Sunday, January 30, 2005

A matter of taste

One of my favorite adult short stories by Roald Dahl is about a dinner party where a family (father, mother, teenage daughter) invites their good friend, a wine connoisseur and famous gustatory snob, who prizes himself on his ability to recognize any wine. The father greets his guest, saying proudly, "I've got a wonderful bottle of wine, and it's so rare that you'll never be able to guess it!" In response the wine snob offers a bet: his country house in France against the hand in marriage of the host's teenage daughter, to be determined by the accuracy of his tasting. The man's wife and daughter gasp at this, since the wine snob is a pudgy, greasy, thoroughly repulsive specimen of a human being - but the father shakes on it, with the proviso: "You've got to guess, not just the year and the vintage, but the particular small village where this wine was made."

As they walk into the dining room the mother hisses at the father, "You bastard! How could you do this to our daughter!" and he replies, "You don't understand, dear. There's no danger at all! There are ten thousand tiny wineries in France, making different types of wine every year. It's impossible for anyone to identify just by tasting - the general area, maybe, but the individual village? Inconceivable! Our daughter is safe, and now she'll have a French country house for a dowry!"

The wine snob takes his glass and makes a gigantic rigmarole out of swirling it, sniffing it with a huge snort, sipping it with his gross fat lips, and sloshing it around his mouth, all the while murmuring to himself: "That slight metallic taste...lots of iron in the soil...grapes must have been grown on the shady side of the soil...it's a flirtatious wine, little kick in the hips...quite a bit of sunshine that year but only medium rain...a good year but not a great year, not a truly great year...either 1976 or 1965...oh! do I detect hail? Must be 1976..." In fact, the bulk of this short story in terms of pages is the wine snob's drawn out taste deliberations, which Roald Dahl describes with his virtuoso attention to grotesque detail and suspense, as the family listens: the father with increasing chagrin, the daughter with increasing horror. You'd never have imagined that five pages of wine aficionado bullshit could be so enthralling.

At the end the wine snob guesses right. And just as the daughter is about to fling a dinner-plate at her father's head, the family maid sweeps into the room with a look of icy triumph and hands a pair of spectacles to the wine snob guest. "You left these behind, sir, in the drawing room... on the table where Mr. B left the bottle of wine out to breathe."

I love the story, not so much for the punchline at the end, or even for the character of the snob (one of my favorite Dahl monstrosities - who would have thought a description of oversized nose quivering over a wine glass could make your skin crawl?), as for the delicicious skewering of the rituals of wine connoisseurship. Because, let's face it, it's really hard to identify wines, and in fact most famous wine critics refuse to subject themselves to completely blind taste tests aimed at testing their identification powers. The potential for embarassment is just too high. I know that at the consulting company where I used to work, we'd have a wine critic come in every year to give a lecture, and he'd serve us six different wines that we'd rank. The last time we did it, one of our VPs - self-confessedly wine mad - ranked at #1 the box of plonk, and #4 the $50 red.

The point is NOT that there's no difference between the box of plonk and the bottle of sunshine, just that critical distinction is very hard for a human being to make in a vacuum, without other supporting factors. The long run average of a lot of human beings' critical judgements may be extremely accurate - ask the author of "The Wisdom of Crowds" - but in terms of a one-time, snap judgement you have to make, on a day when you're distracted by the gurgle in your stomach, and that noise over there, or perhaps you're in a particularly good mood because that girl called you back, and everything tastes sweeter - well, maybe it's a tossup.

If you are smiling patronizingly at this line of argument, I'd like you to reflect upon how many independent critical judgements you make (and I'm not just talking about wine, now, of course): judgements without reading the review, without knowing the reputation, without looking at the label, without watching the other peoples' faces. If you were shown a closeup of Rembrandt and Vermeer brushstrokes could you tell the difference every time? If I read you two poems, one by a nobody and one by a Nobel-prize winning genius, could you pick out which was which? If you heard a recording of two violins would you know the Stradivarius?

And it's not just these sort of esoteric aesthetic matters, either; we make all kinds of terribly important, and very particular, critical distinctions about politics, about lifestyle, personal ethical philosophy, friends, enemies - and yet did we arrive at these distinctions through a drawn-out subtle tasting process, or by peeking at the bottle in the drawing room? This is not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose. It's convenient to have brands, and lots of experts, so that you can have the best without needing the expertise to pick it yourself.

