by Harry Eyres

The Convivial Human Flow

I’m in awe of the dexterity and organisational skills of those who tap tasting notes directly into laptops at wine tastings. I count some of these individuals among my friends, so please do not read what follows as in any way a personal attack. However, I do feel moved to try to explain why I find the practice described above unconvivial, to use the term in the sense employed by the maverick Catholic thinker Ivan Illich in his masterpiece Tools for Conviviality. Illich was a proponent of human-scale tools and technologies, above all the bicycle and the library – the kind of tools which do not alienate us from our own bodies and by extension other people.

I can see the arguments in favour of direct laptop-tapping in terms of Taylorian efficiency. What sense does it make to write your tasting notes twice, once in possibly illegible long-hand on wine-stained tasting sheets, and then again on your laptop or computer? I actually think it does make a kind of sense, in that the scrawled long-hand notes represent a first draft, which can capture immediate impressions almost as fast as they are registered, with no need for complete accuracy or punctuation. But that is not the main reason I am opposed to direct laptop-tapping.

Trade and press wine tastings – the kind I attend – are, rather obviously, social as well as professional occasions. I don’t mean they are the type of “work-related events” which occurred repeatedly at 10 Downing Street during the pandemic lockdowns – scenes of epic debauchery involving shagging in cupboards, projectile vomiting etc. I have never seen or heard of anyone shagging in a cupboard at a London trade tasting. Trade tastings are not drinks parties. People who treat them as such – people who prioritise the social aspect over the professional one – are rightly looked at askance. Spittoons are provided (never quite enough of them) and generally used in the correct manner.

When I say they are social as well as professional occasions, I mean that relationships at various levels are at play. The relationship is not simply that between the individual taster and a series of wines. First of all, the taster attends such tastings as an invitee or guest, of a wine merchant or importer or regional or national wine body, usually supported by a PR agency; over time, as the wine world is a relatively small one, the taster gets to know all these people or agencies, and sometimes counts them and their representatives among his or her friends. Etiquette demands that the guest does not treat his hosts as mere facilitators of a service.

A second level of relationship involves wine producers. As the pandemic has receded, and despite the hell of Brexit-related travel delays, more and more producers, especially European producers, are appearing to present their wines in person at London tastings. Once again, to treat them as mute wine-pourers seems both rude and inappropriate – and a missed opportunity. First of all I feel they deserve thanks for making the effort; sometimes I feel touched or even honoured, as when at a recent Iberian tasting I found myself in the presence of the inspired winegrower Raúl Pérez as he poured his haunting and subtle wines made in remote corners of north-west Spain from Godello, Mencía and Trousseau, as well as meeting the dedicated young husband and wife team of Luís Patrão and Eduarda Dias who are revitalising the Portuguese region of Bairrada, long in the doldrums. Producers are obviously an invaluable source of information and stories about their wines. Sometimes this particular relationship needs to be handled with a certain delicacy, as there can be a tension between the desire to know about the wines and the ability to get through the range.

A further level of relationship is the collegiate one. Writing, even wine writing, is a solitary business, and wine writers tend to be quite sociable types, so trade and press tastings are also opportunities for a degree of fraternisation among the guild. Once again, such fraternisation is not the main point of the tasting, but it adds warmth and humanity.

Ivan Illich is not a fashionable thinker today. His, not exactly technophobe but technology-sceptical, version of environmentalism seems to be have been replaced by the “technical fix” approach. One of Illich’s most radical and possibly Quixotic ideas was that an overabundance of energy and technology was making us less happy and less human – not to mention its effect on the environment. He died (in 2002) before the mobile phone and social media became dominant modes of human interaction and sociability, but I am pretty sure he would have deplored both. And the mounting evidence connecting increased levels of anxiety and depression among teenagers, especially teenage girls, with these phenomena would not have surprised him.

Illich’s thought and activities ranged widely, especially in the developing world (Puerto Rico, Mexico). So even if we don’t accept all his conclusions I think we should take his warnings seriously. As he wrote in Tools for Conviviality, “The result of much economic development is very often not human flourishing but ‘modernized poverty’, dependency, and an out-of-control system in which the humans become worn-down mechanical parts.”

Laptops are amazing inventions with astonishing powers of memory and computation, but they are relatively unwieldy pieces of kit, compared to a small notebook or tasting sheet, which at tastings require their users to be seated at dedicated laptop stations. Such stations take up space and act as dead zones, space blockers or barriers, disrupting the easy-going and light-footed manoeuvrability of the taster armed only with glass and notebook or tasting sheet. That means also disrupting the natural, convivial, unencumbered human flow.

The laptop is a proud example of what Illich called Promethean technology, the kind which embodies our power of controlling nature. But Illich called for a rebirth of Epimethean man, named after Prometheus’ forgotten brother. Despite his brother’s warnings, Epimetheus married Pandora, and submitted to what Goethe called “the eternal feminine”, the symbol not of control but of love and sensuality.

Photo by Joshua Woroniecki on Unsplash 

Leave a Reply