Dostoyevski said somewhere that “It’s always worth while talking with a clever man.” Mr. Sam Davies is one such.
You don’t know Sam, unless you’re fortunate enough to have met him while shopping for wine at Astor Wines in New York City. I met him when I responded to a kind invitation from Lorena (who heads up the wine program) to come in and talk with the staff.
I never used to relish doing that kind of thing, but I started to enjoy it when I stopped censoring myself. Obviously the purpose – or the ostensible one – is to “train” the staff to sell the wines they buy from me, and one way of doing that is to give them access to the lofty personage that was, um, me. That too is bogus, and being a personage, lofty or otherwise, is a great waste of time. I’m not sure how other wine vendors handle these little tasks, but I really hope they’re not squandering the small time they have with their fellow wine-souls, blasting them with vinous ennui in terms of what yeast or what cask or how much toasting or punchdown or no-sulfur or any other such factoids that trade understanding for mere information.
I told this group what I always say; if you hunger for such material just ask and I’ll provide it. But it’s not why I’m here with you. A few wines are opened to be sampled, and I use each one as a springboard from which to travel any-old-where. Some wines are especially evocative and then you go where they take you. Others are more matter of fact and you identify whatever’s salient and move along. At least that’s what I do, or did. I wanted to inspire if I could, and there’s no dearth of meaning in (certain) wines, whether it’s human meaning or cultural or geological or aesthetic, and even if all I could offer was cliff-notes they were better than no notes at all. Besides, it comes naturally to me to talk about wine allusively, and one thing I know for sure: If you’re putting on some kind of act, they will know it. I don’t mind if they think I’m a ditz, as long as I’m authentic.
This was a quick couple of encounters as I recall, two sessions with half the staff in each. The wines were good, I felt at home, Lorena’s welcome was kind and heartfelt, and while it was abrupt in that particular New York way, it was time well spent.
I did not expect to receive an email several weeks later from a Mr. Sam Davies, thanking me for coming and for the ways I talked about wine. Sam was especially interested in cross-aesthetic activity, and we started a fruitful correspondence talking about poetry, and how wine intersected with it.
Those points of intersection are the very point of all this wine stuff. We all know that language does a limited job describing flavor – or even depicting flavor. If we insist that the only question a wine presents is “What words do I have for this taste?” I think we will be frustrated. A more useful question is “What kind of experience is it to drink this wine?” Because then we get to use our imaginations, which the wine has helpfully stimulated, and then you get to say all the things you think or feel or imagine. If you’re doing it in print it helps to have a certain self-discipline, but if you’re just hanging out then feel free to let fly.
Sam seemed to understand and to appreciate that wine could make someone think of other things, be they poetry or music or art or landscape or human traits or pro wrestling or corn dogs or sailing or star-gazing or cuddling. The only limits are those we impose.
So I wanted to “talk” with Sam for this little series of pieces, because he’s an interesting guy and because he seems free of the prevailing fear that fantasizing over wines is somehow effete.
I began by asking, “Sam, when you wrote me after my talk at the shop, we were pretty much off and running immediately talking as much (or more) about literature than about wine. Where do you see their points of intersection?”
SAM: Perhaps one of the biggest reasons that I like both so much is they have an intangible element. Each time we experience a wine/book we glean something new, but we can never cup the entirety of the experience in our hands. Literature and wine can strike at something we didn’t know we were carrying with us. Reminding us that there is a thrill to understanding something better (even if it is ourselves). So we end up chasing something that is very difficult to articulate, and I think that’s good. We should wrestle with the ineffable.
TERRY: It does seem to make us larger and more humble at the same time. “I’m at the limit of what I seem to be able to know, and now all I have are questions…” You and I started by talking about poetry, but do you find wine intersecting with other forms of art?
SAM: There are certainly overlaps, and they’re different from person to person. I know there’s the trope of comparing a great bottle of wine to a painting. This is something I’ve never done because I don’t know that many paintings. That said, viewing wine through something you know well can be incredibly useful in articulating its qualities.
