How to Party like an Animal

What we can learn from the orgies of old.

orgy

Parties today are really nothing like they used to be.

To commemorate the destruction of the bloodthirsty lioness Sekhmet, the Ancient Egyptians held communal Festivals of Drunkenness at the beginning of their calendar year in mid-August, when the Nile is swelling.

Revelers drank to the point of passing out, only to be awoken by the beating of drums. The celebrations, which had an important religious dimension and typically took place in temples and shrines, also included dancing and public sex, in part to imitate and propitiate the flood and fertility to come.

The word “orgy,” ultimately from the Greek orgion, entered the English language in the 1560s to mean “a licentious revelry.” Today, people think of an orgy as a party involving open and unrestrained sex between strangers. But originally, orgia referred to the secret rites of Ancient Greek mystery cults such as the Dionysian Mysteries and the Cult of Cybele, which aimed, above all, at ecstatic union with the divine.

Dionysus, who, like Jesus, died and was reborn, was the god of wine, regeneration, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy, and was most fervently celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox. Let me paint you a picture of a Dionysian orgy.

The procession begins at sunset, led by torchbearers and followed by wine and fruit bearers, musicians, and a throng of revelers wearing masks and, well, not much else. At the back is a giant phallus representing the resurrection of the twice-born god. Everyone is pushing and shoving, singing and dancing, and shouting the name of the god mixed in with ribaldry and obscenity.

Arriving at a clearing in the woods, the crowd goes wild with drinking, dancing, and every imaginable manner of sex. The god is in the wine, and to imbibe it is to be possessed by his spirit—although in the bull’s horn the booze is interlaced with many other mind-bending substances. Animals, which stand in for the god, are hunted down, ripped apart with bare hands, and consumed raw with the blood still warm and dripping.

The “Dionysian” impulse for irrationality and chaos can be understood as a natural inversion of, and release from, the habitual “Apollonian” order and restraint imposed by the state and state religion. In the Birth of Tragedy (1872), the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche recognizes it as a primal and universal force:

Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dance we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea.

By diverting the Dionysian impulse into special rites on special days, the orgy was intended to keep it under control, preventing it from surfacing in more insidious and perfidious ways. More than that, it transformed it into an invigorating and liberating—and, in that much, profoundly religious—celebration of life and the life force.

It permitted people to escape from their artificial and restricted social roles, and regress into a more authentic state of nature, which modern psychologists have associated with the Freudian id or unconscious. It appealed most to marginal groups, since it set aside the usual hierarchies of man over woman, master over slave, patrician over commoner, rich over poor, and citizen over foreigner.

In short, it gave people a much-needed break—like modern holidays, but cheaper and more effective.

The Dionysian cult spread through the Greek colonies to Rome. In 186 BCE, the Roman Senate severely restricted it, but illicit Bacchanalia persisted, especially in Southern Italy, gradually folding into the much tamer Liberalia in honour of Liber Pater (“Free Father”), the Roman god of wine and fertility who so resembled Bacchus/Dionysus as, eventually, to fold into him.

As with the Dionysian cult, the Liberalia featured a giant phallus, carted through the countryside to fertilize the land and safeguard crops—after which a virtuous Roman matron would crown the phallus with a wreath. “Depravity” also featured in other Roman religious festivals, such as the Floralia, with prostitutes dancing naked, and the Lupercalia, with naked noblemen running through the streets and whipping willing ladies with strips of goatskin.

The 4th-century reign of Constantius II marked the beginning of the formal persecution of paganism by the Christian Roman Empire. But the springtime fertility orgy survived through the centuries, albeit in attenuated forms. At last, unable to suppress it, the Church integrated it into its calendar as Carnival—which, still today, involves the reversal of social norms and roles, licentiousness, and feasting ahead of the deprivations of Lent.

May Day celebrations across Europe and North America trace their origins to the Roman Floralia and corresponding Celtic traditions. In medieval times, people danced around the gigantic phallic symbol of the Maypole before descending into the fields or woods for indiscriminate sex, supposedly to fertilize the land. In 1644, the Puritans outlawed Maypoles in England, with the Long Parliament’s ordinance damning them as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.”

“Ecstasy” literally means “to be or stand outside oneself” (“ex-stasis”). It is a trance-like state in which consciousness of an object is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Albert Einstein himself called it the “mystic emotion” and spoke of it as “the finest emotion of which we are capable,” “the germ of all art and all true science,” and “the core of the true religious sentiment.”

More than ever before, modern society emphasizes the sovereign supremacy of the ego and the ultimate separateness and responsibility of each and every one of us. From a young age, we are taught to remain in tight control of our ego or persona with the aim of projecting it as far out as possible. As a result, we have lost the art of letting go—and indeed, may no longer even recognize the possibility—leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience.

