Discursions and digressions
I know an epiphany when I experience one. They are not like buses. They don’t run to a schedule (maybe they are like London buses, then!). If they manifest, a lot of stars have to be aligned, from the quality of the wine itself, to one’s receptivity to experience.
The following digression took place whilst tasting a mouthful of Hervé Souhaut’s 2022 Syrah from the northern Ardèche. My intention in this instance was to set myself us to be as receptive as possible to the wine to experience it in a non-professional, quasi-innocent way. The outside and inside world intrude and distract, analysis paralyses as much as it sheds light. In the end, there are a lot of fragments that make up an imperfect whole, even over the course of an experience that lasts but a few seconds.
Classic wine appreciation can be described in a variety of ways. It is sensory action (the act of using sight, smell, taste) and evaluative reaction. It is a form of shaping narrative with beginning, middle and end with perceptions, notes and judgements along the route. It is standing outside and looking in. It is rarely immersive or to do with feeling.
When I write about anything, I normally begin with only the vaguest idea of what I might say and let ideas generate themselves. Since I am never certain what I think about anything, I suppose I am hoping to make a serendipitous discovery. This is a bit like my approach to tasting. Unlike real life, where I have been known to unscrew and pack the kitchen sink, here I prefer to be without baggage.
I know an epiphany when I experience one. They are not like buses. They don’t run to a schedule (maybe they are like London buses then!). If they manifest, a lot of stars have to be aligned, from the quality of the wine itself, to one’s receptivity to experience.
We begin. So, there is some wine in my glass. A dollop. A splash and a half. A double glug when poured from the bottle. Enough for one large mouthful, or two small ones. Enough to register its existence, not enough to “visually savour” in the round. Knowing that I am going to record my minute impressions of the very act of tasting is already skewing the experience by the way and the next few moments will see a tension between holding back and letting go. I will pay greater attention to seeming irrelevancies and will accept being sidetracked. I will narrate my thoughts and actions. I will persist.
I tilt the glass to my nose, and reflexively push its rim against my right nostril. Am I favouring that micro-region of my olfactory anatomy? Is it because I am holding the glass in my right hand and think it might be odd to draw the glass across my face. Or is the right one my favoured nostril? I momentarily touch the edge of said nostril and absently rub it against my philtrum. It is a ritual, like bowing to your partner at the beginning and end of a formal dance, or like those routines performed by sportsmen and women to help them visualise their objectives. Or maybe to evoke the spirits of wine.
The philtrum is believed to serve as a supply of additional skin to be recruited for oral movements requiring stretching of the upper lip. The inferior margin of the philtrum forms the downward arch of the cupid’s bow, while the underlying fleshy fullness is known as the tubercle or procheilon.
I sniff the glass, noticing the while that, smudged with fingerprints, it is not crystal clean. The glass itself smells a touch stale as if my fingerprints had melded with hard water residue. Denatured petrichor. I could clean it or choose another glass, but I don’t. I always sniff the glass and toy with it. Something to do with it shaping the liquid, but also revering the glass as a vessel of transparency, a crystalline precursor. That’s the idea; my smudged glassware doesn’t really fit into this platonic scenario!
I look at the wine. Not a hard stare or a deconstructing gaze, more of an oeillade, a flickering blink to register its existence as something which has the quality of colour. I see it not as a red wine (and all that red wine conceptually entails), more that it is a blur of blueberry-purple potential. In fact, I am not sure that I even see it in any colour-code, more that the glass is approximately one fifth full of dark coloured liquid. For a split second, I freeze the image as if I am pausing before pressing the button on a camera. To continue the simile, as light floods a lens, my prior knowledge of the wine is beginning to pour into my upper consciousness, creating patterns.
I can’t hold out for more than a second; my gut, my thirst, wants to me to transfer the liquid from the glass into my mouth and into my belly, and my wine training, the intellectual opponent to my primal need, is telling me to tarry, to use my senses in the way that tasting methodology dictates. The rock collides with the hard place.
This is all split-second stuff. The brain is capable of absorbing and processing information at a bewildering pace.
