Likening to Laocoön

Drinking wine using your right brain

By Ken Friedenreich

In 1506, during the midday meal at a Roman villa near the Vatican, word arrived that a man digging in his vineyard nearby had uncovered a remarkable sculpture.

The statue of Laocoön and His Sons (Italian:Gruppo del Laocoonte), also called the Laocoön Group, is one of the most famous ancient sculptures. Excavated in Rome in 1506, it was placed on public display in the Vatican, where it remains.

The diners included an architect to the regnant pope, Julius II, his son and a contract artist, Michelangelo. They hurried off to the site. There, they found a wonder; almost immediately it was identified as the work Pliny the Elder had described nearly 1,500 years before in “Natural History.” It was the Laocoön (pronounced “lay-ahk-o-ahn”) and highly esteemed.

The sculpture depicts the death agony of its eponymous subject, a Trojan high priest in the Temple of Poseidon at the time and his two sons. Two sea monsters coil around the man and his two boys. Laocoön displeased the sea god because he divined the secret of the wooden horse, a gift from the besieging Greeks during the Trojan War. The pagan gods were very strict and didn’t wish anyone to notice they rigged the whole damned decade-old conflict.

On the plinth of this work rested the entire Vatican Museum we know today. Julius, a belligerent homosexual and habitual warrior, had a keen eye for art bargains, and this masterpiece of the Greek Baroque fit the bill.

Later, the piece inspired the entire discipline of art criticism (Winkelmann) and poetics (Lessing and Blake). At its heart, the work symbolized terror and resistance to it but also profound beauty and balance. It posed the question: How can we divide the apprehension of art between its emotional wallop and its formal genius?

The Laocoön has more to do with wine than its discovery among vines behind a former convent. It suggests that we hit the refresh button of our mind’s eye and take the enjoyment and experience of wine drinking from the number crunchers.

You won’t find this taffy stretch in foodie and wine magazines. Wine drinking without numbers seems counterintuitive. “How can I tell if the wine is any good” asks the acolyte, “when no one has told me the score?” Better to ask, “How much am I being overcharged or suckered into this case of wine where the government warning label should advise us of not just sulfites but excess hype?”

We cannot escape our culture; it places great worth in “evidence” and “facts” expressed in numbers. For example, “Wonder Bread builds strong bodies 12 ways.” (Name three.) “Your mileage may vary.” (Leave the car in the garage.) “I will create a million new jobs when I’m elected President; I promise.” (Do you want ketchup and fries with your order?)

From early colonial times, Americans have expressed a get-a-move-on-it attitude, and pragmatism showed us how.  Our first president was a surveyor; numbers always mattered as we manifested our destiny.  We pace the perimeter; we add; we subtract. “Just the facts, ma’am” was Joe Friday’s mantra.

Ours is an evaluative culture. We say what we like rather than offering reasons for the preference and the object under consideration. To like something and leave the matter there reduces experience to the gold star given to us by our kind teachers. For a few minutes, we are liked. It’s a cheap honorarium.

Special get-ahead summer camps proliferate with SAT crammers wanting to join the Ivy League; we test to a level of competence, where we are programmed to test to the score; this produces minds made of lunch meat. We do not educate people. We don’t acculturate people. We process them. As Pink Floyd said, “Welcome to the Machine.” And so it is for wine.

This analogy cuts many ways, but here are two primary effects of number ratings. Robert M. Parker Jr. did not set out to do something bad, but an unintended consequence of his rating system was its compression as a score without description and the misconstruction that making wines to score was the end objective. I always believed the objective was to make wine expressing its varietals and the place it came from.

What Parker and his ilk mistakenly invented was a dumbed down way to take note of a particular wine. It was not descriptive but evaluative, like a posting on Facebook. The basis of the score had a verbal adjunct, but it was largely ignored unless it contained a snarky comment. The competitive genetic of American social intercourse turned the appreciation of wine into a locker room brag session. It is no way to enjoy wine.

The other negative impact derives from the first; namely, the rise of the sommelier as arbiter of all things wine. This is based on gnostic lore, reinforced by awards, competitions and outrageous stunts to divine pedigree more akin to cage wrestling than pairing wines with food. A drive-by viewing of the Food Network reveals many cooking tournaments in which power and speed supersede a well-conceived recipe. Celebrity cameos intrude on the entire goings-on, taking us deeper into the morass of “likes” and “not likes.”

Byron Dooley, owner of Luminous Hills and Seven of Hearts in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, muses that although winemakers have myriad means of scientific evaluation to produce wine, he offers that making an “industrial wine without a sense of the ineffable is to make wine without soul.” The artisanal impulses come from the right side of the brain.

Pope Julius knew as much viewing his quarry.

The wallop in the wine, what moves us, derives from right brain activity. This enlivens the creative responses to the fruit based on experience and taste memory harnessed to a vision of where the current harvest will lead and what effect or emphasis will bring forth the most satisfying wine: harmonious, balanced, textured and, above all, pleasing.

Do I pay attention to rating scores? Yes, because I actually read the comments behind them. I care little whether a wine is given a 100-point score or 88. That’s where I more likely find the terrors of the thing only partially realized, but also the pleasure.

Imperfect? Yes, but triggering that leap across the synapses and the fissure that divides my left brain tallies from our less-precise but imaginary gardens with their real toads and sea monsters that inhabit my brain’s right.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Oregon Wine Press.

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