Sun 27 May 2012
In the New York Times recently, dance critic Gia Kourlas wrote of a young ballet dancer that “[her] lifts were daring, twisty things without being crass.” In what manner could a dancer’s movements be crass, since ballet we think of as the epitome of elegance and grace? By being overstated or emphatic or by being extended beyond the logical necessity of the physical or narrative arc; by calling attention to themselves at the expense of the entire range of motion and delivery; by sentimentalizing or sensationalizing the aura of the dance through slickness and complacency and ego.
These characteristics of what might comprise crassness in ballet amount to a definition of vulgarity, and they can be applied to a multitude of materials, objects and concepts other than dance. The Chrysler Building, for example, is elegant and graceful; a 10,000-square-foot imitation of a Loire Valley chateau plunked down on a small lot in an old suburban neighborhood is vulgar. Mad Men, for all its soap opera drama, is elegantly and cogently written and presented; the so-called “reality shows,” the Jersey Shores and American Idols and the Kardashians and endless knock-offs, take vulgarity to steroidal impact. Among recent movies, Winter’s Bone, for instance, stands out for the elegance and economy of its story-telling, its sense of truth-in-narrative and acting; all the latest revved-up, computer-generated, violent and witless comic book and super-hero films and the obscene amounts of money that go into the production and marketing of these spectacular behemoths represent a peak moment in the vulgarity of American movie-making and culture .
Yes, wine can also be vulgar, by which I mean a wine whose treatment sensationalizes a grape’s aspects instead of allowing them a natural and authentic expression; a wine whose inherent character is obliterated by the ego of its winemaker and manipulator; a wine whose making bends it out of proportion to its — to borrow from the first paragraph — logical necessity, range and delivery.
A zinfandel or cabernet sauvignon or syrah/shiraz wine whose super-ripe grapes and high alcohol content, say, 15.5 or 16 percent, manifest themselves as cloying, jammy sweetness and a hot, unbalanced finish — to which we could add bouquet-and-flavor trashing toasty new oak — is decidedly an example of vulgarity. A chardonnay, pumped up like a be-drugged athlete with barrel fermentation, aging in high-toast barrels and malolactic fermentation so that it turns out tasting like pineapple custard, roasted marshmallows, guava cream and marzipan — quoting the approving descriptions in a well-known wine publication — is another example of the vulgarization of an unsuspecting grape that can’t fight back.
Uncomplicated grapes whose primary purpose is to provide diversion and delight — thinking of Austria’s gruner veltliner — are vulgarized, let’s say it, perverted by a similar process and sold for $50 and $60 and $75 a bottle. You would think that European winemakers might know better than to throw an avalanche of new oak at a basically decent charming wine in an attempt to elicit a measure of specious “greatness” from it; all that effort produces is an imitation of bad California chardonnay.
Give me, then, a wine that’s spare and elegant and lithe; a wine whose well-considered time in oak, if it even needs such treatment, provides support and suppleness and shades of nuance; a wine that honors the nature and potential of the grape or grapes from which it was made and, if possible, the place where those grapes grew; a wine that is not burdened and overwhelmed by inessential technical prowess; give me, above all, delight and daring, confidence and authenticity with a little risk and individuality, like that ballerina who knows the steps and the movements, all the classical requirements, by heart yet invests her performance with added spirit, those “twisty things” that lift her into otherworldly beauty.