Zen and the Art of Wine-tasting

by Tom Fiorina on February 18, 2014

zen cover photoI’m currently re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 best-seller about values in life. The first time that I read this book was in 1977. I had just turned 22, and I was fresh out of college.

My dream, since I had first ridden a motorcycle at age 15, was to cross the U.S. on two wheels. Seven years is a long time to wait (at 22, it was almost a third of my life), so I wasted no time setting off on this cross-country ride. My parents, bless their hearts, thought that they would never see me again. Now the parent of a teenager, I guess that I can understand their concern.

That trip, complete with torrential rains, a tornado in Missouri, a mid-July snowstorm in the Rocky Mountains, and a tire blow-out in the Mojave Desert, was a life-changing experience for me, showing that I could depend on myself to keep going even when the going was rough. In some ways, this book was even more of a life-changer.

Certainly, the parallels of a long motorcycle trip are evident to everyone. Pirsig’s account of a 17-day trip from Minnesota to Northern California taken by him (although he’s not identified in the book) and his son is filled with philosophical discussions about the meaning and concept of quality in life. The book’s subtitle, “An Inquiry into Values,” refers to how Pirsig defines two types of personalities: those with a Zen-like, romantic viewpoint of the world, and those who prefer a classical approach to life that is more focused on rational analysis and mastering the mechanics of an operation through science, reason and technology.

The two approaches are nicely illustrated through the author’s approach to motorcycle maintenance. His classic motorcycle requires constant attention during the trip, and he makes a point of understanding, and mastering the technology behind its operation. Two of his close friends, who join him and his son during the first part of the trip, take a “romantic” approach to maintaining their newer, more expensive motorcycle. Rather than maintaining it themselves, they hope for the best, and rely on professional mechanics to keep it running.

My personal approach to motorcycle (and car) maintenance, particularly in my younger days, ran more along the classic, self-help style. More than a philosophical approach, this reflected my lack of finances to pay someone to do work that I could do myself.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a great book, and you don’t have to be a motorcycle enthusiast to enjoy and appreciate it. It’s difficult to read, though, and it is easy to understand why 121 publishers rejected it before becoming the bestselling philosophy book ever.

zen-artStaying Zen-like
The link to this book and wine can be found in my participating, as I have during the past four years, in the Concours des Vins du Sud-ouest France in Toulouse. Approximately 200 oenologists, winemakers, sommeliers, wine merchants and wine enthusiasts judge wines from wine appellations throughout southwestern France.

The table of four judges where I was seated began by judging rosé wines from the Gaillac appellation that is just north of Toulouse. After tasting a dozen wines, we discussed our score sheets with our notes and remarks for the wines. Each wine is noted using criteria that are common to most wine-tasting competitions (color, nose, mouth and balance). In comparing the four top-rated wines of each judge, we came up with our Gold-, Silver- and Bronze-medial wines. Next up was a group of another dozen wines from Gaillac, but this time red wines from 2011 and 2012. Once again, we compared our score sheets and came up with our three medal-winners.

Now, it’s not as if all four judges are in agreement for the three best wines in each group judged. Normally, the award-winning wines will have two or three judges, out of the four seated at the table, who rate them as being among the best. Sometimes, there is a clear winner, with all four judges selecting one wine as their favorite. More often, there’s an involved discussion that involves retasting some of the wines.

During the third group of wines judged at our table, a sparkling wine known as Gaillac Mousseux, the philosophical lessons outlined in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance began to make sense. Gaillac Mousseux is sort of a rustic-style Champagne, using, like Champagne, a secondary fermentation in the bottle to produce its fizz. It’s a light, frothy wine made from either Mauzac (a grape variety also used in Limoux to make another traditional sparkling wine), Muscadelle or the local Loin de l’oeil grape variety.

Unlike Champagne, Gaillac Mousseux wines are never too serious (but they’re usually very enjoyable). Their main short-coming, in my mind, is that too many of them are characterized by an aggressive fizz that is akin to popping an Alka-Seltzer in your mouth or a cloying sweetness from having too much residual sugar. But there was one Gaillac Mousseux we tasted that I thought really stood out from the others. It had a nice aromatic nose, with hints of the Granny Smith apple aromas typical to Mauzac grapes. The balance was exquisite, with a depth and complexity that lifted it above the other wines.

We began discussing the wines, and the woman compiling the notes—an oenologist whom I had tasted wines with the previous week at a much smaller regional wine competition, started down the list of wines. When I said, during my turn to note the wines, that this wine was my number one choice, she gave me a “Mon dieu” look like I had suggested foie gras was better with ketchup on it.

She said just one word, “Amertume” and drew a line through the number corresponding to this, in her mind, offensive wine. I didn’t argue the point, because I knew where she was coming from. She was trained as an oenologist to find faults in wine. And besides, the two other judges at the table (a winemaker and a wine enthusiast) had not rated this wine in their top selections (or maybe, at this point, they were afraid to say so).

Bitterness (amertume in French) is often found in young, tannin-rich red wines, particularly when the grapes have been pressed too energetically, crushing the seeds. It can also be a characteristic of certain white grape varieties (maybe Mauzac, but I’m not sure), and it can be the by-product of certain strains of bacteria.

Like small quantities of Brett, this bitterness can sometimes bring an interesting character, complexity and depth to a wine. It’s all a question of quantity and taste. Besides the question of subjectivity of taste, an often-heard criticism of wine competitions is that the winners tend to be the “safe” wines, the wines that meet some average, model vision of what some particular type of wine should taste like.

Not many exceptional, stretching-the-limit wines receive medals at classic wine competitions. And that oenologist issuing an “Amertume” put-down was, in the strictest philosophical sense, a classical scientist. And since I had gone through the same oenology training, I knew where she was coming from. But my inner gestalt, and my romantic journalistic tendencies recognized that this was, despite what some might consider a flaw, an outstanding wine.

At the end of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig demonstrates that bursts of creativity and intuition can potentially create something exceptional. He also shows that rationality and Zen-like romanticism can harmoniously coexist. I cannot help but think that Buddha just might exist as easily in a Gaillac Mousseux as he does in the gears of a motorcycle transmission.

Probably Robert M. Pirsig would agree with me, but I doubt that a Cartesian-educated French wine oenologist would understand.





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