Why is tonight’s Chablis different from all other nights’ Chablis?
My fiancée, a swarthy heathen who covets life’s luxuries, reminded me this evening that in between the plagues, visited upon Pharaoh and his luckless subjects, there must have been a few moments of respite, when everyone took a break for lunch, and the afflicted might even have been distracted enough to believe their boils were subsiding.
Living in a dismal, seaside town in California, blighted by rampant crime, untreated mental illness, and an abundance of shitty wine, I face similar dilemmas. There are tortuous moments of hope, when a local merchant (the single local merchant whose staff are not perpetually high) might come to the rescue. Tonight is an example: a beautiful 2006 Sancerre from the ‘Monts damnés’ vineyard accompanied the sunset, and the warm, summer air, and I thought for a moment this might actually be a nice place to settle down and raise children. The police raid on the meth-amphetamine dealers encamped in the flop house across the street jolted me back to despairing reality like an unexpected swarm of locusts just when the pustules seemed to be itching less.
The momentary shock reminded me of an experiment I conducted over a decade ago that calls into question our understanding of winemaking, culture, and even ‘intelligence’. In 1988, I had purchased two bottles of wine that should have been, chemically, very similar. I did this in full awareness of the opportunity for future mischief. One bottle was the 1988 Bonny Doon Vineyard ‘ Le Cigare Volant’ [sic]; the second was Guigal’s 1988 Châteauneuf du Pape. I even set aside a bottle of Guigal’s generic 1988 Côtes du Rhône as a control. Six years later (and I was assured by the Bonny Doon Vineyard staff that this was near the height of the Cigare’s ‘drinkability’) I tasted all the wines.
The Guigal Châteauneuf du Pape was delicious. The Guigal Côtes du Rhone was drinkable, even good. The Cigare was a lifeless shadow. The bright, sunny fruit, characteristic of Californian wines, and that is required by the domestic market, had died quietly in the bottle.
The Cigare was the product of the University of California at Davis oenology department, a school that has attempted to codify the best winemaking techniques in a single generation. But I wondered if anyone could capture the subtleties of a millenium of viticulture across regions as diverse as the Rhône river valley, the entre deux mers, the Kamptal, Slavonia, Tuscany, and even the Bekaa Valley, and a thousand other places where the alchemy of apparently irrational tradition rules the production of wine that slaps any California vintage to the mat, then rolls the mat up and smokes it like a delicious Oakland blunt.
What was missing from the Californian recipe? And could Californian winemakers exercise the patience to defer the imperatives of their consumers, to experiment, to set aside vintages for comparison a decade later and possibly gain an understanding of the subtle interplay of terroir and artistry that creates a great wine?
I wondered how intelligence develops among species we would otherwise never consider as sharing our gifts for rational and long-term planning. The anthropological world went figuratively ‘ape shit’ when it was discovered that chimpanzees could fashion and utilize tools, such as a twig, whittled to fish termites from a hole. But what about spiders and their gossamer? An individual spider is far less adaptable than a chimp, but there is an astonishing variety in the use of gossamer as a tool. A species of spider creates a webbed net that it affixes to its feet, and uses with pinpoint accuracy to fish insects from the air.
I can imagine a Slavonic winemaker who farms, year after year, the same hillside that his great-great grandfather had farmed, who himself had long forgotten why his own great-great grandfather had chosen this spot. The modern Slavonian spoliates the vines in a very particular way, a practice for which he can offer no scientific explanation. But the end result is magical, as the master sommelier at the Hotel Esplanade in Zagreb led us to know by simply pointing at the menu: ‘This one is good,’ he affirmed, without embellishment.
Perhaps the local, Californian wine market doesn’t know what it wants. And perhaps the frantic efforts of the academics at Davis to address the desires of wine consumers won’t get us any closer to a cure for the plague of mediocre vintages. Perhaps complex and dynamic systems develop an intelligence that outstrips the understanding of rational, individual actors. And perhaps ‘revolutionary praxis’ (to borrow the hideous, clumsy term of a local professor of the ‘History of Consciousness’) can be discovered in a wholly unexpected context, far removed from the meta-discourse of semiotic frippery, or the énoncés of a slap-headed, French S&M enthusiast. I am a revolutionary, after all, and despite a rhetoric and sub-text that would raise the hives on any cultural studies professor like a persistent, Old Testament curse, our language is not so different. Perhaps achieving the cure is less tortuous, and less remote than we believe.