The Unknown Unknowns

Around the turn of the Millennium, I walked into HMV Oxford Street and, after staring for a long time at brightly colored squares on a wall, chose two: Paul Van Dyk Out There and Back and Ministry of Sound presents Speed Garage. I had, you see, ‘discovered’ dance music and in the dubious bliss of utter ignorance picked the covers that looked appealing. (I had no idea what speed garage was; still not sure.)

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This unscientific approach to musical autodidaction led me down a laser-lit rabbit hole into clubland where, for a number of years, I made an exciting and satisfactory living as a dance music journalist.

Perhaps there were more direct, dignified routes into that livelihood than via Speed Garage mixed by Serious Danger but the moral I prefer to extract is that sometimes the best way to learn about a thing is to grab whatever filament or finger-hold presents itself and clamber on in.

This method calls for an at least brass-coated neck. I spent time publicly admiring the musical output of Lab4 and BK (Google, if you must) before wising to the sonic sophistication of the Belleville 3 and Gui Boratto. Hindsight’s fleeting embarrassment is offset by the riches of having to do the hard work of sorting myself. Not-knowing gave me a chance to learn, something easy to undervalue in the age of Google.

Face the Music and Drink

All this bears on wine. About the same time I was cuing ‘For An Angel’ on the Discman I made my first foray into regular wine consumption. Two-for-a-fiver at the cornershop on the far side of Finchley Road. One red, one white. The first label I remember was on a bottle of E&J Gallo White Zinfandel stolen out of my friend Clare’s mini-fridge.

A couple decades later I learned what ‘White Zinfandel’ is.

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In those intervening years, I drank a lot of wine in a lot of places with a lot of people. Yellow Tail Merlot in my brother’s clapboard house in Eugene, Raptor Ridge Tempranillo in their elegant tasting room overlooking the Willamette Valley, ‘anything but Rioja’ with my pal Nick in his north London abode affectionately known as ‘The Hovel’ (there were books in the bathtub, the toilet didn’t work), Amic Rose Cava with my now-husband beneath a full moon at Pou de Lleo, Gavi on Ruth’s sofa, nature wine while glamping in Catalunya with Sarah, a bottle of 15% California Syrah with my other brother — which left my head feeling as if it had been cartoon-style flattened by an anvil, a bottle of something with my best friend as I cradled his infant daughter, one-Euro glasses of sherry on sticky summer nights in Jerez.

Much as the best bits of clubbing are the ones you can’t remember, some of the happiest of those occasions are the fuzziest. But, unlike 140BPM hard techno and all that lifestyle entails, wine rewards slowing down and paying attention. Pour yourself into a glass and stories emerge — ghost stories, romances, hard-luck tales, picaresques, triumph-over-adversity fables. Plus the history, geography, botany, geology, climatology, chemistry, agronomy, philosophy, physics and metaphysics that go into every bottle.

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Grubbing among the vines has, thus far, been nothing but rewarding. After being put on alert by a thoughtful editor, I started the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) wine courses. Level 2 revealed in (alarming) detail just how much there is to learn. Level 3 — the can I do it? test — awaits.

The Way It Makes You Feel

One thing I learned from music journalism is that you never write about music. Not because of anything Elvis Costello said, but because praising chord progressions or parsing middle-eights will send any warm-blooded reader running. People don’t want to read about music, they want to read stories that capture the way music makes them feel. Good prose, in this context (to pilfer Orwell) is not a window pane but a mirror.

This made my musical ignorance if not an advantage, at least not a handicap. I couldn’t have written about middle-eights if I wanted to, so I had to write about the centipede crawl of a bassline or the way a tune spun itself into cotton candy.

My approach to wine is, perforce, similar. The skimpy vestments of my formal knowledge are shy of a fig leaf; best resort — an ample, if eclectic, literary dress-up box accumulated over a couple decades of writing.

Vinediction uses writing to explore wine.

Because I can’t tell you much about clay versus shale, or how many mL of sulfites one should add to tank of late-harvest Cab Sauv, I will do my damnedest to tell stories that capture how wine makes people feel.

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