The Narcisism of Small Differences

I do not drink wine, and I never have. It is therefore very, very difficult for me not to lose my temper when I hear or read someone describing wine in any way that goes much beyond, “It tasted good,” or “It tasted bad.” Take, for example, this review from the New York Times, in which the author describes Tokaji aszu, a kind of Hungarian dry white wine, as “a gorgeously honeyed, lavishly sweet wine of such balance and precision that it can accompany savory meals.”

I can accept the use of the adjective “honeyed,” because honey is a thing that other things can taste like. So fair enough, New York Times wine reviewer Eric Asimov. Can something be “gorgeously” honeyed? I suppose so, although we’re now bordering on territory that makes me uncomfortable. I’ve absolutely no problem with wine being described as “sweet,” and even though the addition of “lavishly” seems a little overwrought, like a TV judge who overrules the plain and boring and befuddled attorney’s objections that the brilliant and colorful and unorthodox attorney’s methods should be forbidden, I’ll allow it. But just as the TV judge turns to the brilliant attorney and says, “This had better be going somewhere, Counselor,” I turn to Mr. Asimov and say, “Don’t push your luck.”

a-wine-tasting
I have no idea why I’m smelling this.  I’m on a date with a guy who is smelling the wine and closing his eyes, so I don’t have too many options here.  It smells like . . . wine.

And then Mr. Asimov goes ahead and pushes his luck by using the phrase “balance and precision” in reference to a wine. It should be pointed out that not only are these Hungarian wines balanced and precise, they are balanced and precise to the extent that they can accompany savory meals! I won’t insult your intelligence by mentioning what inevitably occurs when one pairs a savory meal with a Hungarian dry white wine that is imprecise and unbalanced. You know what occurs, and I know what occurs, and the result is neither gorgeously honeyed nor lavishly sweet.

This kind of language is not limited to those who make a living reviewing wines, but seems to have infected the entire wine world in general. Mr. Asimov quotes a winemaker in the same article as saying, “Sweet winemaking mind-sets and techniques are at times practiced too often when making dry wines in Tokaj.  As more producers find their own voices, more precisely made, terroir-expressive dry furmints will be produced.” Only the most visionary among us – the clear-eyed, the prophets, the holy fools – are able to adopt the mind-set of the sweet winemaker without allowing it to corrupt and ruin everything else they do.  And there, once again, is the focus on “precision,” although I note with concern that the concept of “balance” has clumsily been omitted.

eric asimov
Eric Asimov of The New York Times:  Yes, that makes sense.

My initial reaction to all of this – and yours, too, probably – is: these people are stupid. And annoying. And they need real jobs. They’re more than likely misapplying flowery adjectives to the differences between wines that are, truth be told, really very small, if they even exist at all. I will live to be 6,000 years old before you can make me understand how a wine can be precise.  In other words, most of us are thinking, “The Emperor has no clothes on this one.  He just doesn’t.  Somewhere along the line some brilliant huckster started talking about wine in abstract, ridiculous terms, and everyone played along for fear of not seeming intelligent and refined.”

And yet, I had an experience last week that made me slightly more sympathetic to people who speak and write about wine – or food, or football, or Afro-Caribbean funk – in the way the Mr. Asimov does. I was midway through a long, challenging day at work and stood in need of both a distraction and a refreshment. My mind turned to the bag of these that I keep in my desk for such occasions:

blow pop

Daddy’s little helper.

I quickly unwrapped a Grape Blow Pop and began to consume it.  Not 10 seconds in I thought, “This bag of Blow Pops isn’t very good.  The hard candy shell is a little gummy, and a higher than usual percentage of the lollipops in the bag have been shattered  (This is highly undesirable, as opening a shattered one leaves you with a handful of sticky shards of candy rather than a mouthful of deliciousness.)  Even worse, the inner core of bubble gum is perhaps the worst I’ve ever tasted; it’s not nearly as flavorful as one finds in even an average bag, and for some strange reason the gum deteriorates after a minute or two, rather than providing the chewer with at least 0.5 hours of chewing and bubble-blowing.”