As I argue in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, letting go can threaten the life that we have built or even the person that we have become, but it can also free us from our modern narrowness and neediness, and deliver, or re-deliver, us into a bigger and brighter world.

Little children have a quiescent or merged ego, which is why they brim with joy and wonder. Youth and ecstasy are the echoes of a primordial wisdom.

Heaven & Hell 2e cover

Some Thoughts on Wine Ratings

A wine rating is a summary of the appraisal of a wine by one or more critics, most notoriously Robert Parker, who assigns ‘Parker points’ on a scale of 0 to 100—although the lowest possible score is 50, scores of less than 70 are rare, and scores of less than 80 are uncommon. Since the 1970s, the practice of rating wines on a 100-point scale has proliferated. Other scales, including 0-to-20 and 0-to-5 (sometimes featuring stars in lieu of numbers), are also frequently used. Certain websites enable consumers to emulate critics by contributing to ‘community’ notes and scores. In competitions, wines are generally tasted blind by a panel of critics, usually alongside other wines from the same appellation or region. In theory, a rating is merely intended to supplement a tasting note; in practice, the tasting note—if it even exists—is often ignored or omitted, with the wine reduced to nothing more than a headline number.

Wine ratings convey information quickly and simply, guiding the purchasing decisions of novices in particular. Assuming strict single-blind conditions at the time of tasting, they reflect performance rather than price or pedigree. Scores can easily be compared, which encourages producers to compete and improve their offerings, and rewards them for doing so. Wines with 90-plus points are much more likely to shift, and those with scores in the high 90s can develop cult followings. Château Tirecul la Gravière in Monbazillac became an overnight reference after Robert Parker gave 100 points to its 1995 Cuvée Madame.

However, wine ratings can be criticized on the triple grounds of concept, procedure, and consequences. While a numerical score can come across as scientific, it merely reflects the personal preferences and prejudices of one or several critics, and it may be that grading wines is as misguided as ranking people in a beauty pageant. For what is beauty, and can it be measured on a stage? Like the contestants in the pageant, the wines are often very young, and scores cannot fully account for the delights and disappointments that they are yet to reveal. In any case, the most beautiful girl or boy is probably not on stage, but sitting at home buried in the Nicomachean Ethics. Many hallowed producers shun competitions, partly on ideological grounds, but mostly because they have little to gain and much to lose.

Scores are influenced not only by personal preferences and prejudices, but also by the context and conditions of the tasting, and, in a panel, by the group dynamics, with junior judges exquisitely sensitive to every ‘um’ and ‘aah’ of the distinguished panel chair. The number that comes out of this process might be of existential import to the producer, who has toiled for a year, indeed, several years, to make his or her wine, but reflects no more than a few seconds of tasting with no or very little time for discussion and debate. In competitions, there is also a financial incentive to dish out medals, which encourage further paid entries and increase sales of medal stickers.

As for consequences, wines with the highest scores fall prey to speculators and are traded like financial commodities, effectively removing them from the market-place. More gravely, ratings tend to favour the sort of wines that are able to stand out on a fatigued, tannin-coated palate, at the expense of more delicate wines, which are likely to be more elegant, more interesting, more faithful to terroir, and better suited to the table. This phenomenon has contributed in no small measure to the homogenization, or ‘Parkerization’, of wine styles as producers vie to obtain the highest scores—though Robert Parker himself stepped back significantly in 2016.

Wine ratings have played an important role in the rise of wine culture, but their grip seems to be loosening, if not quite fading, as consumers become more and more experienced and knowledgeable. To me, a score of 98 can also function as a signal for caution.

Adapted from The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Wines of the Mâconnais

The rock of Solutré

The climate of the Mâconnais is considerably warmer than that of Chablis or even the Côte d’Or. The relief is not as marked as in the Côte d’Or, and vineyards are mixed in with other forms of farming. The most reputed wines are from the south of Mâcon, in an area that rises into three limestone peaks: the Mont de Pouilly, the Roche de Solutré, and the Roche de Vergisson. The Roche de Solutré, which is a prehistoric and pilgrimage site, is picturesque, and well worth the gentle hike to its 493m summit.

Chardonnay predominates in the Mâconnais, but some Gamay and Pinot Noir are also found, especially in areas that are richer in sand and clay. The regional appellations are Mâcon, Mâcon-Villages (white wines only), and Mâcon + commune name. In addition, there are five commune-specific appellations (white wines only): Pouilly-Fuissé, Pouilly-Vinzelles, Pouilly-Loché, and Saint Véran to the south of Mâcon, and Viré-Clessé to the north. The vines are pruned as simple Guyot, with the cane trained in an arc (en arcure), which helps to delay budding (especially of terminal buds) and protect against frost.

