I visited the Museum of Modern Art a few days ago to view the new Magritte exhibition and look in on some old favorites. Among the latter I was struck in particular by a single Modigliani painting of a reclining nude.
It was off in a corner, virtually unlooked-at by the hordes that were parading admiringly past the Picassos. As far as I’m concerned, that single painting was worth more than all the Picasso nudes – pink, blue, or cubist – in the rooms around it.
For all the mannerism of Modigliani’s drawing and painting, that nude was real and alive and intensely human. She radiated sensuality, and by doing so redefined sensuality. Everything in the painting served her, presented her, celebrated her. All the Picasso nudes I looked at that morning also celebrated something, but what they celebrated was mastery – Picasso’s mastery, of his medium, his techniques, his subjects. The women in his paintings didn’t live, they served: They were Picasso’s subjects in every sense of the word. Still great paintings, mind you – but great in a way different from Modigliani’s. Many people will prefer them to Modigliani. I once might have myself, and I still respect them – but I love the Modigliani.
So, I realized, for me there are two whole different categories of esthetic response, and probably two different kinds of art that create them: admiration of the artifice itself, and a new or renewed understanding of what the artifact in a literal sense re-presents. (I’m sure the philosophers have beaten me to this apprehension: There is nothing new under the sun.)
Needless to say, it quickly occurred to me that that was true of wine too. (It’s been a long away around, but you knew I’d get there eventually, didn’t you?)
I realized that there are producers whose wines celebrate the grapes and their terroir, and there are producers whose wines celebrate the mastery of the winemaker. A few nights ago, Diane and I enjoyed a 1999 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo with some excellent broiled lamb chops, followed by a small plate of equally excellent cheeses. And a few nights later, we drank a lovely bottle of classic Frascati – Fontana Candida’s Terre dei Grifi – with some simple fried chicken, preceded by an even simpler shrimp cocktail. Both wines were absolutely lovely, and both perfect with the meals they accompanied; and both, on their different scales, were celebrations of the grapes they were made from.
Tasting them, I thought Langhe hills! and Roman campagna!, not who the winemaker was or what the cellar had done. That the winemaker and cellar, in both cases, must have done a lot – or refrained from doing a lot – was evident upon reflection, but it’s not what popped into my head with the first, or second, or third sip. A lot of Piedmont wine – and not much Frascati – is like that, whereas a lot of Tuscan wine seems to me to fall into the other category, where what strikes you first and foremost is what the winemaker has accomplished. Certainly some Chianti Classico is like that, and a lot of Brunello, and almost everything that comes from Bolgheri – not to mention 99% of classified-growth Bordeaux. This is not to say that these are lesser wines, but wines different in nature, and having a different impact, both on the palate and on the imagination.
All this caused me to realize that for years now I have been choosing wines for my dinners for two different reasons: one set of wines for the vivid presence of the grapes and where they came from, the other for the technical perfection of the winemaking. These are equally admirable but very different kinds of wine, and I saw too that I usually serve them in different circumstances: the first with deliberately simple foods of the best available prima materia, the second with more elaborately constructed dishes or more complex sauces. I choose the first combination because it showcases the wine without in any way detracting from the food, the second because the interplay of food and wine intensifies them both. This is not an ironclad rule, of course – I’m too much of an anarchist to believe in ironclad anything – but it has been for me a useful, if unconscious, rule of thumb.
So my little epiphany in front of Modigliani’s gloriously incarnated painting also made me aware of something I had been acting on for a long time without ever being fully conscious of it, and that realization in turn has given me a new handle on the wines I drink and serve. A long time ago I set out to tell people about Mastering Wine: clearly, I’m still in the process of doing so myself. I have no idea whether my current thinking is my final destination or just a way-station on the road, but it will be interesting to see what happens next.