Flavor Magazine

September/October 2012

Mona Lisa

Jim LawAs a student in Luxembourg in the 1970’s I frequently took advantage of the cheap two-hour train to Paris. A great deal of my time there was spent on hanging out in the Latin Quarter consuming cheap wine at the cafes and beer at the Jazz clubs. However, I did find some time for the more highbrow culture that Paris can offer.

The Louvre is a massive museum where the uninitiated can be swallowed alive. I found myself wandering contently, quietly and aimlessly through rooms of Renaissance paintings. Eventually I heard a muffled but distinct cacophony coming down a hall leading to Mona Lisa. I often wonder if I would have paid her any attention had she been in a typical line up on a wall in some obscure room.

But she was famous. I managed to sneak a peek or two, as I was taller than the crowds of camera wielding Japanese businessmen and school kids with matching tee shirts. Tour guides were droning on in several languages, one of which I understood. I’m not a fan of crowds, so I left Mona Lisa to her admirers.

Later in the day the as the closing warning bell sounded. I ventured back to Mona Lisa. We were alone. I recalled some tour guide facts and started pacing in front of the painting. Her eyes were following me. Her smile became a frown. Was she ready to cry? Now she was smiling again.

Great art and great wine are individual and very personal experiences that can be best appreciated with time and knowledge.

Mona Lisa is a benchmark Renaissance painting that has been studied, discussed, analyzed and copied for centuries, much the same way great Bordeaux or Burgundy is revered. Conversely, the American classic “Dogs Playing Poker” makes us all smile and gives us pleasure much the same way an inexpensive Côte du Rhone or Rosé make me happy when sitting down to dinner after a long work day. I don’t need to analyze or think much about the Côte du Rhone. I only have to enjoy it.

I have never studied art and don’t feel the need to do so, but my epiphany moment with Mona Lisa gave me a deeper appreciation. I enjoy visiting galleries both local and on travels. I do so for pleasure. It is not my profession.

Wine is my profession so I cannot be content with only a hedonistic approach. In order to improve my wines, my approach has to be intellectual also. My customers don’t need to understand phenolic maturity or tartrate to malic ratios. They depend on me to focus on the details. However, their appreciation of my work is enhanced by some knowledge. Understanding terroir differences, aging potential and food pairings can make for better enjoyment.

I’ve tasted Cheval Blanc in a blind line-up and did not find it moving. The same bottle came to life once I spent time with it and discussed it with those who had background information.

American culture wants to categorize, rate and move on. Wine is a social beverage and most wine should be enjoyed to compliment food and company. However truly great wines do in fact need to be put on a pedestal to be appreciated.

I am often amused by reports of blind tastings where wines are lined up, judges spend a few minutes with each wine and shockingly declare a “lesser’ wine to have beaten a classic. These beauty contests reflect my imagined perception of Mona Lisa if she was randomly lined up in a large gallery room. I would not have given her the benefit of understanding.

I recently had dinner at the Ashby Inn. Tarver King is a chef who pushes the envelope on cutting edge cuisine. He challenges my palate with complexity and uniqueness. When I dine there I don’t want to be in a large social group because I am too easily distracted from my focus on his creativity. I also try not to go to the Ashby too hungry, as I eat too fast without thoughtfulness and reflection.

This is also how I approach great wines: focus on only a few wines, with a small group where wine is the reason we gather. I realize that all this may seem snobbish, geeky and anti-social, which is counter to the concept of making wine more user friendly. In some ways we do need a tour guide to educate us when we get to this level of wine. I just feel that we are often missing the point when it comes to benchmark wines. They are art and should be approached in the same way.

Progressive winemakers need to taste benchmark classics. Imagine a chef who never dined out at other restaurants, an architect who never traveled to study classic design first hand, or a writer who only read his or her own work.

“A great wine will necessarily be uncommon and decidedly unique because it cannot be like any other, and because of this fact it will be atypical, or only typical of itself.” –André Ostertag (Alsace)

Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup achieved notoriety because of originality and avant guard uniqueness not because of perfection of execution. The Scream demands a visceral reaction. Starry Nights is both awesome and troubling. Great wine needs to evoke something in us, but we have to be paying attention.