Compared to Beaune, most Mâcon is simple and easy to drink, and unlikely to improve with age. That said, certain villages and producers have built a solid reputation and can offer great value for money. The limestone peaks of the Pouilly area belie the geological complexity of the surrounding terroir, with numerous faults and dips associated with at least fifteen distinct soil types. Some of the vineyards around the three peaks are deserving of Premier Cru status, and, in a first for the Mâconnais, there is a project to introduce about twenty. In 1866, Dr Jules Guyot wrote a report for the French ministry of agriculture in which he compared the potential of Meursault to that of Pouilly-Fuissé, and it’s interesting that he put it that way round.

The plan for Premier Crus

As with Chablis, much Mâcon is unoaked. However, Mâcon is less acidic than Chablis. Compared to Beaune and especially to Chablis, it is deeper in colour with riper aromas and a fuller body. The Pouilly wines, which are often lightly oaked, tend to be richer and riper on the one hand, and finer and more complex on the other. Owing to their sought-after smoky, flinty, or ‘wet stone’ character (goût de pierre à fusil), they are, I think, easier to confuse with Chablis than with Beaune. Pouilly-Vinzelles (~40ha) and Pouilly-Loché (~30ha) are exclaves of the much larger Pouilly-Fuissé (~760ha) and the wines from the three appellations are very similar in style. Vinzelles with its two castles was known to the Romans, who called it Vincella, or ‘Small Vine’. The soils in Vinzelles tend to be more ferrous, which can translate into spicier, broader wines. Neighbouring Loché can be labelled as Vinzelles, and is harder to find. Saint-Véran envelopes Pouilly-Fuissé like a scarf (or, to be more precise, like a bun) with wines that tend to a leaner, fresher style. Owing to an administrative cock-up in 1971, the village name is ‘Saint-Vérand’ but the appellation ‘Saint-Véran’, without the ‘d’. Viré-Clessé to the north of Mâcon varies in style, but the best examples, especially from Viré, are easily mistaken for Pouilly-Fuissé—as are the best examples from Saint-Véran.

Notable producers in the Mâconnais include Domaine de la Soufrandière and the related négoce Bret Brothers (very classic regional style), Guffens-Heynen and the related négoce Verget, Ferret, Valette, Chagnoleau, and Rijckaert. It’s all too easy to underestimate the Mâconnais, but the best wines can be as good as anything in Burgundy, at a fraction of the price.

And that’s saying something.

A Technical Guide to Food and Wine Pairing

Food and wine can have a synergistic relationship, such that the wine improves the food and the food the wine, unleashing the full taste potential of both. In many European wine regions, the wine styles and culinary traditions developed reciprocally such that the wines naturally pair with the regional fare. Many of these so-called ‘food wines’ can seem overly tart or tannic if drunk independently, but come into their own once paired with food, and, in particular, those dishes that they co-evolved with. If you respect these time-honoured pairings, you are unlikely to go wrong.

Otherwise, you need to choose what to put into focus: the food or the wine. For instance, if it is the wine that you wish to emphasize, pick a dish that is slightly lighter and complements rather than competes with it. Take care not to pick a dish that is too light or it will be overwhelmed by the wine: although you want the wine to lead, you want the dish to follow closely behind. If it is the food that you wish to emphasize, you are effectively using the wine as a sauce or spice. In all instances, the wine and the food should interact synergistically, with the wine bringing out the best in the food, and the food the best in the wine. This is certainly the case with such classic pairings as Muscadet and oysters, Claret and lamb, and Sauternes and Roquefort.

Taste, however, is subjective, and there cannot and should not be rigid rules for pairing foods and wines. Indeed, part of the pleasure of the wine lover is in experimenting with combinations and, in so doing, multiplying the flavours, textures, and sensations of everyday life. That said, you do need to be versed in the principles that you may, or may not, decide to break.

First, identify the dominant component of your dish. For example, the dominant component of fish served in a creamy sauce is more likely to be the sauce than the fish itself. Then pick a wine that either complements or contrasts with the dominant component. Examples of complementary pairings are: a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc with sole in a lemon sauce, an earthy Pinot Noir with mushroom vol-au-vents, a peppery Syrah with a steak in peppercorn sauce, and a nutty Vin Jaune with Comté cheese.

Four important elements to bear in mind are weight, acidity, tannins, and sweetness. The weight and texture of a wine is determined by such factors as alcohol level, amount of extract and tannin, and winemaking processes such as extended maceration, lees ageing, and oaking. In general, lighter wines pair with lighter foods, whereas heavier, more robust wines pair with heavier, more rustic foods. Good examples of pairings by weight are Chardonnay and lobster or Chardonnay and roast chicken.