I somehow clench or evacuate my thoughts, because as soon an idea forms, then words are created to circumscribe the idea and condense it into a communicable form. I still wish to be momentarily free of language, suspend preconceptions – create a neurolinguistic block to retain an instant of intellectual innocence, of zero-judgement. I can’t hold out for more than a second; my gut, my thirst, wants to me to transfer the liquid from the glass into my mouth and into my belly, and my wine training, the intellectual opponent to my primal need, is telling me to tarry, to use my senses in the way that tasting methodology dictates. The rock collides with the hard place.
The glance is now more than a gaze. The colour always comes first. When I am describing colours, I tend to use the broad rainbow spectrum with the suffix -ish appended. With wine, the colour is less important than its intensity. Does it shine? Does it glisten when the light catches it? What does it suggest? How does it make you feel? The more beautiful the colour, the more I want I want to defer the moment of gratification (the more sensual smelling and tasting part of experience).
Colour stimulates the brain and provokes appetite.
The nose. A very imperfect utensil. In my case. As soon as I strain to sniff, adaptation, the process of gradual desensitisation, begins. I am too conscious of the muscular activity of sniffing, and so set myself on a low frequency to receive that which emerges. Nor do I not agitate or swirl the liquid in the glass; I allow it to retain its shape, the shape of the glass will focus and amplify aromas in any case.
My trained brain clicks like the shutters on an old-fashioned train departure board announcing the details of a journey. The destination in this case is Syrah from the northern Rhône. I can’t expunge that knowledge now that it is forefront of my brain. From this point everything is viewed through Syrah-tinted spectacles.
My trained brain clicks like the shutters on an old-fashioned train departure board announcing the details of a journey. The destination in this case is Syrah from the northern Rhône. I can’t expunge that knowledge now that it is forefront of my brain. From this point everything is viewed through Syrah-tinted spectacles. So, I look for, and subsequently (or consequently?) find, the northern Rhone classic varietal x terroir smells – and later – flavours and textures. Violets, black olives marinated in Provencale herbs, cassis and a certain bitterness, then something I can’t put into words – balsamic notes, mineral salts, secondary fleeting impressions. The wine is all of these things, but it may be none of them. My brain may be tricking me into cleaving to these critical assessments, but I will go with it. I refer to an unspecified area of the brain that keeps all this wine information in one place as the “varietal lobe.”
A swift diversion. This is not a scientific treatise concerning neuro-psychology and neuro-linguistics. It would be tempting to reduce each and every part of tasting to a mechanistic process of neurones firing, decoding and recoding signals, mental algorithms, but human beings, although they may behave similarly, are not the same. Our ability to react differently to the same stimuli or information is what makes us individual.
The act of tasting instigates a form of information retrieval. The language used to describe the wine is conventional because the process of analysis demands that highly particular (used) words are pulled from easily-accessed zones of the brain and appended to that experience. The zones are as small rooms brimming with an odd yet associative collection of word-furniture. In the Syrah room, we may have the following textbook descriptors: garrigue, granite, Rhône, currants, violets, olives, cola, smoke and so forth. As well as these commonplace terms, there may be words that are unique to the experience of the individual and also reside in this particular room. I like to call them wild card-words. When the trigger mechanism opens the door, so to speak, the words may emerge in single entities, or as strings or groups. These words are the way we make sense of what we have experienced and the way we communicate that experience with others.
Smell doesn’t only unlock these particular doors. It can light up another area of the brain where more deeply-buried memories are stored. Here one may be reminded of a particular day or a particular place and feelings associated therewith. Each individual’s neural pathways are configured differently and how such memories come to be triggered is a fascinating subject in itself.
Putting the wine in my mouth, I take a medium mouthful, enough to swirl and chew, enough not to let the saliva dilute the flavours. The first impression is the sensation of temperature. Is it warm or cool or neutral? Well, I serve all wine at fridge-fresh temperature as I prefer it to be tighter and more focused on first physical encounter. I love the first entry to be one of cool restraint.
I refer to an unspecified area of the brain that keeps all this wine information in one place as the “varietal lobe.”
Tactility is an important part of tasting. The instant the wine strikes all the various receptors, I try to become a passive instrument, mere human blotting paper, absorbing rather than evaluating. The wine circulates around the mouth and the olfactory feedback loop commences. I hold the wine in reserve for a brief moment in pouched cheeks before the overwhelming need to suck, swirl and chew takes over. This is part wine tasting tic, part desire to maximise the transient tactile pleasure. Not swallowing until one has experienced it in the round. Soon the liquid mixes with the saliva and passes over the tongue into the throat. This takes but two or three seconds. Then residuary impressions take over, sensations of texture, weight and warmth asserting themselves. Involuntary licking of the teeth and the breathing out and in again to reignite those retronasal impressions.
