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The Message in the Bottle

By |  February 8 2008

The more articulate, complex, and interactive a piece of music or wine, the richer it is in information (to borrow Douglass Smith’s phrase) and the more capable of testifying to a place, a time, or to the artist through whose mediation it has reached us.

There are myriad sensually and intellectually rewarding routes by which a music lover may come to correctly identify a piece that’s playing, though the words, "This is Beethoven’s Opus 131" could also serve that end. Often-just as with wine-the process is akin to facial recognition, perhaps of the one piece, perhaps of the composer.

Alternatively, one sometimes picks apart a piece for clues, revealing its richness as one seeks its identity. Perhaps we hear it as a quartet that only a composer steeped in the quartets of Haydn could have written; a masterpiece of polyphony; a quintessentially 19thcentury work, yet one indulging in unorthodox form… and by this sort of detective work, arrive at 131.

It is inevitable that we might be mistaken. Perhaps I know I’m hearing a late Beethoven Quartet (though I may never have heard the one in question) but incorrectly guess it’s the one called "Opus 132." If the point of a musical composition’s conveying its sense of place were merely the correct identification of the score by name, it would have failed. But having reveled in the music as a reflection of Beethoven’s last, greatest, deaf, heaven-storming years of creativity is testimony enough to its powers of communication. In wine, as music, we can seek structure, complexity, articulacy in conveying musical "ideas," thematic development, and other factors that are at the basis of aesthetic assessment. Depending on how sophisticated is our knowledge of harmony, counterpoint, tonality, and perhaps ultimately on the degree to which we possess innate sensitivities to sound and mathematical structure, we may have a more or less profound or multilayered aesthetic experience of Opus 131 or be more or less capable of expressing it. Our personal history of listening or the knowledge of Beethoven and his times that some of us bring to this experience can deepen it.

Nonetheless, Opus 131 can be profoundly and pleasurably experienced as one of the great works of human imagination even by someone who has never before heard of Beethoven or heard a string quartet. The experience of every music lover confirms the primacy of works’ intrinsic aesthetic quality: We can recall the excitement of hearing something we only later learned was Mozart or Monk, Beethoven or The Beatles. The same is true of great wines we first tasted "blind."

And as we can ask about what we’re hearing, "Who is it that’s performing?" and judge their talent at conveying the piece, a wine grower or vintner can similarly be recognized and judged.

A glass of, say, Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese can be appreciated by a novice, and we wine aficionados have delicious recollections of entirely mysterious libations instantly perceived to be profoundly delicious. With music or with wine, experiences over time are interpreted. Even a novice taster might say, "It smells sweet, like fresh apples and flowers. And it tastes that way, too, but now there are also juicy lemons and grapefruit. And after I swallow it’s no longer sweet, but still perfumed, thirstquenching, yet strangely drying and stimulating at once." We have on exhibit here those traits of which Theise wrote. Articulacy: a distinct set of flavors-and the more we taste (or swallow-up to a point!), the more we find. Complexity: scents, tastes, and tactile impressions bundled together in time and place.

Harmony (or perhaps dissonance and resolution): we perceive the progression and interplay of aromas, flavors, and tactile sensations as intriguing, satisfying, even beautiful. The characteristics of wine on which we base aesthetic appreciation are thus the same rich sources that-at least occasionally-permit us to identify its place, its vintage, or its vintner, whether this information is conveyed all-of-apiece and by unconscious clues (as in the recognition of a face) or through explicit analytic exercise. When a wine testifies to us of its terroir, vintage, vintner, or tradition, this may appear to someone less versed in wine as an amazing parlor trick, prompting the question, "How did you do it?" But those experienced will no doubt reply, "Here’s how the wine does it. It told me it’s a 1975, a Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, a Joh Jos Prüm."

The difference in emphasis points to some deep truths. The beauty of wine and its testimony to place and time share the same syntax. A little experience- much less than novices suppose- suffices to comprehend the testimony.

(The second time I heard the first notes of Opus 131, I did not have to ask myself what it was.) The expert, on the other hand, has to beware that experience and analysis do not spoil the sense of beauty.

One need not rack one’s brains nor strap the vinous subject to the rack. In fact, that is the surest way to miss out on the fun and testimony. We have to let the wine approach us. It will testify even as it entertains, quenches our thirst, and gladdens us. If sometimes it teases us or taunts us, that’s only to remind us that it will have the last word, while we have made fools of ourselves in our sheer seriousness. We might have failed to guess its name, its birth year, or its future course. And it is sure to have withheld some of its beauty.

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