Malcolm Jolley: You cannot taste wine through a screen

Truly partaking in wine requires wine to be touched, tasted, and experienced IRL
Two women open a bottle of sparkling wine at a public garden as night falls, in Lisbon, Portugal, Monday, July 3, 2023. Armando Franca/AP Photo.

In the run-up years before COVID, I went on a frenzy of wine-related press trips, mostly to Europe. This era, the late two thousand teens, coincided with the ascent of social media and its most skillful set of actors, the Internet Influencers. Invariably in their twenties and good-looking, this new brigade of pretty young things caused much crankiness among the more wrinkled and word-bound members of the wine media community.

I remember spending a half hour waiting in the bus outside a winery in the South of Italy while an attractive young woman had photos taken of herself with every bottle of wine they made close to her chest. I don’t know if she sold any more wine than they would have without the shoot, but even in my annoyance, I couldn’t blame them for trying.

Fantasy wine shots are hardly the exclusive dominion of the young and attractive. Old people’s social media wine porn is all labels and no bodies, but it’s no less gauche. I follow a couple of European winos on Instagram who (I think) are in their seventies. Their sybaritic drinking habits, which seem to only feature old vintages of Grand Cru bottles, regularly make me blush.

Needless to say, I am envious, and, as the young say, experiencing FOMO: fear of missing out. Still, I have learned a few things from this louche group. For instance, if you come across a Château Yquem from the 1860s, make sure it has its original cork (so that the air on top of the wine is also old) for a truly authentic experience.

The greatest critique of pornography ever made was by the Anglo-Australian critic, poet, and broadcaster Clive James. In an essay in his book, Cultural Amnesia (2007), he pointed out that no amount of acrobatics or weird stuff would ever make up the fundamental deficiency of the visual depiction of the sex act and its variants. He wrote that, after all, sex is a feeling.

Well, wine is a feeling too. And if they said in the last century that the best things in life are free, then we might say in this one that the best things are in real life. There are no pictures of pretty winos, or pretty wine labels, or, for that matter, pretty words, that can make up for a swallow of a good gulp of wine or a clink of glasses with an old friend.

Wine is also a thought. A complex wine will demand study from its drinker; a momentary pause to determine what’s being tasted. Winemakers will sometimes market their big, powerful reds as “wines of contemplation”, as though they were meant to be sipped slowly in front of a fire while pondering Cartesian dilemmas.

Wines of contemplation are sold as alternatives to, or perhaps as complementary to, “food-friendly wines”. That term is mostly used for lighter wines, bright with acid, that are thought to pair well with this or that dish. The entire profession of the sommelier was devised (by the French, of course) to meet the intellectual challenge of matching the right wine from the cellar with what one decides to have for dinner. In any event, given the sheer number of distinct wines available for sale in the world, some thought must be given to which one to serve when.

Writing last summer in the World of Fine Wine, British wine and culture critic Stuart Walton points out that we owe the ancient Greeks and their fondness for symposia for the association of wine with intellectual pursuit: “As the Dionysian cult was absorbed into the Greek pantheon around the turn of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., the intoxicant with which the god was associated was exclusively the wine that distinguished southern climates from the gelid brutishness of northern peoples.”

Snobby Greeks aside, it’s not a stretch to imagine that a connection to wine is some kind of connection to the foundations of Western civilization. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is a political question, and one thing wine ought not to be is political. One of my favourite pieces to appear at The Hub in 2023 was Sean Speer’s take on the great Bud Light Backlash, arguing that there ought to be parts of our lives that aren’t political. He writes:

One of the great benefits of liberal democracy is to minimize the role of politics in our lives. It establishes democratic processes for selecting representatives and then delegates day-to-day governance to them. The rest of the constitutional model is about preserving space for people to live out their lives mostly free from political interference and even politics itself.

Notwithstanding the occasional contemplative fireplace, wine’s place is on the table, which should be a refuge from contention. If divisions appear around touchy subjects, like politics, then a toast can be offered to restore unity. Social cohesion around the table in the Republic of Georgia is maintained by the formal role of the Tamada. He (or maybe she these days) is the toastmaster who makes sure things are held together and everyone is literally toasted and hopefully not too figuratively.

The wine trade is mercifully non-political. Not because the people in it, or writing or influencing about it, don’t hold political opinions or even partisan identities. It’s not political because the market for fine wine is still relatively small and every new customer, or reader, is too valuable to alienate. And, like math or science that operate on their own plane, there is more than enough to know about wine in and of itself without complicating things.

Enrolment in wine knowledge courses, like the qualifications taught by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, are increasingly popular, often by people who don’t plan to work in the wine trade. I suspect the pull of wine knowledge has much to do with its paradoxical quality of both being away from the regular world and being very much about real life. You cannot taste wine through a screen.

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