Well, you can see where I’m going with this.  To the undiscerning eater of gum-centered lollipops – the dilettantes, the trick-or-treaters, the bank beneficiaries – this particular bag would have tasted exactly the same as any other bag.  But that doesn’t mean that the difference between the two bags doesn’t exist.  It just means that they are discernible only to those who have paid the price necessary to develop highly refined senses capable of detecting variations of a very small magnitude.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve achieved this high level of sensitivity in a number of areas – gradations so slight that to the unwashed masses they seem not to exist at all. These include:  volleyball sets intended for left-handed hitters who can barely jump high enough to hit over the net, sausage and mushroom pizzas from Papa John’s, plastic trash bags designed to fit in a small container hooked to a leash for the purpose of disposing of dog scat, and different styles of t-shirts from the Gap.  Because I could in good conscience use an array of many-syllabled adjectives to describe the small variations between different versions of these things, and because most people would think that the words “good” and “bad” would be more than sufficient, I guess I’m willing to cut Mr. Asimov and his fellow oenophiles a little slack.

papa-johns-zesty-italiano-pizza
Bold without being pretentious, this particular sausage and mushroom pizza from Papa John’s – while being ever so slightly stiff in the crust – is a pizzamaker’s coup, both in terms of the sauce/pizza/topping ratio and the overall balance and precision of the pie.

The real question, though, is this:  in what things have you developed sufficient expertise to truly notice the slightest differences between versions of these things – differences that the average person would be inclined to believe you’re simply making up to sound smart?

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21 Responses to The Narcisism of Small Differences

  1. Ryan says:

    Cheese. It’s not that I’m an expert in cheese, but I’ve started to love it, and now I can understand what people mean when they talk about a cheese’s “oaky nuttiness.” Rather, I can understand what Remy from Ratatouille means when he says that. He’s pretty much my main fancy cheese reference.

  2. Ryan says:

    But boy, I do agree about wine people. Sooooooo annoying. Did I ever tell you about the guy I met in Portugal who was getting his PhD in the biochemistry of wine? So not fun to talk to that guy.

  3. Braden says:

    Davis your comparison to the TV judge in the courtroom was brilliant. After laughing and laughing at this post, I think you are completely right about the Emperor having no, or at least few, clothes. But it seems to me that almost any discipline or endeavor probably has distinctions that are almost meaningless in real, practical terms and terribly important to practitioners.

    At any rate, I will admit that I can taste the difference in diet Dr. Pepper that comes from a plastic bottle vs. that from a can.

    I can also tell when Ginger Ale has been properly chilled and seasoned for a day or so as opposed to when it comes straight out of its container.

  4. Christian says:

    Ya, wine folks are a bit over the top. The worst part of the Bachelor is all the corny, fake, self-congratulatory cheers-ing that substitutes for real conversation every night.

    But you’re right about blow pops. I’ve had good, mediocre, and bad, and I know the difference.

    To answer your last question, my biggest one is root beer. I’ve had every brand available to me (Mug is the best grocery story brand) and whenever we’re at a restaurant that has their own micro-brewed rootbeer, I have a glass. The winner so far? Big Sur River Inn and Restaurant. Incredible stuff.

  5. Eliza says:

    Funny post as always. I’m not sure how uncommon this is, but I can for sure tell the difference between brands of cereal. General Mills Honey Nut Cheerios and all the other generic brands are vastly different, styrofoamy and flavorless to be exact. I’ve hardly met a generic cereal that tastes the same or better than the name brand. sad but true. Root beer brands are also huge, my preferred drink of choice, you ask? Mug or A&W hands down. And I’m with you on the cheese ry, I’m not very adventurous (like at all, I”m just talking cheddar here) but for sure Tillamook is the best! Anyway, your welcome for sharing my knowledge, I’m sure were all better informed people now. ; )

  6. Eliza says:

    Sorry chris, didn’t see your root beer comment, didn’t mean to step on your expertise.

  7. Christian says:

    Well you did, and it’s out there and there’s nothing we can do about it now, is there?

  8. Rebecca says:

    mine is cookies, mostly chocolate chip. i can tell a shortening-made cookie just by looking at it. and, i can even tell non-salted butter-made and salter-butter made cookies. i can even tell a good recipe for cookies just by glancing at the ingredient list and ratios of ingredients. maybe that’s an obvious one, but i can consider myself kind of an expert on cookies.
    wine tasting befuddles me as well. i just don’t get why people go great distances and pay ridiculous amounts of money for it.

