SAM DAVIES IS STILL AN INTERESTING MAN
We stayed in touch after I published our first conversation back in July. Every now and again one of us finds something he knows the other will find interesting. Questions come up, as questions do. Curious coincidences arise. Sam and I wrote about Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and another correspondent also cited those poems in response to my recent World Of Fine Wines article. It’s nice that something in my manifestly inferior writings can send people to the greatest poems of the 20th century. When the pandemic is over maybe Sam and I will get to meet in person. I imagine us sitting in some urban space, a café perhaps, speaking absorbedly as the urban intelligentsia we know ourselves to be. I can maintain that façade for at least an hour, unless I’m out of practice.
I had a few follow-up questions for Sam, as I wanted to get (and give) a better “sense” of him. After that, I asked him to send me some questions, and I might have known that he’d ask the sorts of things one wishes most deeply to be asked.
TERRY: Please tell me the basics about your family. Where’d you grow up, are there siblings, what was the “social tone” of your household (artsy, blue-collar, academic, science-y, liberal, conservative)? I don’t need detail, just a flavor.
SAM: I grew up in Westchester County, New York with a sister who cared enough to play pranks on me at home and watch out for me at school. Grades and after-school activities were important. So was spending time with my grandparents who lived close by. It was a big household, one with multiple addresses.
TERRY: Is Astor your first wine-biz job? If not, what’d you do before?
SAM: Astor is not my first wine job but it is certainly my favorite so far. I've been working in wine since college and worn many hats in that time. I've poured in tasting rooms, spent a summer as a cellar rat, and helped manage some small shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
TERRY: Do you see the wine biz as your resting place, or are you a frustrated poet/actor/magician/banjo player/therapist etc.?
SAM: I'd always liked the idea of working with food. In high school I was gearing up for a career in restaurants. Then I took a wine course in college and my career path diverted a bit. The wine industry is fun, but what I think has kept me around are the people that work in it. Wine people are enthusiastic, curious, and give a lot of themselves. Three things I prize a great deal.
TERRY: You write, "I have found wine to have led me to lots of other joys that I never thought I would care about.” Can you name a few of them and talk about how you were led to them by wine?
SAM: Wine is a cascading education. To understand the juice you learn about the berries, then the vines, the soil, geography, geology, and suddenly your reading up on a myriad of different subjects. Not everything that sprouts from wine will entice you but some of it will. Last year, I sat listening to a producer talk about an experiment of shrouding trees to better understand how underground mold moves nutrients to different plant life. I was ensorcled! I certainly wouldn't have thought that would be interesting before I got into wine.
Working in wine for the better part of a decade has changed my senses. I find my eyes more keen for color, my nose has an appetite for heady aromas, and my tongue has less tolerance for artificial flavors. Now to say wine was the sole reason for these changes would be facile, but I'm not sure they would have happened or happened as fast without wine.
TERRY: You cite a concern about becoming jaded. I personally think jadedness is an existential hazard of living/working in New York City. Too competitive and too overwhelming. Have you considered your fear in those terms?
SAM: I've wanted to steer clear of jadedness since before New York City and probably before wine. I like being interested, wrapped up, in something. It's one of the reasons I took to wine. There's so much meat to it that there's simply too much on the bone to be stripped bare in a lifetime. This is very appealing, but only if it's true. So it seemed worthwhile to check with someone who may know better.
Part Two, in which Sam asks and I reply.
Sam I have both, at various times, wondered whether we were spending too much energy on something as ephemeral as wine. Then we feel guilty – at least I do – and we return to wine full of apologies and ready to engage with renewed vigor. Sam wrote:
SAM: Often in wine (and other subjects) I hit a plateau and can't find my way to what's next. Do you have a similar issue? If so, how you do deal with it? (Asking for a friend...)
TERRY: I don’t seem to have that issue. I have plenty of others, but not that one. My sense of motion – you say you “hit a plateau” which suggests you’re walking – tends to be deeper, that is, downward. In fact I don’t know where I’m going, and in the immortal utterance of Zippy The Pinhead, “when you don’t know where you’re going you can’t get lost.” I don’t see my experience of wine as a linear narrative where I’m moving toward whatever may be next, but rather a continuing process of cultivation, of whatever human facet enables me to be as blank as I can and just receive. I’ll answer the question you didn’t ask, and suggest that when you feel lost or stuck in place, that you yourself decide what’s next. You can do this randomly. If it’s important to just stay moving, then your choice of “fuel” matters less. In that mindset, what comes next is what you select from any criteria or no criterion at all. This is an elegant rationalization for randomly stumbling around, obviously.