Acidity stimulates appetite and cuts through heaviness, explaining the success of such contrasting pairings as Sancerre and goat cheese, Alsatian Riesling and pork belly, and Tokaj and foie gras. In all cases, the wine must be at least as acidic as the dish, and preferably more so: if not, the wine is going to seem thin or insipid.

Tannins can lend chalkiness or grittiness to a wine, and also bitter astringency. Tannins bind to and react with proteins in food, by which process they are ‘softened’. While tannic wines go hand in hand with red meats and cheeses, they pair poorly with spicy or sweet dishes, which can accentuate their bitterness and astringency, and also with fish oils, which can make them taste ‘metallic’.

A sweet dish requires a wine that is just as sweet or sweeter if the wine is not to be overpowered. Sweetness balances heat and spiciness, and also contrasts with saltiness, as, for example, in the case of port and blue cheese. Conversely, alcohol accentuates the heat in spicy food and vice versa. So much explains why Mosel Riesling, which is both high in residual sugar and low in alcohol, is often an excellent choice for spicy food. However, very spicy food will overwhelm almost any wine, so pair with some other beverage such as water, tea, beer, or lassi. Some foods are difficult to pair with wine, most notably chocolate, eggs, fresh tomatoes, and asparagus.

Finally, remember also to match your wine to the occasion, your companions, the season, the weather, the time of day or night, and your mood and tastes. If you are serving more than one wine, think about your line up and make it as varied or interesting or educational as possible.

And of course—even if the tasting conditions are far from ideal—serve the wines blind!

Adapted from the new edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Why Blind Taste Wine?

WINE is a complex combination of acids, alcohols, sugars, polyphenols, and other biochemicals suspended in an aqueous solution. These biochemicals may be experienced as colour, aromas and flavours, structure or mouthfeel, and by their effects—either pleasant or unpleasant, depending upon the amount consumed—on mind and body. Parameters such as grape variety, soil, climate, wine- making, and ageing express themselves through the ever-changing makeup of the liquid in the glass, which can be analysed and interpreted by the experienced or attentive taster.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias and suggestion are all too easily introduced into this process of identification and appreciation. Ideally, a wine ought to be evaluated objectively, with only an afterthought for such factors as price or prestige, the reputation of the region or producer, the shape of the bottle, the type of closure used, and the design on the label. Even our past experiences (‘I once had a lovely picnic in this vineyard’, ‘I hate Sauvignon Blanc’) and the context and conditions of the tasting (‘This room is cold’, ‘This Empire style Château is amazing’) can influence our appraisal of the wine.

While all these factors can, and inevitably do, play a part in our personal enjoyment of a wine, they can lead us to prejudice one grape variety, region, producer, vintage, etc. over another, and, ultimately, one wine over another. By holding us back from tasting different wines and thinking about wine, they limit our understanding, and so our enjoyment, of those wines and wine in general.

By far the best way to control for biases is to be blinded to everything but the liquid itself, which is served naked in a standard wine glass, preferably in a more or less neutral setting and without flourish or fanfare. The wine may be tasted either on its own or in a flight, in which case it may be usefully compared and contrasted with the other wines in the flight. The wines within a flight may or may not have certain things in common, for instance, grape variety, country or region of origin, and/or vintage. If these commonalities are revealed prior to tasting, the tasting is said to be ‘semi-blind’. The precise identity of a wine is only revealed once it has been thoroughly assessed and, for more advanced tasters, an attempt at identification has been made.

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Aside from setting a standard of objectivity, there is much pleasure to be taken from the process of blind tasting, in:

  • Focusing on nothing else but the wines in our glasses.
  • Testing, stretching, and developing our senses.
  • Applying our judgement.
  • Relying upon and recalling old memories.
  • Comparing our analysis and interpretations with those of our peers.
  • Getting it completely right, more or less right, or ‘wrong for the right reasons’.
  • Discussing the wine and learning about it, and about wine in general.
  • Imbibing the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, blind tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the aromas and flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world. For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.

In philosophy, phenomenology is the study of the structures of experience and consciousness. Wine blind tasting is the best phenomenology, phenomenology par excellence, returning us from our heads into the world, and, at the same time, teaching us the methods of the mind.

The more practically-minded among you may rest assured that blind tasting also has some more down-to-earth purposes: winemakers need to taste a wine as they are making it; wine buyers before adding it to their stocks; journalists, critics, and sommeliers before recommending it to their readers and patrons; and imbibers before sharing it with their friends. Especially as a student, you can enter into a growing number of local, national, and international blind tasting competitions. You can also pursue more formal qualifications and give yourself the option of entering into the wine trade, which is no doubt more life affirming than many other trades.

Adapted from the new third edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

concise guide to wine new 3e