I read with interest two separate articles in the Financial Times last month – a typically erudite, intelligent and self-referential piece by Martin Amis on Philip Larkin and his poetry, and a column on Giaconda’s Rick Kinzbrunner by Andrew Jefford, where the winemaker is quoted as saying, “The biggie for me is what’s in the bottle…if the wine doesn’t measure up, it’s all irrelevant”.
The ‘it’ in the quote refers to what I like to call the winegrowing process (conflating grapegrowing and winemaking), or in Kinzbrunner’s words, “vineyards, terroir, organics, natural winemaking, low sulphur, whatever”. His view is certainly understandable and orthodox – wine-drinking is an experience, and one can’t drink terroir or natural winemaking.
But there’s a danger in limiting and isolating the wine drinking experience, where the wine is just the sum of our impressions. Like the product of any other craft (both cooking and furniture-making come to mind), wine can be and tell us so much more when we place it in context, and in particular when we try to understand the processes.
Treating wine as just an object in the bottle (or more accurately, in the glass and on the palate), rather than the still-evolving product at the end of a long chain of processes, is like a conversation with a magic mirror – self-referential, and eventually where we see, hear and taste only what we want to. The dialogue can be exhilarating at first, but over time it becomes exhausting, as so much wine tasting is.
I have no wish to cast aspersions on Kinzbrunner or his approach, and I generally like his wines. But I think there is more to wine than greets the palate.
Martin Amis, on the surface, brings a similar approach to his assessment of Larkin’s output, writing starkly that “the simple truth that writers’ private lives don’t matter; only the work matters”. He then belies his own stated belief in the following paragraphs with a deft twist of the pen, turning to Larkin’s strained relations with Monica James (“love of his life”) as well as Amis’ father, Kingsley, in the process highlighting the relevance of Larkin’s private life to his work.
Amis is probably right, and “the gauntness of Larkin’s personal history” is why his poetry is so resonant and unforgettable. Looking up the steep slopes of the Wolfer Goldgrube in the Mosel, shaking Marc Ollivier’s callused hands, walking through Noel Dupasquier’s vineyards, or tasting at Nino Perrino’s tiny cellar, it is similarly easy to connect the dots and link the process with the product. Unfortunately, we are more commonly faced with an array of glasses, each a seeming liquid mirror, and the straightforward thing to do is to carry on our conversations as usual.
However, with patience and imagination, it is possible to turn away from the mirror, and to hear what the vineyards, vintage and winegrower have to say. Try it sometime.