From Marco Polo to Eric Asimov: Invisible Cities, Imaginary Wines

Kublai Khan is old and tired and his empire is vast and fraying at the edges. It is impossible for him personally to  know his great domain, so he studies his atlas and sends emissaries to be his eyes and ears and bring back reports. His favorite eye-witness correspondent is Marco Polo, with whom he sits for days on end in the palace garden, turning gestures and then words into vivid images of otherwise unseen cities via the advanced technology of the human imagination.

Are the stories and the cities they represent truth or fiction? It is impossible for Kublai Khan to know for sure since they cannot easily be verified. Some of the tales are fantastic and understandably raise doubts. But they all seem to contain an ehpemeral kernel of truth, which makes the invisible cities important even if they might only be figments of the imagination.

In any case, Marco Polo advises, the truth is in the hearing, not the telling, since each listener (or reader, I suppose) will shape the words to reflect their own experiences, anxieties and desires. The same accounts, he advises Kublai, will produce entirely different images when he eventually tells them again back home in Venice.

Invisible Cities, Invisible Wines

Do you recognize this story? It is the from one of my favorite books, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972). This is a book that I have read and re-read perhaps 10 times, with those bits of truth always just beyond my reach (perhaps this is why Kublai Khan spends so much time with Marco Polo).  It is a great book, but what does it have to do with wine?

I was inspired to dig out my copy of Invisible Cities by a recent column by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov called “Why Can’t You Find That Wine?”   Asimov uses the article to respond to readers who are frustrated that the fabulous wines he often praises turn out to be nearly impossible for them to actually experience. Asimov writes that,

Often plaintive and occasionally hostile, the missives arrive regularly by email, snail mail and phone: “You have an uncanny ability to discuss wines that are difficult if not impossible to find,” one California reader wrote in June.

And this from a reader in New York: “Once again, I have wasted more than a half-hour trying (in vain) to find where in New York City to buy wines mentioned in your column.”

Asimov is sympathetic to his readers’ frustration and explains how the almost hopelessly fragmented US wine market (a lasting legacy of Prohibition) makes it nearly impossible to talk about important wines if you limit your list to only those that can be found in all the nation’s many marketplaces. (He usefully provides hints and strategies for consumers to use to track down special wines.)

My goal is to explore what I think makes wine so thrilling. I’m seeking wines that inspire, with stories to tell and mysteries, perhaps, to conceal. Sometimes deliciousness is enough. But often, the flavors and aromas are only part of what a wine conveys. It’s the rest of the message that’s so fascinating. Part of the joy is for consumers to take part in this journey and make up their own minds. It hurts when they cannot.

Many of the wines that Asimov finds inspiring are produced or imported in tiny quantities with very limited distribution. The wines are real, but for most of Asimov’s readers they might as well be imaginary since their only chance to experience them is to imagine them much as Kublai Kahn imagined Marco Polo’s cities.

The Empire of Imaginary Wines

“I fervently wish all drinkers could find what they want. I sympathize with those who can’t,” he writes, ” But the simple solution — choosing only wines that are easy to find — is worse than the problem.”  That’s because Asimov sees his mission not just to report but to elevate and inspire — to excite our imaginations and to draw attention to those who somehow through their winemaking are able to bring us a bit closer to an ephemeral kernel of truth.

Those are my words, not his, but you get the drift. And do you see how how Asimov and Marco Polo are connected? They both tell us stories about a world too vast for us to ever really know. There are, I am told, about 80,000 different wines for sale in the United States today — far too many for any of us to really know and appreciate even if they were all available to us in one easy to shop aisle., which of course they are not. They are a bit like Kublai Kahn’s vast empire (and we are a bit like him, I suppose).

Eighty thousand wines? That seems like a lot, but there are probably even more. Wine Business Monthly reports that there are about 8,000 wineries in North America and if each produced just five different wines that would account for half the total.  Could the rest of the world with its many thousands of wineries supply the rest? My goodness yes.

Imaginary Wine: A New Wine Genre?

So we really are in Kublai Khan’s position, aren’t we? The difference, I suppose, is that unlike him we are not satisfied with a glimpse of the truth to inspire us — we really want to see the invisible cities and to taste the invisible wines and won’t be satisfied until we do.

