Bottles of Intellect, Imagination, and Emotion

Jessie Mannisto / July 18, 2020

Developing my ability to notice tastes and smells from far-off lands has been a way to briefly escape lockdown, in a way that’s not quite as unhealthy as it sounds.

I’ve already griped separately in this issue about how pandemic isolation has ground me down. While my ability to work hasn’t changed much in terms of logistics (I was already self-employed), the wellspring of energy that fuels my work has grown harder to sustain.

In particular, I find myself craving positive, meaningful intellectual and emotional stimulation.  But when we can’t leave our houses for much of anything, what is there that could help sate a mind that feels like a dried-up sponge?  What can give my husband and me something to converse about, when we’re not experiencing anything new?  What could help us imagine that we’re somewhere else?  Is there anything we could engage with that is actually here, in the present?

I didn’t ask myself that question and then choose an interest. Instead, I came up with it retroactively to explain my new fascination: readers, I have decided to learn about wine.

I understand this may not seem at first glance like a constructive interest. That’s why I decided to write about it—that and the fact that the reasons for my new interest seem so relevant to being superstimulable, or overexcitable.  To my surprise, wine tasting has offered me an opportunity to connect with people whose intellects work like mine; it has given me an opportunity to tap reservoirs of positive emotions and imagination; and it has been a way for me to hone my senses in support of all of these goals.

It started off like this: with restaurants closed, we lost one of our most basic ways of taking a break from work, relaxing, and having fun.  Cooking every single meal at home meant more of a sort of work that does not stimulate my intellect, nor my imagination, nor my emotions.  As I chopped away at endless vegetables, I thought back a year, to a time when the world had far more joy than it has today.  We were on a belated honeymoon in Greece, the one big trip my husband and I have ever taken.  On that trip, we had the opportunity to taste some local wines and even brought back a few bottles. Given the circumstances, we decided we should drink those now, before we get COVID-19 and die or lose our ability to smell and taste.  So we opened the 2017 Nykteri, from the famous island of Santorini.

Suddenly, trapped here under lockdown, we had poured out the Aegean on our porch.

How Wine—and Weirdness—Feed the Intellect

That was where it started. And because the rest of life is at present remarkably empty, I dove into this interest in a way that recalled my middle school days.  Back then, our family was planning our first trip to Cedar Point, a famous amusement park in Ohio, for the first time and I soaked up everything I could find on the fledgling World Wide Web about roller coasters. (Now that I reflect on it, middle school was an intellectually and socially unsatisfying time, too—a time when I really wanted to be doing something meaningful, but would settle in a pinch for something engaging.)

For those who approach a new hobby like that dried out sponge approaches a spill, wine is a puddle of a subject indeed. There are so many books about wine. There are books to introduce the beginner (e.g., Wine for Dummies—don’t laugh, it was recommended by a friend who actually knows something about wine and was quite good). There are books with charts (e.g., Wine Folly). There are books with maps (e.g., The World Atlas of Wine). I love maps. And maps connect you with so many other possible interests! There’s geography—how terroir (i.e., the landscape in which the grapes were grown) affects the aromas and flavors of the wine. (Was that the salinity of the Aegean we could taste in the Nykteri?  Who’s to tell us it’s not?)  There’s geopolitics and economics. (Just look at what a boom in interest in China did to the cost of Bordeaux wine!  Oh well, we already could never afford it.)

And there’s culture—that wonderful fusion of people and the places they come from.  In Wine for Dummies, the authors compare the viticulture of the “Old World” (i.e., Europe) and the “New World” of wine, which includes the United States, my home. Where the Old World is broadly defined by deep appreciation of tradition, the New World ethos is about creating something new and unique. Now, for reasons many Third Factor readers will probably relate to, I do love the idea of discovering something quirky and different, so I did love the New World vibe. But of course, though this Old vs. New World dichotomy seems more or less accurate on the level of generalizations, if you read long enough, you will certainly find plenty of Americans who are every bit as snobby (which is probably more what puts many people off than tradition) as the stereotypical Old World, and plenty of Europeans who were proud of their decidedly unfamous local wines.

