The Lice of Wine Writing Redux

For propriety’s sake, this post must begin with an errata corrige: my recent post on my dinner with Leslie Sbrocco included an erroneous literary attribution (to Eugenio Montale). In fact, it was twentieth-century Italian novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda who wrote: “Pronouns! They’re the lice of thought. When a thought has lice, it scratches, like everyone who has lice…. and they get in the fingernails, then… you find pronouns, the personal pronouns.”

“Ah! the world of ideas! What a fine world! Ah! this, I, I…,” says Gadda’s autobiographical character Gonzalo in Acquainted with Grief, “among the almond blossoms… then among the pears […] I, I… the foulest of all pronouns!”*

gadda.jpg

Above: Carlo Emilio Gadda, the great twentienth-century Italian novelist. We’ve all been “Acquainted with Grief,” haven’t we?

Over the weekend, in speaking with journalist and wine writer Peter Hellman about all of the upcoming tastings and wine events in NYC, we shared our dismay at the state of wine writing today and what I like to call the “lice of wine writing”: tastings notes so impossibly subjective, so beleaguered by the presence of the “I,” that they are bereft of meaning.

An avid reader of wine writing, Peter pointed out the absurdity in a recent promotional email where two very famous wine publications were quoted about the same wine:

Parker: “The 2003 Cornas La Louvee is a blockbuster. Glorious aromas of flowers, blackberries, roasted meats, espresso roast, and white chocolate flow from this full-bodied, concentrated, modern-styled, impressively-endowed, full-throttle Cornas. Drink it now and over the next 15+ years. 93pts”

Wine Spectator: “Tight and structured, with lots of iron and mineral notes framing the black cherry, plum, briar, tar and olive paste flavors. Long finish sports mouthwatering acidity. Very impressive for Cornas in 2003. Best from 2007 through 2015. 800 cases made. 92pts”

As Peter pointed out rightly, the tasting notes in the two passages are “mutually exclusive.” As I’ve asked many times before, how can a wine really taste like so many different things? And, come on, “mouthwatering acidity”? What the hell does that mean?

He also directed me to the website of Château Palmer where a similar discongruous hypertext emerges. Of all the I-can-taste-and-write-more-descriptors-than-you descriptions that I found there, the only one that showed some sanity was the wise Jancis Robinson, who, it seems to me, always takes a much more objective approach to wine writing and tasting notes, a style much more real and accessible to both the expert and the lay person:

Very, very deep crimson. Very intense and nervy – impressive on the nose – but more obviously big and fruity than the more delicate Ch Margaux… Slightly charred and smoky. Round and fresh and very beguiling. Real lift and only the slightest hint of inkiness on the finish. Bravo! Very fine tannins – very suave and polished with good density while still being Margaux. Very sweet. Hints of modern idiom but very gentle. Super silky texture. Sinewy – but polished sinews!

Hers is a more poetical approach and she avoids the subjective virtuosismo of the Parkers, Wine Spectators, and Tanzers, who just can’t resist the “I taste this, I taste that” one-upmanship** (as Peter pointed out, Tanzer is probably the only person in the world who knows what “Vermont granite” tastes like… Next time I go to Vermont, I’ll be sure to eat some).

When will wine writers come to their senses (pun intended) and realize that these overblown descriptors are the lice of wine writing???!!!

When I read “blackberries, roasted meats, espresso roast, and white chocolate” and “black cherry, plum, briar, tar and olive paste,” I scratch my head and like Gadda’s Gonzalo, I find lice in my fingernails — the lice of wine writing.

*Gadda, Carlo Emilio, Acquainted with Grief (original title: La cognizione del dolore), translated from the Italian by William Weaver, Braziller, New York, 1969, p. 86.

For the original Italian, see: ibid., La cognizione del dolore, Einaudi, Torino, 1970 (1963), p. 123.

In the passage, Gonzalo (Gadda) tells his doctor that he doesn’t need anyone but himself for a diagnosis of his ills, anyone but his “I.” Then, all of a sudden, a thought bursts from his mouth:

“Ah! the world of ideas! What a fine world! Ah! this, I, I… among the almond blossoms… then among the pears […] I, I… the foulest of all pronouns!”

The doctor smiled at this outburst; he didn’t understand. Still he seized the chance to direct into more serene channels their words, if not the man’s humor and thoughts.

“And why, for God’s sake? [the doctor asks Gonzalo] What have they done wrong, pronouns? When a person thinks something or other, he still has to say, “‘I think…'”

“Pronouns! [Gonzalo answers] They’re the lice of thought. When a thought has lice, it scratches, like everyone who has lice…. and they get in the fingernails, then… you find pronouns, the personal pronouns.”

**I write anti-chauvanistically “one-upmanship” and not “one-up-personship” because I believe that women have finer noses and palates in wine tasting and that they dispense with the ever-present male bravado that accompanies wine enthusiasm and connoisseurship.

One thought on “The Lice of Wine Writing Redux

  1. One, I love Gadda. Anybody ever note how much Camilleri owes to him?

    Two, I vastly prefer the more concrete and pithy review style of both Jancis and her Virgil, Hugh Johnson, to any of these prima donnas of wine pontification. I admire them both for their vast experienceand erudition, AND their lack of evangelistic fervor. God knows if we’ll ever grow our own version of JR or HJ.

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