October 2013

Teri Vlassopoulos


How to Drink

I discovered a used copy of Okakura Kakuzo's The Book of Tea over the summer. It's a brief, meditative book about tea, aesthetics, and how to live. Kakuzo first wrote it as a long essay in 1906 to read at one of Isabella Stewart Gardener's fabulous parties in Boston. It introduces teaism, "a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence." The book touches on the history of tea, including tea masters and the particular architecture of tearooms, but branches out into art appreciation too. There's also a section simply called "Flowers." But the book is primarily philosophical, with lengthy discussions about Taoism and Zennism. The tea ceremony, for instance, is directly derived from Zen ceremonies -- the idea of finding greatness in the smallest of actions. The various descriptions of how tea is prepared read like tiny, beautiful processes. In one method there are three stages of boiling where, by the third boil, a "dipperful" of cool water is poured in to "revive the youth of the water." I read the entire thing quickly and immediately after buying it. These kinds of books are my favorite. Their slimness makes them easy to digest, but then they remain with you. "Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things," he writes in the first section. So you linger.

Around the time I found The Book of Tea, I'd been thinking about drinking. Mostly how I didn't think about it. It seemed at odds with the way I think about food, which is often, obsessively. This line in one of Elizabeth Ellen's stories in Fast Machine described how I felt: "She drank what she liked to drink and then she drank what she didn't like to drink in addition." No descriptions, no adjectives, just verbs. With food, it's easy to form opinions and preferences. Teasing the subtlety of flavors in drinks, particularly alcoholic ones, is more difficult.

I turned to M.F.K. Fisher's Musings on Wine and Other Libations for some advice. It's a collection of various essays she wrote about beverages over the years and is a light, lovely read. Her most frequent recommendation is to have "honest" drinks. "I am glad," she writes, "that people almost everywhere can find potable and honest wines more easily than they used to, even at supermarkets." But how exactly do you know if your wine is lying to you? One of my best friends is a wine writer and when we were living in the same city this made restaurant meals and dinner parties easy: I would just rely on her to pick the wine. It was always good. We now live in different cities and the wine is still good, but I've realized I don't quite know what I like or why I like it. When faced with the choice of what to drink, I sometimes get nervous. How do I know what's honest?

If you're even remotely interested in learning about wine, the options available are endless. Every few months a new batch of introductory books is published and you could easily pick up a few to brush up on your basics. But it's hard to know what's actually useful. The three books nominated for the James Beard Foundation Book Award in the beverage category this year were all about wine: How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto, Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures and Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Of the three, Eric Asimov's How to Love Wine was the clear choice for me to read -- not quite a Book of Tea, but not just a technical beginner's guide either.

The book is billed as a manifesto, but it's more apology. On behalf of the Wine Industrial Complex, Asimov, the New York Times's chief wine critic, apologizes to people like me who have been made nervous about wine and who, like I just did above, sheepishly admit to not knowing anything about it. He addresses this at the outset: "People do not use that same semiapologetic tone to excuse their lack of knowledge of ballet or bread baking. Why do people feel such a sense of obligation? Why are they so anxious and intimidated?"

Asimov traces the anxiety to the vocabulary associated with wine. Comparatively speaking, Fisher's requisite "honesty" is easy to accept -- it's the more obscure language that comes out of tasting notes that complicates things. Tasting notes have an exaggerated diction to them, and while they're easy to parody, they're the principal method of describing wine, so have a big role in forming people's opinions. But their specificity and odd reference points ("maduro tobacco," "plum compote," "pencil lead") are intimidating as much as they may be ridiculous, particularly since most of us think of taste in broad strokes -- like with a bag of Skittles, you don't taste the candy by flavor, but by color. (I like red best.) To dig deeper than that can be nerve-wracking. Asimov calls for more clarity in wine descriptions -- for instance, instead of saying something tastes like apples, talk about its acidity.

He similarly takes down the idea of blind tastings. While he admits they can be useful for orienting one's palate or as "enjoyable games," he doesn't believe they're the right method for assessing the quality of a bottle. On the surface, a blind tasting seems like the perfect way to separate the honest wines from dishonest -- the preconceived notions attached to a label or price point are shed and you're left to ponder the substance itself without bias. Blind tastings seem like the perfect way to prove that the $8 bottle I'll buy by default is every bit as good as the $25 one and maybe even the $100 one. The problem is that even blind tastings aren't sipped in a vacuum. Other factors can alter your taste buds, including what you ate beforehand, what kind of room you happen to be in, or who your neighbors are. Not only that, blind tastings eliminate the history and intention behind the bottles, things that Asimov strongly believes should contribute to one's enjoyment of what they're drinking. So, blind tastings combined with tasting notes to describe them, rather than make wine more appealing for the general public, make it less accessible and consequently, less pleasurable.

There's a kind of naughty pleasure in reading the New York Times wine critic tearing down the foundations of the wine industry we're familiar with, kind of like the first time everyone read Kitchen Confidential and learned how high-end restaurants really worked. Asimov isn't as ruthless as Anthony Bourdain, though, and after swiftly dismissing the raison d'etre of a tasting note ("At best... a waste of time"), will backtrack and acknowledge why they can also be helpful.

While the book didn't exactly teach me to love wine, it did lessen the anxiety associated with it. Mostly I appreciated his insistence that lack of knowledge isn't a barrier, that wine drinking is, above all, an elemental pleasure. Just because one doesn't know much about what they're drinking doesn't mean there can't be a mindfulness to it or an occasional sense of ceremony. But Asimov's recommendation for if you truly want to learn how to love wine is to buy a few bottles -- maybe try different vintages of a particular winery, or choose a style you like and experiment within it -- and drink them with various meals over the course of many years. It's not a quick education, but it does seem like an honest one.