Monthly Archives: December 2011

Sipping wine with Mr. Tignanello

What does Renzo “Mr. Tignanello” Cotarella of Antinori think about wine blogs? Does he have some reserves or is he fully supporting the structural changes in wine communication? That’s what I tried to find out when interviewing him in ViiniTV. Check out the part II to find out yourself. In the part I we talk about the future of Antinori family and his own past including sipping his first glass of wine at age of seven. A smart and eloquent guy with noticeable lack of ego. Together the clips are something like 15 minutes so have a cup of coffee and check them out, thanks!

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Sacred juice

“Puritanism: strictness and austerity especially in matters of religion or conduct”
– Merriam-Webster

The favorite one liner wine professional like to do is the ‘wine’s just a beverage, a simple agricultural product’ mantra trying to make wine easier for people intimidated by the number of crus within a radius of kilometer in Côte de Beaune. I’ve used that catch phrase more than my share. But as it happens, if you put emphasis on the history, wine’s not just an ordinary beverage. Though certainly mostly used for everyday consumption, it’s been utilized for religious purposes for quite some time. Its ties with things considered sacred are tight as a knot.

Fancy talking about wine in slow-mo? This writer of Gilgamesh did

We need to rewind couple of thousands of years back to see the big picture. Though the initial connection of wine and religion is very much unclear for obvious reasons we do know that when primitive religions gradually evolved into monotheistic redemption religions with scriptures, wine already played an important role in them.

In the first monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism, wine was used to put a friend of Zarathustra into trance that gave the fellow an epiphany where he saw himself ascending to heaven. Pretty celestial stuff.

Wine is also present in Quran how counter intuitive it may sound. All fairness it’s not completely clear whether the wine described in the texts had alcohol in it or not (that’s at least the favorite argument of mullahs) but the Quran does state, however, that there’s a river of wine flowing through the paradise so one could argue Allah knows a thing or two about the good stuff.

In the texts of old testament shared with Jews and Christians wine is all over the place with quite a number of examples. In the new testament one of the key miracles includes turning water into wine at a wedding making Jesus a winemaker. Wine played also an important role in the last supper on which Jesus went symbolically cannibal with his followers. The story doesn’t tell whether Judas enjoyed his wine turned blood turned wine more than the others.

So as Eurasian commodity wine is pretty much part of all the religions of the region. But what I find particularly interesting is the thought that maybe it’s not just about wine playing its part in religion but also religion playing its part in wine thanks to their intertwined history. This is where it gets interesting.

Fancy giving your paleo-pal a sip of something?

Anthropologists claim that in the early forms of religion there was no concept of sin the way we know it today. The notion of sin was coined later to support the notions of heaven, hell, redemption, omnipotent benevolent god and all that stuff invented after the high civilizations were build stone by stone.

Back in the good old paleo-days it wasn’t good versus evil in our minds or in the world. It was about sacred pitted against profane not virtue against sin. In those times purity equaled sanctity and profane equaled corruption of sanctity brought to you with an element of abomination to make it stick. You didn’t want to piss off the forces greater than yourself and you tried to avoid it with superstitious bans and rules very much fixated on the DO’s and DON’T’s governing the dangerous border between sacred and profane.

To get rid of the abhorrent contaminating corruption in ourselves and around us, we’ve used rituals of many sorts, magic, prayers and sacrifices (burning cattle. Or burning people. Especially dead ones. Sometimes not so dead). We still recognize the intuitive need to repel corrupt elements by taking action and to resort to black and white thinking while doing it.

If you’re like myself, non-religious scientifically minded person, you sort of think you’re vaccinated against all sort of spiritual fuss. Think again. Here’s why. Sometimes we, as wine drinkers, make wines the vessels of our spirituality without even recognizing it ourselves.

Fancy some corruption? Hieronymus did

Interestingly enough, purity is the thing many of us seriously dedicated to wine are looking for in the glass. We are looking for the pure expression of terroir or pure expression of variety. We see purity as an intrinsic value. This is especially true with natural wines that are in a paradoxical way undogmatic dogma of purity in themselves.

When a wine is seriously impressive, we may call its taste ethereal, surreal or even out of this world. If you’ve ever seen someone having his first sip of RomanéeConti (with a tight history with Christian monks like the whole of Burgundy), you know what I’m talking about. The taste is just a part of the equation. The wines hierarchical position at the very top of the symbolic system makes the moment special (which also explains why fake bottles sometimes get these 99 scores from respected critics). The moment is so loaded with significance it becomes a ritual by its own right. Almost like searching for answers on eternal questions in the glass, the silent, almost fervent, moment of the first sip is the moment the prehistoric man inside reveals himself to us.

