Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Is Wine Uniquely Nuanced Among Fermented Fruit Drinks?

Is there anything special about wine that gives it its depth? Or is it just the millennia of accumulated culture that make it seem special, and fermented apple juice would have been just as promising as a snob drink?

Historical arguments miss the point. Yes, things might have been different if the apple had first been cultivated further west in Georgia (along with the first vines) instead of in Kazakhstan. But if there's something special about fermented grape juice that makes it so neat-o, then how could this have mattered in the long run?

I submit that currently, we have no good reason to think there's anything special or nuanced or detailed about wine, relative to other fruit-beverages, that gave it its snob status today. That beer has no such a place in the modern West has more to do with European history than it does with anything about the drinks themselves - it's all about the impact of the Romans and then that empire after them which did so much defining of dining, the French, versus the smaller and until the last few centuries more modest city-states of northern Europe, quietly drinking their beer. Yes, "a few centuries" is a long time, but prestige signals are a giant coordination game, and they change only very slowly. Gold is another good example.

I think that the relative prestige values of beer and wine, and the converging prestige-values of each, further weakens the "wine is innately special" argument. Starting in the last few decades, attitudes toward beer even in the legendarily philistine U.S. have begun to change. Beer used to be something that you chugged after mowing the lawn and don't think about very much beyond that, but now it's become a beverage that is properly the subject of adjudicated festivals. I'd like to give my craft beer-making countrymen some of the credit for that, as well as improved technology that allows what are effectively the centuries-old craft brews of Northern Europe's villages to be enjoyed outside Northern Europe.

Now back to the question of nuance. It's an empirical fact that beer is chemically far more complex than wine - there are around 200 compounds in many beer, versus maybe 20 in wine. It's apparently only in the last decade that beer has been systematically run out through columns to see what's in there, though I have my doubts that this is really true since chemists are not infrequently also beer enthusiasts. The point is that, if it's nuance you're looking for, then beer has it all. Beer is closing the prestige gap but it's not quite there yet. There are festivals, but men still show off wine knowledge to their dates instead of beer knowledge - but given the relative chemical richness of the two drinks, it's impossible to argue that wine's appeal is a result of its innate character, as opposed to its history.

Having said all this, I'm just as suckered as anybody by some of the interesting episodes in the history of winemaking. To some degree, I have to be; they'd throw me out of California otherwise. But there really is a lot you can do with it, and for a New World barbarian with the good sense to ignore convention, the possibilities are astounding, if you're innovative and willing to fail now and again, like some winemakers. Commercial winemaking in California really got off the ground with the European phylloxera epidemic in the second half of the nineteenth century, one of the few times a New World organism infected the Old (although there is some concern that Douglas firs, eminently well-suited to marine climates, are today in the process of becoming another invasive in Europe that also went New>Old World). The European wine industry almost collapsed, saved only by producing resistant strains, usually by some technique involving crossing with American vines. It's oddly underappreciated that the only place the old pure-European strains survive is growing on the sandy soils of a few Mediterranean islands, although I've heard rumors that there are isolated purebred Spanish vines growing in monastery gardens in a few mountain valleys of Mexico. Another odd bit of American wine history: one of the earliest successful California wineries in Fremont was destroyed in the 1906 quake, and you can still see earthen mounds at the site, covering piles of never-removed debris.

See? That's just one corner of wine history in one state, and cognitive hedonists can't avoid thinking about all that (and enjoying thinking about it) while drinking wine. It becomes part of the experience. But crucially, there's still nothing in any of this that could not have happened in some form with fermented apple juice (or beer). Even if some brilliant genetic engineer were able to make up for three millennia of underdevelopment of apple-wine in one year and develop a fully-nuanced 2009 red delicious, you still couldn't take your finacee on a tour of the vineyard and talk about its history, how the Count of Lyzanxia used to walk there when Magritte came to visit, et cetera. And that accumulated history is critical, because signaling taste and knowledge is where the real game is. Even assuming that there is special nuance in wine, and you happen to be among the gifted few that can tell the difference - if the drinking experience is what matters, the pure sense-pleasure you get from the taste of the wine - why would you care if others know how goddamn good you are?