TERRY: Yeah, whatever that happens to be. I see no reason why two wines couldn’t be compared with two blues guitarists. It doesn’t have to be all poesies and faeries. But I think we need to be careful here, because we’re near the frontier of declaring that wine itself is art, and I am quite unsure of this proposition. What do you think?
SAM: Wine is hard to pin to the wall (again going back to that intangible thing). Sometimes its a humble ingredient in a great meal, and other times wine will demand all of your attention and shut everything else out. I think somewhere between those two points wine is art, but then along all the other points of this spectrum it isn’t. Sometimes it’s greater than art. Sometimes it’s a memory that only you will ever have. I don’t know how you measure that.
I wager you’ve asked others this. Have there been any common themes in their answers?
TERRY: Yes, two; it either is or it isn’t! Barbara Ensrud had a piece in World Of Fine Wine on the subject, and when she interviewed me for it I think I surprised her by saying I didn’t think wine was art. I think we might wish it to be, because it can be so beautiful, but I’m wary of diluting the meaning of art by affixing it to anything we think is lovely. I also want to be able to communicate about wine without saddling it with the lofty expectations of capital-A Art. Do you think our language is adequate to that task, or adequate at all when it comes to wine?
SAM: I worry we are getting too complacent. Wine is romantic stuff. Like music, wine changes how everything is experienced in the room it inhabits. Yet, most of the vocabulary used to discuss wine talks about its production and the environment in which it was grown. Should these areas be discussed? Absolutely, but it shouldn't stop there, and I feel it often does. The greater sum of these parts is what makes wine lift us off the ground.
Think about when you visit a favorite park or place in the country. You look at the scene around you and there is a satisfaction that comes from the confluence of all these elements. Now if you were asked to put that feeling down on paper you couldn’t accomplish it by writing, “Well the trees were really green, and there was this nice scent of fresh grass, and the light was shining just so…” The reader wouldn’t get why it was special, they wouldn’t be sitting there with you. What your senses experience is important and it seems terribly cold to leave out what the culmination of these experiences created.
Wine and our knowledge of it is growing everyday. Wine needs all the words it can get its hands on!
TERRY: Not to mention our knowledge of ourselves. Wine has a special way of illuminating our inner landscapes, and if we can find words for that then the language of wine-qua wine can take care of itself. Tell me, do you socialize with other wine people because of that shared point of view?
SAM: I do socialize with other wine people, but I can’t say what brings them to the table. I know when we line up a few bottles I’m there for discovery, but I think we all enjoy finding the small miracles in wine that remind us why we’re enamored of it.
TERRY: Are you relieved to have friends for whom wine isn’t an obsession? (Assuming you do?) I yearn for more of that, actually.
SAM: I am glad to have friends that could give a damn about wine. They remind me that I like to talk about other things. They remind me I should take my nose out of the glass every so often and take a breath.
TERRY: I have a bugaboo-question for you. Sorry! Here goes; Do you think wine needs to be “simplified” in order to be accessible? Or is there another way to square that circle? Not to mention you’re on the front lines dealing with “the public.”
SAM: Complexity isn’t a vice, though it can be daunting. I don’t think wine needs to be simplified to be accessible, I think it needs to be welcoming. Food is also a wide and complex topic and I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like it because of its variety and depth.
I don’t know if we can square the circle, but as long as we remove as many obstacles as possible between a curious mind and wine, I think that’s a job well done.
TO CONCLUDE: My kinda guy! And we could get a lot more granular if we wanted to indulge ourselves. As indeed we have done in correspondence. I’m tempted to see if a Chapter-2 might be possible, but even more, I invite YOU ALL, DEAR READERS, to send me questions for Sam, and I’ll pass them along. Being an importer offers a certain insulation from the quotidian but crucial business of helping the end-consumer be happy with wine, in a shop or a restaurant, but as you see, Sam Davies is not your typical wine-guy salesman in a store. I wish he were!