Turning it the other way around: as wine idolators(sic!) we shun the idea of someone using semi-synthetic products like Mega Purple to give the wine some artificial color. Wines manipulated with tannin enzymes or aroma enzymes strike us as wrongness of epic scale. Someone has contaminated the sacred of nature with corruption of men. That’s a profane abomination for you.

This is quite telling: sometimes if we don’t know what we’re dealing with but kind of like the wine, we get anxious because our palates are not good at giving answers to questions concerning metaphysics. Is it corrupt? If we learn the truth our relation to the bottle may change.

Fancy a tannic sacrebleu?

Why do we react like this? I believe there are relics within our thinking carrying the code of the primitive era, bit like tailbones of a cognitive sort. My makeshift theory goes that because purity is still closely connected to the concept of holy in these primitive parts of our brain, we tend to see pure things also examples of sanctity and that’s why great wines can sometimes provide an experience best described as spiritually uplifting. Easy.

From time to time we dislike things “endangering the typicité” not because we want to hang ourselves on to some point of time in history when they passed the laws governing how a wine style should be made because we don’t really think in our right state of mind that the people in the 50’s where infallible like the pope and we know the tradition has changed pretty much constantly. We are against change because we sense a rupture that may put purity at risk.

This is why we don’t have a problem with English using Champagne varieties or Napa doing Cab. In our mind there was a void before the somewhat dangerous by nature alien elements came and therefore there was nothing to be corrupted. This is also the reason why some arguments made against the use of international varieties in Chianti are deep down Tower of Babel arguments.

This is not to say that Chianti Classico 100% Sangiovese couldn’t in fact be better than one including Syrah. Absolutely it can be. And to be clear: this is neither a justification for spoofing wine with industrially produced chemical shortcuts meant to make things easier for the producers (in my opinion that shouldn’t happen without total transparency along with it, but oh boy).

So in the end, what is this rambling about? It’s about the point that sometimes stances we firmly take don’t have much to do with taste, ecology or morals. Sometimes they are just channeling paleolithic intuition within us. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.

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The times they are a-changin’

I’m at the moment visiting a friend in Greve in Chianti, Tuscany. December has arrived here too but it doesn’t feel too harsh. Rays of sun feel still warming in a rather merciful way and the crisp air feels pure. Looking at the rows of young Sangiovese climbing up the hill towards the silhouette of the village of Panzano, a thought popped in my mind without a warning. It puzzled me. And possessed my mind for the rest of the day. I’ll expel it by writing. A bit like an exercise of exorcism in a digital form. I’ll split this meandering post in two pieces, the short and the long, so bear with me.

Tuscany: hyperreal edition

The conservatives among us tend to think the world of wine hasn’t changed that much in the past years. Internet what? They point out that New World broke into limelight already decades ago and nothing as big has happened in the last years. China’s getting into to the game but hey, they still crave for our wine. Yes, Bordeaux is still the most sought after wine and wine style. True, true and true. But some things have changed for good.

During the last years organic approach has become the standard for high quality wine whether coming from Italy or Argentina (except the first growths of Bordeaux but it’s hard to get any more conservative than that). That has changed the wine world. There’s no going back in my opinion.

But wine isn’t the only thing changed. We’ve changed too. As consumers and as people. Few years ago the financial meltdown moved tectonic plates and not just economic wise. As a result our values shifted. Where there was ‘lust for status’ before the crash, there’s now ‘hunger for authenticity’ to put it roughly.

At the same time the revolution started by Internet keeps pushing the newly organized concept of transparency in to the mainstream. We’ve grown tired of glossy paper monologues; we want to interact with the brands we consume (in a broad sense: every wine’s a brand whether on purpose or not, managed well or poorly). What is new that we want to choose the brands on basis of their personal qualities bit like the friends we choose to associate with. We end up giving products human qualities. Yes, it’s crazy when you think about it; Coca-Cola hanging out with you in the Facebook calling you a friend.

This yearn for authenticity is so substantial we rather watch a shaky clip shot with an iPhone of a winemaker cursing at a stainless steel tank with a stuck fermentation caused by a stupid mistake than a professionally produced video in which the perfect harmony and the undeniable aesthetic value of the sun setting over empty vineyards is not disturbed by reality of rampaging noisy tractors and some odd plastic tubes all over the place. We’ve turned the dominant mindset of the 90’s inside out. Who would have thought anyone wanting less harmonious fengshui in favor of authentic clutter?

