Monday, July 15, 2013

On Writing: Wine as speed

(Excerpted from my keynote address to this year's wine bloggers conference in British Columbia.) 
     Wine is an accelerant. It lifts the spirit and loosens the tongue and at least in the beginning inspires and energizes. Wine provides human beings with a glimpse of the eternal for which we have yearned for from the beginning, and still do. On a more prosaic level, wine greases commerce and what’s now called social interaction - it makes business deals more palatable and occasionally gets you laid – but best is the exponential speeding up of social standing. Wine’s one of the best ways yet discovered to re-write one’s story, or to recreate an entirely different one. Money acquired in unremarkable or unsavory ways may be instantly laundered in stainless-steel tanks of chardonnay rapped with arteries of glycol and in pricy barrels of cabernet whose indelible stains cover a lot more than aging capacity.
     The idea that you can take two steps away from  destructive and enriching real estate development in a distant place and claim devotion to nature and “the land” in this one shows how easy this transformation is. Cooler clothes, a studied recitation of wine descriptors and cultivars, a pretended knowledge of and affinity with ageless European culture and, “Viola, I’m a vintner!”
We all know the tired cliché, “It takes a large fortune to make a small fortune in wine,” truer today than ever maybe, but if you believe it then why not back out of it with the Balzac-ian one: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”? Not all are based in real crime, of course. That term can still be applied to bribing politicians, but what about just entertaining them lavishly and pouring money into their causes or their spouses’ “non-profits” that aren’t really?
      What about misrepresenting a pile of rocks to get a plot zoned for a house in a vineyard, or acquiring some of your neighbor’s land with an aggressive lot line adjustment? Are those crimes? Yes, if tacky ones. And what about getting tradesmen to effect a landscape adornment and then not paying? What about finessing effluent reports or, for that matter, technically disassembling an entire wine and putting back together minus the defects and calling it what you will?
     There’s more to wine writing than chronicling the seasons of the vine or Ridel-diving for exotic olfactory associations. However intriguing these subjects may be, some of the adverse public reaction to wine criticism in general – what’s perceived as its snobbishness and lack of utility - might derive from a widespread if subliminal adverse reaction to terms like “forward” and “plush” and other fatuous stand-bys.
     Wine writing can be a lot more than tasting notes and puff pieces about corporate chateaux and the cycles of the vine. The unhappy effects of monoculture are evident today and in evidence in much of California, better than houses and malls, granted, but with the ever-increasing effectiveness and cost of high-end trellising, thousands of miles of steel cables bind gorgeous landscapes from San Diego to British Columbia and, when concentrated in places like Napa and Sonoma, can be seen as figurative stays  keeping the lid on both development and the ever-expanding demands of big growers and corporations for water, tax advantages, and wine-related enterprises that can become poor substitutes for an uncluttered view and true nature’s casual, soul-healing variety.
     Indeed, the question of environmental impact of wine, including the fine sort, is inadequately – often never – addressed by professional critics and the journals they write for. Obviously those organs are for people hungry for quality, insight, and glimpses into the personalities of those who make the stuff and envision ways to push the limits of terroir and technical manipulation.
     But most such publications ignore the impact of what is a unique form of agriculture, at least in terms of making and marketing a beverage that has no real nutritional benefit for the imbiber, however gargantuan the temporary psychological one. Wine’s wonderful if ancillary enhancement of actual food is a value all its own. But the body does not in any medical sense actually depend upon wine, yet it is treated in many circles with an almost religious devotion, as if biblical transubstantiation no longer requires the blessing of the host.
     Those who fail to rave in print about the practices of wine are in turn raved against as blue-noses or ingrates, the point being that there is room for a holistic approach to wine, both its production and its imbibing, that some leaders in the industry embraced long ago and still do. Unfortunately they’ve inadvertently provided cover for big producers who feel no real devotion to the land beyond its service under the plow, most notably corporations making the usual green noises while seeking in every covert way imaginable to get around them.
     Aspiring wine writers should look at the whole glorious, imitable culture of wine, as seductive and often rewarding as it is, and at its human costs as well. Also the money tree that shades it all these days. There are the usual cliches, like “You need a large fortune to make a small one in wine.” Well, that’s often true, but not always. As relevant of course is old Balzac’s maxim: “Behind every great fortune is a crime.” This is true in spades if crime includes influencing politicians to approve potentially catastrophic development and subverting changes in product content and labeling that could extend or save human life and also maintain land that bears some resemblance to the America that formed us and our children.

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