SAM: I find different perspectives incredibly helpful when I'm learning about wine or really anything. Do you look to particular writers or professionals for a different slant?
TERRY: I don’t look at writers or commentators because I’m hungry for a variety of perspectives. I look at them because I’m simply curious about what they’ll have to say, or because I like the way they write. I try to stay open to inputs wherever they come from. I absorb more from live people – colleagues, friends, anyone – than from the written word, but that’s only because the in-person interaction is more limbically alive. More vivid. More intellectually tactile.
SAM: In the beginning of What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking you talk about commercial industry influencing our tastes and choices. Where do you stand on wine labels? Are they an innocent and fun way of getting a consumer's attention or are they just another manipulator?
TERRY: I like wine labels to be graphically attractive but not to manipulate, except to the extent that all packaging is manipulative, in which case we discern between subtle respectful manipulation versus stealthy contemptuous manipulation. The Ideal would be a beautiful label, which would suggest that the winery cared about beauty per se. Labels are designed to sell wine, nothing wrong with that, but the choice of label is also a gesture (perhaps even a statement) about the intended or presumed buyer. But if I don’t stop here, we’ll be deep into the semiotics of wine labels and that would be a waste of time.
SAM: We talk about wine like it is an insular subject but at the end of the day it is food, and it’s part of that universe. What has wine taught you about food? And vice versa?
TERRY: It’s taught me everything I’ve cared to know. Wine is flavor in its most abstract form, detached from thirst, detached from appetite, offering purity (not always “quality,” but flavor qua flavor) in a range of textures. Food can be seen through dozens of prisms, as we know, but wine taught me how to see it saliently as flavor in solid form. And so I come to food with the sensibility inculcated by wine: how does it taste, what are the elements, how do they interact, are they asymmetrical or are they balanced awkwardly (sometimes thrillingly so), and finally are there meta-flavors in the Whole of the dish that aren’t present in the components?
What food has taught me about wine is close to the underlying spirit of your question. Whatever exaltation we might feel that wine can embody – and some exaltations are reasonable while others are specious – we do well to remember that wine serves a function, to wash our food down, to act in harmony and tandem with our meal, to be useful and delicious. There is of course a world of wines that are so compelling we’d rather not be distracted from them, by food or anything else. But the solid citizenry of wine has a job to do, and whatever it may also display for us regarding texture, serving temperature and all the other things to which we attend, those are the “bonus."
SAM: Does your taste in wine influence your taste in literature?
TERRY: Not directly, either way. I have a basic temperament that influences both tastes. They are similar but not in lockstep. That said, in any given moment one thing will certainly influence the other, e.g., a feeling-tone may be generated by the book or the bottle that influences my search for the other. The same is true of music. If I’m plastered to the walls of my soul drinking a bottle from Dönnhoff, I’m probably not going to turn on the TV to watch wrestling.
SAM: Do you think wine attracts romantics? Or makes them?
TERRY: Why yes! Except when it doesn’t. You, Sam, meet a cross-section of humanity in the shop, all kinds of people buying all kinds of wine for all kinds of reasons. There are as many ways to love wine as there are variations in human temperament. To the casual observer wine can seem romantic. “Wine” conjures images of graciousness, of beautiful places, of esoteric pleasures. And of course wine can be gracious, often does come from beautiful places, and will occasionally offer uncommon pleasures that could seem arcane to a matter-of-fact onlooker. I have always felt that some writing about wine is excessively twee, and that it sells a bogus view of romanticism. And this is a great shame, because some romanticism is not at all bogus, yet who is teaching the reader how to tell one from the other?
That being said, a person who’s already on the romantic side will find all kinds of nutrition in wine. As will the philosopher, the mathematician, the systems analyst, the engineer, and I find few if any elements in the human temperamental spectrum that would exclude wine a priori. I do think, though, that wine is especially magnetic to the musician.
SAM: The famous saying goes, "One thing leads to another." I have found wine to have led me to lots of other joys that I never thought I would care about. Has this happened to you as well? Why do you think that happens?
TERRY: Because we are seekers in our various ways. And because we are (one hopes) consistently curious about things, and because we’re also (and this is the best part) fun-seekers. I never thought I’d care about geology, chemistry, taxonomy, soil cultivation, and let it not be ignored – salesmanship, and the power to persuade.
SAM: In What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking you mention how an old wine uttered, "Try not to forget this. It's hard, I know it's hard, but you have to try." Do you think these utterances, these tussles of the veil, are ultimately what keep us coming back?
