“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





22 August 2008

Drunks outlive their brains

By PHILIP WHITE – This was published in The Independent Weekly in September 2007

I’m confused. While many of us seem determined to drink ourselves to death, too many are nevertheless living longer than our brains were designed to last. So awful things like Alzeimer’s disease are increasingly common.

Confusingly, one scientific report last week found that quite a few regular drinks actually prevents erectile dysfunction. Coming on top of the years of cant insisting that red wine is a cornucopia of anti-oxidant lovelies, rotely repeated by mongers of tea, chocolate, coffee, and whatnot, it’s obvious that far too many bibulous buggers will outlive our brains. And possibly procreate our way past the realms of intelligent consciousness if we keep giving the booze a nudge.

The gene pool will be increasingly dominated by drunks who outlive their brains.

The first sign of the brain tumour which killed George Gershwin was his constant complaint that he could smell rubber, which he thenceforth avoided. Think frangers. Drunk men with worn out brains and George Gershwin’s tumour could well procreate their way to total dominance of the gene pool. Rhapsody in Blue!

Last week’s Archives of General Psychiatry reports that the earliest indicator of the onset of Alzeimer’s is the decay of one’s sense of smell. Onion, black pepper, lemon, banana, cinnamon, chocolate, pineapple, rose, smoke, soap – the minute you find yourself missing these whiffs is the first signal that you’re destined to end up walking around with your underpants on your head while you try to phone your kids on the TV remote.

This horrifies the wine critic who’s constantly ridiculed for reporting such aromas in wine. Few boofheads understand that there are only a certain number of aromatic compounds, which repeat, in myriad combinations, through all foodstuffs.

Now, when sniggering buffoons buttonhole me about how wine could never possibly smell of pineapple or bananas – “It smells like bloody woyne to me” – I know they’ll be well on the way to the zombie twilight zone and the room with combination locks, nappies, and the Big Nurse.

But that’s not the end of it. I reckon one’s aroma vocabulary, and the library in the brain that records it and stores it, is well and truly established and finalised by the time you’re about eight years of age, maybe earlier.

So an old brute like me, who grew up in an enyclopaedia of wondrous smells in the mountains of eastern Victoria in the ’fifties, is threatened most of all by the cruel reality that there’s hardly a bastard alive who knows what those things that set my imagination afire smell like.

Take malo-lactic fermentation, often called secondary fermentation. This is where bacteria, not yeast, ferment the harsh malic acid of grapes, and convert it to the softer malic acid of milk. This is the first flavour we ever savour, from the most beloved and trusted source: Mum’s teat.

In wine, lactic acid often smells of transformed dairy products, like custard and junket. Once the breast was cruelly withdrawn, I grew up on custard and junket. Who the hell alive today has ever smelt such stuff? How many of today’s lot even got a suck of that lovely teat?

Put white wine, like a pear-smelling cool climate semillon, in oak for a wild yeast ferment, and you get the aromas of superphosphate sacks (from the yeast and soil), and the indelibly imprinted whoof of my grand-dad’s old wooden grange, in which were stored hessian sacks of pears. As the unsold ones gradually ripened and slid to decay, they gave a wondrously evocative perfume; one which I’ve smelled many times in beautiful ageing oaked semillons.

But how many of today’s humans have ever been in a wooden grange in the mountain pines, stacked with over-ripe fruits in old superphosphate sacks? Who can understand me suggesting a wine smells like a cowshed when the only cowshed left smells like a hospital? I mean, c’mon, milk doesn’t even smell like milk anymore.

So while I remain terrified that losing my sense of smell heralds the onset of Alzeimer’s, and find myself constantly checking for the faintest whiff of rubber, I’m stuck with an aroma vocab that for all intents and purposes would be best forgotten anyway.

Stick with me. We’ll drink our way through this.

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