Wine and Mortality, pt 1

Here’s an article I found interesting: The Seven Greatest Wines of All Time, a cursory1 metadata analysis examining wines which deserved a perfect score across critics.

For the most part, only wines which had withstood the test of time — at least 20 years of age, or say the 1811 Yquem — were fit for the crown. As I’ve noted in previous articles, dry white wine is curiously absent. And, the very thought of young wines being deemed perfect is somehow problematic for wine critics at large.

To be fair: it is perhaps one of the greatest vinous experiences to be had, imbibing a wine that resists the bony clutches of Father Time (read: oxidation) and tastes young seemingly long after its days are gone.

But why is it marvelous?

I’m convinced that the reason we’re starstruck2 with aged wine reflects something far deeper in us. Something we care not to think about; something that I’m certain will initially strike you as far-fetched.

I’m convinced it’s our preoccupation with our own mortality, which few of us ever really fully come to grips with. Who really can, anyhow? Further, I’m convinced it’s even bigger than wine — that it courses like an underground river through our appreciation of nearly every form of art.

Sound crazy? Let’s once again begin with visual art before confronting wine. Indulge me in a whimsical thought experiment:

It is 2104, the year of the “Great Liberation”. Long after being driven by global warming to live in a vast network of underground cities, a cellular biologist identifies the processes which cause our cells’ mitochondria to age3.  She gleefully confirms that with a few simple hacks, our bodies can live almost indefinitely, cells constantly replacing themselves not unlike some giant, undying ficus in a tropical jungle4.

And suddenly, humanity is liberated from the shackles of its mortal coil.

Now, the crux of the experiment: can you imagine how art would transform?

Every single work of art from before the Great Liberation would be scrutinized through the paradigm5 lens of mortality. Not unlike the way Catholicism, the feudal system or, say, the dawn of perspective in the early Renaissance marks all that it touched.

Future students of history would pain themselves to understand how we managed to eke meaning out of our piddly lives under this sword of Damocles that was mortality.

“No, no; it’s fine … it always does this. Yes, I will have some more rosé, thank you.”

A bit like we cannot imagine living prior to the advent of modern medicine, or during slavery, or perhaps during the aerial bombing campaigns of WWII with the constant threat of death from above.

Suddenly, post Great Liberation art would be less preoccupied with mortality, and more preoccupied with … something else! What would drive artistic production in this new world? Perhaps how to extract meaning and joy from our now unending lives — who knows. Only one thing is certain in this thought experiment: fear of death is out the window.

Beaune Altarpiece, van der Weyden.
Why should I fear judgement if I’m never gonna die? And why use a scale if you’re just gonna push one side down? I’m on to you, Mike.

So, what does this thought experiment dredge up? Well: obviously that a great deal of the cultural content of our lives is preoccupied with mortality.  But, let’s take this even further: why are we obsessed with novels, film, and theatre? Because they’re panacea. Peter Brooks forged a criticism6 around our preoccupation with mortality, noting our need to “encapsulate” time in the form of films, novels, and plays, then extract a unified sense of meaning from them. By immersing ourselves in a story which has a carefully negotiated, harmonious meaning — thanks to a clearly delineated beginning, middle, and end — we feel like our lives can have meaning as well. And therein lies the cathartic value which we unknowingly seek7.

Now then. If you’ll concede that mortality affects our appreciation of art, well, it’s obvious how this impacts our perception of old wine. There is far more afoot here than melted tannins, tertiary aromas, and the halo of exclusivity when tasting rare, expensive wines. Who among us wouldn’t marvel at a wine from the 19th century that we manage to convince ourselves is still fresh? Why, it simply tickles the soul, this miraculous elixir, this fleeting proof that mortality can be staved off given just the right combination of alchemical factors (sugar, acid, tannins; or those, plus a healthy inoculation of oxidation and alcohol in the cases of ports and Madeiras).

We already know that our brains light up with activation when blind tasters are informed that a wine is expensive. Is it really that far-fetched of a thesis that extreme age and rarity would incite a similar perceptual bias? Can you see how that bias would suddenly be radically diminished if we ourselves were immortal? And, further, is it really that difficult to acknowledge that the joy we experience in consuming stunningly old bottles is in large part our own displaced desire for a Fountain of Youth?

The question begs itself given my beloved theory: would our taste aesthetics be as wildly changed as I infer? In other words, would the 1811 Yquem taste as good8 in a post-Great Liberation world, or would it suddenly lose some luster?

Such a fresh brown.

In the next part of this series, I’ll take a close look at wine collecting and mortality.

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  1. Many wines traditionally judged perfect escaped consideration. Where was the ’47 Cheval Blanc…to cite but one. []
  2. Comet vintage jokes aside []
  3. Our mitochondria are the “power plants” of our cells, and serendipitously, many around 2 billion years ago, through a process thought to be phagocytosis, a cell swallowed another bacterial organism which paradoxically resulted in a symbiotic union that more or less enabled advanced life forms as we know them — thanks to an enabling of even higher energy cells capable of greater functions. Fucking fascinating. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endosymbiont. []
  4. The Bodhi Tree (a Ficus) at Anuradhapura Sri Lanka is believed to be the oldest tree planted by humans with a recorded year of 289 BCE. cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ficus_religiosa. However, bristlecone pine takes that to town, predating Christ at nearly 5000 years of age: http://www.livescience.com/29152-oldest-tree-in-world.html []
  5. Kuhn’s concept of “paradigm”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradigm []
  6. In Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. []
  7. Peter Brooks ran with Freud’s ideas of a death drive and the pleasure principle, and wound them together, to then suggest that we’re traumatized by our mortality, but by obsessively replaying instances of it in narratives, we unconsciously try to coax ourselves into being at peace with death. Readers/specatators feel a sense of anxiety when watching a narrative as the narrative threatens an ‘improper ending’—ie. the hero will die and fail in the task, the quest will remain unfulfilled, and suddenly the spectator would be left wondering ‘Why the hell did I just spend two hours and $20 on this shitty film?!’; but that is of course resolved and the catharsis takes place once the quest is finally fulfilled []
  8. It later came to light that the 1811 Yquem was a fraud perpetuated by Hardy Rodenstock. Read about Jancis’ account of the Hardy dinner where she tasted the “slightly passé 1811″ here: http://books.google.com/books?id=nydlY3ITs6MC&pg=PA180&lpg=PA180&dq=jancis+robinson+1811+yquem&source=bl&ots=xvxFQqB9gZ&sig=xWJ-PA1WVtAQVgv7iXuLtlEIweM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=1V61U56eNtOssQSIpYH4CA&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=jancis%20robinson%201811%20yquem&f=false; if you like what you just read, buy the book here. []

One comment

  1. mitul says:

    Fancy finding a reflection on Man’s relationship with his own mortality on a wine blog! But then, that’s why this is one of my favourites, I guess.

    I think post-liberation, a wine’s ageworthiness would be even more greatly appreciated – because if having a wine today that would merely outlive us is quite incredible, imagine having one that would stay with us post-Liberation!

    Keep it up, even if I never comment here, I do read every post.

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