TERRY: They are one of many reasons, but they are the one that runs deepest and that nourishes our wellsprings. The passage you cite is one I actually see as a rebuke. In that peak-experience moment, I am admonishing myself to figure out how to hold the fuck on to the revelations those moments provide, and not let them get ground out of me by the sedative affects of the everyday. I haven’t figured it out by any means. The best I can say is that I am mindful such experiences exist, are possible, and to live without them would be spiritual poverty. But I come back to wine because I like it, just simply and in many different ways. If I went groping for those “tussles of the veil” I’d be both frustrated and foolish, and probably obtuse to the conceit such groping would entail. Yet it is well worth drawing attention to those numinous moments, because so much rides along with them. Wine is a glide path into beauty, beauty is a vector of meaning and purpose, and far from being lofty or recondite, this quite-ordinary experience is available and forgiving. It meets you where you are. You don’t have to be intact, you don’t have to be wise, you can bring your entire mess to beauty and it will chirp for you too.
SAM: I think what initially excites people about wine is it's an endless road of discovery. Do you ever worry about becoming jaded? Fearing the day you look at wine and know you've been "there and back again" and there's nothing else to see. (Again, there's this friend...)
TERRY: For me, curiosity has been an opposing force to the risk of jadedness. Then again, the way I use wine also guards against that danger, which I think is greatest when someone insists on drinking only Grand-And-Great wines – the whole “Life’s too short” trope can play into this tendency – and then you’d almost certainly get jaded because you’ve repeated one single input and grown numb to it. The most useful stay against jadedness is the ordinary wine! I do sympathize with your concern of feeling there’s “nothing left to see,” but constant discovery is only one of the intrigues of wine. It’s quite okay – it’s actually more than okay – to just bring your creature being to wine and let it relax along with you. That poor wine shouldn’t be burdened with making sure Terry’s still feeling the force of discovery. I mean, it’s just Grignolino for Pete’s sake. The pizza’s ready. Slop it down; you can resume discovering stuff in the morning. What will abide in wine – and you can be entirely sure of this – what will remain if every other thing about it disappears, are its loveliness and its specificity. You might think you’re “done” with (say) Germany, or the Nahe, or Dönnhoff, but this vintage of Norheimer Kirschheck Spätlese is one of a kind, and while it may contain a share of universal Truths it is also sui generis. Each wine, even wines you’ve drunk before, expands and deepens what you know and feel. That bottle is its own universe. You are not the way you have ever been. The moment is pure in its singularity. You don’t need new things to make you feel a sense of discovery; you learn to glean the newness of each moment.
But I want to go a little deeper in our exchange about jadedness. How (if at all) do you distinguish between being jaded versus just not being interested in something any more?
By which I mean, any of us can (and do) reach the end of our string of engagement with a topic, but I rather see jadedness as a deeper and more out-spreading kind of ennui. It’s also at times a posture, as you know; the person who’s just too gorgeously remote to care about anything. This may be why I sense that my answer sideswiped your original question. But what I’m also inferring is that what you’re calling jadedness is a fear of growing uninterested.
In that spirit – even if I’m still not correct – I’d say that the wine world is wide enough that there are elements of it I’m not interested in any more, and maybe never was in any diligent way. What I’ve done is to select the segments that not only engage me but that seem endlessly interesting. Here’s a vivid example. I love to drink mature Bordeaux, if I can find it (and if the other person paid for it); it is clearly a wonderful and exalted wine experience. But I don’t find the subject of Bordeaux especially interesting, and I long since gave up trying to stay current with that world. It’s because of the stink of big-money that surrounds it, the production structure, the commodification viz. the “collector mentality” and the “investment value” and finally because it is relatively simple compared to Burgundy, Barolo/Barbaresco, northern Rhône among other places. My mind lights up much more for Ribeira Sacra than for Bordeaux in the abstract, even though I recognize that Bordeaux is clearly the “greater” wine. I wouldn’t call this a jaded condition; it is rather a question of “only so many hours in the day…” and if I’m worried whether Pavie or Canon was better some year or which of them fetched a higher auction price then I’m squandering the bandwidth I’d prefer to use for reading poems.
If on the other hand I stay where I’m inspired, I have the opposite problem, an inexhaustible hunger there will never be enough time to satisfy.
Doris Lessing once said that no reader was obliged to read every word of her novels, or of any text that didn’t interest them. Skip ahead, she said, it’s fine, it’s not a moral failing, and you owe nothing to the author. I found this quite liberating, and it’s part of the reason I never apologized for falling “behind” other wine peeps in order to go deepest where I was most deeply stirred. Working in retail, you don’t really have that luxury, but in your personal life you can – and must – go where the hungers gnaw.
PREVIEW OF NEXT WEEK: Two ways of looking at Tintin and Snowy, and an update on a project I hope to hatch whereby I can taste and “review” new vintages from the vintners I represented.