I am sure that Asimov is right — it is best for him to tell us about inspiring wines even if we can never really know them, since the accounts may inspire us even if they also frustrate us. (There is a place, however, for accounts of the visible wines, too, don’t you think?) But perhaps we need to take the next step. Asimov’s wines are real, but if we cannot taste them ourselves wouldn’t inspiring stories about fictional wines be just as good — or maybe even better?

I guess what I am asking is if there is a place the wine world for fantastically fictional descriptions of imaginary wines (and  not just those fake bottles that Rudy K produced) that would make us rethink wine the way that Marco Polo’s stories made Kublai Khan rethink his (and our) world? We could never actually taste the wines, but perhaps they might still  elevate and inspire. Life does at least sometimes imitate art!

What do you think? If you were Marco Polo describing an imaginary wine to Kublai Kahn, what would you say?

6 responses

  1. The problem with wine that can’t be found is we depend on the writers and wine critics to expand our horizons. If they only write about untouchables then they my as well switch to fiction. I can learn by reading I do enough of it however I never grasp the true complexity of a wine until I own it. I need to see the bottle, read the front and back label, experience the stopper and even google it. Once I’ve tasted it I get the wine, the terroir , the grape varietal and decide if that wine or wines like it become a keeper.

  2. New Yorkers, among others, are engaged in the pursuit of fiction as a daily routine. Money chasing things that may or may not exist, or perhaps just exist for a few. For every wine that is hard to get, there is an analogous wine that can be found more easily (and not just mass-produced ones). While at first it would seem that small-quantity imported wines would be hardest to find, it is quite the opposite. Every imported wine is brought into the US by a licensed US importer and sold by a licensed wholesaler, so where the wines went to is not a mystery. All it takes is a call to that importer to find the wines in question. If we could get wine writers to always include the name and phone number of the importer for the wine being reviewed, that would go a long way to ending the frustration. Some wines will still be impossible to get due to their limited availability, but the importer who brought in that wine can certainly recommend one that will provide a similarly satisfying experience. And a real one at that.

    Ed Lehrman
    Vine Connections (a wine importer)

  3. As is no surprise, I again ( but not always) find my self agreeing with Dr. Veseth. I also agree with the two commentators above. I love reading the insights of Eric Asimov but like others I don’t always agree with him. I expressed that grievance in person not long ago regarding his new book which through well written and fun to read had as a central thesis an attack on wines scores. I regret that I express my negative view on this issue in an all too public forum and far too aggressively but like Eric, I too have certain passions and this one is personal ( Erik couldn’t have been more polite in this exchange). I think it is disingenuous to assume as he does that these rare gems he introduces us too should be in broader distribution and would be but for the large distributor’s concentrating on mass produced wines. Not only are their thousands of small distributors that survive on the marketing of just these types of wines but given whatever his readership is, those wines if 100% available wouldn’t produce enough to reach all but a small fraction of his audience. Of the hundred thousand plus winemakers in the world and the many hundreds of thousands of wines made released each year (more if you think of the older vintages still available) most make less than 1000 cases. And most of that is sold direct (off their porch, so to speak). This is what I ended up writing to him after our disagreement on the importance of scores.
    “I find myself agreeing with all your general points but still know in my own mind that wine scores are critical to both the developing wine industry and the average wine consumer. What I have concluded is that we are not just talking from opposite viewpoints but on totally different topics. You write and discuss and educate readers regarding the philosophy, epistemology and general appreciation of wine. I work to better proselytize the importance of intelligently asking many if not most wine consumers to reject their “wine religiosity”. A big part of what I still do. Erik should use the defense I gave him above rather than lament poor availability.

    • Your passion is worth worth a lot, Allen. Don’t worry about the typos! And congratulations on having your wine served at the White House dinner for the French President.
      BTW I agree with you about the good points that have been made by commentators on this post.

  4. 80,000 wines is a drop in the wine ocean! I read on their site that “The Wine-Searcher search engine lists 6,029,830 wines and prices from 44,043 merchants around the world”. And where laws permit it, you can import whatever wine you want from many of those merchants, (though the carriage costs may be high).
    (Disclaimer: I use a lot, but am not otherwise connected to it.)

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