I gave the after dinner talk for a group of 36 visiting college counselors on Sunday. Since I didn’t want to give them indigestion, I spoke about wine instead of the economy. We tasted an after dinner wine made by one of our alumni winemakers (see below) and wrote a collective tasting note to commemorate the experience. It was a lot of fun and very serious at the same time. Here’s the short “45 rpm” version of what I had to say.
It seems to me that the world is increasingly stretched and fragmented, processed and globalized. Many elements of our everyday lives are efficient, impersonal and shallow. The things we buy and use could come from anywhere and end up anywhere. Anywhereness is the same as nowhereness in my book, the lack of real personality or a distinctive sense of time and place.
Given the prevalence of nowhere, it is not a surprise we desperately seek somewhere to fill the empty places in our lives. This is what makes wine especially appealing to so many people today. Wine has the ability to express somewhereness, the intangible quality we often call terroir. More than most products, we know (or can find out) who made a particular wine and how, in what place at what time. Wine somehow manages to hold all these messages together and to show us through its variations the influence of personality, the impact of nature, time and place.
Fixing a Hole
Wine is more likely than most products to be a shared experience, too, consumed in a social setting, the subject of conversation and perhaps some conversational introspection (like our collective tasting note). Music once filled these gaps (and still does to some extent) because we typically listened to it in the company of others. Now the iPod has made music an efficient but more solitary experience. Thank God there is no equivalent iWine (at least not yet).
I told the counselors all this because I think the search for somewhereness that draws people to wine is also what leads students and their families to seek out the intimacy and somewhereness of liberal arts colleges like the University of Puget Sound. Students can efficiently acquire a pretty good education at universities constructed on an industrial model (do you see the similarity with wine here?), but something is sacrificed in the process, something that makes the experience complete and the person whole.
Desperately seeking somewhere — that’s who and what we are. My talk covered more than this, of course, but you get the idea.
The wine we tasted together was a somewhere wine: Hedges Family Estates Red Mountain Fortified Wine. It is a wine made using traditional Port wine grape varietals and methods but it isn’t Port because Port can only come from Portugal. It’s a non-vintage blend of wines from several harvests of Hedges estate fruit, bottled in 2004 and drinking pretty well right now. Here’s a recent tasting note:
The wine is so dark and rich it is nearly a blue-black color. The nose is full of dark fruits, orange zest, tobacco, herbs, and violets. The flavors of the sweet brandy hit your tongue first, followed by orange, chocolate, and cherries. At 21.6% alcohol, and 5.6% residual sugar, this is pretty smooth stuff.
This wine captured the essence of my talk quite well, I think. It’s a personal wine (just 206 cases produced) that uses the style of Port wine to express the particular terroir of Washington’s Red Mountain AVA. It’s a somewhere wine if I ever tasted one and a good reminder of the power of wine to bring people together and remind us of life’s deeper purposes.
If you really feel the events and products of the world are now to the point that things come from anywhere, you should get out more. Consider Italian design. See a movie like Election or My left Eye Sees Ghosts by Hong Kong’s Johnny To. Go to Raffles in Singapore for their delicious Laksa, spend a day at Kirstenbosch Gardens in Capetown, South Africa. Read The Painter of Battles by Auturo Perez-Reverte. The spectrum of arts we now have access to is broader than ever and the variety is overwhelming, but in each case shaped in part by local history, local social attitudes, physical environment, climate and the type of earth and growing conditions. All that’s required is to get slightly out of your comfort zone to discover it. You’ll find it become addictive.
Thanks for calling me out on the hyperbole, Ken. My actual talk was more nuanced. As usual, however, I find your observations right on the money.
My impression after reading this short note is quite sad, I must admit.
It’s not that I think you’re a kind of growler, it’s more about that I had a similar impression during yesterday’s Italian wine show in Warsaw. I tried over 40 wines looking for something that I could call special, original and unique expression of a particular terroir and, considering good condition of Italian wineries, I finally found it. But the problem is, that I had an overwhelming feeling of being flooded by mainstream wines that lack of personality, the wines that want to please anyone and fit anywhere.
So, picking up your metaphor, I’ve got a certain feeling of wine being “constructed on an industrial model” and I would suggest the winemakers turn back from this path. There’s to much to lose.
I understand the feeling completely. There is no harm (and even some benefit) if some wines are affordable, simple and flaw free but lacking distinguishing characteristics. But when most wines have these characteristics something is surely lost.
For me, nowhereness is a general problem, so it is easy to understand why it should apply to wine as well other elements of daily life. As Ken noted in the first comment, somewhereness can be found in wine and other experiences if we just take the trouble to look for it. We need to encourage more people to make the effort so that they do not simply accept nowhereness as the standard.
Thanks for your comment.