VIGNETTES – “Antenna Head”
Posted by Chris on Tuesday August 5, 2008
NOTE : VIGNETTES is a section for short fictional works.
Posted By : Chris Corley
Informally known as The Panel, the seven wine critics met once a month to discuss events in the wine industry, share notes, etc. They all found these monthly meetings very enjoyable as it was a release for them to spend some time with other wine-lovers who knew as much about wine as they did. The Panel, although pretty nice folks away from their work, were incredibly knowledgable about wine, so much so that they found it almost insufferable to discuss the topic with people who didn’t understand wine as well as they did. The Panel’s monthly meetings were a welcome release for them to bestow upon their peers their fantastic understanding of the beverage.
From time to time, they would invite a young unknown winemaker to bring his wines for them to taste. Typically, these novice wines were of reasonable quality, rarely were they extraordinary. Most members of The Panel genuinely enjoyed seeing a young winemaker show his wares, as it gave them a chance to offer their advice on how he could do his job better – the irony, of course, being that none of the critics actually knew how to make wine, rather their talent was in identifying its strengths and weaknesses as a finished product. In actuality, the advice that they bestowed was more a lighthouse in the fog – only the winemaker himself could truly navigate the seas of oenology.
Unfortunately, there were a few members of The Panel who enjoyed the novice presentations for an entirely different reason. These three old dogs were stubborn and grumpy and longed for the old days. They disdained new technologies and advances in viticulture and winemaking, and as the world slowly passed them by, they became increasingly bitter. The irony, of course, was that these three old dogs didn’t seem to mind the advances in their own field – blogs, online wine ratings powered by robust search engines, podcasts, etc. As long as their opinions commanded the power, they really didn’t care the medium through which the information was delivered. With one exception – verbally.
The Panel was accustomed to submitting reviews, whether positive or negative, to their respective magazines, to be presented in type, which now included postings on the web. Rarely did they honestly review a wine in person. If wines were tasted with the winemaker, notes were taken, and reviews were written later to be published. Never did the critic tell the winemaker to his face his true impressions. One time, when two members of The Panel addressed a group of local winemakers, they stuttered and stammered through their presentation. Their discomfort was all over their faces as they talked to the dubious group whom they’d been rating the work of for years. It was clear they felt much more comfortable dispensing their critiques from behind closed doors.
Having a young fresh winemaker in their office, eager to please and hoping for his big break, was just too irresistible for these three old dogs. The wines were usually not that great, the winemaker not very confident. It was a lamb going to the slaughter and these three critics relished the opportunity to verbally unleash on these poor young people, who were just trying to do the best they could to get a start, usually with meager funds and not the best grape sources at first. It was one of the few opportunities for three old dogs to get out from hiding behind their printed words.
* * *
This particular winemaker had been in their office before, about a year and half earlier. They all remembered him vividly. He had brought all of his wines in an old leather sack and was eager to take a few pictures so he could remember this as his big break. He was so proud to be in the room with such great and knowledgable wine reviewers. He never saw it coming. They had really let him have it. He had brought in all of his barrel samples from his first vintage. The critics had railed on him for the lack of fresh fruit, the effervescence, the imbalanced oak and the chunky finish. These wines will never amount to anything, they said. You may want to consider another vocation. Vinegar maker, shouted one, to rambling chorus of laughter. He would never forget the mouthfuls of shiny fillings in the group as they leaned back in their chairs and roared in jest.
He realized at that first tasting that these people were not experienced in tasting wines at that early stage. They were only adept at judging a finished product. so arrogant. Of course the wines were all those things, he thought at the time, that’s not the point. When tasting a wine this young in barrel, you’re not tasting for what you taste now, you’re tasting for what you’ll taste then. They didn’t get it, and weren’t capable of foreseeing what the wines develop into. Disappointed, he packed up his sample bottles and left, never once rebutting the ugly comments hurled at him and his wines.
Yet here was again. A year and half after that first tasting and with the very same wines, he sat before The Panel. This time his experience was to be very different. The wines had completed their aging in barrel and had been bottled for about 6 months. He was getting close to releasing them and had been invited back to their tasting presentation because their reputation now preceded them, and The Panel was having a tough time finding young winemakers willing to come out to them for a thrashing. He didn’t care, he was proud of his wine regardless of what anyone said.
* * *
This time, there wasn’t a single member of The Panel at the table that wasn’t deeply entranced by the wines he was tasting. All seven of them were well respected professional wine tasters and writers in one capacity or another, although not one of them had ever been affected so deeply by a group of wines.
