12 August 2006

To quaff a book

What's the difference between an oenologist and a reader? A vintner and a writer?

'It is only the wines of Sauternes that reach heights of greatness, all thanks to a fungus, Botrytis cinerea or noble rot . . . Years ago, my parents visited the vineyards of Bordeaux and my father was asked if he would like to try one of these botrytised grapes. He said it was so sweet it made his teeth ache . . .'
So wrote Rachel Simhon recently in the (UK) Daily Telegraph . Yet she could have written about acid adjustment of wines using sulphuric acid, a popular topic amongst vintners.

Wine talk in public is typically 'Lovely crème brulée nose with attractive smoky notes. Nice full, rich palate with a rich texture, spicy complexity and nice acidity. There are also brown sugar and apricot notes. Impressive stuff.'

Nothing about, say, nonionic surfactactants or indicators for ammoniacal nitrogen. Nothing in public about who's likely to buy what, what trends to anticipate and package and pitch for.

Although wine is chemicals and craft and hygiene and high finance and government regulations and packaging, the industry of wine-making keeps that sort of talk behind the doors of the producers (including the producers of surfactants and advertising).

Wine, to the public, isn't craft and business, but art and sex: 'aromatic and packed with juicy black-fruit flavors and spice, and with wonderful balance and palate-refreshing acidity. Its bold, ripe fruit . . .'

There are wines described for all tastes: 'the gentle handling the Pinot Noir grape requires . . .'

And of course, there are those who aspire to 'pedigrees'.

One recent article about wine in the San Francisco Chronicle says it all, beginning with 'It was love at first sight'.

Yet here's another article that is important to vintners, but isn't flashed at any oenologists' watering hole : Multiresidue analysis of seventeen pesticides in wine by gas chromatography with mass-selective detection.

When it comes to the distinction between art and craft, myth and reality, there is possibly no greater example than Sauternes. One Chateau de ---- states, 'This is a very expensive goal. . . In other words, the juice coming out of the winepress must contain 340-350 grams of sugar per litre.'

Now, I can tell you from experience that this a load of large-animal droppings, having picked at one of the greatest of all these Chats. It was a time when I was looking for casual work and almost got a job picking mushrooms in a cave in France. Only short people could do the work, and it would have been an 'experience', but then this came up, another temporary thing, but what an experience this was.

Picking only the grapes with 'noble rot' upon them is a painstaking job. All morning we picked carefully, the smattering of foreigners being hawk-eyed by ranks of local women, experts in bedroom slippers. There was tension in the air. Finally a car arrived and the owners, an overdressed couple, emerged to inspect a row or two as if there had been no French revolution. When they got in their car and instead of proceeding to the Chateau, drove off the estate, the order went out from the senior bedroom-slippered. 'Vite, vite! Pick everything you can!'

So we picked all we could and that night, we were guests of the young assistant manager and his girlfriend. It was a marvellous, romantic evening. They made dinner for a crowd of us. The meal was boiled, unstirred, stuck-together spaghetti with nothing on it, and cocktail sausages from a can, dunked in the boiling water, and for dessert, plastic tubs of yogurt. Then we were treated to young wine served from washed-out bottles of aperitif—I remember one with an artichoke on it--absolutely delicious. Then the assistant manager excused himself to go to work. He went to add to the developing wine the sugar that the grapes are supposed to have, as that is one of the reasons the stuff costs what it does. He asked us not to tell, as it's a secret, you know.

So much for vintners and oenologists. What about writers and readers?

'We are gluttons of experience, vicarious or otherwise, and we constantly hunger. Not necessarily for the new, not always for the familiar, but rather for everything, slaves of the constant need to assuage our appetites. We live secret lives in our words, creating fiction from the raw materials we cannot help but seek and savor. And then we need to expose ourselves.'
— Dean Francis Alfar, Writing: A Blog Abecedary

Alfar makes me hungry to read when he says that. I mention this because while book lovers and wine lovers have much in common, so much talk in the public sphere when it comes to books centres around writing, which I find as delicious as talk about how to suss out pesticides in wine.

I do think there's more art and magic and romance and sexiness in stories and books than there is in wine, and if there isn't, well:

'I found reading in bulk, that I was developing a dislike for both the "well-made tale" and the fleeting "impression". Manuals on how to write short stories, and much criticism, stress unity of form, stress that only one thing should happen, that an episode or incident should be developed, or an emotion caught, with no space for digression, or change of direction or tone . . . Many of the stories in this collection break all the rules of unity of tone and narrative. They appear to be one kind of story and mutate into another. They make unexpected twists and then twist again. They pack together comedy and tragedy, farce and delicacy, elegance and the grotesque.'
— A.S. Byatt's introduction to The (excellent) Oxford Book of English Short Stories

At conventions where readers and writers mix, 'nuts and bolts', 'craft' and 'business' spread through conversations and sessions like rampant, unnoble rot. Indeed, some trade writing for vintners is more the stuff of ripping yarns, such as these lines by Cyril Penn:

'Pierce's disease is a bacterial infection transmitted by insects and can quickly kill entire vineyards. The threat has received additional scrutiny in recent years because it can be spread by the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which is capable of flying long distances.'

As for the state of being a 'writer', almost anyone worth an imagination would, I hope, prefer to meet a glassy-winged sharpshooter. The image of 'writer' has reached a crassness point so great that a current ad in Australia seeking women customers for some bank includes the line 'She writes short stories.'

Rhys Hughes hilariously discussed writers in this thread. Here's part of what he says.

'I was in a dance club two nights ago and a man came up to me and introduced himself as a writer. Then he shouted in my ear, "The one thing I hate about dance clubs is that you can't have a good conversation about literature in them!'

Hand me a glass!


AliceB said...

Wonderful, Anna! I'm still trying to figure out the equivalent, for writers, of sugar in the grape juice. It comes out as "cliches" for me, and that usually sinks a novel... or does it?

misteraitch said...

This is a fruitful analogy: the drinker & the reader both want a buzz, but would often prefer that their book or their bottle were sold to them without mentioning that. Books (more especially popular paperbacks) seem honester than booze in that respect, about selling their addictive potential: I don’t suppose we’ll ever see ‘unputdownable’ or ‘I I drank the whole thing in a single sitting’ on the back of bottles of Château d’Yquem.

anna tambour said...

I don't know, Alice. Probably it's good that tastes vary and moods change, or no book would survive.

What an image, Misteraitch! What do you do with books that you know you really love? Read them like that 'single sitting' bottle, or . . .?

misteraitch said...

Most of my favourite books are the kind better sipped slowly, though I do occasionally guzzle them down. I think it’s possible to imbibe too much of an author at once, with analagously off-putting results to over-boozing. Ambrose Bierce is an example of an author where I overdid it a little, & ended up put off the taste of his prose, leaving him as a kind of literary equivalent for me (albeit much less sweet) to Sothern Comfort...