I suppose there are a few responses to this dilemma.

One is to "pshaw" at the whole notion of anything gourmet that cannot be personally verified by a blind taste test; you drink the box o' plonk, you buy the store brand, you read trashy thrillers and you mock the fools who pay more for stuff even though they can't even tell the difference. I think that people who follow this philosophy like to pat themselves on the back for their integrity and lack of pretension, and rightly so. It also seems to have a certain element of squatting in the mud because it's warm.

Another is to throw up your hands, subsume any individual judgement, and rely on the experts. You eat at the busy restaurants, you read the movie reviews first, you drink the most expensive wine - relying on the market's knowledge - and you buy the classics. The most cultured gourmet wouldn't have a nit to pick with your taste; but your genuine appreciation of it is another story. Independent critical judgement muscles atrophy like any others not in use, and it's possible you just like Picasso for the pretty colours, not ever actually having chosen him. Perhaps the most atrocious example of this tactic - going back to ole vino - is the story of the investment bankers who were fired for running up a $62,580 wine tab. By the time those dudes ordered their sixth $13,000 bottle, they must have been so drunk that if I'd been the waiter, I would have swopped labels with the house wine and they never would have known the difference.

And another tactic, practiced by my dad (a colourful character, tales of whom my friends are familiar with) is to relentlessly hone your taste, by reading the experts, subjecting yourself to blind taste test experiments, meditating on your artistic experiences, and generally trying to make every single aspect of life into a gourmet experience, from the architecture that surrounds you, to the style of the furniture you sit in, the delicious food you eat, the wine you savor, the luxury stereo system playing you the best recordings of the best classical music, etcetera, etcetera... This strategy does have many advantages; my dad has a lot of energy, he gets a lot of enjoyment out of life, and he has genuine knowledge of these various artistic experiences. The danger is that your sense become so fine-tuned that any sort of ugliness causes you acute pain. My dad can no longer stay in a hotel that's not clean; he's oppressed by a badly designed room; bad music playing in the background makes him go stark raving bonkers.

In practice I guess we all follow a combination of these various tactics. If a particular sensory experience doesn't matter much to us, we ignore its gourmet potential and settle for the basics; sometimes we try to educate ourselves by reading the classics even if they don't particularly appeal to us, and in some areas of life that we have a genuine passion for, we develop a discriminating taste, although perhaps never enough to guess a 1976 second-pressing burgundy from the shady side of the northwest hill in Chateau Leblanc's little vineyard.

30 Comments:

Blogger John Holt said...

You are so brilliant and beautiful!

7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice anecdote about your dad. After accidentally becoming a root beer snob, I've consciously set out on the opposite path and consciously avoid becoming a connoisseur of anything. (Although I accidentally acquired an exclusive affinity for Caribou hot chocolate too.) My sense is that true connoisseur’s spend about 90% of their time unsated, 7% of their time satisfied, and 3% of their time in ecstasy. There's just too much pied beauty in the world to ignore for the sake of a day of ecstasy each month . . . .

5:32 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!

I have a swimming pool supply and chemical site. It pretty much covers
##KEYWORD## related stuff.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)swimming pool supply and chemical

8:14 PM  
Blogger kalisekj said...

Hey, I have enjoyed...your blog is informative - even entertaining.

I have a halloween sites. They pretty much covers costumes and masks related stuff.

Thanks again and I'll be sure to bookmark you.

5:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I was just blog surfing and found you! If you are interested, go see my business home party supply
related site. It pretty much covers business home party supply
stuff. I guess you may find something of interest.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Lexie said...

You have pretty cool blog here. What's up with these weird posts?

Anyway, I like your blog and will proably be back.

Take care.

Lexie

Oh and another cool site is a planet fitness site about other weight loss stuff.

1:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice blog. Please check out my food clipart site. It is all about food clipart informations.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Tom Naka said...

Your blog is excellent - keep it up! Don't miss visiting this site about department of public health

12:42 AM  
Blogger Quit Smoking said...

