Composition vs. Performance

Let us now praise great sites rather than great winemaking
Nov 16, 2010

It was one of those dinner party conversations that became almost uncomfortable. I'm afraid that I, the host, steered it into something rather sticky. Maybe our guests enjoyed it (they protested that they did), but I fear that I'll never know for sure.

It began innocently enough. I brought out a 1996 Louis Jadot Pernand-Vergelesses Clos de Croix de la Pierre, a red Burgundy that has one of the finest quality-to-price ratios of any Pinot Noir I know. It's a stony-tasting, medium-weight Burgundy that rewards a good decade of aging. This '96 was perfection. Gratifyingly, our guests agreed.

So far, so good. Then it began. "Why can't California create wines like this?" asked one of the guests. The question was laser-beamed at me. I deflected it by pointing out that California creates some pretty remarkable wines in its own right. And that its job is not to replicate others' achievements, but to deliver its own originality.

I figured that would do the trick. It didn't. "That's not what I mean," she replied. "I accept as true what you're saying. But why is it so damned hard to find such wines? You know perfectly well that the great majority of California wines are look-alikes.”

I had to concede the point, because it's true. The problem, I said, isn't a matter of France vs. California—or any other combination of countries. Instead, the issue is whether you prize composition or performance. California is performance-oriented; France cherishes composition.

I went on to say that performance, although obviously essential, is lesser than composition. "After all,” I noted, “unless someone gives them the notes, performers are empty vessels waiting to be filled." The analogy with winemaking and terroir, I thought, was pretty straightforward.

As usual, I thought wrong. I had put my foot in it. My guest, I discovered, had spent all of her youth studying the violin. She was offended at my apparent dismissal of performers. With no little emotion, she pointed out that performers are every bit as creative and informative to music as the composer. A score, she said, is open to interpretation. The performer therefore brings as much to bear—or nearly so—as the composer.

That's when the shooting broke out. Frankly, I wasn't having it—at least not as it applied to wine, anyway. The issue is not whether a country creates a wine such as Pernand-Vergelesses, but rather does it offer a broad range of distinctive, even unusual, wines? Great wine countries, which is to say great wine cultures, are all about the primacy of composition. It's what they value most, what they seek out, talk about and, above all, praise. The consequence is a vast wine variety.

Now, I freely concede that the word “composition” cannot be taken overly literally when used in this metaphorical context. After all, in the case of music a composer is, in a fashion, a “performer;” unlike terroir, which exists independently of us, a musical composition is the creation of a human. But let’s set that distinction aside for the sake of this discussion. Allow me to posit that terroir is the equivalent of the score, “composed” by nature, which is then interpreted by the winemaker, with the wine the equivalent of the performance we hear and enjoy.

"The biggest difference between European wine culture and American is this emphasis on composition over performance."

At first glance you’d think that, at minimum, performance and composition share an equal place on the stage—whether in wine or in music. But it’s not so. Let’s stick with wine. No one “creates” great wine. Instead, it is found, using the right “wine witching” tools, i.e., the right grape variety, clones, spacing, trellising and so forth. Wine witching is no small thing, and I have no desire or intention of diminishing its utterly essential contribution.

But how many wines have we all tasted—how many Chardonnays, Cabernets, Merlots, Pinot Noirs, you name it—that have left us underwhelmed? You talk to the winemaker or read the back label and discover that they did all the right things: used the most promising clones, the best barrels, the most highly regarded techniques, and so forth. Yet the resulting wine is banal. Uninspired. Devoid of the significance of character.

The best performer in the world, with the most dazzling technique, is reduced to banality if the composition he or she is playing is vacuous. Even improvisational jazz, which is seemingly untethered from composition, really isn’t.

So it is with wine. Any number of wine performers “play” Chambertin or Barolo Cannubi or, on a broader scale, Coonawarra Cabernet or Carneros Pinot Noir. We all know that some play it better and some worse. But none actually “compose” the wine.

Does music exist without performers? Sure it does. A composition exists whether it's performed or not, never mind being heard. After all, toward the end of his life Beethoven was stone-deaf. He "heard" the music.

Strange as it sounds, even the "composition" of wine exists independently of us. Do you think that we create La Tâche or Montrachet or Monte Bello? Or any other sites of singular, thrilling expression?

The biggest difference between European wine culture and American is this emphasis on composition over performance.

I recall interviewing the late Louis P. Martini, whose father pioneered Pinot Noir in the Carneros zone as long ago as the 1930s from the old Stanly Ranch, part of which the Martinis eventually purchased. Louis P.—as he was called, to distinguish him from his father, Louis M.—helped perform a Pinot Noir clonal trial along with U.C. Davis, in the 1950s that eventually resulted in isolating the strain that has since become known as the Martini clone.

Anyway, I asked Mr. Martini about his Carneros Pinot Noir. He admitted that he was not entirely satisfied with it. Surprised, I asked him why. He submitted that although the cool Carneros climate was ideal for Pinot Noir, the soil wasn’t. “Too much clay,” he said. Soil anatomy was destiny, as far as he was concerned. For him the Carneros Pinot Noir “composition” was limited, no matter how well-played. Mr. Martini, despite his impeccable California credentials, was more European in his approach than what is conventionally thought of as Californian.

This is not absolute, of course. I can think of plenty of American wine producers (to say nothing of those in other New World locales) who are convinced of the primacy of composition. And I can think of plenty of Old World producers who see performance as the key. Not surprisingly, many of them make their living as winemaking consultants.

That acknowledged, I’ll submit that we don't have in American wine culture anywhere near as much emphasis on composition as I, anyway, think we should.

Why not? For starters, we're too market-driven. Think about it: How many celebrations of American winemakers have we seen compared with celebrations of sites? You know the answer as well as I do. It's way lopsided in favor of people over places. (Some of this stems from the normal human impulse to want to read about people. Every journalist, myself included, knows that to pull 'em in you've got to have that human hook.)

What this emphasis suggests—indeed, it's an unstated premise—is that it's the winemaker who matters. That the messenger is the message. This is a big mistake. Sure, performance is essential: planting the right vines and, of course, making the wine. And yes, there's a ton of work—and some luck—involved in making great wine.

But that does not make us composers. Everywhere, we play what we've been handed—deftly and, I grant you, creatively. But great wine cultures are those that emphasize—dare I say, worship?—the composition more than the performance.

Remember that in all of his concerts, no less a performer than Frank Sinatra humbly and punctiliously acknowledged the songwriters and lyricists of the songs he so movingly sang. Without them, he'd only be humming—and he knew it.


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