The process is complex and professionals break tasting down into its constituent parts, allowing time for calm assessment. Preparation and training and being in a certain analytical mindset.
We use procedure to make sense of our senses, because our brain needs structure converting and structuring multifarious impressions into simple identifiable patterns. We focus on the objective qualities of the liquid in the glass rather than allowing the complex nature of our individual overly-sensitive selves to muddy the process. We sublimate much. We dial down our sense of self, our consciousness of the space immediately around us. We may be sitting or standing, our legs might be aching, our stomach rumbling. We are semi-aware of the outside world. A car in the street. A draft from an open window. The quality of light in the room. Shadows. Even as we immerse ourselves in the tasting experience, the outside world is forever colliding with our inner one and rattling our disciplinary tasting armour. We may filter out as much of the background as we can, nevertheless at some level the various external stimuli seep into – and imprint themselves – upon some part of our consciousness, thereby possibly even becoming retrieval cues for a future memory being shaped at this precise moment in time.
A professional taster wants to block out distraction. At trade tastings, he or she will assume a professional tasting carapace, deprecate distractions to engage in conversation and concentrate on the disciplinary process of tasting and evaluation. For me, tasting can never be so utilitarian. A mouthful of wine is the mere gateway to drinking it after all, and there is no padlock on the gate. As mentioned, I might try to have fun with the very nature of anticipation, provoke my mouth to water by holding back. I may try to create a tabula rasa in my mind by temporarily suspending (or numbing) my critical faculties, so that I can receive sensations in their near-purest form. For pleasure, not for evaluation. Most wine drinking, after all, is functional, be it to help us relax, to assist with the digestion of food, or make us feel good about things. On very rare occasions, and almost never at deliberative tastings, there are momentary realisations, inspirational flashes, as it were, that strike us unawares and serve to unself us. Drinking a beautiful wine, on right day, at the right time, in the right circumstances, may engage us utterly, become an immersive experience akin to rediscovering a form of innocence. These moments, to use a previous analogy, light up pleasure centres in the brain and that gratification becomes imprinted (as any strongly-realised experience might) in different parts of one’s consciousness.
We use procedure to make sense of our senses, because our brain needs structure converting and structuring multifarious impressions into simple identifiable patterns.
The wine is the witness. The background music. The stone thrown into the pond that causes ripples to spread out. The personal word-cluster associated with the wine acts as a catalyst. The experience will change, and change again, over the years in the retelling. Memory, of course, is unreliable.
Sometimes the wine (the tasting of wine) engenders creativity. Thomas de Quincey, on opium fumes, was a master word inventor. Without him, we would have no subconscious, no interconnections, would not be able to intuit things. He was phenomenally inventive, earth-shatteringly so. Perhaps, there is more inventive linguistic sustenance to be derived from the fumes of an opium pipe, than a moderate mouthful of wine, but the alcohol in wine may trigger small detonations in our brains, frictive responses that result in novel thoughts and original coinages.
The glass is now empty. If the bottle has wine left and I feel the need to continue drinking, the glass will be filled again. Adaptation has started, but has not fully set in.
I can’t (or won’t) control the way my brain works and the odd sensitivities that superimpose themselves during the act of tasting. Perhaps it is the almost poetic act of making sense of the tasting experience which is the thing of beauty, the process of trying to formulate words to draw truth from transient impressions, and, above all, the ongoing act of creating new memories and reconfiguring old ones. Epiphany, in this context, is simultaneously the act of gathering our selves, opening doors into oubliettes in our minds, reaching out imaginatively and reshaping impressions into language, both precise, yet personal, physical and metaphysical. Epiphany is when the tasting experience is so intense for whatever reason, that you capture and bundle it into part of your very being, and create an automatic switch that can be triggered at any time to bring the experience to life. Such experiences, which become these powerful memories, are integrated into our personal database of creativity. When we need them most, we conjure them up, we relive them and we release the euphoric energy associated with them.