Hello fellow fisherman,

Did you know that 16% of the U.S. population goes fishing at least 16 days a year?

Did you also know that over 75% of the nations fishermen do not fish during "prime time"; fish feeding hours?

Those precious few moments before twilight can be absolutely magical. Even up until 11pm at night, the largest predators of any species feed ravenously.

Don't believe me? Check out Daniel Eggertsen's story, and a picture of a couple of his catches here : "Evening Secrets plus more"

I want you to do me a favor and try it out so I can see what you think of it, and if it works for you as well as it did for me.

You will be one of the first to try it out.

Gone Fishin',

Neil

12:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!

I have a **Dog Coats** site/. It pretty much covers the sale of custom made dog coats.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)

11:02 PM  
Blogger Jack Naka said...

Keep it up. I enjoy your nice blog. check out my mature beauty site. It pretty much covers mature beauty related stuff.

5:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, you have a great blog here!

I have a knitting pattern for dog coats site. It pretty much covers ##Custom Dog Coats## related stuff.

Tired of those knit sweaters, the ones that stretch out and have legs that your dog hates? Us too! So we came up with a coat that fits comfortably and works well! You and your dog will love these coats! We know, because we have been dog breeders for 23 years and know what dogs like.

All "Designer DoggieWear!" coats are handmade by ourselves in the United States. This assures the finest of quality and workmanship.



Come and check it out if you get time.

7:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, you have a great blog here!

I have a knitted dog coat pattern site. It pretty much covers ##Coats for Dogs## related stuff.

Come and check it out if you get time.

3:00 PM  
Blogger honeylove said...

Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!

I have a natural penis enlargement site. It pretty much covers natural penis enlargement related stuff.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)

11:35 AM  
Blogger cc Infopage said...

Yahoo News


Microsoft, Yahoo Reportedly Ready To Link Instant-Messaging Services (TechWeb via Yahoo! News)
Microsoft and Yahoo are expected to announce Wednesday interoperability between each other's instant messaging service, a move that could dramatically change a market that's been dominated by America Online Inc., a newspaper reported.


Today's News From & About Yahoo


cc Infopage: 30,000 daily updated Information Pages about all kind of subjects


PS: To get more, just click the links

3:56 PM  
Blogger badgirlzz said...

Hey, I was searching blogs, and came onto yours, and I like it. I kinda landed here on accident while searching for something esle, but nice blog.. I got you bookmarked.

If you got time , go visit my site, it´s about average penis size for 16 year old male. It pretty much covers average penis size for 16 year old male and other similar topics available.

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across you blog and thought you may find this site usefull. It has gas saving tips and where to find cheap gas. california travel

:)

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Help me Dude, I'm lost.

I was searching for Elvis and somehow ended up in your blog, but you know I'm sure I saw Elvis in the supermarket yesterday.

No honest really, he was right there in front of me, next to the steaks singing "Love me Tender".

He said to me (his lip was only slightly curled) "Boy, you need to get yourself a shiny, new plasmatv to go with that blue suede sofa of yours.

But Elvis said I, In the Ghetto nobody has a plasma tv .

Dude I'm All Shook Up said Elvis. I think I'll have me another cheeseburger then I'm gonna go home and ask Michael Jackson to come round and watch that waaaay cool surfing scene in Apocalypse Now on my new plasma tv .

And then he just walked out of the supermarket singing. . .

"You give me love and consolation,
You give me strength to carry on "

Strange day or what? :-)

10:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Help me Dude, I'm lost.

I was searching for Elvis and somehow ended up in your blog, but you know I'm sure I saw Elvis in the supermarket yesterday.

No honest really, he was right there in front of me, next to the steaks singing "Love me Tender".

He said to me (his lip was only slightly curled) "Boy, you need to get yourself a shiny, new plasmatv to go with that blue suede sofa of yours.

But Elvis said I, In the Ghetto nobody has a plasma tv .

Dude I'm All Shook Up said Elvis. I think I'll have me another cheeseburger then I'm gonna go home and ask Michael Jackson to come round and watch that waaaay cool surfing scene in Apocalypse Now on my new plasma tv .

And then he just walked out of the supermarket singing. . .

