Lacan, Petrarch, Nietzsche, Fiorano, and hieroglyphic wine

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.

14 thoughts on “Lacan, Petrarch, Nietzsche, Fiorano, and hieroglyphic wine

  1. JP, this is, BY FAR, my favorite post so far. I will expound – someday – over coffee or absinthe.

  2. I agree with Adrian: it is incredible what passes for carbonara sometimes, but Tracie B’s looks mighty tasty!

    After carefully studying the different techniques of two non-Roman friends – she’s napoletana, he’s aretino – plus a little tip I picked up in GQ magazine of all places, spaghetti alla carbonara has in recent years become my signature dish. I’m now pleased to report that despite my initial difficulties obtaining decent pancetta, my own version does occasionally approach the lofty benchmark set by Rome’s Maccheroni restaurant, a bustling canteen tucked away in Piazza delle Coppelle.

    As for the origins of this dish and its name, I remember hearing two theories: 1) the dish was a favorite of Italian coal-workers; 2) carbonara was invented during the war when African-American G.I.s added their bacon and eggs to pasta.

  3. In a room perhaps a third of the way along the suite he sat her in a rocking chair and brough real homemade dandelion wine in small neat glasses.

    “I picked the dandelions in a cemetary, two years ago. Now the cemetary is gone. They took it out for the East San Narciso Freeway.

    Her poured her more dandelion wine.

    “It’s clearer now,” he said, rather formal. “A few months ago it got quite cloudy. You see, in spring, when the dandelions begin to bloom again, the wine goes through a fermentation. As if they remembered.”

    No, thought Oedipa, sad. As if their home cemetary in some way still did exist, in a land where you could somehow walk, and not need the East San Narciso Freeway, and bones still could rest in piece, nourishing ghosts of dandelions, no one to plow them up. As if the dead really do persist, even in a bottle of wine.

    –Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49.

  4. vino nyc–do you use cream? i know there are italians (and of course americans) who insist that this is authentic, but i maintain that it should be cream-free. the egg yolks make a LOVELY sauce all by themselves…

    2B–you hit the nail on the head, love! these wines demand more than a simple list of tasting notes to understand what we don’t.

  5. thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read this post and to comment. I have always believed that a bottle of wine is a “text” for us to interpret and be inspired by. The self-defeating tenets of Deconstruction (with a capital D) don’t apply here nor does Eco’s theory of the “opera aperta” or “open work.” The people who make wine have very clear intentions of the role (ideological and sensorial) that they want their wines to play and even though their initial meaning (signified) becomes transfigured over time, like Freud’s “red thread,” that intent is never fully eclipsed by Bloom’s “anxiety of misunderstanding.” I think that Charles made a great point: Da Checchino 1887 is one of the most famous wine destinations in Rome. It’s extremely interesting and relevant to note that the proprietors consider these wines to be dessert wines. Has something been lost in translation? Clearly. But that’s what makes things interesting, no?

    Thanks, really, to everyone, for taking the time to read my crazy posts! :-)

  6. Tracie B: My carbonara is “rigorosamente senza crema”; it’s an excess of cream which seems to ruin the dish so often. Just eggs, pancetta, some onion and garlic, a pinch of peperoncino and lots of ground pepper and pecorino to finish.

    Do Bianchi: in my pancetta-induced ramblings I completely forgot to praise you on your entertaining post of oenological/philosophical musings. After all, if wine is just fermented grape juice, then music is just organized sound, and soccer is nothing more than 22 foreigners in shorts kicking a ball around.

  7. Three bottles of Fiorano! Wow!!!

    I’ve promised the guys coming this weekend that I would open one. Decisions, decisions.

    Btw: I read recently that the vineyards are going to be brought back to life. (Eric Asimov is looking in this, I believe.)

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