The Laocoon – 
Drinking It In While Using Your Right Brain

Ken Friedenreich

Decoding The Grape

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

The diners included an architect to the regnant pope, Julius 2nd, his son and a contract artist, Michelangelo. They scurried off to the site. There they found a wonder, and it almost immediately was identified as the work Pliny the Elder had described nearly 1,500 years before in his Natural History. It was the Laocoon (pronounced “lay-ahk-o-ahn”). It was highly esteemed, even if it turned up in a dig amid wine grapes.

The sculpture depicts the death agony of its eponymous subject, a high priest in the Temple of Poseidon at the time. Two sea monsters coil around the man and his two sons. Laocoon displeased the sea god because he discovered 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 10-year war.

On the plinth of this work rested the entire Vatican Museum we know today. Julius, 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 expressed terror and resistance to it, but also expressed profound beauty and balance. It asks the question about how we can divide the apprehension of art between its emotional wallop and its formal genius.

The Laocoom has more to do with wine than being dumped in the vine rows behind a one-time 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 wine magazines. Wine drinking without numbers seems counter-intuitive. “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 over-charged or suckered into this case of wine where the government warning label should advise us of not just sulphaides, but excess hype?”

We cannot escape from our culture, it places great store in “evidence” and “facts” realized in numbers. “Wonder Bread builds strong bodies 12 ways.” Name three, Or, “Your mileage may vary.” Leave the car in the garage, Or, “We 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 empirical pragmatism showed us how. Our first president was a surveyor; numbers have greatly mattered as we manifested our destiny. We pace the perimeter; we add, subtract. Just the facts. Ma’am was Jack Webb’s mantra.

Ours is an evaluative culture. We say what we like rather than making the effort to describe the reasons for the preference and the object under consideration. To like something and leave the matter there reduces experience to a 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 who want to go to an Ivy League college; 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 cuts many ways, but here are two of the primary effects of number ratings. Robert M. Parker 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 that expressed 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 the 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 and is 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 where power and speed substitute for a well-conceived recipe. Celebrity cameos intrude on this entire goings on and take us deeper into the morass of likes and not likes.

Byron Cooley who owns Luminous Hills and Seven of Hearts vineyards in Yamhill Carlton, 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 for a 100 point score than I do for 88 points. That’s where I more likely find the terrors of the thing only part realized; but also the lovely wallop. 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 side.



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