"You give me love and consolation,
You give me strength to carry on "

Strange day or what? :-)

12:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now you could find Classes for a multitude of subjects on your area , like find class mates and they could be found by visiting find class mates

5:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!

I have a hunting dog training site. It pretty much covers hunting dog training related stuff.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)

3:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Blog! Ilike it.But here you can find woman looking for sexTake a look if you have a minute. Thanks and have a good one!

9:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It’s 11:00 in the morning and your energy is waning. Minutes seem to tick by like hours and your mind feels foggy. You’ve still got six more hours to look alert and act productive and get over herbal remedy for anxiety, so how do you cope with the afternoon blahs? Follow these six tips!

1. If you have a job that involves sitting at a desk all day or staring at a computer screen, take five minutes to stand up or lean back, close your eyes and stretch, especially in your shoulder and leg areas. Being seated all the time can make your whole body feel stiff and sleepy. A good stretch session helps limber up your body and gets the blood flowing again.

2. Avoid the tempting lure of caffeine or sugar-laden foods such as coffee, tea or chocolate. Caffeine may perk up your energy levels temporarily, but it also has a bad habit of leaving you sluggish after the effect has worn off. Instead, choose whole grain foods, fruits and vegetables to give your body the fuel it really wants! Eating healthier will boost your mood, elevate your alertness, change herbal remedy for anxiety and make you feel better all day long.

3. Along with healthier foods, take a quick 10-15 minute walk during your lunch break. Just a few minutes will give you a burst of energy that refreshes you and makes you feel more alert – while burning off your lunch calories in the process!

4. Sometimes, afternoon slumps can be your body’s way of telling you that it needs something. You may be feeling tired if your blood sugar is low (which happens especially after the effect of those caffeine and high sugar foods has worn off!). Packing a low calorie snack like graham crackers, granola, fruit or vegetable slices can give your body a boost and keep you from feeling hungry in the late afternoon and caving in to the urge to devour the entire contents of the vending machine after work!

5. Drowsiness is often a sign that you’re not getting enough water. Drinking more water throughout the day not only helps keep you awake, but also keeps you from feeling those hunger pangs that inevitably creep up in mid-morning. Taking a large sports bottle that you can drink from throughout the day is a great way to get your recommended eight glasses a day as well!

6. If afternoon fatigue is a recurring problem, it may be a side effect of medications you are taking. Allergy pills are well known culprits, as are some blood pressure and anxiety/depression medicines. Don’t try to circumvent these effects with caffeine, otherwise you’ll overload your body with stimulants while it’s already trying to deal with drowsiness, and you’ll feel mentally and physically exhausted. Instead, try a short 15-20 minute catnap. You’ll be surprised how refresh you’ll feel when you wake up! (Don’t try this at work though – I know it’s tempting!)

If you follow these tips on a regular basis, you’ll not only make it through the afternoon blahs, but you’ll also feel better physically and mentally, sleep better at night, and wake up rejuvenated and re-energized the next morning. Make it a GREAT day! herbal remedy for anxiety

12:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!

I have a christmas gift site/blog. It pretty much covers gift ideas for christmas related stuff.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Blog! I also have a site about accordion fl miami shutter
. You can check it out at accordion fl miami shutter


Also, as a thank you for visiting my site, I'd like to tell you about a great site that is giving away a FREE DVD Camcorder! Just click the following link and enter your Zipcode to see if the promotion is available in your area!

FREE DVD Camcorder

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was looking for blogs about tai chi and came across yours. I have whats referred to as a hard style Karate School and this is something we've been contemplating adding to it. Great blog you have and I've enjoyed reading the posts on it.

6:47 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

This blog is great! If you get a chance you may want to visit this the bottom line
site, it's

pretty awesome, too!

10:11 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!

I have a safelist script site/blog. It pretty much covers safelist script related stuff.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)

2:01 PM  
Blogger Water & Fire said...

I have been visiting sites all day and I really like what you have done with your blog. I found your site just after I visited Whirlpools Idaho
. Kind a lame if you ask me. Who cares.. I'm here now! Have a good one!

8:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. Check out aquarium fish pond reef saltwater swampbottom tank tank

1:04 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home