A few days ago, Tom Wark published a column called ‘Why French Wine Will Never Be As Interesting As American Wine’.
Je l’avoue, there are very few wine columns—French or otherwise—that I find as interesting as my own, which is a good thing considering I’m about the only person who reads them. However, occasionally—when weak and weary upon a midnight dreary—I have been known to take a stroll down Anamnesis Avenue and wander around Past Blast Park.
As such, I decided to take a rather novel (for me) approach to Mr. Wark’s interestingly-titled piece: I decided to read it before disagreeing with it.
I will link the article at the end, but in its distillate form, Wark suggests that authoritarian and protectionist regulations in the French wine community prevent the sort of variety experimentation and terroir terrorizing that Americans enjoy by virtue of us being the only superpower left in the interstellar Gould Belt. Such unbridled unregulation and free-spirited non-protectionism allow us liberty-loving Yanks to plant riesling vines in the middle of The Great Salt Lake if the pioneering spirit so moves us.
The French can’t get away with this, of course.
Via dialogue with an ‘interlocutor’ (who I suspect is about as real as George and Martha’s son in that Albee play about The Three Little Pigs), the example that Wark proceeds to offer is Burgundy. His fictitious, frog-fricasséeing Frenchman dares to assert that ‘Burgundy is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and it always has been,’ because, ‘We know what works’.
Tom Wark will have none of that, of course. Rather than reminding Pepe Le Acid-Flashback that if wasn’t for Americans bailing his poodle-poaching, snail-snorting derriere out in Normandy in 1945, Montrachet would be planted to Müller-Thurgau, Wark takes the high road and suggests that France’s hidebound, close-minded, parochial obeisance to tradition prevents them from making truly ‘interesting’ wines.
An Interesting Word is ‘Interesting’.
My dad comes from European wine country and grew up speaking the very black, Sauron-created tongue that Mr. Wark’s hallucinatory foe would speak if he were real and not a literary device. Besides having taught me an awful lot about French wine (which he loved) and very little about American wine (which he did not), my old man was (and is) a pretty well-respected illustrator constantly called upon to critique the artwork of amateurs. His verbal safety net when thus confronted (as he usually was) with sub-par, sub-human splotches of wasted paint, chalk, pencil or similar media, was to squint his eyes, take his chin in a little hand-formed cup and pronounce the work ‘interesting’.
By which, of course, he meant it sucked donkey dingaling.
In my house, therefore, ‘interesting’ became an ‘in joke’—a euphemism you used when you didn’t want to hurt some mini-Michelangelo’s or budding Botticelli’s talent-free feelings.
But that’s not how Wark intends it, of course, although it is fair to say that just because he finds American wines more ‘interesting’ than their French counterparts, he does not necessarily find them better.
At least I hope not.
Rather, he is rightly championing good ol’ U.S.A.ian ingenuity, where from every vinous mountainside, we let freedom ring like in that song we stole from the British. And who better to poster-child this spirit of pilgrim’s pride than all-American wino Fred G. Sanford who boldly mixed what no homme had mixed before, Champale and Ripple?
The French would see such blends as sacrilege, of course, preferring to adhere to—as Wark refers to it—‘inertia, safety and protection’—although they did make some waves recently when they mixed wine and cola.
Thus far, I am on board with most of what my ally in alcoholism adjudicates. The French would never blend pinot noir with mondeuse like Au Bon Climat; not even on a bet, not even to see if it would blow up so that they could win their next war without us. They wouldn’t rip out the steen to plant pinotage like the South Africans; they wouldn’t stir diethylene glycol into the Beerenauslese like the Austrians and they wouldn’t sell viognier and tell customers it was roussanne like Randall Grahm—although the French might sell graham crackers and tell customers it was Bonnie Doon shortbreads.
So I am back to the word. Interesting.
What makes a wine interesting to Tom Wark may not be interesting to me, Randall Grahm or Jean Passepartout. One man’s Chicken of the Sea is another man’s poisson. Of course, under the broad parameters of ‘interesting’, antifreeze-flavored Auslese probably qualifies, as does Rouge Sucette wine cola, but in general, you’ve jumped off the Objective Overpass and landed in the middle of Subjective Street.
Smell is the most evocative of our senses; that much is not open to much debate. A wine’s flavors, both scents and tongue-ticklers, have the ability to tap deeply into our memory banks and make withdrawals as they see fit. The the olfactory nerve is located near the amygdala, the area of the brain connected to emotional memory. That’s the beauty of wine’s sensory experiences—it conjures up images, including thoughts of how we got here, writing about wines and chewing the fat with phantom Frenchmen.
I was weaned directly from mother’s milk to French wine, and the deep unique nuances of these appellations—the soils, the grapes and whatever trillion traditions the French employ light up my amygdala like a supernova in the Gould Belt. When I sip a steely Mont de Milieu, I pull in the tangibles—the peach, the stone, the subtle but startling scents of brine—all things upon which Messieur Wark and I could probably agree.
But it’s the intangibles in a glass of Chablis that I find most interesting. A single whiff and I am transported back to simpler times—sunlit gardens in the Swiss countryside surrounded by aunts and uncles nattering in a tongue I was never able to master—Tom Wark could not possibly share those memories, any more than I could have a role his vivid and reconstructed life.
No glass of his Napa chenin blancs or rieslings, however heralded, can do that for me, and for obvious reasons: That’s not what we were drinking.
And in the end, whether its a wine, a wine column or a wine library, interesting is as interesting does.