For the last 10,000 years or so, our species has been colonized by a fungus economy that thrives by our farming practices. Man did not invent farming; rather, microbes repurposed a specific variety of monkey and made us farmers.
These germ-beings produce for us a sensual environment that completely wraps around our existence. They make wine and beer alcoholic. They enhance the appeal of flour by making bread rise. They colonize our guts and produce vitamin B. They produce acids in food just tolerable enough to our bodies and just intolerable enough to our biological competition: jams and jerky, wine and cheese. These farming surpluses are instantiated as equity, thus trade, thus economies, thus urbanism and labor specialization.
A species can be understood by its diet. This is why archaeologists love petrified poop. A Koala is a eucalyptus leaf juicer and nutrient extraction device. Apex predators like wolves exist to edit an abundance of macro fauna. And most of these relationships have little to do with taste.
People taste. Arguably dogs do too, and possibly pigs, but its hard to make a case that this is helping these other mammals eat better, at least not in a way that we can understand quality.
And all people taste. It’s part of our behavioral endowment, both from the 10,000 year-old pact with germs as well as part of a more ancient bargain with climate change. Each of us must somehow recognize when food is good and when it is bad. And the line between these two states can be famously hard to draw. In fact, all culture and its appreciation should be seen as an elaborate group exercise in taste.
And if taste is purely democratic – as I hope to argue – access to objects for tasting is certainly less so. The most exemplary case of this contrast occurs in wine.
No other agricultural product has the potential to endure as long as wine does. So wine sits at the top of the ancestral surplus pile. No other preserved food can rely so completely on “natural” forces in order to exist. The astonishing longevity of Reggiano and Lambic is more familiar amongst wines than it is amongst cheeses and beers.
Rated against caloric yield, wine farms – call them vineyards – are more expensive and capricious to maintain than fields of barley or even herds of cattle. Their differences can be reduced with industrial controls but only in ways that present obvious deficits to our palates. Our palates exist to sense and thus preserve an immensely varied order. Standardized wine is filler.
So fruit that ripens relatively easily, to make juice that ferments reliably to endure for at least four seasons tastes a lot like other such produce. Fruit that emerges only from the greatest of cumulative effort and endures longer tastes distinctive. The relationship of taste and effort is so perfect as to form an apparent equivalence. Fine taste inspires great work which is in turn recognized by fantastic gradations of taste – it is a bioaxiom.
I’m writing from the fortunate perspective of a palace dweller. Working in the wine trade I’ve been allowed to taste and drink from a range of wines from diverse origins. The best ones are supported by a large and so quite strange cash economy, one which I have managed to crash only with considerably reordered resources.
Of course not everyone in the wine trade makes sense of wine this way (or even at all?) For some there is a linear narrative – quality is here, value is there. Schemes to the contrary are supposedly really just apologies for the repression of consumers’ dignity. And as soon as the narrative is so centralized it becomes authoritarian. The guru is perpetuating his own power relationship.
Every wine commentator – famous or not – is part sycophant and egotist. They are also lucky to have engaged a great planetary epic.
Should a red wine of the Côte Chalonnaise ever cost more than $30? What about Santa Cruz Pinot Noir? What sort of effort created these objects? What sort of effort put $30 in your pocket?
Rather than grade wines according to some remote orthodoxy – one which perpetuates a restrictive relationship to one’s innate and immense powers of taste – I hope to relate the experience of wine to direct and tangible values. Did it immerse in a great conversation – soliloquy, rap, or dialogue? Poor wine can not do that even if cheap wine sometimes can.
I live in Detroit, cycle the streets, drink wine, occasionally smoke drugs, and enjoy the company of women. Drinking wine must be our right, because understanding it, tasting, in its most human and elemental form, is what makes our variety of monkey all that it is.
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