For the past several weeks I have read The New York Times columnist Eric Asimov’s musings on libations, grabbed my Sharpie, and after much concentration (and consternation) blacked out most words, distilling the piece down to my interpretation of its essentials. On rosé: “I seriously heart good rosés.” On Savennières: “I find virtues in wines rejected by others.” On natural wine: “Indeed, swirl is a fan.” On beer: “I can consume multiple pints.” Et cetera. The column becomes my muse as I both reinterpret and redesign Mr. Asimov’s assertions.
Rewriting this week’s column proved a greater struggle. I read and reread, Sharpie in hand, unable to find the words to keep. Partially this was because I am both unversed in and uninspired by its subject: sake.
Was I not trying hard enough to appreciate this ancient, revered beverage? He thinks so: “It would be so easy to say,’Why bother?’ But push past that moment of resistance, and the rewards in sake can go well beyond what’s in the glass.”
But even after several reads I wasn’t feeling it. In fact I began to see Asimov as a sake apologist (and a certain New York sake store’s marketing director) rather than an enthusiast. In the column he offers two reviews, describing the second, less expensive sake as “a bit smoother, a bit more dry, with a lighter, more delicate texture…” I realized that Asimov’s obvious struggle with describing the sake was in turn why I was struggling distilling his language. And his struggle was one which I also have…when I describe wine.
Although Asimov suggests otherwise, searching for nuances “beyond what’s in the glass” in sake is exactly what I do when swirling, smelling, and slurping wine. The descriptors may be different, but wine lovers like myself are also looking for “texture, elegance and purity,” and at times struggle putting words to a tasting experience which is completely subjective. Asimov is right about the “disquieting” and “alien world” sake may present to the uninitiated; I certainly have an easier time describing sensations reminiscent of the fuzzy skin and ripe, dripping fruit of a peach when tasting a lush Viognier than the that of “waterfalls and cool mountain streams” he experienced when tasting a Amanoto Tokubetsu Junmai.
Of course we all describe our experiences (of what is both in and outside the glass) differently. Even when the descriptors are the same, they are just that: a description, not the actual experience. Whether one is describing sake or wine, it is language itself that is both the challenge and the truth maker. Knowledge comes is in the speaking (or writing) of the subject. And, as Foucault says, “The task of commentary can never, by definition, be completed.”
Next week I’ll free my mind of fickle Foucault and give “rewriting the review” another go, hopefully ending up with a throughly (and thoughtfully) marked-up column. (And I’ll be wielding my brand new Stainless Steel Sharpie. How cool is this pen.)