Tue 5 Aug 2008
In his new book, How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24), James Wood dwells on a tendency in some novelists — John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, David Foster Wallace — to load their narratives with descriptions and metaphors that would not necessarily find natural home in the thoughts or speech of their characters. These devices call attention to themselves, they turn prose “literary,” and they evince the hand of the author where it might be more useful for the author to be invisible behind his words and sentences. Such self-conscious writing, says Wood, such aestheticism, “is at bottom the strenuous display of style.”
We could develop this idea, the strenuous display of style, in the realm of classical music performance, especially on the piano. In fact, it has become a cliche of popular culture that classical pianists indulge in a repertoire of dramatic gestures — head and hair tossing, flinging of hands and arms around in the air, rearing back and plunging forward onto the hapless keys, the gamut of facial expressions, from the dreamy closed eyes of ecstasy to the fierce frowns of dramatic concentration. Young (or youngish) pianists like Lang Lang and Olga Kern are almost unwatchable in concert — thank god for recordings! — because their exaggerated mannerisms focus the audience’s eyes on the performer and detract from the music, which is, of course, supposed to be the point.
A third area greatly affected by the strenuous display of style — and I’m certain that you know where I’m going with this theme — is winemaking.
In 24 years of writing about wine, I have tasted and reviewed thousands of examples, principally from California and Australia though other regions are not immune, that displayed, above all aspects, the dominating, the controlling, the manipulative hand of the winemaker. When wines are so stiff with oak that they can almost stand up by themselves, when heavily charred new barrels turn wines into toast and charcoal, when the malolactic process renders chardonnays and sauvignon blancs into bizarre dessert-like elements — roasted marshmallow! pineapple upsidedown cake! coconut cream pie! — these display the hand of the winemaker interfering with the natural qualities and character of the grapes, imposing an agenda that begins and ends as a style.
Every time I read on a back label or on a press release that a red wine spent “28 months in new French oak” or that a white wine “went through barrel fermentation, sur lie aging for 15 months in new French oak and complete malolactic” my heart sinks, and I think, “Here’s a handful of grapes that did not stand a chance.” (Not to mention the mechanical feats, like micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis and so on, that we don’t read about.) I’m likewise discouraged when I read that a winemaker considers grapes “a blank canvas on which to work” or that the winery provides “a great arsenal of effects to create a wine,” because I know such comments come from winemakers who regard their own egos and technical prowess as more important than the grapes from which they “style” their wines.
I don’t want to drink wines that reveal “the strenuous display of style,” in the way that an author obscures his narrative with flights of fancy or a pianist overlays a composition with emotional athleticism.
I want to drink wines of character, and from where does that character emerge? From the land, the climate, the vineyard, the grapes. Producers and winemakers who don’t respect those four qualities throughout the year and from harvest to harvest and who don’t respect them in the winery cannot make great wine. No, wine does not “make itself”; let’s dispense with that hoary saw. Wine does, however, require nurturing, gentle shaping, a bit of prodding to help it reach its potential, to expand its natural character. What it does not need are magicians, technological shamans, egoists and vandals.
Great wines display great character, yet they are, paradoxically, self-less.
Image of Lang Lang from bigfenomeno.fogo.cl.