You Love Wine Science Until it Detracts From the Magic in Your Glass

Felix Salmon You Love Wine Science Until it Detracts From the Magic in Your Glass

6 minute Read

New York magazine’s Grub Street recently released its list of The Absolute Best Wine Shops in New York, with Chambers Street Wines deservedly at the top.

It’s not easy to be the best wine store in New York. The city has some of the best wine stores in the world. So how does Chambers Street Wines pull it off? Does it have the biggest selection? The lowest prices? The most navigable website? Is it easy to run in there and grab a $10 bottle to bring to a party? Can you count on it as a place to be able to find the very best wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux and Napa and Champagne, on the off chance that you win the lottery one day and have thousands of dollars to spend on a single bottle?

The answers, as one might expect, are: No, no, no, no, and hell no.

Instead, what Chambers Street Wines has is stories. As Grub Street’s Hugh Merwin writes:

“The shop eschews score-bearing placards and adjective soups from third-party critics in favor of conversation, and at least one person on duty will know a detail or two about the weather in Tourmont or the slate in the soil, or even the cool dog that patrols the vines.”

What I love about this write-up is the way in which it takes the value of stories as self-evident. The stories aren’t indicative of some other expertise; they’re not a proxy for, say, the ability to tell a Cornas from a Côte-Rôtie in a blind tasting. Instead, when you go to Chambers Street Wines, what you end up walking out with is a story, or a set of stories, to go with your bottle. And often the stories are even more valuable than the wine.

The amount that we enjoy a bottle of wine is a direct function of the stories we tell about it. Once you’re telling stories about the winemaker, about the soil, about the grapes, about the cool dog that patrols the vines, you’re invested.

If they’re personal stories then you’re even more invested. If you’ve met the winemaker, seen the grapes, had the dog cuddle up at your feet while you were tasting your fourth bottle, that’s going to further deepen your personal connection to the wine. But if you’re one degree of separation away, and that one degree of separation is an enthusiastic worker at Chambers Street Wines to whom you have some kind of personal connection, then that’s great, too.

It’s much better, in fact, than the kind of wine-snob knowledge that allows people to identify wines in blind tastings or wax authoritative on the subject of malolactic fermentation. Knowledge is a dispassionate, Apollonian thing; stories are where we find Dionysian pleasure.

The filmmaker, wine writer, and sommelier Jonathan Nossiter calls wine “liquid memory,” and while there are a lot of different memories embedded in any given wine, the drinker’s own memory is the most important. (Wine labels in an important sense are an aide-memoire, a way of helping you remember the stories you told yourself the last time you drank the same wine.)

If a wine brings back memories of your childhood friend’s grandmother’s cellar, it’s going to have a resonance that no supermarket bottle can compete with. The same goes for sense of place, or terroir. Terroir literally grounds wine. It creates geographical coordinates for a wine’s place in our memory palace.

There’s a tension here, of course. Wine isn’t just stories, after all; it’s also an agricultural product. Terroir isn’t just memories of vineyard dogs and rustic inns, it’s also an actual location, a specific soil chemistry. And when stories are based in facts, there’s always a tendency, at least on the part of some people, to want to fact-check them.

As people flush out the stories they tell about wine, they invariably start talking about the facts of grape-growing. How they were planted, whether they were irrigated, how ripe they got, when they were harvested, what minerals can be found in the soil, that kind of thing. That, in turn, creates ample opportunity for people like Mark Matthews to call bullshit on the entire mythos of the wine industry.

In his book “Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing,” Matthews gleefully picks apart many core tenets of wine romantics. At one point, he writes that “it is generally true that grape vines do well in calcareous soils, but it is probably more clear empirically that chalk deposits are good for holding oil reserves, than for flavors imparted to Chardonnay or other grapes.”

In other words, you’ve got chalky soil? Good for you! That plus a few million barrels of oil deposits will make you incredibly wealthy. But don’t start talking to Matthews about how you can taste the chalk in your Chablis, because there’s no empirical evidence that you can.

Matthews is particularly hard on the concept of terroir, which started off as a term of censure. It was reclaimed as something desirable only after phylloxera destroyed all of France’s vines and they had to be replaced with (shudder) American grapevines. Terroir then became even more important after the Judgment of Paris, when French wines needed to reclaim their special status against would-be usurpers from California.

This line of argument goes down well with economists like Victor Ginsburgh, whose review of Matthews’s book treats as self-evident the idea that vines cannot know whether water comes from rain or artificial irrigation. Ginsburgh also notes acerbically that the aesthetic pleasure of looking at a vineyard “may indeed change the quality of the wine, especially if you are drunk.”

Has he never drunk wine while looking at a vineyard? Vineyards are lovely things; it’s a simple fact that wine country, in general, is some of the most beautiful landscape in the world. Does he really believe that admiring such a view does not improve the quality of the wine you’re drinking?

The temptation, here, is to fight back on the merits. That’s what Matt Kramer does, in his Wine Spectator review of Matthews’s book. Wine Spectator is built on the premise that fine wine can be objectively ranked, on a 100-point scale, and so Kramer takes the position that Matthews is objectively wrong. Maybe Mattthews has a point when it comes to bulk supermarket wine, concedes Kramer, but when it comes to “the more finely detailed demands of the fine-wine ambition,” Matthews’s science is simply too blunt an instrument to be able to detect “the singular sensation of a great Chablis.”

Kramer’s rebuttal is an assertion that the beauty of wine is a real, measurable thing: “We know,” he writes, “that the differences we apprehend with our senses are real and far from illusory — or mythical.”

But denying myth is silly, and unnecessary. The enjoyment of wine is ultimately a subjective thing, and study after study has shown that, for instance, people enjoy wine much more if they believe it to be expensive. That’s real enjoyment! It’s not illusory!

Robert Tinlot, a former director general of the Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin in France, takes a much more realistic approach.

“Consumers who visit producers are particularly sensitive to the beauty of the landscape, to the architecture of the villages and to any other element that belongs to the region of production,” he wrote in a 2001 paper. “There is even a tendency to extend the notion to human factors, such as the natural, social, political and, why not, religious conditions that prevail in the region.”

Ginsburgh is having none of this. “Oh, yes,” he responds scornfully. “Vines also look at God, choosing the exact moment when he shows up in a cloudy sky.”

But the fact is, depending on your conception of God, that’s exactly what they do. The rise of biodynamic viticulture is both real and based on objectively insane premises about moon phases and ram’s horns and the like, and the effect they have on wine. I for one believe in none of that nonsense, but I do love biodynamic wines.

As Paul Davies describes in “The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World,” combining personal ideologies and squishy metaphysics with cold, hard figures on paper challenges those of us with inclusive world views. Davies writes:

“It is often said that mathematicians are Platonists on weekdays and formalists at weekends. While actually working on mathematics, it is hard to resist the impression that one is actually engaged in the process of discovery, much as in an experimental science. The mathematical objects take on a life of their own, and often display totally unexpected properties. On the other hand, the idea of a transcendent realm of mathematical Ideas seems too mystical for many mathematicians to admit, and if challenged they will usually claim that when engaging in mathematical research they are only playing games with symbols and rules.”

Wine lovers who believe in science perform mental acrobatics. If asked what actually goes into a bottle and then into our mouths, we have to admit that it’s fermented grape juice, and that the scientific study of how to grow grapes has significantly improved the quality of wine in recent decades.

But the beauty of wine — the reason why we love it — is elsewhere, and lives very happily in the land of myths and stories. We tell those stories, and believe those myths, when we drink wine, because doing so makes us very happy. Then we go to bed, and wake up sober, and believe in science.

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