Monday, July 07, 2008

A Second-Rate Education

Educating Peter: How I Taught a Famous Movie Critic the Difference Between Cabernet and Merlot by Lettie Teague (Scribner, 1997).

I'm the first to admit that I probably don't know as much about wine as I should. I love drinking the stuff, and I love going to dinner with someone who really knows what they're talking about and letting them select the wine. While I'm not a complete ignoramus, I am painfully aware that when I pick a wine on my own there's a considerable element of arbitrariness and false price-based rationalization--like going to the horse track and placing bets based solely upon the horse's names or the published odds.

Every now and then I become determined to correct this deficiency and bone up on the subject. I briefly entertain fantasies of becoming a serious connoisseur, that guy who everyone turns to expectantly at the restaurant table and says, "Oh, and of course you must order the wine tonight!" This illusion usually gets me through about fifteen minutes of research before I become so annoyed by the overarching pretentiousness and obfuscation of wine writing that I give up in disgust and pledge to stick to beer going forward.

So, it was great hope that I picked up Lettie Teague's Educating Peter. It sounded like a great idea: a book about wine that's presented in a readable, enjoyable way. In Teague's case, it's a project to teach Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, a self-avowed "wine idiot", the fundamentals of ordering, enjoying, and talking about wine. What better way to approach a subject that's normally frought with pretention, intimidation, and outright impenetrability?

If only the book delivered.

It starts off promisingly enough, with short chapters on basic subjects such as how to taste (or, more accurately, smell and taste) wine and an overview of six "noble" grapes. Based upon the reviews I'd read and the dust jacket copy, I expected a little more hilarity in the interchange between Peter and his teacher, but it's still mildly amusing and rather informative.

Then, around page 22 things begin to come off the rails. This is a chapter, called "Peter's Tasting Vocabulary," that provides a brief glossary of key words and tasting terms that a wine connoisseur needs to know, such as "beefy" and "extracted". The definitions are fine, but they are presented in alphabetical order with little context around them. I read the whole chapter closely, but just a few hours later, when I flipped back to it to look up a term, I realized that I couldn't remember what half of the terms meant.

It gets worse once you get into the main body of the book, where chapter after chapter marches relentlessly through each wine producing country of the world, with each chapter broken down into sections devoted to the key regions of that country. Again, there's nothing wrong with the material, but it is much more of a reference book than an accessible, guided tour.

Halfway through the Bordeaux section of the France chapter (the first of the country-dedicated chapters) I started to glaze over, as the details of the St. Emilion region blurred into the Paulliac. And I was only on page 55. "I'll never remember all these unconnected details," I thought. I started skipping ahead to the more conversational and interesting sections, like "How Champagne is Made."

The biggest disappointment is that the central conceit of the book, the supposed education of Peter in the ways of wine, ends up becoming just window dressing. Teague, for some reason, does not represent their interaction as a two-way conversation. Instead, Peter's comments or questions are presented as direct quotations (in quotation marks), but Teague's "responses" are not captured as dialog but rather as regular prose, and often is decidedly non-conversational. An example:

"Well, what can you tell me about Pinot Noir that's good?" asked Peter.

Pinot Noir is the grape of all the great reds of Burgundy, and like Chardonnay it's important in Champagne. Pinot Noir is also found . . .

Instead of an enjoyable, funny dialog, we get long, expository passages about wine broken up with occassional remarks and questions from Peter. Sometimes they are sort of funny, but most of the time they are pretty pedestrian.

Ultimately, the book leaves the impression that the real trick to becoming a wine connoisseur is memorizing a zillion names and dates and adopting an insiders' cant that, while purporting to provide a proper vocabulary for describing wine, seems to function mostly as a way to distinguish yourself from the unwashed masses who don't know the right terminology.

Which leads to annoying little "lessons" like this one, from the chapter on Champagne: "Don't say bubbles, say bead, I reminded Peter. And the collection of bubbles that forms on the top of the glass is a mousse, not a head, by the way." I'm all for specialist terminology, but how does "bead" more effectively describe the bubbles in Champagne than the good old word "bubbles"?

I know there's more to wine than this. I can tell the difference between good wines and bad ones, even if I can't always come up with the right terms to explain why. I know there are good vineyards and good vintages and a never-ending array of varietals and tastes to explore.

I'm just waiting to find the right book to guide me through it all.


Anonymous said...

Meh. Just drink. We go to Total Wine and talk to Fran, our favorite staff person there. We give him a per bottle price limit, some thoughts as to what we're cooking and ask for him to select bottles of what might do well. Over time he has learned what we like and what we didn't and has come up with some real winners that we buy by the case. He doesn't automatically try to get us to buy the most expensive stuff, which we appreciate. Sometimes we tell him to put together a case or 1/2 case of different bottles just so we can try different things. Works for us, and why get hyper about something that's supposed to be enjoyable? Ask him what to do with Boones Farm Apple wine. You'll be amused.

Robert said...

Good advice, anon. Since I moved from West Ashley to Mt. Pleasant I don't get to Total Wine very often anymore--boy do I miss having it close by!

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