3rd Feb 2014
The Golden Age of Tedious Wine Writing
by Ron Washam
People have been writing about wine for as long as there has been wine, and nearly as poorly as they write about it today. It’s humbling to be part of a long and storied tradition of making the world’s most fascinating beverage unbearably dull. And I think it’s safe to say that we are in a Golden Age of Tedious Wine Writing, of which we can be justifiably proud. One has only to spend but a few minutes online to discover a wealth of appallingly written posts about the subject. I know this may sound like cheerleading, but I believe there are more achingly dull and wondrously vapid words written about wine than about any other subject, except, perhaps, kitties. It’s a wonderful age we live in.
I’ve spent a great deal of time recently reading through my collection of old books about wine. I have a large collection, several hundred volumes, and I can spend hours thumbing through their pages, as long as I drink enough coffee to kill a mule. The best of them are magnificently tedious, and wouldn’t seem out of place in the current issue of “Decanter.” I’ve chosen some of my favorite excerpts from these rare old books to share with you here. As always, it is important to remember when reading about wine, do not operate heavy machinery.
The great English poet was also quite a wine connoisseur, and, though it was edited out of most editions, he included “The Sommelier’s Tale” in original versions of “The Canterbury Tales.” Here’s a brief excerpt:
Asken hym for thine favoorit tipple
And be foul prepar to pay time triple.
He acteth haughty, and as a snob
Though he wipeth his arse, like thee, with cob.
Thee wolde a glass of frog Merlot,
He nameth thee Shitte and off he go.
A place in Hades, alle wol say
Awaits our focken sommelier
Though Satan orderth by the glass —
Beste way to never spie that ass.
Saintsbury famously said, “Nothing is more curious than the almost savage hostility that humor excites in those who lack it.” I’ll vouch for that. Known for his “Notes on a Cellar-Book,” Saintsbury also wrote a less familiar book, “Wine For Cretins.” It’s a classic, and often imitated. His chapter on wine critics has some enlightening words.
In all things it seems there are men who would proclaim themselves experts, as easily as one might proclaim oneself a fairy only to see how many fools take you at your word and ask you for three wishes. Wine is no exception. Give a man a nose and a tongue and an opinion, and he will begin to pontificate on the nearest wine just as the vilest of curs sets about to urinate on every tree, and with much the same value. These wine opinionators imagine that they are doing a service when all they are really doing is demonstrating that the repetition of an imagined skill doesn’t end in attaining that skill, but in mockery of it. It’s much like bouncing around on an inflatable termagant and thinking yourself a Casanova.
Darwin’s work on the theory of evolution unfortunately overshadowed his far more important thoughts on wine. There were a lot of dog days on the HMS Beagle, and Darwin used them to drink, and think about wine. He then wrote about it in his rarely seen book, “The Decant of Man.”
By what natural measure do we proclaim a wine authentic? There is no reason or science behind such a proclamation, only mere presumption, the largest presumption being the stupidity of the people accepting the proclamation. Wine cannot be natural. A thing is said to be natural when it derives from nature, not from the hands of man. Nature makes grapes, men make wine. As for authentic, authentic need never declare itself, for anything said to be authentic almost never is. Is the Bible the authentic word of God? Yet another claim that cannot be proven using reason or science. Those who would tell you a wine is authentic, or natural, or real only seek to glorify themselves, accord themselves the powers of a messiah, gather adoring followers who await their self-proclaimed truths. They presume that because you have descended from apes they can make a monkey of you.
One of my personal heroes, the great Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, best known for “Gulliver’s Travels” and “A Modest Proposal,” also wrote a fantasy centered around the world of wine. Entitled “A Tale of a Tubbo,” the brief novel envisions a future world of wine ruled by a wine despot.
And, thus, I became the Ruler of Wine, addressed in the language of the DOUSHBAGGS, a race descended from the SKUMBAGGS, who worshipped me, and knew me as SPOOFULATOR. I traveled the wine country and, at every country stop, the Doushbaggs would bring me countless bottles of their local wines which I would then randomly assign value. I knew not what I was talking about, but it made little difference, for the Doushbaggs were so desirous of praise and recognition from the Spoofulator, they gave my ratings great weight, bragged about them to their fellow Doushbaggs, and relentlessly, through the force of their own insecurity, made my word as the word of the God they deeply believed in—Mammon.
I soon saw that my values were selling vast quantities of wine to the clueless Doushbaggs, and that my simple proclamation about the greatness of a wine, a greatness I determined solely by how intensely it seared my palate, guaranteed it legendary status. Though I held the Doushbaggs in great contempt for their mindless acceptance of my ratings, they nevertheless formed great communities for the sole purpose of inserting their tongues into my bottom. Soon, I began to believe I deserved it, and, in their honor, decided to enlarge my bum to encompass the entire world of wine. There was plenty of room for my head.
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