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On Porridge and Pinot Noir

By |  December 5 2012

Reliance upon staple crops is not something we generally think about in the developed world. I have myself grown up enjoying the luxury of ubiquitous choice. It was a passing remark from my wife that prompted me to think about the role that choice plays in our relationship with our food and drink. As a bright young college graduate she spent two years in the Peace Corps in northern Senegal, an environment in which a more limited diet was a daily reality. For anthropologists and social theorists an aesthetic relationship with food is proof that the subject has transcended the material necessities of mere survival; worrying about how dinner will taste is a sign that you are not concerned whether or not there will be a dinner in the first place. "But when you eat the same thing every day," said my wife, "you really care how it is prepared. In my village everyone talked constantly about who was the best cook."

It makes sense. Starchy staples are inherently bland and unforgiving on the unskilled cook. And where everyone cooks the same food, quality is purely execution-dependent. A day could be made or spoiled based upon the ability to cook rice, so everyone in the village is well aware of who made it best. Such circumstances are hardly surprising, indeed the same logic is found in the wine world. Narcissisms of small differences are fundamental to those experiencing them on the inside, but they can appear trivial to an outsider. The delicate Burgundian souls for whom Pommard is too brutally tannic live in a taste world where they have never imagined the astringent shock of an inky cask sample of Madiran.

But we live in a modern world defined by breadth of choice. A simple visit to the supermarket demonstrates the bewildering variety of consumer goods available, with whole aisles devoted to laundry detergents or soda; the more choice the better. Is this always true? The work of behavioral economists like Barry Schwarz and Sheena Iyengar suggests that excessive choice is in itself actively demotivating. In the classic study, Iyengar and Mark Lepper demonstrated that their test subjects were more likely to buy gourmet jam if the number of choices was limited to six, rather than a bewildering 24 or 30. Not just that, but participants actually reported greater satisfaction with their choices when they had been made from a more restricted selection.

That is all very interesting, but the gourmet jams that the test subjects were presented with represented a diversity of different styles and flavors. They were not confronted with 30 different interpretations of strawberry. Or more tightly defined still, they were not presented with 30 different jars of the same brand of strawberry jam, all made from different batches. Under these circumstances I would like to propose Percival’s Law: Engagement with the product is inversely proportional to the degree of choice available. Or to put it in a more concrete fashion, where porridge is all you eat, you have a more finelygrained appreciation of porridge. Your options are not just "porridge" and "not porridge," but run the gamut from "thick porridge" through to "thin and undercooked porridge."

Such a finely-grained understanding of the differences between inherently similar products characterizes a wine world where the Burgundian system of single-vineyard designations has become the dominant legitimate expression of terroir. In this respect my friend and colleague Peter Liem of has introduced a useful distinction. When talking of the difference between regional blends like Dom Pérignon versus single-vineyard wines like the Clos des Goisses, Peter talks of the difference between micro and macro terroir. On the macro level it is clear that Dom Pérignon is a wine of great terroir expression. There is nowhere else in the world that it could be made; that it is Champagne has in itself meaning. In contrast, a bottle of Clos des Goisses is also a unique expression, but in this case of the micro-terroir of 5.5 south-facing ha (14 acres) in the village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Peter characterizes the difference as that between a symphony orchestra and a soloist. But across the wine world it is micro-terroir and the exploration of individual named vineyards that hold the moral high ground. We have acquired a taste for solo music.

How ironic that this coincides with a period of hitherto undreamed of diversity of choice. Does Musigny versus Les Amoureuses have meaning when it is not taken in the finely-grained context of the Côte de Nuits? I doubt it. Microterroir classifications are inherently relativistic. In a world of near infinite choice, individual vineyards blur into a broad Pinot Noir-ness. The same is true for your morning oatmeal. Did you really engage with it beyond its oatmealyness? While we rediscover and celebrate the astonishment of wine, we have at the same time to engage with its daily ubiquity if we want properly to understand its contours.

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