Still Life with Wine
September 9, 2012
It finally happened. The tasting note is over, done. It happened without anyone’s noticing. It happened quietly, in the middle of the night. Nobody can say exactly when. But the evidence is all around us. A different way of communicating about wine has emerged. You’ve seen it; I know you have. You’ve probably done it; I know I have. It’s the camera-phone picture of the wine bottle.
If your Facebook news feed doesn’t light up with a few of them every night, you need new friends.
It seems so simple, but it isn’t. The properly composed bottle picture reflects at least as much thought as a detailed tasting note. Will it be a close-up of the label, so much the easier to grasp such key details as the vintage year? Or will it be more of a still life with wine bottle, the viewframe zoomed out sufficiently to hint at the evening’s festivities—the glasses on the table, the white tablecloth and candle, softly out-of-focus revelers in the background? What stage of consumption will be depicted—the bottle fresh from the cellar, not yet uncorked? The bottle half-drunk, in flagrante delicto, glistening tears of red dripping down its neck? Or the dead soldier, the empty bottle, drunk up and then immortalized, a triumph of virtual taxidermy? In that last case, will the bottle sit for the photo alone or with his entire company, on orderly lineup of everything drunk that evening?
Will the bottle be shot straight-on? Or will the photographer search for the perfect angle—one which gives the bottle a presence as grandiose and imposing as the wine itself must be, like one of those pictures of the Earth taken from the space station?
Some bottle photographers take pride in the props, arranging the bottle beside a glass and perhaps even the cork, to exhibit its timeworn patina. Other bottles in the background can be used to foreshadow the joyous moments to come. An Instagram effect can enhance the vintage appeal.
Inept bottle photographers always ignore the negative space. Nothing compromises the mood of a statuesque bottle of a Bordeaux first growth quite like an unappetizingly half-eaten plate of food behind it or, worse still, one of the dinner guests caught from the neck down, a stupid slogan on his T-shirt, perhaps even stained with wine from an errant swirl.
The bottles people choose to photograph say much about who they are. For some, only bottles that hit a minimum threshold of price and prestige receive the honor, the photograph serving to enhance the conspicuousness of the consumption for which the wine was bought in the first place. Others are pure hedonists, the act of bottle photography only committed when there is a proper orgy of a dozen or more. The connoisseurs choose to telegraph secret messages, photographing obscurities of no interest to anyone but a select few, the photograph attesting to their taste in finding the bottle worthy of photographing. The collectors tend to photograph their purchases rather than their consumption, rows of identical bottles neatly aligned straight from their styrofoam packaging, no glassware or corkscrew in sight.
Usually, no words are said about the wine. That is the purpose of a picture, after all. But others will comment. Some will pay the compliment of feigning jealousy, their overly enthusiastic “Wow!” politely concealing the fact that they drank the same wine last week and have two cases of it in the cellar. The hardcore enthusiasts will ask how it’s drinking. Well-meaning but clueless friends of the photographer from non-wine-related circles will stop to leave comments along the lines of, “I could sure use a glass of that right now lol,” totally unaware of the hornet’s nest they’ve stepped into.
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Is this a good thing or a bad thing, that we’ve gone so far towards replacing a form of writing—however imperfect it might have been—with wordless images? It’s certainly a strange thing, to see a medium that kids use to post pictures of themselves partying and drinking getting coopted by adults posting pictures of what they just drank.
What I like about it is that it makes wine a social experience again. The tasting note is a form of writing invented by wine writers, not wine drinkers. It is traditionally written alone, in a laboratory-like tasting room, all the joy the wine can deliver spit into the sink with it. The subject wines are analyzed but never shared, never even drank.
The photographs, on the other hand, are all about the context. The analysis is irrelevant. Nobody ever comments on a picture of a half-drunk bottle to ask whether it tastes like red currants or black currants. Nobody ever asks about the length of the finish. But they might ask about the dinner, about what was served and who else was there to enjoy it. It’s a welcome reminder of what we’re left with when the wine is gone.
It’s true that great wines have a way of staying with us. The taste and feel of the ones that have captivated us the most are as salient in memory as whatever we drank last night. I have tasting notes on most of mine, just in case I ever forget. Those notes don’t say anything about the occasion, though, where I was or who I was with. But I can remember those things for each one of those wines. It’s good not to let that stuff get cropped out of the picture.