MNWB Book Club Installment 2: Chapters 2 & 3, What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking

Welcome back, NoVaWine Bloggers in the Book Club, for installment 2 of our discussion of Terry Theise’s book What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking? If you missed Installment 1, read it now.  If you want the book, here is the link:

What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime

And now for segment 2:

Chapter 2 really documents Theise’s time finding his way into the “beverage industry.”  An interesting point is when he realizes he has to sell his soul to succeed in sales:

I did the job and made the numbers. But something started siphoning the juice from my soul. It wasn’t the existence of silly commercial wine, but instead it was the cynicism and pretension of using the lingo and the sensibilities of (let’s agree to call them) “fine” wines in order to sell the other stuff.

In order to make it, he had to describe wines he didn’t find terribly interesting in terms of wines that one would find very interesting.  He goes on to talk about how when you use the language that describes exceptional wines to describe basic, mass-produced wines, that language loses meaning.  I think this is the reality of making a living in wine.  Bottom lines and numbers have to be met in order to be able to work with the stuff that really moves you.  I once frequented a winery where the winemaker and owner sold an enormous amount of a wine for which they didn’t care – it got newpaper acclaim and people drove in from far away to get it – but it wasn’t one they would drink, or the wine that was their goal.  But it let them create their dream wines.  That is the reality of survival in this art.

Chapter 3 dives into the worthiness of wine – here he is beginning to work on answering his question.  He starts off by talking about manipulation as part of selling – (baking a pumpkin pie before the open house in the property you are selling – we always did chocolate chip cookies, but yes) – and that we do manipulate grapes to make them more interesting.  He does note that those who manipulate hold their consumers in contempt because they’ve been duped.

So if I’m that kind of winemaker, I need the same power over you, because I want to sell a heaving mass of wine, and I will do anything necessary to guarantee those sales. And if that means I press buttons you don’t even know exist, then that’s what it means… And so I argue that such wines are not worth drinking, no matter that people like them or can be induced to suppose they do.

This was a turn I didn’t expect – I thought he was going to hold wine up to an external standard of beauty that all wines should aspire to, and tell us what we should like in wine.  Not so!

What makes a wine worth drinking is that is is honest and authentic. That and nothing more.

Hallelujah! I’ve been doing it right all along!

He talks about oak not obliterating the wine’s character, and that you can taste the soil in which the vines were grown.  Wine should help express the sense of place in which it was grown.

Theise goes on to talk about tasting as an experience that occurs in concentric circles, and the best I can imagine is something that looks like this:

Screen Shot 2019-07-23 at 6.13.53 PM

Forgive my silly illustration, but this is what I feel like he is describing – with the first moment of the first sip being the innermost circle, and then the subsequent taste and analysis leading to these questions.  The worst wines won’t get past the first and second circles, but the best wines will evoke feelings and memories, and remind you of connections.

He cautions that the second circle is where the silly things happen – where weird language is used to describe tastes and smells – descriptors for things you would never eat (sweaty leather harness anyone?).

The book is shaping up interesting.  I was disappointed an worried that I was going to read about someone telling me what I SHOULD like in wine, but he seems to be veering toward encouraging wine drinkers to seek authenticity and find wines that connect that to place, feeling, and memory.

I hope you’ll jump in and read along, and share your thoughts.  Even if you’re not reading along, what are you thinking about as you read this?


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