Songs and Sommeliery

If you ever have me over for dinner, don't break out the fancy wine.

I won't be offended by it — I don't have some strange and idiosyncratic vendetta against expensive libations — I just won't appreciate it.

I have four basic categories when it comes to appreciating wine: Undrinkable, Not My Favorite, Decent, and Wow This Is Good. Beyond the most rudimentary language of dry vs sweet, I have almost no way of describing what I like; my palette is unrefined and promiscuous, perfectly happy to lap up the cheapest grocery store offering or the fanciest private reserve — and completely incapable of telling the difference between them. The complex, florid descriptions on the backs of bottles, the earnest, enthusiastic recommendations in wine stores? Completely meaningless to me. I can smile and nod as the words go by, but ultimately I'd get about the same amount of comprehension from a lecture in advanced quantum mechanics.

This isn't the fault of some defect on my tongue. I have no doubt that, given time and training and bountiful samples to sip from, I could develop my ability to dissect all the nuanced flavors that expert sommeliers pick out. I might not be able to become the very best wine taster in the world, but I'm sure I could become decent enough to have strong opinions on what I should pair with my next meal. I could totally do that.

I just don't want to.

As it stands now, I can get the same amount of pleasure from a $4 bottle I grabbed at random in the discount section of the grocery store as I would from an exorbitantly priced bottle selected specifically and with great care to perfectly match whatever else was on the menu. Why would I want to give that up? Even acknowledging that a wine's price doesn't necessarily map well to its quality, developing my palette to the point where I become picky would add stressful dithering to my life and eat up more time on something that's not going to add much to advancing any of my long-term life projects. I'll stick with the blithe oblivion of my $4 bottles, thanks.

There is, of course, a flip side to this. In the same way that low-quality wines don't bother me, high-quality ones don't wow me. My wine-appreciation-o-meter may not go very far in the negative direction, but it doesn't go very far in the positive one either. Because I can't really tell what's going on in a wine, I lack the ability to notice the things that make a really good wine so outstanding. To me, it's just solid. I have no access to appreciating the truly exceptional.

This is the exact opposite of how I am with music. I have a fiercely discriminating ear; I can get inside a piece of music — even one I'm hearing for the first time — and pick it apart in ways that have taken years of careful training to develop. As a result, there are vast swaths of music that are ruined for me forever. This goes for recordings — ugh, no, the woodwinds are too strident in the scherzo with this one; the strings aren't quite in tune on that one; this conductor takes it just a hair too slow and it's awful — but it applies to compositions themselves as well — this development is underwhelming; that contrabassoon was unnecessary; your form is totally unbalanced and your transitions are kind of clunky too. I freely admit that many of these critiques are totally quirky and not Objective Aesthetic Standards, but still. I have them. And there are a lot of pieces — even wildly popular, generally respected pieces, pieces that, truth be told, are probably good pieces — that I simply get no pleasure from listening to as a result.

But. There is, again, a flip side. Many of the pieces I love the most are complicated, subtle affairs. There are moments I live for that require the ability to mentally keep tabs on four different independent musical voices simultaneously, to follow dense motivic latticeworks laced with acid harmonies, to follow abstract formal constructs and notice when the composer is trolling you by messing with your expectations. There are moments that make me cackle with delight that are incomprehensible if you don't know Sonata Form, or haven't been paying close attention to timbre, or any of a myriad other little musical details tucked away beneath the surface. Tracking them may rob me of otherwise enjoyable music, but it unlocks rich musical realms I could otherwise only dream of.

For music, this is worth it. It's the thing I care most about in life, and it's central to almost everything I do. The richness of close study is well worth the tradeoff of lost works. For wine, it isn't. Wine, for me, is an incidental pleasure, nice to dip into on occasion, but by no means critical to my overall satisfaction with life. All wines could disappear from the planet tomorrow and I'd hardly bat an eye; if a similar fate befell music, I'd be devastated. I don't by any means begrudge people who balance this differently — people should absolutely develop whatever tastes they find most compelling; there's nothing wrong with being able to tell different years of the same wine with a whiff, just as there's nothing wrong with not ruining your ability to enjoy less than perfect music.

But for me, I'll be over here, quaffing something cheap and snickering at Satie. It's a good life.