One of the recurring themes of wine is the plea, “But how can you know for sure?” We live in a scientific age where proof—quantifiable, verifiable, repeatable—is now the only accepted veracity. Then we come up against wine. We can’t deny our senses, yet we’re unwilling to credit them either. We’ve become sensory cowards.
Who is to say what is real? Where’s the—you guessed it—proof? I've met a good number of people who fancy themselves penetrating thinkers. They proceed from an arms-folded-across-the-chest premise of "prove it." They arrogate to themselves the privilege of deciding what is or isn't an acceptable proof. Almost invariably, what's acceptable to them involves numbers and the appearance of scientific certitude.
I meet these folks frequently, and they are always at the ready to question the existence of terroir. Being known as a terroir-ist I am inevitably a plum target of their "prove it to me" pugnacity. When I freely and readily admit that terroir is provable mostly by the senses, they declare, "Hah! Then you really can't say it exists, can you?"
Well, actually I can. And I do. And I go one step further: I say that those who think otherwise are sensory cowards. They are afraid to credit their own innate capacity to distinguish life experiences. It's as if they won't believe that a rose has a fragrance distinguishable from that of, say, a geranium until they see "proof" from a gas chromatograph.
Some proofs—demonstrations, anyway—are more subtle, requiring an explication that doesn’t lend itself to our collective appetite for the quick sound bite or pithy put-down. An example of this is the aggravated issue of biodynamics, which is a form of ultra-organic cultivation that has mystical and astrological trappings. Inevitably (and understandably) many observers are put off by its decidedly “unscientific” approach.
Does the biodynamic approach work? Rigorous scientific investigation, much of which has only just started, has not yet demonstrated that it does. Nevertheless, many of its winegrowing practitioners—a good number of whom of my acquaintance are hardly starry-eyed—submit that they see a discernible and significant difference in their vineyards.
I’m prepared to submit that there is a reality to biodynamics. But that "realistic result" may well have less to do with the particularities of biodynamic practices and more to do with the underlying rigor, discipline and unremitting attention to detail required to pursue this methodology.
The great, Nobel-prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman put it as well as anyone ever has: "A great deal more is known than has been proved." Proofs exist beyond the narrowly mathematical, what might be called truths of effect rather than of cause.
Today's sensory cowards are unwilling to accept this. So much truly is known through the vehicle of wine, especially fine wine. Wine has what might be called “kernels of the permanent,” elements that transcend our private preferences and brief personal spans of time. We know—and I use that word advisedly—that one plot of ground creates a discernibly and repeatedly different wine than another plot.
The penetrating thinkers, as they fancy themselves, say, "Yes, but what about the winemaking? Doesn't that change everything?" Sure it does: It changes everything cosmetic. Ask any cop: To identify a suspect you've got to look at structural features, not superficialities such as hair color, eyeglasses or clothes.
It's no different with wine. If all you can taste and credit is winemaking style—which inevitably creates real but superficial differences—then you'll never accept that one site can create a fundamentally and repeatably different wine from an adjacent site.
Our forebears lived much closer to the natural world than most of us do today. They knew how powerful nature could be. They knew it from their farming, from foraging in the woods for food and simply from an intimate, discerning appreciation of the natural world.
We know this from writings that go as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans through to Thoreau and John Muir, among many others. Wine, for those who could afford it, brought nature—and summer's coveted warmth and ripeness—indoors. It would have seemed absurd to them to hear that the infinite differences of the natural world were not, as a matter of course, infused into the wine they drank.
After all, they knew it was true with the beans in their gardens. And if that was so for beans—if you want “proof” compare the distinctive flavorsomeness of the French controlled-appellation lentille de Puy to green lentils grown anywhere else—then how could it not be so with oh-so-sensitive grapes?
Today's sensory cowardice keeps some of us from recognizing the most significant thing about fine wine: the sheer marvel of it. To borrow from Screamin' Jay Hawkins, it puts a spell on you. If you don't believe that, if you think that there's no magic of place, then tell me, where, then, do great wines come from?
To marvel about fine wine is to accept the truth of your own senses. And if you cannot do that, then why bother with wine?
William R Klapp Jr — Neive, Italy — March 2, 2011 7:40am ET
Scott Oneil — Denver, CO, US — March 2, 2011 9:44am ET
Peter Vangsness — Springfield, MA — March 2, 2011 11:06am ET
Stuart Smith — St. Helena CA USA — March 2, 2011 11:57am ET
David Rapoport — CA — March 2, 2011 12:26pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — March 2, 2011 12:28pm ET
Brian Loring — Lompoc, CA — March 2, 2011 1:42pm ET
Irving So — Tokyo, Japan — March 2, 2011 9:12pm ET
James R Biddle — Dayton, OH — March 2, 2011 9:48pm ET
David Rapoport — CA — March 2, 2011 10:35pm ET
Tom Miller — Vestavia Hills, AL — March 3, 2011 12:11pm ET
Morewine Bishar — Del Mar, California — March 3, 2011 7:45pm ET
Eugene Bressler — Cookeville TN — March 5, 2011 4:17pm ET
Kevin Crouch — Mumbai, India — March 11, 2011 11:25pm ET
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