  9. Troy says:

    Davis you have always had a keen sense and a bravery for calling out any Emperor without clothes. The Wine Emperor is as nude as a newborn.

    I get the whole thing where one might develop a higher sensitivity to some things, and we’re pointing them out here with Root Beer and cereal…but still…we’re not even close to approaching the pretentiousness of wine connoisseurs.

    Can you imagine sitting at a restaurant and ordering a root beer and when the waiter comes out, he pops the cap on the bottle and hands it to you….you close your eyes and smell the cap…you solemnly nod to the waiter in approval…he pours–in a very particular manner–your root beer into a special glass (and if you’re not special enough to order root beer, they remove the glass from your table altogether)…then you swirl it in your glass to create a chimney effect on the effervescence so that you can comment on it’s particular “bouquet”.

    So while some of us really can taste a difference in root beer, or cereal, or blow pops, none of us are turning it into a sacred ceremony.

    Thank you Davis. I for one vow that the next time I am at dinner with a wine drinker (most likely this coming Thursday night) I am going to pull the wizard of oz curtain back and expose them for what they are. I’ll report back. It could get ugly so I better not wear my nice shirt (the shirt from Brooks Brothers that I paid twice as much for because there’s a huge difference in the quality of the linen weave and the way the cut hangs on my body frame, and the crispness of the cuffs, and, most particularly, the knife-edge crease down the distal side of the sleeves that magically holds up after infinite washings).

  10. tyler says:

    I have to speak for my wife on this one since I am skeptical of my personal connoisseur-like sensibilities. My wife, it is safe to say is a pancake Nazi. She gives absolute superiority to Bisquick Pancake Mix, claiming they are the best and most delicious pancakes in the world. I know what your thinking, such a bold and foolish statement. Hypothetically speaking, if she were writing this email, which I am doing in her best interest, it wold be something like this, “Bringing tears to your palate, Bisquick pancakes touch the appetite in a spaciously substantial way, atomically equipped to hold the finest of spreads, is a timely, yet heartfelt breakfast choice for you and your offspring.” I am near certain that’s what she would say. I will contact her for confirmation.

  11. craig says:

    i am a connoisseur of business sock fabrics

  12. Ryan says:

    I know I’m going to give offense to a huge proportion of the readership (and naked emperors) here, but I have to say it: Cola is Cola.

    Sorry.

  13. Wade says:

    Utah Jazz offensive possessions – while I could never draw up Sloan’s offense, I feel like I know exactly how he feels about any given possession. I find myself cheering for good ball rotation, screens and open looks whether or not the ball goes in the basket (and usually 1/2 second before we know whether it will go in), and getting ticked, especially at Boozer, when an ill-advised shot is taken. Me and you Jer-loan, I’m right there with you.

    and Other People’s Driving – I sit and mentally rate other drivers on the road the whole time I’m driving. Cheering on a good lane change as a car goes whizzing by me, scoffing at a delayed response to the left turn arrow, giving a “proud papa” frown/smile to the old man still holding it together on the roads, spotting the teenage texting drivers from distance. Just keeping it real out there.

  14. Ben Pratt says:

    Oh Em Gee Wade, I do the same thing with Other Drivers. It turns out most of them fall in the vast tree of categories under “buffoonery,” but there are always a handful of respectable drivers. Occasionally there’s that rare driver indeed, the one who gets a hearty salute in place of mumbled aspersions on his moral character.

    One area of my expertise is logical flow in blog posts. Many bloggers try to write like they’re Holden Caulfield, but they never really arrive at a point. Even if they do, it’s unrelated to all that precedes it. I can tell a good blog post just by reading it, for it feels tight somehow, though there may be a sense that a hole remains somewhere, which can be found if I reread it.

    The rare great blog post is crafted to be so tight that you could cup water in it for as long as you please without it dripping out, and after one read I say to myself “Self, get back to work. Also, that was a lusciously balanced conclusion boldly supported by gorgeously precise arguments.”

