Some of us believe that Duke Ellington was America's greatest composer, even though he wrote in an idiom that many people then (and now) do not consider serious enough—jazz. His being something of an outsider, both because of his race and his musical genre, probably prompted his most famous quote, that "there are only two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind."
It's a telling remark, one that resonated with me the first time I ever heard it as a music student. I like to quote it today, when the diversity of the music we can pipe through our iPod earphones covers a range even the Duke couldn't imagine.
The same could be said about our favorite beverage. We can experience a wider choice of good wines today than ever before. And we are having the same kind of arguments over how to define good wine as those we had over just what constituted good music in Duke Ellington's day, or today, for that matter.
Then, the arguments among us music students centered on the modernist "classical" composers of the mid-20th century who wrote dissonant, often hard-to-like music. We loved it (or pretended to). Audiences didn't.
We also argued over whether other forms of music, besides classical, could qualify as "good" music. Jazz usually made the cut because of its harmonic complexity and high level of difficulty to execute well. That did not mean all jazz was good music, any more than all classical music was good. Fair minds can differ on pieces such as Joe Zawinul's "Watermelon Man" or Pachelbel's "Canon in D."
Pop music? Some of us argued that Frank Sinatra's vocal command and phrasing made him every bit as musically compelling as a great opera singer, even if he couldn't project his sound in a concert hall without amplification.
OK, then, what about Elvis and the early stages of rock 'n roll? Or the way Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline could transcend the country music genre? Or, later, the Beatles? The first time I heard it, the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album rocked my world as much as my first exposure to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The Beach Boys layered their music into something as complex and fascinating as a Bach fantasia. Others dismissed all that, but I had Duke Ellington's words reverberating in my brain, and I tried to accept what I heard without prejudice.
Genres in wine get us riled up in much the same way. We tend to apply the same kind of misinformed generalizations to whole regions (Australia doesn't count any more) and grape varieties (New World Chardonnays are too big and buttery) as we do to country music (it's all so twangy) and hip-hop (where's the melody?).
Now we're having arguments over "natural" wines and "authentic" wines, categories in which true believers seem willing to overlook glaring faults for laudable ideas. Purists hate the idea of "industrial" wines, wines that can gain huge popularity without the cachet of rarity. But when you taste the wine, just the wine, does it look, smell, taste and feel like a good wine, or not?
For me, it's not the category that matters. It's not the perceived wisdom either. Look (or listen, or taste) past that and make your own judgment of how good each individual wine might be. That's where Duke Ellington's wisdom comes into the wine picture. There really are only two kinds: good ones and the other kind.