On Subtlety

20150116-104654.jpgSubtlety is like a complex joke. You either get it or you don’t. Some people are incredibly perceptive of minute variations and changes of colours, textures, timing, or some other quality while other people can’t see the difference.

If you drive a car going to work, do you think about the weight transfer to your tires going around corner? Professional race car drivers do but most people probably don’t in the course of their daily drive. Most pro sports players, especially the big stars, are able to move in complex ways or perceive small movements in their games at a level far beyond what the armchair athletes watching on TV are capable of noticing. They’ve trained for it.

Watching the game with Desert Hills Gamay.

I started curling a few years ago and it has always amazed me just how tiny, small variations in anything to do with the game play can cause huge difference in results. From throwing the rocks (weight, direction, spin – called ‘handle’ in curling’) to sweeping (when, how hard), one subtle difference in any variable can effect where the rock will stop. On top of then there’s all the strategies of play to consider. To be even a moderately acceptable curler (not even a pro), one has to be aware of, understand the reasons for, and be able to execute the technique for throwing rocks and sweeping. Curling is entirely a game of subtleties that are very difficult to see on television.

Um, so like, what does this have to do with wine?

Has technology has blunted our senses to a point where we are able to perceive less? I don’t think so. People are different and have always been different even before our current electronic age of smart phones and stupid people talking on them while driving. I think that digital technology is limited and that humans can perceive way more than digital technology can dish out. I think that’s why we’re starting to see vinyl records back on the market. As far as full, nuanced sound goes, vinyl can’t be beat.

It is my belief that different people have different thresholds of perception. Some people can see more details, hear different sounds, and smell more scents than other people. We are all human and humans are all different, although nobody should be judged better because of their skills. If you can’t hear a difference between vinyl and a 128kps MP3 on your iPod then don’t worry about it – you don’t need to buy a new record player. However, for some people it does matter a lot because they can perceive a difference between vinyl and MP3 and to them it is as clear as night and day. I also believe that anyone can learn to perceive anything if given the right guidance.

$5 wine and $50 wine

What’s the difference between a $5 Merlot and a $50 Merlot.


No, I mean in terms of taste. Is there a difference in taste between the two different price points?

There should be. Hopefully the $50 wine was produced from grapes grown in a high quality, low-yielding vineyard that has unique terroir and is vinified and handled with care using quality tanks and barrels. Ageing this wine in a cellar will change it slightly, smoothing the texture, integrating the many complex aromas and flavours.

Not Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

The $5 wine was probably mass-produced from grapes grown in many vineyards anywhere (because it doesn’t matter), fermented in massive tanks, pumped through many different processes, and bottled within the year. Ageing the wine is not needed because it’s shelf life is limited to about 3 years. The wine will taste good, smooth, and pleasing but may not have a lot of different flavors or aromas.

These are both generalizations and there are a million shades of grey between the two extremes. There is also the potential for some amazing upsets on both ends of the spectrum – $50 wines that are awful or $5 wines that are beautifully complex. That’s what makes wine hunting fun. It depends on what you are looking for in a wine and how much you can perceive about it.

As I said before, I believe that anyone can really learn to perceive anything if they know what to look for. I find that as I learned about wine, the more I started to look for certain things. I really liked wines that had tannins and that had more than 2 or 3 different flavors and aromas. I wanted wines that had lots of different things going on. I wanted to be challenged with every sip.

Not everyone wants that and sometimes I just good to have a simple glass of wine without anything complicated. I think of music the same way.

Brilliance of the 5th

My music history teacher in university for my second year was an animated fellow. He was an excellent tenor who truly loved music and was oddly good at communicating that to us, his students. (I say ‘oddly’ because many music teachers were either great teachers or great musicians but rarely both.) When it came time to cover the beginnings of the Romantic era of music (the 19th Century) Beethoven occupied a huge space in the syllabus. I can’t recall any single composer that was so important in the history of western music that we studied more than Beethoven. When we started studying the 5th Symphony, I learned why that was.

IMG_0812Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is probably the single-most widely known piece of music that isn’t in a Star Wars movie. The theme of the first movement can be mimed in front of anyone and they will know what symphony it is. Even people who don’t know ‘classical’ music generally know the 5th Symphony’s first movement. It can even be typed – da da da daaaaa – and people will understand it.

This is part of its brilliance. My teacher’s theory about why this particular piece was so popular (not even recently – it’s been popular almost since its first performance, which is an interesting story, but not for a wine blog) revolves around its simplicity – it sounds simple (and loud and fun) but there are so many details for people to look for if they want to. If they don’t, it’s also awesome, bombastic music to hear an orchestra bash out for about 10 minutes. Its brilliance is that it appeals to many different people on many different levels.

The entire first movement (and parts of the other movements) use this four-note phrase as a motif. What can one person do with a motif like that? Tons. Oodles. Buckets. It is a simple motif that can be expanded upon in a million different ways. It’s so simple but complicated at the same time. The theme gets treated differently in very subtle ways over the course of the first movement and ends up a little different at the end. How is it different? You’ll have to listen to find out. That same 4-note theme can be heard in each of the other movements of the symphony as well. Listen carefully…

Come on dude, this a WINE blog. Get on with it.

The best wines are the same. They will not be obscured by details so as to seem forbidding or needlessly complex. Sometimes complexity itself doesn’t taste very good. Instead, they will be able to appeal to a wide group of people who can appreciate it at all levels. People who want to get all kinds of subtle flavors and want to challenge their palate will be able to do that. People who want something that simply tastes great will also get that.

Sometimes a wine needs to be aged for this aspect to be appreciated. That’s why some people age their wines. That’s why I (try) to age some of mine. Sometimes, I want to be challenged with those subtleties that usually only come with bottle age. Other times, I just want an inexpensive, tasty wine that probably won’t be very complex. And that’s awesome too. I like the wine to match the occasion. Nota Bene doesn’t make sense for pizza on Tuesday but it does for a special dinner party.

There’s always a range of subtleties for people who want whatever they want to perceive. From simple to complex, CPE Bach to Beethoven, AC/DC to Tool, or Two-buck Chuck to Petrus, the range of subtleties itself makes life that much more interesting. Enjoy the nuances and subtleties that wine has to offer. There’s a lot out there.

Cheers from wine country!


2 thoughts on “On Subtlety

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