    On ceremony with regard to wine-tasting, I will say this: the French do appear to be incredibly persistent in their experimentation to find the best way to do a thing. See wine-tasting, French cooking, French music (I found Debussy bizarre at first, but he is wonderful once you understand just what it is he’s doing), and the Constitution of France.

  15. Davis says:

    Ryan: I’d love to get to that point with cheese. I really would. Ana Ph.D in the biochemistry of wine sounds like some rich kid fabricated a degree program to have his parents fund a 4-year sabbatical in Europe. As for cola . . . I’m not sure I follow your argument. Are you saying they all taste exactly the same? Or just that they taste enough the same that you don’t get what all the fuss is about?

    Braden: “any discipline or endeavor probably has distinctions that are almost meaningless in real, practical terms and terribly important to practitioners.” Exactly. That’s the essence of what I was trying to say. And I know what you mean about ginger ale; I prefer my root beer to be opened, then chilled for a day, rather than opened immediately. Take a little of the carbonation out, but not too much.

    Kook: We’ll have to have a blow pops tasting next time we’re in Utah. And yes, Mug is the best grocery store brand. By far. I actually prefer Mug to any microbrew I’ve had.

    Eliza: I, too, can easily distinguish between brand name and generic cereals (although Marshmallow Mateys sometimes throw me).

    Rebecca: Why have you been holding out on us all these years? We’ll have to have a cookie tasting right after the blow pop tasting.

    Troy: You’re right. Your funny root beer hypothetical shows how insane the wine thing has gotten. Please keep us apprised of how your wine-drinking dinner companion reacts to your exposing them as frauds.

    Tyler: Christian would certainly dispute your wife’s claims to the throne of pancake connoisseur. We may need to have a blind tasting to compete for that title.

    Craig: Go on . . .

    Wade: I appreciate your appreciation of Jerry Sloan’s offenses and drivers. I love thinking of you knowing what Jerry thinks of a particular possession.

  16. maweesa says:

    i’m an expert on MANY things… sour patch kids, the right amount of grenadine in my coke, leggings, socks and when to wear what kind, dog sweaters, dog bones, and eye lash curlers…. i have to admit, sometimes i wish i could be a fancy wine drinker.. it sounds like so much fun… until then, i’ll continue to order my roy rodgers with dinner….

  17. lenox says:

    Davis…I can’t believe you didn’t add any reference to your connoisseurship of mens underwear.

  18. Sara says:

    Sterilite clear plastic bins. They sell a slightly different version at Target than they do at Walmart….each are preferable for different purposes, and the prices are constantly changing at both stores, so the game never ends.

    Should I be embarrassed that this is my only area of expertise??

    Also – Julianne has spent about 15 years being angry/envious of the “Coffee Society” that has so cruely left her out.

  19. Sara says:

    Oh, wait!!!! I thought of another one! Accents. I can pick out what makes an accent from any region of the United States distinctive, and I can’t help but comment on it. Naturally, I’ve had the most experience with the Utah Mormon accent, and have completely over-analyzed it complexities, and I know I’ve nailed it, because it drives my (Utah Mormon) husband CRAZY.
    That has got to be more annoying than snobby wine tasters. I mean, it is their job….

    And Eliza, If you ever have the chance to shop at an ALDI grocery store (oh, that everyone would be so lucky), try their Frosted Flakes. They’re not the same as Kellogg’s, but you won’t be dissapointed.

  20. Erin says:

    peanut butter toast – sonds silly, but very serious! I learned from the master, my mother. For some reason, my Dad never could get it right. There is a very specific ratio of butter to peanut butter. Too little butter, shameful. Too much pb makes it too dry. And you might as well throw the toast out if you start applying later than five seconds after the pop-up, simply too cold. Every morning as a kid I use to ask for toast with “a lot of butter and a little bit of peanut butter.” Might sound gross, but it’s delicious and has taken me years to perfect!

  21. Ryan says:

    Erin, Macy also puts butter on every type of toast- whether you’re going to cover it with peanut butter, honey, or jam. My own upbringing entrenched more puritanical toast-spread principals in my character. If you’re putting jam on toast, does it need to have butter too? Absolutely not, that would be a little bit immoral. And for goodness sake, peanut butter, accompanied with butter? Maybe in heaven, but probably not even there.

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