How is Joyce's Ulysses Like Burgundy?

Recently my sister and I were discussing icons of literary greatness. I confessed that I'd been unable to crack Melville’s Moby Dick. She, that she'd never read James Joyce's Ulysses. 

As something of a semi-retired Ulysses geek I could well understand her dilemma. Many years ago, before I was able to find the key that unlocked the pleasures of this extraordinary novel, it took me at least five attempts to get past page 30. Because although I loved Joyce’s spellbinding if initially baffling use of language, his earthy sense of humor, and his irreverence for the church, I felt that Ulysses was too dense, too arcane, and, damn it, too long for me to ever “get.”

Then one day a friend played me some old recordings of Irish actors reading passages from the book. That’s when things clicked. I realized that enjoying Ulysses does not require a degree in Irish history or English literature, or a guided tour of Dublin’s streets, or knowledge of the dozens or hundreds of other scraps of obscure references and multi-layered meanings — Homeric and otherwise — that Joyce tosses at us, but that it does ask us to sit back and enjoy the music of Joyce’s brilliant prose.

Understanding the wines of Burgundy can seem equally intimidating, and for similar reasons. Obscure, perhaps difficult to pronounce village names, followed by obscure, difficult to pronounce vineyard names that frequently possess multiple spellings — and there are some fourteen-hundred of these — not to mention the hundreds of producers who make wine from a good many scattered sites, and what are the grapes again? At least that part is easy.

Then there’s the fragmentation. Due to centuries of historic and generational shifts it’s quite possible that one vineyard will be split over a few, possibly dozens of owners who may have a few rows here, another few there, and that’s it. As an extreme example, the large and well-known Clos de Vougeot has as many as 80 owners, according to English wine writer Jancis Robinson. Talk about confusing.

And then the prices, while never inexpensive, can be staggeringly high these days for wines made in such miniscule quantities. (For perspective consider that a top Bordeaux Château such as Lafite-Rothschild produces roughly 25,000 cases of it’s best wine per vintage, and Domaine de la Romanée Conti a mere 5000 cases from what recently increased to seven distinctly different vineyards.)

At their best the wines are ethereal, poetic, magical, and as captivating as a masterpiece in any genre.

But wine is a fickle lover. For a variety of reasons — an off vintage, lesser producer, tainted cork, or simply a closed or awkward stage — there will, on occasion, be disappointing bottles.  This, of course, is true of any wine. But somehow our expectations of Burgundy seem to hold these wines to a higher standard. As well they should.

For those either just getting into Burgundy or perhaps, like my sister with Ulysses, have been reluctant to take the plunge, my advice is to not over-worry about the village and vineyard names, or who the superstar producers are. Better to purchase a few bottles based on solid recommendations, enjoy them over dinner while they awaken in your glass, and let the process unfold naturally. Because like Ulysses, Burgundy is a lifelong study that one will never "get" every aspect of.

And besides, the intellectual part is one thing. Pleasure, ultimately, is what it’s all about.