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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

February 20, 2008

When Losers Win: Lessons from the Greatest Wine Ever Made

I count it my recent, good fortune to have discovered Slate Magazine. While their political pieces leave me ill, I generally find their food and travel section most agreeable (in fairness, their politics section is nearly always amusing, albeit repugnant). Last week's article on the 1947 Cheval Blanc proved no exception to my guilty pleasure.

For the $4 Merlot drinkers out there, the quick and dirty on the '47 Cheval Blanc is that it is widely considered by wine connoisseurs to be the finest wine ever made. This point of itself will probably not surprise many. Even the most boorish among us can appreciate a fine wine. But what may be surprising, is the rest of the story (to quote Paul Harvey); and it is toward this literary end that Mike Steinberger's piece in Slate Magazine is helpful.

[Link]

According to Steinberger, the birth of the '47 Cheval Blanc hearkens back to the days of climate dependent vintages. Back in ye olden days of wine making, the Bordeaux region of France was renowned for producing excellent wines primarily due to its temperate climate. To wit, the Bordeaux region provided an ethereal mix of humidity and dryness, creating some of the most succulent grapes in the world; which were then used to create some of the most beloved wines in the world.

What makes this point difficult to appreciate, as Steinberger notes, is that today nearly every vintage produced creates a drinkable wine. Be it the La Mancha region of Spain or, god forbid, Napa Valley here in the States, modern vintners nearly always get it right. Advancements in climate controlled cellars, modern farming technologies, and an abundant workforce all combine to make wine the $100 Billion industry it is today.

Unfortunately, the cost-benefit trade off is that many wines lose their originality. Call it selling out to the man, if you will. In times past, wine production was eminently dependent upon the summer vintage. Factors contributing to the summer vintage included: whether the summer was too hot; whether precipitation was received in the correct proportion to heat; whether acts of God conspired to frustrate the above; and whether all of these factors at issue found an alignment of the stars in producing the perfect bottle.

Enter the year 1947. Pakistan gained independence from Britain. Jackie Robinson became the first black to play baseball. UFOs were cited in Roswell, NM. President Truman implemented his eponymous doctrine. And a small vineyard in western France called Château Cheval Blanc was in the midst of what promised to be a rather terrible year.

Building on his laconic imagery, Steinberger describes the challenge of that year as follows:
July and August were blazing hot months, and the conditions turned downright tropical in September. By the time the harvest began, the grapes had more or less roasted on the vine, and the oppressive heat followed the fruit right into the cellar.

Adding straw to the camel's back, local ice distributors could scarce keep up with the demand for regional ice provisions. Many wineries were neglected for want of more pressing demands from butchers, fishermen, and presumably undertakers. Even so, by some, miracle means, the small vineyard at Cheval Blanc was able to forage just enough ice to save the vintage.

Yet, this fact alone provided little consolation to the vintners. By nearly all accounts, the combination of scorching heat and steamy damp from that 1947 summer should have ruined the vineyard's production. Rather, quite the opposite occurred:
The '47s signature flaws—the residual sugar and volatile acidity—were readily apparent, but it was just as Lurton had said: In this wine, the flaws inexplicably became virtues. The analogy that sprang to mind wasn't port; it was Forrest Gump. This was the Forrest Gump of wines—clearly defective, completely charmed.

At risk of seeming overly introspective, it occurs to me that much of life is quite analogous to the '47 Cheval Blanc. It would be almost platitudinous to suggest that life is full of obstacles. Just ask any law student if you disagree with this given. But the interesting link between the story and life is how the improbable, seemingly dire circumstances of our existence combine to produce something truly magnificent.

As Steinberger indicates above, it is the peculiarities and blemishes which make the world's finest wine great. Consider that modern vintners have every technology and every comfort at their disposal in creating passable, drinkable wine year-in, year-out. Indeed, the entire industry prospers as a result of such technical prowess and dexterity.

But what makes the greatest wine preeminent is its flawed idiosyncrasies.

The '47 Cheval Blanc is a wine which ought never to have been. Borrowing a bit from Steinberger, the wine is in fact very much like a lover- its faults become qualities. One learns to appreciate the flaws. What once was irksome becomes endearing. Borrowing from personal recollection, I believe this rifling to be mostly true. In fact, over time, love tends to become its own end. And eventually the loud imperfections of being slowly yield to the quiet acceptance of night.

Parsing the matter theologically, it is not difficult to recall the words of Christ in Matthew 21:42:
"The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone."

[Link]

Odd that the '47 Cheval Blanc shares with the Savior the least common denominator of rejection. Yet, in their prime, both surely were rejected. Of course, both also had their own vindication in time. The Christ would go on to turn water into wine and save humanity. The '47 Cheval Blanc would go on to turn wine into something different entirely.

It may be a fair to question exactly what the purpose is of this ambling exploration of thought.

I have no specific conclusions.

The mark of a good lawyer is always to answer it depends, except when it doesn't. But an important point for consideration in this assessment are the remarks made earlier about originality and vintage.

Here lately, amid interviews and career workshops, I have come to realize that sometimes the trend of life becomes more important in our consciousness than the living of life.

In fact, life, in many ways, resembles the plight of modern vintners. Streamlined. Efficeint. Predictable. Perhaps even stale (or at least starved for novelty). But good wines, like quirky people, remind us that breaking with convention is often a fine departure from the status quo.

Going it alone, damning the man, or even fording the river- regardless of whether your oxen dies- can help one stay true to one's self. Life, as a result, may still not yield the perfect bottle. Just look at the people around you. But what it does yield will still have done the trick.

In turn, I think the following life lessons from the world's greatest wine might be useful to consider:

To the discouraged, I would posit that the summers of life need not leave you scorched.

To the encouraged, consider your flaws- they may be your strengths.

To the optimistic, I would posit that like modern vintners convention is not always best.

To the dour, consider that even the worst of vintages can yield something great.

And, most importantly, winners lose- like the 2007 New England Patriots. And on occasion, losers win- like the 1947 Cheval Blanc.
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