I don’t want to knock tradition; it would be a huge loss if Europe ditched its historical practices. But I had picked up the thread of a topic I love: quirky people.  I got myself a copy of the book Godforsaken Grapes, a memoir of travel and wine by an author, Jason Wilson, whom I think would get along with Third Factor readers. The title of his book comes from a rant written by respected elder wine critic Robert Parker who complained about the love among Millennial wine drinkers for weird grapes that, in Parker’s view, had not been cultivated for a reason.  But Wilson would have none of that. There is room, he declares, for more in the world than just Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay!

I don’t know if this is just coincidence, but the wine writer who took up the cause of these Godforsaken grapes also happens to belong to the tribe of generalists with serial deep interests.  He came to wine, as it happened, because he exhausted the subject of cocktails.  As he writes:

For once in my life, people looked to me like some sort of expert on some topic, not just a wayfaring generalist, as I’d always been. The problem was that once I finished my book, I was bored with spirits and cocktails. I was totally ambivalent about my so-called expertise, and of being seen as an expert. I felt similarly to cultural critic Geoff Dyer, who in his essay “My Life as a Gatecrasher,” wrote: “If I’d known what I needed to know before writing the book, I would have had no interest in doing so.”

Wilson was only the first of what I call the Third Factor type that I encountered when I started exploring wine. Bianca Bosker, author of the New York Times bestselling Cork Dork, quit her respectable job to dive headfirst into the world of taste and smell by way of wine. And the intriguing Wine for Normal People podcast had an interview with a man named Richard Betts, who also seemed to fit the profile, having been a geologist and almost a lawyer before jumping into wine; he was featured on the podcast, incidentally, for an experience that could be described as positive disintegration.

In the past, I always thought of wine as a subject that reeked of either snobbiness (e.g., those rich dudes “investing” in Bordeaux) or silliness (e.g., bachelorette parties). Who knew it would lead me to such interesting personalities? Clearly, it pays to check your assumptions—to broaden your horizons.

Who knew wine would lead me to such interesting personalities? Clearly, it pays to broaden your horizons.

The Emotional Residue of a Bottle of Aidani

The act of broadening horizons, moreover, is often where we form our most precious memories.

Another reason, as I quickly recognized, that I find myself interested in wines is because I have positive memories of the places they’re from. Alsatian wines are respected in their own right, but personally, I’m interested in them because I studied abroad in Strasbourg. Greek wines interest me because of our aforementioned honeymoon trip. In addition to the more well-known Assyrtiko, the husband and I really liked a rare varietal called Aidani that we had at a memorable dinner on Santorini. Yes, bonus points for being uncommon, but the main thing about it is that it is emotionally exciting, at least for me.

Emotional residue, however, doesn’t transfer to other people easily, as they weren’t there to share in its creation. Personally, as a daughter of the Great Lakes, I’m quite proud of Michigan wine. I am therefore pleased to tell you that I found a wine magazine that referred to the Lake Michigan Shore as “the Napa of the Midwest.” Obviously, if you can get your hands on them and you drink wine in the first place, you should try Michigan wines! They’re good. Of course, I’m saying that because I’m from Michigan. But it might actually be true.

And yet, if you do, it’s unlikely that you’ll be as uplifted by them as someone who, like me, spent her childhood vacationing with her family all over the great state of Michigan. The best thing about Michigan wine for me, in the time of COVID, is that though I can’t go home and swim in Lake Michigan with my family this summer, I did find a bottle of wine from Chateau Grand Traverse at a store here in Maryland, which, naturally, I immediately purchased. (#PureMichigan)

But of course, sharing secondary emotional residue isn’t a totally hopeless endeavor. Listening to why someone else cares about a particular wine—maybe he visited the place it’s from; maybe she toasted a new job with this wine; maybe they shared a bottle the night they got engaged—is something we can do to get to know another person. We can’t feel their emotions, but we can offer our attention. We can listen to their stories, too.  We can do this much even in this time when we can’t do much more than listen.

Return to the Senses

Speaking of connecting to others: if there’s one thing I’ve learned during this pandemic, it’s that video teleconferencing is no substitute for being there. In fact, when it comes to just catching up with friends or family, video conference calls tend to leave me feeling more drained and isolated than when I started.