The following doesn't address the original question of whether fermented grape juice is a better substrate for nuance, but it does support the signaling hypothesis. A study of members of the Stanford University wine club looked at brain activity in wine drinkers in response to two wines. Unbeknownst to these connoisseurs, they were actually being given the same wine twice, but they were told it was two different wines, one $5 a bottle, the other $45. They reported greater pleasure on drinking the "forty-five dollar" wine, and their brain lit up in a way consistent with greater pleasure. So they probably weren't even lying; an effective self-deception strategy if it's not the taste experience, but rather your own erudition and willingness to conform to fancy-pants values that you're trying to signal with your preference for the more expensive wine. Then again, the emperor's new clothes are for signaling, not for warmth. Try it yourself! Have a blinded wine tasting party at your house, and you'll find out how inconsistent people's answers are - in a 12-bottle tasting, the same bottle from the same winery will be given positions 3 and 11. In the end, maybe there are wine-tasters who actually know what they're doing. What's clear is that most people who think they know what they're doing, don't. One possible function left intact even after we consider all this to be hedonic wheel-spinning is signaling, part of which can be accomplished through conspicuous consumption. Boy those forty-five dollars go down smooth!

I like wine. I'm not attacking it, really. But so much is written about this one consumible that you can't help but wonder if there really is more information in a glass of wine than any other drink produced by natural processes and therefore possessed of a robust chemical composition. In the interest of full disclosure, I freely admit to being a much bigger fan of beer, and specifically unfiltered beers (like Belgian ones); enough so that I'm posting this preference on a blog long after it became cool (i.e., a useful signal) to declare it. I have a pretty severe sweet tooth and I'm probably picking up the simple sugars in these beers. It's probably also why I prefer nigori sake, which is an awesome preference to have, and here's why. Nigori is unfiltered cheap poor-man's sake; you can keep your $200 a bottle bullshit sake to yourself in your no-foreigners-bars in Kyoto. (Anti-meta-signal: I'm so refined that I don't need to signal, and I overtly reject your signaling value system. ZING!)

I apply the same dismissal to wine as I do to sake. I've come to the conclusion that intentionally refining one's palate is a form of masochism that any self-respecting hedonist should reject. Why the hell would I ever deliberately make my palate more difficult to please? By developing your taste, you're intentionally making your marginal unit of pleasure more expensive - you're making yourself more difficult to please. If you have a bad case of wine signal-itis and you enjoy announcing to dining compatriots all the flaws you've found in the wine on the table in front of you, you might put it in perspective this way. If you're American, chances are that your grandparents only had wine on a few special occasions in their lives, and that it was almost certainly disgusting. They'd smack you silly for not only complaining about a wine that's a little too fruity but for making it harder on yourself to enjoy eating and drinking. That's why I'm intentionally letting what little refinement I've achieved go fallow, and I automatically order the cheapest table wine on the menu. Or I don't, and get a Coke.


Dan said...

Is this going to turn into another Primus vs. Metallica argument?

Beer may be more chemically complex, but is it more chemically nuanced in ways that human taste and smell can detect? Perhaps wine hits the human senses in a more sensitive range. "My gas chromatograph thinks this lager is fantastic." "Steve Vai is more technically proficient than Eddie Van Halen, but I like Eddie better."

A wine-drinking friend (who was also a beer-drinking friend) once told me that the real find with wine is a great $10 bottle of wine. Anybody can find a good $45 bottle because the extra $35 bucks buys less entropy between bottles.

Michael Caton said...

There is such a thing as bad wine, but for me the marginal returns diminish very very fast, and I'm trying to make them diminish at an infinite rate. Ultimately I'd like to get to the point where tap water gives me the same pleasure as a '49 Bordeaux.

Also, you're right, you can argue esthetic standards all you want, and concept does affect percept - but ultimately the pleasure principle will do what it does, so who cares if something is more complex if it doesn't taste as good. My point was that oenophiles like to talk about the nuance of their beverage as one of its principal strong suits, and wine is not the gold medalist in that category.

I said oenophile.