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Malcolm Jolley: Form, function, and finding the right wine for the right time

Commentary

In a brazen move of self-affirmation, last Friday afternoon, I took my own advice from my most recent Hub column and bought a $24 bottle of Claret. The ordinary red Bordeaux was the 2016 Clos Bel-Air from the Montagne-Saint-Emilion, made by Château du Moulin Noir. We had it on Sunday evening. As I describe below, it was good despite my worry that a seven-year-old wine at that price might not be; that it might have been priced to sell because it had gone past its prime.

Not only was the wine pleasing, it was also satisfying. And not just because it justified my column about ordinary Bordeaux, or appealed to my Scottish heritage by meeting a high quality-to-price ratio. It was satisfying because it met my hope that it would meet my expectation of a wine that was served at Sunday dinner. It was fit for purpose.

The American architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), who built some of the earliest steel-frame skyscrapers, is credited with the axiom “form follows function”. However beautiful or striking a building Sullivan designed, it had to do its job to be considered successful. Sullivan’s more famous protegé, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), took the concept further: “Form and function are one”.

On Sunday night, when my wife left the table to help my squabbling sons with the dishes, I was left alone with the Clos Bel-Air to contemplate how its form so happily followed the function I had privately assigned to it. Was this on purpose, I wondered? If the consideration of function is the beginning of the process of making a good thing, then what was the function in mind in the creation of this wine? Probably not specifically to make me happy on a chilly April Sunday night.

The 2016 Clos Bel-Air is a double classic: it’s a proper Claret and it’s definitely from the Right Bank. It’s a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, my guess is more of the former with red fruit that wanders into black, and a touch of something peppery on the finish. Though the note that really delivered for me on Sunday night was a cedar one that went with just a bit of oak tannin grip. This is an old-school wine, that could be put down for a few more years, and the age of seven, softened as it carried through dinner and beyond.

A recurring theme in this column is that any given thing about wine will be true except when it’s not, and the Clos Bel Air struck me as being both very much designed for my Sunday dinner and very much not at all.

The Bel-Air tastes like what I think is an old-school Claret, which is what I wanted for the Sunday dinner. The qualification on this point would be from a good year. And the qualification on the qualification would be until global warming made all years good enough. Or, good enough at least for ripening fruit, especially in places that used to be more marginal, like the elevated slopes of la Montagne-Saint-Emilion.

It would take an astonishing level of wine-making incompetence to make a delicious old-school wine like the 2016 Bel-Air if that wasn’t the vigneron’s intention. So, I am pretty sure it was, especially in the detection of oak even after seven years. This wine was meant to be put down for a bit and would have been really chewy if were opened in the first few years after having been bottled.

On the other hand, maybe the form of this wine has little to do with designing for a  function. The Clos Bel-Air is a wine of terroir that embodies the very French characteristic of typicity. It tastes like a Merlot-driven blend from the Right Bank, aged in some new oak. All of this is the tradition in Bordeaux. The design choices that went into making this wine seem to have been made mostly by a committee formed by Mother Nature and Father Time.

Or, maybe it’s a Frank Lloyd Wright wine whose function is its form. Okay, I confess this last meditation on the wine came after I had drunk most of it. But it seems especially true of wine.

If there is a function for wine, then it’s bound to be at best a fluid concept. The Frascati that was so crisp and refreshing in the piazza in Rome turns out to be pretty plonky when smuggled back home. This is also true for flawless fancy Grand Cru wines. They demand attention to be enjoyed, and it’s both wasteful and unsatisfying to serve them at a raucous occasion, or with food that overpowers them. Context is everything.

On more than one occasion I have been asked by winemakers from abroad what Canadian consumers want. I once made a speech about it to a group of them in France. It was into the evening and I had long stopped spitting. I think I told them to just make the best wine they could that pleased them. I stand by that advice.

The trouble with wine is what we want from it keeps changing. I don’t want the perfect Sunday dinner wine at lunch on Friday. And the wine I want at lunch on Friday is not the wine I want with leftovers on Tuesday night. There is no amount of marketing that will change that.

Perhaps the best we can do is try to be aware of what we want a wine to do at a given time. Not just the form of the wine but its function too, since they really are one.

