As some of you know, I was in Napa last week at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. The keynote speaker was Michael Gelb, the best selling author and speaker, whose most popular book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, served as the primary subject for his talk. Gelb is a passionate wine drinker, who also has written a book called Wine Drinking for Inspired Thinking, so a talk on creativity from him didn't come entirely out of the blue. Even though wine was not his subject, he wove several wine anecdotes into his speech.
His talk was focused on using the principles outlined in his book to help those in attendance with their work and career as writers. But it struck me that these principles, which Gelb gleaned from Leonardo's writings and works, are a wonderful map for aspiring wine lovers. So with Gelb's permission, I'd like to explore how Leonardo Da Vinci (as interpreted by Gelb) can teach you a deeper appreciation for wine.
From Da Vinci's life and works, Gelb distilled seven principles that he feels embody "genius thinking." Each offers something to the wine lover.
According to Gelb, Da Vinci was "the most curious person that ever lived." He wanted to know how everything worked. Everything. And so he sketched, recorded, jotted, and obsessively chronicled his ideas, experiences, and questions in his notebooks.
A wine lover without passionate curiosity is like a couple that unfailingly has sex once a month in the exact same position without any foreplay. You're missing out on a world of opportunity! Tens of thousands of grape varieties, scores of different countries producing wines, thousands of winemakers around the world with their own vision for how to achieve the particular alchemy that transforms grapes into something divine.
If you truly want to learn about wine, and fully enjoy it, you not only need to drink widely and experimentally, but you also need a bit of Da Vinci's childlike wonder. A passionate curiosity ultimately results in a more conscious and thoughtful interaction with the world, and when it comes to wine, a much deeper appreciation and connection with what is in the glass.
Da Vinci was famous for his experimentation and his desire to demonstrate his own knowledge to himself. Many of his drawings come in triplicate, as he looked at something from three different perspectives.
One of the best ways to deepen your experience and knowledge of wine is to take a structured approach to tasting it. While this shouldn't be your primary way of engaging with wine, because after all, wine is about pleasure, taking a methodical approach to tasting can be incredibly educational. In my essay, The Five Stages of a Self Education in Wine, I urge budding wine lovers to hold blind tasting parties with friends, where everyone brings a wine that meets a specific criteria (say, Merlots under $30) and tastes them blind, making notes, choosing favorites, and then talking about the results. These kinds of structured exercises not only bolster an understanding of, for example, what Merlot tastes like, but also help to hone your own preferences. How can you feel confident about your opinion of Merlot as a wine when you've never carefully tasted twenty of them from five different countries?
According to Gelb, "The Italians have la dolce vita, or the sweet life. The French have joie de vivre, or the joy of life. What do we have in America? Happy Hour?" There are different ways of being in the world, and different ways of thinking about how to live a good life. Da Vinci thought that man's senses were the gateway to the soul. This principle is about approaching life like the miracle that it is.
You're eating a cherry. Do you ever stop yourself mid-bite and think, "Now wait, I must remember, this is what cherry actually tastes like" with the idea that you'd like to be able to recognize it the next time you taste it in wine? My buddy Gary Vaynerchuk got a lot of mileage out of sucking on rocks with Conan O'Brien, but do you actually know what wet rocks taste and smell like? Wouldn't life be that much more interesting if you did? OK, maybe not, but remember that point above about curiosity?
Gaining a deeper appreciation for wine doesn't always have to come from paying more attention to how it tastes and smells, but damn, isn't one of the most amazing things about wine the fact that it can smell and taste like everything from lemon zest to smoked bacon?
Being attentive to the sensations of the world, its flavors and smells, its textures and tones, is a celebration of the miracle that we have the ability to perceive these things in the first place, as well as a source of deepening pleasure in our own existence.
But even as we revel in our experience of the world, it is impossible to understand and apprehend everything. The world is a big, confusing, mysterious place, and not everything has a perfect explanation. Sfumato is a term from painting, a specific technique that Da Vinci mastered that literally translates to "smoky," which produces a hazy mysterious quality that seems to glow with illumination. If you've seen the Mona Lisa in person, you will remember the curious softness of the light and lines, yet the beautiful sculptural quality that emerged from these seemingly imprecise applications of paint. Gelb uses this technique as a metaphor for a willingness to embrace the unknown and live with confusion.
How exactly does a wine's flavor change with age? What role does oxygen play in that evolution? What is the relationship between the chemistry of the soil and the flavor of the wine? Science has not been able to answer these questions definitively. Wine is mysterious even to those plumbing its molecular depths. For those of us who merely drink it, the mysteries are even deeper. We don't actually need to know how it is that a wine can taste of mint and chocolate, we can just appreciate it. It is enough to celebrate the complexities that older vines bring to a wine without knowing exactly why they do.
Life's a mystery, so drink up.
Arte e Scienza
Art and science. Left brain and right brain. Da Vinci's life work represented the pinnacles of achievement in both aesthetic and scientific pursuits. Engineer, painter, sculptor, inventor, musician -- Da Vinci embraced many disciplines and worked in many domains. Gelb believes that a key to unlocking our potential involves thinking and working across the spectrum of disciplines, as we might say at my alma mater, from the fuzzy to the techie.
Wine clearly exists at the intersection of art and science. It is equal parts of each. Without science there is just vinegar. Without art, we have flavored alcoholic beverage. Learning about and loving wine means embracing both of its sides: understanding how it is made, while at the same time appreciating it for something more than just the product of photosynthesis and a set of chemical reactions.
Apparently, Da Vinci was not only a great inventor and artist, but he was also widely known as the strongest man in Florence. According to Gelb, he was a juggler, a fencer, a thespian, and a cook. The principle of corporalità represents the balance of mind and body , the equilibrium captured so deftly in Da Vinci's famous vitruvian man drawing.
When it comes to wine, this principle has clear implications. Wine is food. In the wrong quantities, it is also poison. Intoxication makes up part of the joy of wine, but anyone who has dealt with substance abuse knows the dark side of that coin. In sensible moderation, wine is, as Benjamin Franklin is often quoted, "a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy."
"Everything is connected to everything else," says Gelb, "which is why we have to be systems thinkers." Da Vinci made cognitive leaps all the time, grasping at connections between phenomena that had yet to be understood by the science or the religion of his time. For Gelb, this principle is not only about the connectedness of everything, but also about our own individual connection with our highest aspirations and purposes, and with each other.
Wine ultimately embodies connection. The connection between the earth and the sky, or as Galileo so beautifully put it "wine is sunlight, held together by water." The connection between man and earth, and the cycles of cultivation unbroken across millennia. And of course, the connection between people, brought together as they break bread and sip the fruits of their labors and their lands. Wine has always dissolved barriers between people and exposed us to our common humanity. Drinking wine together both celebrates our interconnectedness, and forges those bonds even tighter.
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