Can A Wine Really Be Bad for Your Soul?
The latest article at “Bigger Than Your Head”, a blog maintained by long-time wine writer Frederic Koeppel, is evidence of many things, not the least of which is Frederic’s talent to compose an excellent essay. It demonstrates why, after having won two Wine Blog Awards for “Best Wine Reviews”, his blog also ought to be considered for “Best Writing” on a Wine Blog.
But this latest article, “Wine & Vulgarity”, also demonstrates the extent to which judgement of the most serious kind is often an instrumental, fundamental and fascinating part of wine appreciation. And the article begs, once again, the question: what is quality?
Koeppel’s primary point is that wine can be “vulgar”; vulgar as in “Kim Kardashian” – “Jersey Shore” vulgar. Frederic explains how vulgarity can make it into a wine this way:
“a wine whose treatment sensationalizes a grape’s aspects instead of allowing them a natural and authentic expression; a wine whose inherent character is obliterated by the ego of its winemaker and manipulator; a wine whose making bends it out of proportion to its…logical necessity, range and delivery.”
“A zinfandel or cabernet sauvignon or syrah/shiraz wine whose super-ripe grapes and high alcohol content, say, 15.5 or 16 percent, manifest themselves as cloying, jammy sweetness and a hot, unbalanced finish?”
Throughout the article, Frederic offers a number of other examples of “vulgarity” in wine and I recommend its reading as it is among the more succinct renditions of a line of wine criticism that has arisen in response to a certain style of wines over the past few years.
However, what’s really fascinating about his criticism and use of the term “vulgar” to underscore his contempt for certain styles of wine is the way it highlights the essence of a critics primary objective:
To explain what is good and bad for your intellectual and spiritual well-being.
There is nothing inherently good or bad, nothing inherently offensive or inoffensive, nothing qualitatively moral or immoral about a red wine that is sweet, alcoholic, soft and extracted. In fact, many people will enjoy a wine that is alcoholic, soft, extracted and sweet.
Yet Frederic imposes a moral judgement upon these wines. It’s not just a qualitative judgement or a judgement of the wine’s character. It’s that, in Frederic’s mind, these wines are offensive to his sensibilities; they fail to meet his standard of what is “good” and “right” by being, in his mind, unauthentic, a product of ego and not nature, and ultimately, unnatural as, in his view, the wines step outside the logical limits the fruit is supposed to exhibit.
These wines are vulgar because they do not conform to Frederic’s idea of what ought to be. Of course, the beauty of criticism, be it in the realm of television, film, dance, fine arts, architecture, literature or any other artistic pursuit, is that there is no objective warrant for what “ought” to be; there is not one way to definitively say what is beautiful and what is not. There is only opinion.
Koeppel’s throwing down of the critical gauntlet is in no way unusual. However, it is among the purest examples I’ve ever seen of a professional and experienced wine critic making a value judgment wine styles. It’s a unique judgement however because Koeppel isn’t simply saying he thinks a wine is out of balance or a bit too astringent or a tad heavy-handed on the oak. He’s saying it’s bad (vulgar). More importantly Koeppel is declaring that in its vulgarity, the wine is bad for your soul and for your spiritual and intellectual well-being because it is offensive to nature? That’s his argument.
It’s a pretty well-rendered argument too—if you are inclined to buy it. The atheist listening to the apostle declare that his soul will be made wretched by indulging in pornographic images or in liquor or in casual sex because God condemns these things rolls his eyes and moves on because he sees this judgement being based on an unwarranted claim to what is good and bad, what is moral and immoral, what is right and what is wrong. And the atheist’s judgement of these claims are equally valid as the original claims because we are dealing here in value judgement that are based on no facts, but rather on the ultimate subjectivity: personal preference.
A case can be made, though probably not as eloquently as Frederic does it, that a fat, soft, alcoholic, extracted Cabernet Sauvignon demonstrates the quality heights to which a wine grape can be brought. It’s not a hard case to make. All I have to do is say I like it, then explain why I like the way a fat, soft wine sits easily on and caresses my palate; how the the 16.5% alcohol delivers a slight buy invigorating prick to my palate; how the richly extracted fruit in the Cabernet delivers a beautiful raisiny quality and speaks of deep and delicious pruny flavors that I love so much.
“Vulgarity” is in the eye of the beholder. And one thing is perfectly clear: within the world of wine lovers, there are innumerable definitions of vulgarity. None are definitive.