Pierre Desrochers: Market-driven innovation much greener than government ‘net-zero’ mandates

Commentary

The German government recently delayed a final vote by the European Union to ban the sale of new CO2-emitting cars in 2035. Turns out, despite their zeal to subsidize and mandate the “electrification of everything,” politicians in Europe and elsewhere are proving unable to defeat immutable natural laws.   

Among other problems, electric cars have for more than a century been more expensive, less safe and reliable, and more limited in range than vehicles powered by internal combustion or diesel engines. They take much longer to charge, perform poorly in extreme weather, have shorter lifespans, and limited cargo space. Their batteries make them typically twice as heavy, resulting in more severe tire use and potentially threatening the integrity of multi-storey parking lots. A considerably larger fleet of electric cars will further require a drastic ramping up of power generation, delivery, and charging infrastructures, along with new mining activities on a staggering scale

According to electric car supporters, this economic and environmental toll is justified if the electricity can be generated from solar panels and wind turbines. Unfortunately, the sun and the wind have always been unpredictable, intermittent, and variable. As Karl Marx acknowledged long ago, wind power had to give way to water and steam power because it was “too inconstant and uncontrollable.” The development of electricity did not solve these fatal flaws. At best they can be hidden through costly additional water, coal, and natural gas power generation.

Solar panels and wind turbines also require more than 10 times the quantity of materials (from lithium to rare earth minerals) compared to carbon fuel-based alternatives. They would never exist without massive amounts of carbon fuels in the form of machinery, steel and cement production, composite materials, transport, installation, and maintenance (including lubricants). They gobble up 90 to 100 times more land area than natural gas while often dramatically impacting local bird and bat populations. If pursued regardless of costs, the electrification of everything will result in more mining activities than in all previous human history

Not surprisingly, in light of these realities, consumers in jurisdictions from North America to Europe have seen their energy bills soar while enduring rolling blackouts and energy rationing. Even green energy pioneer Germany had to revert to coal burning.  

The pre-ordained failure of government-mandated energy transitions has led some commentators to advocate de-growth and reduced consumption as an alternative. Yet, carbon fuels have improved human life in countless ways, from income per capita to life expectancy. As economist William Stanley Jevons observed more than a century and a half ago, “[w]ith coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times,” adding that coal had saved much forestland by eliminating the demand for fuelwood. 

Carbon fuels would soon afterward deliver an astonishingly wider range of economic and environmental benefits. An American researcher wrote in 1925 that the “object of all fuel research is either to eliminate waste and increase efficiency in the mining, preparation, and utilization of fuels, or to convert the raw fuel by treatment or processing into a more convenient or effective form for use with, in many cases, the recovery of valuable by-products for other purposes.”

Twenty years later, agricultural economist Karl Brandt observed that trucks, tractors and combines had replaced “millions of horses” while “millions of feed acres [had been] released for food production,” some of which would later revert to forests. The displacement of urban workhorses by trucks and cars also proved beneficial as vermin and flies were endemic in urban stables and, along with excrement and carcasses, were a source of deadly diseases such as typhoid fever, yellow fever, cholera, and diphtheria. 

Market incentives are inherently compatible with beneficial energy and economic transitions. As engineer and historian of technology Henry Petroski put it, the “form of made things is always subject to change in response to their real or perceived shortcomings, their failures to function properly. This principle governs all invention, innovation, and ingenuity; it is what drives all inventors, innovators, and engineers.” Furthermore, “since nothing is perfect, and, indeed, since even our ideas of perfection are not static, everything is subject to change over time. There can be no such thing as a ‘perfected’ artifact; the future perfect can only be a tense, not a thing.”

Canadian engineer and communist activist Herbert Dyson Carter further observed in 1939 that commercially successful inventions must either save time, lower costs, last longer, do more, work better, or sell more easily. Most of these outcomes have environmental benefits. 

Spontaneous market processes have always mandated the creation of smaller or less important problems than those that existed before. Unlike the myopic transitions pursued by many politicians and activists, however, such market processes have always factored in a much broader range of trade-offs than those currently discussed. Policymakers should understand how our energy systems came to be before any attempt is made to profoundly reshape them.