker, explained that the granite soils offered very good drainage and with the chalk-like dolomite in the soil, produced very linear wines with low pH and pronounced minerality.

    Whereas the vines grown in sandstone soils had higher water retention and a higher mineral content that encourages more vigorous growth. This results in wines with a rounder, richer mouth feel and a flavour profile of white and yellow fruits – think peaches, pears, pineapples.

    I believe anyone with a functioning sense of smell and taste could identify the differences between the two wines.

    Despite the fact that our tasting experiences are different to a degree I think there is enough similarity for us to asses balance, complexity, and other elements in a wine.

    I also think that the ‘knowledge’ used to interpret a book or a wine are very different. Apart from theory (technical, historical data for example) there is the bank of memories we store of flavours, tastes, and smells that allow us to compare wines, remember them or help identify where they come from.

    These are, of course, personal and subjective, but they are used when understanding a wine. So when you say there is a “mixture of understanding and just pure subjective physical experience based on genetics that we can’t ignore completely;” I would respond by saying that the physical experience is turned into knowledge and used again through memory.

    That make any sense?

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