I’VE NEVER BEEN EXACTLY SURE why the blog for Central Bottle Wine + Provisions (where I’m on the floor two days a week) has the name it does — Italltastesthesametome. My colleagues at this elegant little Cambridge, Massachusetts wine shop titled it well before I came on the scene. I’ve puzzled over this. Wine doesn’t all taste the same does it? And isn’t that part of the reason we want to talk and write and blog and tweet about it so much?
Some new light was shed on this question a couple of months ago when a person whose wine tasting skill and judgment I have long admired dropped me an email to praise a wine made on a rather obscure property by a relatively obscure producer working with a set of white grapes (pinot blanc, nosiola, chardonnay) that are probably combined nowhere else in the world. She loves the wine and said so in no uncertain terms: something like “Way better than that Montrachet stuff.”
I was pretty startled by this, not because I dismissed the comparison, but because though I’d tasted the wine in question (Eugenio Rosi’s “Anisos” IGT Vallagarina; it’s on the shelf at Central Bottle) and thought highly of it, it would never have occurred to me to pit it against a Montrachet, which, aside from being white and sharing a chardonnay component seems to me to be a world apart. When two wines seem to have so little in common, there’s no obvious incentive to compare them or to think of one when tasting the other.
Then there’s the problem of Montrachet’s long history reaching back far into the Middle Ages, its monkish roots, its grand cru status, the high prices it has always commanded. I’d go further and say that in the world of white wine the reputation of Montrachet as an elite among elites (other white Burgundy) persuades us to actually taste it differently than we do other wines. But does Montrachet deserve to be subjected to a different kind of tasting – or should we taste it just the same?
The still image at the top is from a YouTube video of Pablo Casals playing Bach. Click on it to hear him play the prelude from the first of the solo cello suites (the first 2 minutes). Even thought the sound isn’t great, the performance itself is beautiful and moving. That the venue is a medieval French Abbey doesn’t do it a bit of harm. Combine the legendary Casals, the inherently sombre and dignified cello, and the hauntingly beautiful surroundings and you have something that isn’t just musically captivating but something that comes wrapped in layers of history and, allusion, and imagination — a definitive example of European high-art culture. By analogy, this is your Montrachet. Now, for something completely different.
Behold the late John King whom the Journal of the Society for American Music called “perhaps the world’s only truly classical ‘ukulele virtuoso.’” Click on the still to launch a video of Mr. King playing (you guessed, didn’t you?) the prelude from the first of the Bach solo cello suites. The dress is Walmart casual. The venue — his home in St. Petersburg, Florida — is a step or two down from a thousand year-old Benedictine abbey in the Pyrenees, and his instrument is the distinctly déclassé uke. Give it a listen. I think it will indeed strike you as virtuosic; lovely and full of naive charm.
Now consider that there’s exactly zero in the way of history, allusion, or imagination to support or enrich King’s work here; no historic high-prestige instrument to lend dignity, no thousand years of European culture to dress up in or lean on. There is the performance and nothing but the performance. This, by analogy, is your Rosi Anisos.
You see the problem, I hope. Any attempt to fairly compare these two performances will entail a heroic effort of disassociation from the blandishments of time, memory, and celebrity to focus solely and wholly on the music. Seen in that light which is objectively better? Are they on a par? Good luck figuring it out.
Duke Ellington understood the problem well and had clearly given it quite a lot of thought. “If it sounds good it is good,” was his conclusion. Goofball musicologist Richard Schickele (a.k.a. P.D.Q Bach) had another way of saying the same thing: “All musics are created equal.”
This seems to mean that judgments about the relative merits of differing kinds of music are possible if and only if we put aside various contingent features — tradition, style, rhythm, instrumentation, cultural prestige (or lack of it) — and focus our interrogation on a single question: “How good is it?”
It’s not that all wine or all musics are of equal value but that all wines and all music deserve to be judged in a court where the only admissible evidence is testimony to their inherent quality. The degree of difficulty involved in getting to the place where you can ‘hear it all the same’ or ‘taste it all the same’ is certainly high — but getting to the point where “it all tastes the same to me” seems to me something worth striving for.
The Anisos-Montrachet comparison makes my friend seem brave, even fearless, I think, and puts her in very good company. Whether she’s right or not about the relative merits of the wines is irrelevant. She’s tasting it all the same.
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