How to Proselytize Wine—and Should We?

Everyone knows about wine these days. Or do they?
How to Proselytize Wine—and Should We?
Matt Kramer says there are no rules to wine appreciation, but it's better informed by knowledge and context. (Jon Moe)
May 3, 2016

If you have any interest in classical music (opera, symphonies, chamber music, etc.), you have doubtless witnessed the hand-wringing over declining audiences and, worse yet, the graying (or balding) of those same folks. Seemingly everyone in classical music feels a crisis of both interest and support is upon them.

So I was not surprised when I read a recent interview in The New York Times with the conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen which touched upon this ongoing angst.

The Finland-born musician has had an illustrious—and far from over—career as, variously, the music director and conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years (he's now conductor laureate, a position created for him); the longtime conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London; the upcoming conductor of the Metropolitan Orchestra for its Carnegie Hall concerts next spring; and as the recently installed composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic through 2019. Obviously, Mr. Salonen is worth listening to, in every sense of the phrase.

In speaking about the need for the music world to adapt, which is to say confront the dwindling and graying ranks of the classical music audience, he observes that "loftiness doesn’t get us anywhere." Sound familiar?

He further notes that “we should loosen up a bit, and accept the fact that there are so many experiences available," adding that the effective approach is to say to newcomers: "OK, here is an experience you won’t forget.”

I can't imagine that any graying or, ahem, balding wine lover would disagree with this same sentiment applied to fine wine. We all know that there once was—and may still be in certain stuffy quarters—a perceived "loftiness" in talking about the finer points of wine.

That acknowledged, this same loftiness isn't necessarily eliminated or even punctured by the tendency among some writers or commentators to employ what they imagine is a hip-sounding scatological vocabulary, the better to signal that they’re not one of those old-fashioned wine snobs. That trick, so called, is as lame as the old-style pretensions. One just substitutes for the other—and both are equally bad.

Mr. Salonen absolutely put his finger on what really works: "OK, here is an experience you won’t forget." That's what it's really all about, isn't it? All sorts of wines serve, including ones that you or I might deem lesser.

And that, in turn, leads to a contradiction that bedevils fine wine as much as it does classical-music appreciation, namely, the value of actually knowing something. An "experience you won't forget" is only the beginning, however necessary. After your induction, as it were, you become involved in evaluating that unforgettable experience—and all of the others to follow.

Let's be honest: Many of our first "unforgettable" wine experiences weren't, as we look back upon them with greater knowledge, all that remarkable. Myself, I used to love Asti Spumante (as it was then called). We had it with pepperoni pizza, no less. Unforgettable, I tell you. But I can't tell you that either the wine, never mind the food pairing, was "great.” It isn't and never will be, never mind the (innocent) pleasure it once gave me.

The so-called "hedonistic" experience is not its own justification. It doesn't equalize everyone's experience. Rather, it only establishes a measure of pleasure at a particular moment in one's life. The likes of "Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which gives three-year-olds squeals of pleasure, is hardly equal to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

There are differences of worth and value—of complication and depth—and those who, in the name of populism, assert that "if I like it, it is therefore good" are in fact as insistently snobbish (in a we're-all-equal-here fashion) as the snooty and dismissive conventional snobs of their imagining.

All of which brings me back to Mr. Salonen. Having previously acknowledged the necessity of "loosening up a bit,” he then arrives at what, for some, is an uncomfortable truth: “We have been so apologetic in this," he says, referring to classical music. "We say, ‘You don’t have to know anything, you don’t have to have any background, you don’t have to have any frame of reference, just come with an open mind, and you’ll love it.’"

But, he adds, “It doesn’t quite work like that. Because if I go to an American football game not knowing anything about the rules—as, I have to admit, I don’t—it’s totally meaningless."

There are no "rules" in fine wine. But, as in music, there is structure. And an inherent complexity. There are values that both explain and delineate what makes some wines—brace yourself—better than others. Such distinctions are not, as some might imagine, based on "I like this more, so it's better" personal taste.

Instead, as with great music of all kinds—from country to classical, jazz to pop—distinctions that involve elements of originality, surprise, complexity, harmony and many other qualities serve to distinguish lesser from greater.

For example, Frank Sinatra was better than many other—most, even—male pop singers of his time. And it wasn't merely because he had a good voice that could carry a tune sweetly. If anything, he became a better singer as he grew older, as he had more to say, even if his voice was not quite as sweet-sounding as it was in his youth. No less an authority than Nelson Riddle, the great arranger who helped create Sinatra's finest recordings, said, "I didn't care for his original voice. I thought it was far too syrupy. I prefer to hear the rather angular person come through in his voice."

Some wines, like some singers, also have more to say. And they manage, vintage after vintage, decade after decade, to express this "content" more persuasively than others. Such wines are better, full stop. You might like them. You might not. It doesn't matter, actually—except when it comes time to choose what to buy.

But to understand and appreciate the greatness of such wines, you have to understand, as Mr. Salonen suggests, the "rules": Complexity. Harmony. Cohesion. Nuance. Finesse. Surprise (call it originality if you like). The list differs from taster to taster, with one or another taster emphasizing one feature over another. No matter. What does matter is that it's real. And, as Mr. Salonen suggests, we shouldn't apologize for it.

Musicians / Singers Opinion

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