Speaking of fengshui, the reason for this post is not the trends that keep changing but the things that do not; the things that remain the same, underneath it all, many times hidden from the eye. This is what I find most interesting. The first part was about change, the second will be about permanence in wine but also in us.

… Continues in the next post.

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The Hades of Parker

“A tragedy is a representation of an action that is whole, serious and of a certain magnitude. It has a beginning and middle and end. “ – Aristotle

If you are like me and find it interesting to follow the twists and turns of the so-called Murciagate I can assure you, we’re not alone. What I find most interesting, even above the essential question whether the abuse of status has been systematic or just a wrongdoing of a single person (or the evidence shown at Jim’s Loire a forgery) is not what most makes me tick. The incidents are not the most important thing for me, neither the people involved. For some reason it’s the story itself. The way it unfolds. While sipping my coffee this morning I realized that the very moment Parker released this statement Murciagate became not only a scandal but a Greek tragedy in its purest form.

The story of Murciagate has some archaic appeal to it, no doubt. As people we are drawn to stories and myths with such vigor. They work within the structures of culture interwoven in the texture so seamless that we don’t know whether we act in these structures or these structures more in us.

Let’s see what the good old Aristotle has to say about tragedy and read these real life events as a text. A tragedy obviously needs a plot but who’s the protagonist of this story? One might easily be inclined to think it was Mr. Pancho Campo, because he is undeniably in the core of events now unfolding. That, how ever, would be a mistake. Although Mr. Campo’s agency has been most vital for the plot to build up he’s not the protagonist of the story. In fact, the role of the villain falls on Mr. Campo.

Mr. Jay Miller isn’t the character either though it’s claimed Mr. Campo did the accused deeds in his name. In fact in this text, he’s only a vessel for the villain used to for many purposes. At the same time Mr. Miller might be seen as the false hero according to Vladimir Propp and a catalyst for a tragedy potentially of epic-scale.

The protagonist of the story is in fact Robert Parker himself. He was pulled in reluctant without a choice, drawn in from a distant location, just the way the protagonist should be. This is not the only thing that makes Parker a great main character, because as Aristotle put it:

The protagonist should be renowned and prosperous, so his change of fortune can be from good to bad.”

The protagonist’s has to conduct a hamartia, a tragic error of epic scale; a wrong doing which he carries out either by ignorance or mistake. If the protagonist is malign, sinister or evil, the play isn’t a true tragedy like this one. This part of the tragedy becomes self evident when you read Parker’s latest response on the evidence provided at Jim’s Loire.

“The change should come about as the result, not of vice, but of some great error or frailty in a character. That is hamartia.”

needs to be a mistake. Here it’s Parker’s dismissive and evasive attitude towards the evidence that has been laid out for the whole world to be weighted and measured. The unfortunate consequence of the chosen approach (that seems to be some kind of a version of the hedgehog defense) is that all the sudden without a warning the Wine Advocate empire and the honor of Mr. Parker is on the line, no more, no less. A whole legacy. All thanks to the deeds of others. Never the less, the stone has been cast and it has already broken the surface tension of the pond. The splashing sound’s been heard over long distances. By denying the very existence of the rock, you see the Greek tragedy growing to it’s full potential.

According to Aristotle, a tragedy must have a beginning, middle and an end, in order for the play to be complete. “The beginning, called the incentive moment, must start the cause-and-effect chain but not be dependent on anything outside the compass of the play. The middle, or climax, must be caused by earlier incidents and itself cause the incidents that follow it.”

We’ve now witnessed the first two acts of the play. The middle part’s climax was the exhibition of the evidence showing that more than one person has lied during the procedure and is now caught pretty much red handed (if the evidence isn’t fabricated). Like the bow of Artemis ready to go off, we are entering the third and final act. In this part the energy trapped in the climax has to be discharged, in a disastrous way for many characters of the play.

The play displayed in front of our eyes is staying true to Sophocles whom Aristotle had in mind when he wrote Poetics more than two thousand years ago. The story is the same but this time the implementation is done with ubiquitous technology in real time without a rehearsal. It’s something quite likely never seen before in the history of play.

“The end of the tragedy is a catharsis of the tragic emotions of pity and fear. Spectators are purged of their own emotions of pity and fear through their vicarious participation in the drama.”

We, as the audience, go on looking for the catharsis without knowing how the story will end and what will happen to the involuntary protagonist. We know that the divine intervention, the deus ex machina, the enemy of a Greek tragedy, won’t likely happen, and at the same time we understand that tragedy isn’t a tragedy if it ends like a comedy. We need to see how it ends.

We need the catharsis because the plot has tied our emotions as the audience in to the play and the knot has to be opened. And it will be.

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