Alice B. Toklas, Wine Critic

Tirelessly mordacious wine blogger Terry Hughes recently published a post in which he compared contemporary wine writing to New Criticism. His spirited, pungent observations reminded me of my graduate-school days when I used to wrustle with deconstructionists, structuralists and post-structuralists, formalists, and Lacanians (some of whom i actually liked).

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, New Criticism was a “post-World War I school of Anglo-American literary critical theory that insisted on the intrinsic value of a work of art and focused attention on the individual work alone as an independent unit of meaning. It was opposed to the critical practice of bringing historical or biographical data to bear on the interpretation of a work.”

I found Terry’s analogy apt because the current trend of wine writing, with its emphasis on subjective tasting notes, seems entirely bent on disregarding historical, biographical, and – most regrettably – topological information. Like the New Critics who conjured up a new critical theory to deal with modernity, the “New Wine Writers” have concocted a language that disregards history, people, and place: ecce points-based, florid tasting notes.*

That’s not to say that I don’t like “modern” and “post-modern” literature. In fact, I am a lover of that Caesar of modernity, Gertrude Stein, who published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 (that’s Alice, above, left). In this work, Stein writes her own auto-biography by writing the “auto-biography” of Alice. In doing so, she reveals that the process of writing is by its nature subjective, intrinsically and inexorably. Consider the following notion: when a wine writer writes her/his impressions of a wine, she/he is really writing her/his autobiography. Voilà, Alice B. Toklas, wine critic. I’ll say no more…

In other news…

Although she did not write The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Alice B. Toklas did write a very famous cookbook, the aptly titled Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954), which included a now famous recipe for hashish fudge (the precursor to many of the now ubiquitous pot brownies recipes).

Does anybody remember Peter Sellers’ hilarious 1968 film I Love You Alice B. Toklas?

I bet Terry does.

The “Groovy Brownies” clip below is long and corny but worth it.

* I owe Peter Hellman this classic example of modern wine writing, where two famous wine writers review the same lot with almost diametrically opposed results:

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”

4 thoughts on “Alice B. Toklas, Wine Critic

  1. Groovy brownies, indeed.

    Great post. The third paragraph really personifies my problem with “new” wine writing. It strips the finished product of the beautiful process that led up to it. Why disregard the experience and romance of history, regionality and the personal touch of the winemaker for a self-serving, instant gratification approach to sizing up a wine in seconds? I can’t imagine how these people truly enjoy wine…

    Thank you to Terry for bringing up “The Art of Wine Tasting”. Joe’s essay on the three tier system is a good read as well.

  2. From “The Straight Dope”:

    Tittered Time: “The late Poetess Gertrude (Tender Buttons) Stein and her constant companion and autobiographee, Alice B. Toklas, used to have gay old times together in the kitchen. Some of the unique delicacies that were whipped up will soon be cataloged . . . in a wildly epicurean tome . . . which is already causing excited talk on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps the most gone concoction (and also possibly a clue to some of Gertrude’s less earthly lines) was her hashish fudge.”
    A recipe anyone can whip up on a rainy day…
    I guess Alice was quite a cook. Her chicken dishes were especially prized.

  3. The tirelessly mordacious one thanks you one and both. Jeremy, it is indeed an honour to be the headachy Zeus to your athenic post.

    Scott, I wonder, like you, how a person can enjoy wine when it’s dealt with in such an assembly-line way. Too mechanistic and reductive for this anarchic, wild-eyed Mick.

    And by the way, all these reviews blend into one gigantic checklist of inexact likenesses. Such horseshit. If it’s points they want, publish them and leave it at that.

  4. Fantastic observations on all parts — the debate reminds me of Wordworth’s “The Tables Turned.” “We murder,” he wrote, “to dissect.”

    But while I agree that tearing apart a wine — or a poem — into discreet parts is a form of dissection, I also respect the need for such a process. To strain the metaphor, literary and culinary neophytes are like medical students — you need to be able to break down and analyze the individual features of that which you study. Then you can shuttle away that process and appreciate a thing in it’s entirety — with all the attendant history of place and process.

    That said, for wine writers to focus solely on the objective qualities of wine is to always present a cadaver and never a living body.

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