By | March 3 2008
Most modern consumers, though, are baffled by this notion. "Why limit myself if the world comes to me and I can eat whatever I want year round?" asks the customer who enters a modern market, recipe in tow, safe in the knowledge its ingredients are at hand. "Ingredient" – that word reveals a metaphysical truth.
We have here the comportment toward one’s food as a commodity. I purchase this because it’s a tomato, not because these particular tomatoes spoke to me in some way. Wine offers many similar contrasts of self-imposed restrictions and contingency on the one hand, with rapidly growing choice and commoditization on the other. Why limit myself? The answer presents a fundamental paradox of freedom and restraint. That paragon of creativity and freedom, the artist, must exercise selfrestraint to have a medium — whether of marble, oil paint, acetate, meter, mode, or tone row. In sports, imposing rules is not part of the game; it’s what you need to do simply to have a game and so be free to play. Adrift in a sea of limitless possibility, no self-expression can take place.
Vintners and cooks are playing a game of sorts and practicing an art as well. Their options today – whether in sources of produce, or wine "treatments" – are dramatically increased. But too much choice and too few limitations can stifle creativity and play. Wine as commodity isn’t just a function of bulk or en primeur sales. Commoditization happens whenever we sort a wine by type.
The "drink-with" recommendation that accompanies a shopper’s recipe is couched almost without exception in terms of grape or appellation. How often, though, can we predict whatever chemical combination or catalyst will succeed in synergistically piquing our awareness of and pleasure in a given dish and wine?
One must explore myriad contingencies to find a memorable match. The catalyst could lie in vintage character, in winemaking, in the microclimate, or in some possibly unrepeatable quirk.
Vintage is prominent among those limitations that charm or frustrate, according to one’s comportment. Some judge wines based on paradigmatic vintages or – being concerned to drink wine of a certain grape, domaine, or appellation – are vexed if vintage causes it to stray from a familiar path. Some profligately qualify whatever it is they want with these two words: "the best," and in the end miss out on fun and fascination. Today’s wine grower has powerful tools and techniques available – in the cellar and the vines – to diminish vintage variation. It’s often said "there are no bad vintages as there once were," since selectivity, superior vineyard management, and cellar techniques combine to minimize overt differences in ripeness and health of fruit and wine.
The more vintners smooth over differences – shielding drinker and wine from meteorological contingency – the better their wines serve as commodities but the less they satisfy those who take pleasure precisely in vintage variation. It’s become fashionable among vintners to claim one’s wine is "minimally manipulated" or "made as naturally as possible." Manipulation is in the eye (or nose, or judgment) of the beholder, and the bounds of "nature" are not well defined. Certainly, though, a vintner can consciously refrain from employing particular techniques or tools.
Paradoxically, such self-limitation often enhances contingency and vinous variation – in short, it renders a less limited range of results. If you select or sort your fruit less rigorously, the results will better reflect the unique mix of berries in a given vintage or parcel. If you refrain from using cultured yeasts, the vicissitudes of fermentation will render a more diverse, perhaps capricious, array of aromas and perhaps of sweetness. If, in a cooler clime, you refrain from chaptalizing, the resultant wines will vary over a wider range of alcohol. Choose not to filter your wine, and it is hostage to microbial metabolic processes and bottle variation you cannot predict.
Employing powerful tools and methods, too, can sometimes enhance the range of possible vinous outcomes. Today (where legal), one can, as proponents say, "dial in" the level of alcohol, searching for "sweet spots" along the widest possible range. Detractors might object in much the way cooks might if they favor seasonal contingency over commodity. They could insist that a wine whose alcohol has been adjusted can never be as tasty and expressive of its grape and place as one that ripened and fermented to a "sweet spot" without benefit of de-alcoholization (or chaptalization). But even if proponents of alcohol adjustment were to credit that claim, they’d argue that the odds are much diminished of a wine reaching a sweet spot "by nature." And detractors could insist that part of the savor lies in the contingency and the adherence to the rules of the game.
Each vintner or chef will strike a possibly shifting balance between contingency and commodity. Consumers, too, in their comportment to food and wine, will settle somewhere between these poles. Where one settles will define one’s ethos as much as one’s taste. Some perceive a moral dimension to choices that favor contingency or commodity. At least this much seems sure. To deny or disregard the need for choice and principles – given how much we know about and how much we can now do to nature’s fruits – is in bad faith. "Play up your own position," we should tell the vintner (and ourselves), "and play the game!"