The wines danced on their palates and provided them pleasures beyond any that they had known before. They closed their eyes and swirled the glasses under their noses. The wines were so beautifully bursting with aromas, that the room was actually filled with a mélange of all the wines’ aromas. Swirling like clouds, rainbows, thunderstorms and sunbeams through the room, an intoxicating blend of fragrance and hedonism – alluring, dangerous, irresistible and refreshing. But the real magic was on the palate. These wines were operatic – literally singing in their heads. They thought they were going crazy with joy as the wine burst into song inside their heads. The rhythms and melodies were almost too much to bear, they thought they were going mad! The three old dogs fainted in their seats and needed to be assisted over to the floor where they could lay down for a few moments, before being taken away by an ambulance. They were nearly hysterical with joy, shouting of the most beautiful melodies which played in their heads. Where was this beauty emanating from ? It must be the wine, they screamed. Everyone thought they had surely gone mad.
* * *
About a week later, The Panel called a special meeting. They had much to discuss. These wines that they had tasted had shattered all of their notions of what a great wine was or the heights of pleasure that a wine could provide. These wines made them question every score or review they had ever written because their whole subjective scale was now warped. Their previous hazy notions and definitions of what defined 100 points meant nothing now.
The question they were all asking of themselves was – Can we tell anyone about this ? If they were to review these wines honestly, they would need to elevate their rating scale to 110 points. That would eliminate all accuracy of any wine they had previously judged over their entire career, all of which would have been based on a lower relative scale. Wines previously rated at 95 would be dropped to 86 under a new system. A coveted 90 would be a mere 82. This would be the scandal of the century. Once the numbers were shown to have no fixed meaning, the reviews would be revealed as mere opinions, which unfortunately for The Panel is what they were. The collapse of the 100 point scale would not be good for their business, careers or their magazine sales.
Their dilemma was clear – rate these wines highly and honestly and risk the collapse of the 100-point scale and the reevaluation of their lives’ reviews, or sweep the kid’s wines under the rug when they formally review them upon release. What a mess …
* * *
The young winemaker was working back at his small run-down winery. It was bonded in the early 1900s so his wine license was grandfathered in – it would never be permitted under the current rules. He had a small shed off to the side that he used as his workshop. He pondered over the stainless steel wires protruding from the barrels and reveled in the sweet strains of Vivaldi’s “Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione” (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention.).
From the outside, the small shed looked like it was about to fall apart. Ramshackle, it had a slight lilt to the side and you got the sense it wasn’t quite built to square in the first place. The boards were bleached from a century of sun, and you wondered what may be lurking within those dark knotholes. Once you walked through the door, however, you were in a different world. The door itself was much heavier than imagined from its old appearance on the outside. It was heavily reinforced and insulated on the inside, as were the other interior walls of the workshop. The small room was bright, fresh and amazingly clean, the interior walls covered in 3 inch thick metallicized insulation board. Under that the walls had been stuffed with encapsulated insulation. The room was easily 55 degrees even though it was well over 90 degrees outside. In the center of the room were 12 barrels on the floor, each with two thin stainless steel wires emerging from the bung. The wires ran across the room to the stereo where the music was coming from.
* * *
He had been experimenting with musical infusion of his wines for about a year. Some time ago, he had visited a winery in the next valley over where they played classical music in their barrel room. According to the tour guide, the music was soothing the wine, and they played it 24 hours a day. Just a gimmick, he thought, but what if you really could enhance the wine by infusing it with music. The possibilities could be endless. He wanted to make it real.
He immediately began his experiments back at his workshop by running stainless steel speaker wires direct from his stereo to the barrels, removing the speakers and allowing the wine to absorb the musical energy. Over months, he played with different music and wine combinations, infusing his Zinfandels, Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs with Metallica, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Beethoven, Van Morrison, Mozart, Sly Stone and myriad other artists. The different genres all had varying impacts on the wine. Ultimately, his trials convinced him thet Vivaldi was the touch for the entire vintage, so he settled in on the Opus 8, a set of twelve concertos, one for each barrel. The first four barrels were designated as The Four Seasons, correlating with the opus. This inaugural vintage would be his masterstroke.
Through experimentation, he had observed that the musical infusion effect in the barrel lasted about 2 weeks then faded out as thought the volume were being turned down. In his experiments with bottling the wine within that two week window, he had discovered that he could capture the musical energy in the wine, especially if he used the new glass stoppers that were on the market as opposed to corks. He needed to seal the music in the bottle before it escaped.
* * *
The wines he had infused with music had evoked intensely emotional responses in him during his experimental trials. At times, it was overwhelming. The winemaking technique was groundbreaking, it opened never before conceived avenues in the complexities of wine, expanding the tactile, olfactory and visual pleasures of wine to include the entire aural spectrum – true rhythm and harmony in the glass.
He thought back to that first day in front of The Panel when they were all laughing at him and he noticed the abundant shiny fillings in the mouths of the three old dogs as they reared back in their seats. Those would make great antennae, he thought ….