I have at least a partial guess as to why this is: there’s no shared experience. We couldn’t do things together. Heck, these days, we can hardly do things apart, so in addition to having nothing to do together, we didn’t even have much to talk about. We all were just bouncing off our respective walls, looking for something interesting—to think about, to feel about, to imagine.

Or, perhaps, to sense.

Because of the pandemic, more of our life than ever (and it was bad enough before) must now be mediated by electronic signals. If only we could share something through our senses, might this help ground these electronic signals in physical reality?

I had an opportunity to test this hypothesis recently when I took a blind tasting class at the Capital Wine School here in Washington, DC. We students went to the school to pick up wine samples a day or two before the class, then logged in to see and hear the instructor, who led our group as we tasted and analyzed the samples together—a collective teaming up of the senses and the intellect.

Together, with these strangers at the Capital Wine School, I took all those words I had read in the pages of Wine for Dummies about the terroir of Marlborough or the Willamette Valley or the Andes and I connected it back with concrete reality, by means of my senses. It was a lot of fun to experience these tiny samples of aromatics, acidity, tannin, and terroir not only with my husband on my porch, but with new people who also wanted to engage their brains and their taste buds and share those thoughts with others. It may have been mediated by Cisco Webex, but in my opinion, it worked because we were doing something tangible together.

It’s fun absorbing abstractions out of books, maps, and charts and using my imagination to simulate that reality. But the link between the imagination and reality can grow strained. It can sometimes stretch out of all proportion. Through shared focus on something concrete, like a complex taste, these strangers and I anchored ourselves and reeled ourselves back in.

Stuck in the Present, Looking Toward the Future

When it comes down to it, I’m pretty darn sick of the circumstances that led this new hobby to blossom. I’d really just like to get back to normal, even if that means I have less time to pore over my wine atlas or relax on the back porch, traveling in my mind back to the Greek islands by means of a glass of Assyrtiko.  And, hey, I’d love to go to some wine tasting events in my local area—all on pause for now, of course—to see if I can find other superstimulable, unconventional types in person.  Now that would be fun!

But for now, this is my silver lining: for someone who leads with the cerebral, it has been illustrative to see how, when other stimuli were cut off, the act of training and disciplining excitable senses to discover what is actually physically present can be a worthwhile exercise. The senses, the intellect, the imagination, and the emotions work together, not in isolation. By developing wine tasting skills, I was reminded that escaping the here and now by means of the imagination is also something that can be done mindfully; and I was also reminded that what is only in our imaginations ultimately cannot compare to what is right here before us. Sometimes we should be in the present; sometimes we can escape it in our minds; and healthy people can surely do both, when the situation calls for it.

Before I sign off, it’s probably worth noting that I have made no comment about the impact of alcohol. I’ll only add this: alcohol has traditionally been more of a deterrent than a feature for me, as I’m pretty sensitive to it and don’t at all care for the feeling of drinking too much. I don’t encourage anyone to develop a habit of drinking your feelings away during this difficult time (though I sympathize with those who feel tempted to do so; alcohol sales are up, after all). But I find that splitting one bottle each week with my husband as we take these viticultural taste vacations offers just enough to look forward to, without unpleasant side effects.  If you’re not a drinker at all, however, you could surely take what I’ve done here and adjust the subject matter slightly to meet your needs.

I don’t expect my interest in learning about wine will remain so intense when the pandemic eventually recedes. Even now, as I finish this draft, new issues continue to bubble up in the world, demanding intellectual and emotional engagement in a way that simply enduring patiently at home does not.  And I look forward to the day that we can go out and get involved, in person, with other people doing things that matter.

But I expect that we still have a fair bit of isolation yet to slog through. And so, for the time being, I’ll continue poring over my World Atlas of Wine, imagining all the other places out there; places where my body presently cannot go, but to which my mind and imagination—now in partnership with my senses—can escape. We’re spending July on a taste-based trip across Spain.  Last week, we visited the seashore of Rías Baixas, where we tried some delightfully crisp Albariño; tonight we will travel along the Ribera del Duero before continuing on to Rioja, Cambo de Borja, arriving at Priorat and the Mediterranean Sea at the end of the month.

If you decide to take such a vacation yourself, don’t forget to send us a postcard.

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