Roland Barthes is not the first name that springs to mind when one thinks of the great sommeliers. For all his contributions to literary theory, he never designed a wine list or poured a glass in anger. Barthes did, however, outline a compelling theory of wineand- food pairing in his classic 1967 essay “The Death of the Author.” It was not his intention, so I suppose that he would probably approve.
For Barthes, detecting the intentions of the author is irrelevant. Readers must separate the written work from its creator in order to liberate it from interpretative tyranny. Every work is "eternally written here and now" with each reading, because the "origin" of meaning lies solely with language itself and its impressions on the reader.
Barthes attacks the reader's tendency to use aspects of the author's identity- from biographical details through political or historical context-to derive a single, definitive explanation of a text. Anyone who has ever spoken with a winemaker about serving their wine with food will recognize the same phenomenon. We certainly derive meaning from the wine through how we enjoy it at the table, but is the best match for a wine the one suggested by its creator? If the author is dead, then so too is the winemaker.
Winemakers have not conspired at their own demise; it is simply a question of time. If you make wine with any pretensions to longevity, you are betting that sometime in the future there will be an appropriate situation for your wine to be savored. A shrewd producer rapidly divests himself of the risk through a swift en primeur campaign; the bodegas of Jerez are full of beautiful, ancient wines whose bargain price is testament to the dangers of keeping hold of stock in the face of changing gastronomic habits. These changes can be impossible to predict. When he bottled his 1971 Hermitage, Gérard Chave might well have anticipated that it would eventually be served with a saddle of venison. I doubt, however, that he imagined his wine being listed one day at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant, where the venison is garnished with frankincense tea.
If we want to take the winemaker's intentions seriously, we have a more thorough job of research than merely alluding to the traditional cuisine of the region. Music provides a good example of the sort of rigor required for some authentic wine drinking.
Research into period performance practice has dramatically changed our perceptions of works with which we thought we were familiar. Tempos have quickened, and vibrato is used more sparingly. Rather than the lush sonorities of the modern orchestra, a performance of a Beethoven symphony using original instruments might emphasize fleet intensity and linear textures. The same discipline might be applied when we serve a great bottle.
Just as musicians seek to understand the composer's intentions, so we can submerse ourselves in the context in which the producer imagined his wine being consumed. We can interview those still extant, or scrutinize diaries, accounts, and menus to try to find out exactly how the winemaker consumed his own wine. What was his choice of stemware? Serving temperature? At what stage in his wine's development did he favor pulling the cork? Max Schubert's cookbook collection would become the Beethoven's metronome of Australian wine.
Such an exercise would be fun, though it would reveal more about the winemaker's aspirations than his wine. There is not a vigneron in France who will not solemnly declare that his red wine is the ideal accompaniment for a truffled filet of beef. The message is clear: "I make a wine of great elegance, and as such it should be served with the most luxurious ingredients." However, irrespective of the producer's claim, we re-create the wine each time we decide upon a new context in which to enjoy it; our perception of its aromatic nuances-not to mention its acidity, sweetness, and astringency-is shaped by our own gastronomic choices.
My own family also illustrates this theory. I recently acquired a bottle of Gaston Huet's 1959 Vouvray Le Haut- Lieu Demi-Sec. It is a rare possession that will be consumed with appropriate reverence. The food pairing will be the matter of much soul searching and good-natured debate. Perhaps it should be served with a beurre blanc? Orange zest to match the aromatics? My father claims to have consumed the same wine in the early 1960s on a school trip to Tours. I doubt that he made any attempt at wine pairing (I suspect that he was more interested in its capacity to loosen the inhibitions of the local girls), and he is no aficionado, but it is still a wine that he remembers fondly for the fruit and youth that matched his own adolescent adventures. If my father drank the Vouvray broadly within the cultural context in which it was created, my own experience will owe more to the modish trends of early 21stcentury London than anything Gaston Huet might have intended. However, I am equally sure that I will taste new and unexplored facets of the wine.
Only once we are liberated from received opinion can we construct our own individual relationship with the wine. The winemaker's opinions are the same as a score or tasting notes- something of which we might be aware but that are no substitute for our own critical engagement. To paraphrase Barthes: The death of the winemaker clears space for the multivoiced population at large, ushering in the longawaited "birth of the wine drinker."