Lacan, Petrarch, Nietzsche, Fiorano, and hieroglyphic wine

July 29, 2009

Above: I love this image of the 1994 Malvasia by Fiorano, snapped by Tracie B in her apartment the other day. It’s a quasi-film-noir take on a hard-to-wrap-your-mind-around wine. One of the things that intrigues us about wine is its mystery: who made it and how and why? A glass of wine can be like Lacan’s hieroglyphs in the dessert.

Twentieth-century linguist, semiotician, and father of late-blooming French psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan famously asked his readers to consider how they would react in the following situation (perhaps a great premise for an ersatz reality show?):

    Suppose that in the desert you find a stone covered with hieroglyphics. You do not doubt for a moment that, behind them, there was a subject who wrote them. But it is an error to believe that each signifier is addressed to you — this is proved by the fact you cannot understand any of it. On the other hand, you define them as signifiers, by the fact that you are sure that each of the signifiers is related to each of the others.

(This passage is often cited in explaining Lacan’s theory of the “precedence of the signifier,” in other words, the notion that the word or symbol or sign always exists before meaning does.)

In some ways, protohumanist Francis Petrarch said the same thing when he wrote that as a young man, he could read Roman orator Cicero’s writing and he was enchanted by the words, their sounds, and their elegance, even though he could not (yet) understand what they meant.

Above: Tracie B’s contribution to our dinner Saturday at Italian Wine Guy’s was her excellent carbonara. It paired stunningly with the vibrant 92 Fiorano Semillon. Carbonara is another example of a trace of the past that has lost its meaning. No one knows for sure the origins of the dish or they etymon of its name.

As with literature and writing (even writing on the wall), we sometimes assign meaning to things not because we know the meaning intended by their authors or creators but because we simply come into contact with them. Nietzsche wrote about this in The Twilight of the Idols as “the error of imaginary causes,” as in dreams, when, for example, external stimulus (like a canon shot, as Nietzsche put it, or perhaps the song playing on a radio alarm clock) enters our subconscious:

    The ideas engendered by a certain condition have been misunderstood as the cause of that condition. We do just the same thing, in fact, when we are awake.

What do any of these things have to do with one another, beyond me stringing together a seemingly arbitrarily compiled handlist of philosophical and epistemological musings?

Every wine wine we approach and draw to our lips is a mystery, a riddle of the Sphinx. Every glass of wine is Lacan’s desert hieroglyph, Petrarch’s Cicero, and Nietzsche’s waking dream — ay, there’s the rub… And so were the three bottles of Fiorano white that Tracie B and I opened with Italian Wine Guy over the weekend as our birthday gift to him (and a thank you for all that he’s done for both of us, professionally and personally, over the last two years).

Above: Deciphering Fiorano through the prism of Italian Wine Guy aka Alfonso’s superb stemware, paired with his take on petto di pollo alla milanese. Photo by Tracie B.

A great deal has been written about the fascinating wines of Fiorano (Eric’s 2004 article was the first piece about these wines in English) but I think that Eric put it best when he called them “bygone wines”: they are wines that will never be made again. In part because wine is no longer produced in that fashion on the Fiorano estate (outside Rome) and in part because today, few if any would ever consider making white wines intended for such prolonged barrel aging. They are a trace of another time and era in winemaking. They are “classic” inasmuch as they will never be made again. They are a mystery, a conundrum that keeps us thinking. We know they exist and have existed (and we will know that even after we have drunk them all). We know someone made them but we will probably never know what he meant by them.

All we do know for certain is that they’re delicious.


O tempora, o Nebbiolo

March 3, 2009

O tempora, o mores, to borrow a phrase from Cicero. Times are tough all around and these days I’m slinging a wine bag on my back and hitting the streets, hawking wine. I’m a traveling salesman like my maternal grandfather Maurice (poppa, we used to call him; my paternal grandfather was a rabbi, our zaidi — Yiddish for grand-père — but that’s another story). But as fate would have it, I consider myself lucky inasmuch I get to sell a lot of wines that I genuinely love (my new gig is with the Austin-based Mosaic Wine Group; check out the new blog we launched here). The other day I got to pour multiple vintages of one of my favorite wines (as anybody who follows my blog knows so well), Produttori del Barbaresco: I led a guided tasting of the 2004 and 2005 Barbaresco and 2006 Langhe Nebbiolo the other night at The Austin Wine Merchant in downtown Austin, Texas.

I didn’t get to participate in the Piedmont edition of Wine Blogger Wednesday, orchestrated smashingly by David McDuff at his excellent blog McDuff’s Food and Wine Trail, and so he graciously honored me with a guest blogger spot writing about Produttori del Barbaresco and my recent tasting notes at his kick-ass web log (one of my daily reads).

To read my tasting notes (including my translation of the winery’s 2006 vintage notes), click here.

In other news…

As my friend and dissertation adviser Luigi Ballerini used to say whenever we ate Japanese: oh tempura, oh soy sauce!


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