Imagine for a moment that you are me. Yes, I know, that’s ridiculous. It’s like asking you to imagine that you’re Albert Einstein or Abraham Lincoln, but let’s just say that you were able to imagine what it’s like to be me. What would you, as me, say to you about wine? It probably wouldn’t matter what you’d say as me to you. More than likely, it would be way over your head. As George Orwell famously said in Animal Farm, though I’ve said it a hundred times more often, and without an annoying British accent like most of the snotty MWs of my acquaintance, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” There, I’m guessing that’s pretty far over your head. Not as easy being me as I make it look, is it?
Have you even read Animal Farm? It took me a while to get used to pigs and chickens and old goats talking, but then I thought about editorial meetings at Wine Spectator and it made it a lot easier. I still can’t get the name Napoleon Shanken out of my head.
Now, I want you to focus on being me. I’ve written a lot of books, and I’ve read a few too. Animal Farm comes to mind. It has duckies in it. I’m one of the most famous wine writers in the United States, and every other week I write this column for people like you, people who have no idea what it’s like to be ridiculously knowledgeable about wine. I have many friends, and I go to a lot of dinner parties, where I drink famous wines, and I use those occasions to generate anecdotes about wine for this column. Many times, it may appear that the anecdote doesn’t really go anywhere. But then I use it as a springboard to write something beguilingly insightful about wine. You try it. As if.
Now this assumes you have friends and dinner parties. Yes, I know, that’s also pretty ridiculous. But imagination is the most important thing when it comes to wine appreciation. I’ve never met a great wine writer, or winemaker, or sommelier, who didn’t have a vivid imagination. You have to imagine that you know nearly everything there is to know about wine. This is why I’ve asked you to imagine being me, though you must be exhausted right about now. I know that feeling. Sure, you have me on a pedestal, I’m another Hugh Johnson, only without the bushy eyebrows and cheesy hairpiece. But, honestly, that’s your imagination (there’s that word again!). I’m just like any other man, I put my pants on one leg at a time. As George Orwell would have said if he were half as clever, “All pants are equal, but some pants have better creases and cost more.”
Imagination is the difference between being a wine novice and becoming a connoisseur. If you were any good at imagining you were me, you’d know that. Let me tell you a story.
I was at a dinner party with Aubert de Villaine. I knew he wanted to meet me, so I worked my way to his table. He was humble enough to disguise his delight in shaking my hand (though I thought the joy buzzer was a nice touch). I told him I had recently tasted his 2003 Romanée-Conti and I had found it wanting. Wanting another bottle! You may not know this about me, but I’m hilarious, too. I’m the guy who nicknamed Laube “The Undertaker” because he likes his wines all dressed up, smelling good, and in a pretty box even though they’re dead. But let’s get back to me.
Aubert de Villaine was impressed when I described the 2003 Romanée-Conti, so much so that he invited me to dine with him the next time Napoleon flies.
Now, what’s the point of my story, aside from my usual name-dropping, which I only do to make the other people feel more important, what other reason could there be? I’d never actually tasted the 2003 Romanée-Conti! I imagined I had, and I knew it would impress him, and I could see it was important to him that I had enjoyed one of his wines. After all, I wrote Making Sense of Burgundy, which, in Burgundy, is like the Bible, in that people tend to leave it in motel rooms.
Now it might surprise you to know that, in fact, I was never at a dinner party with Aubert de Villaine. But my writing is so lucid and brilliant, that I fooled you. It’s my imagination, an imagination that you must certainly lack, even when you are imagining you are me. I can fill empty columns with that imagination for as long as there is a Wine Spectator. I can keep writing books about Making Sense of Stuff. I’m working on three right now. Making Sense of Writing, Making Sense of Arugula, and Making Sense of Animal Farm. I just really like arugula.
Among “connoisseurs,” imagination is a dirty word. They believe in wine reviews like Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in the Bible – every word is the literal truth. But they are only believing someone else’s imagination. If you want to be a wine critic – and I’m a wine critic, though I never actually review specific wines, I just review how great the wines were I’ve tasted my whole life while you were out being an accountant or something equally degrading – you have to have a world-class imagination. A big vocabulary helps, too, though the one thing you’ve noticeably lacked since you started imagining you were me is your paltry vocabulary.
It was simple imagination that made me a wine guru. When I imagine hard enough that I have something important to say about wine, you believe it. I have the imagination of a Walt Disney, a Steve Jobs, a Jeffrey Dahmer. And it takes imagination to write hundreds and hundreds of tasting notes like The Undertaker does every month. It takes imagination to make wine, imagining ways to hide all the manipulating you do to the wine in order to not take away from the romance. It takes imagination to build a great wine list, which is why they’re aren’t any.
But it is your faith, dear reader, that makes our imaginations reality. You may not be able to pretend that you’re me very effectively, but that was clearly asking too much. Your faith that my words have meaning, when, essentially, I’m just blowing smoke up your ass, is what making sense of wine is all about. Imagining you’re learning something, that’s why you subscribe to Wine Spectator. And why you read my columns.