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The Great Beauty of Viognier and Parsnips
And why the idea of "beauty" has no basis in logic or reason.
Today, I was planning to publish a cheeky post on viognier and parsnips, one that would be stock-in-trade for this newsletter. I intended to declare that “Viognier Is the Parsnip of Wines.” This would be similar to when I declared “Gewürztraminer Is the Melon of Wines” last year. Yes, I know: Cute.
My thinking was that we’re coming into that special time of year when food writers regale you with the Magic of Root Vegetables. If you’re a regular reader of food publications, you surely know the drill. Just around the time when we set our clocks back, you’ll be inundated with recipe articles on sweet potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, celery root, and whatnot. There’s something comforting in this comfort-food predictability. Still, I often wonder whether people truly love root vegetables in the breathless way we talk about them in food media.
Take, for instance, parsnips. Maybe I hang out in the wrong crowds, but I’ve never seen anyone queuing up at a farmers market, full of wide-eyed Parsnip Fever, clamoring for those earnest roots that look like big, dull, white carrots. Most people I know, in fact, do not love parsnips. Though, to be fair, I don’t believe they hate parsnips either. Parsnips, in my experience, do not inspire strong opinions.
Maybe you bought parsnips once, perhaps after reading an overexcited magazine article. Maybe you roasted and ate them and shrugged. Maybe the parsnips were too earthy or too sweet. Or maybe they lacked something else. Or maybe you liked them just fine, but whatever. In any case, until yesterday I would have suggested that the phrase “What beautiful parsnips!” had been uttered by no one, ever
But, I’ve realized I was making the wrong argument, and asking the wrong questions.
Yesterday, I read an amazing meditation on the concept of “beauty” in art by cultural critic Ted Gioia, in his newsletter The Honest Broker. In serious art circles, the idea of beauty is scoffed at, seen as an embarrassing notion. But Gioia asserts that beauty is actually dangerous to cultural institutions and gatekeepers (he calls them “theocracies of culture”) because it’s “the one thing that possesses the most potential for disruption and transgression in the whole cultural hierarchy.” As Gioia writes:
Nothing gets the rulers of institutional culture more worried than an intense passion beyond their control—that’s why they never even say the word beauty. That’s why they pretend it doesn’t exist. They have no authority over it, and never will. Their dominion ends at precisely the point where beauty begins. It really is in the eye of the beholder. Like falling in love, your attachment to the desired object requires no reasons or arguments.
Gioia suggests that in this moment, there is a grand rebellion against culture and toward individuals pursuing the objects they find beautiful, whatever that may be. About contemporary culture, he asserts: “It’s more like Tinder here than you realized.” (Seriously, read Gioia’s essay).
So what does any of this have to do with parsnips or viognier? Well, in case you’ve missed it, we’ve been talking quite a bit this past year about how broken the system of critical gatekeeping in wine happens to be. Also about how embarrassing wine writing can often feel. And also about entrenched wine critics swimming against a cultural tide. For example, we understand deeply that beauty in wine cannot be judged and scored on a 100 point scale.
In the end, it all comes back to the eye of the beholder. Not to reference Kant twice in less than a week, but as he says in Critique of Judgement: “In all judgements by which we describe anything as beautiful, we allow no one to be of another opinion.” We’re all chasing our own obsessive, intimate relationship with the cultural objects we find beautiful.
Which is a long way of explaining why, last night, I bought and opened a bottle of viognier. Not just any viognier, but a 2021 Saint Cosme Condrieu, a ridiculously expensive Monday night wine.
Viognier is divisive. Whenever I’ve served viognier, people love it or hate it. It’s big, floral, rich, and fruity. In the essential, encyclopedic Wine Grapes, Robinson and her co-authors, describe viognier as having a “hedonistic cocktail of aromas.” Viognier is often called “perfumed” or even “cologne-like.” A friend insisted one bottle smelled like Curious by Britney Spears. She added: “I’d wear it, but I don’t want to drink it.” The other reasons for its divisiveness are the distinct note of melon, and often a lack of acidity. I happen to love cantaloupe and honeydew, but I know a surprisingly high number of people who can’t stand it. As for the low acidity, this is likely why you don’t find many long-aged examples of viognier…
The ultimate expression of viognier comes from Condrieu, in the northern Rhône. Quirky, rare, strange, and beautiful, Condrieu is notoriously difficult to describe Perhaps this is why Condrieu makes wine writers’ prose turn multiple shades of purple. They practically orgasm on the page. Jay McInerney, in his book Bacchus & Me, writes that Condrieu “lingers like the song of Keats’ nightingale.” McInerney also claims that, when you smell the aromas, “you might imagine that you’ve been dropped into the Garden of Eden, or Kubla Khan’s Xanadu as described by the opiated Coleridge.” Further, he suggests that “if orchids had a scent, this might be it.” Finally, he tells us, “Drinking Condrieu can be like stepping inside a painting by the Tahitian-period Gauguin.” Wowsers.
Perhaps it’s fitting that McInerney, the celebrated novelist-turned-wine-writer, has been one of viognier’s greatest advocates. I’ve come to see viognier as akin to second-person narration in fiction writing. The most well-known of McInerney’s novels is Bright Lights, Big City, one of the most famous second-person narratives in American literature…When the second-person works, it is immediate and offbeat and engaging. Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually work.
I cannot tell you exactly why I love Saint Cosme Condrieu. It’s a big, indulgent, nectar-like white wine that is not generally my type. Even my tasting notes are rather banal: ripe and full-bodied, aromas of melon and pineapple, flavors of honeydew, guava, spiced pear, creamy but with an underlying saltiness and hint of smoke to balance the low acidity. Looked at through the traditional wine lens, Condrieu generally gets good scores in the 90s, but few critics offer rave reviews. You’ll find it on wine lists, but few sommeliers champion Condrieu. It’s too expensive, not “ageworthy” enough, doesn’t check enough boxes for the natty wine crowd. But I love it all the same.
Perhaps my love for Saint Cosme Condrieu boils down to this: If viognier is indeed the “parsnips of wine,” then the existence of this wine is living proof of how beautiful a parsnip can be.
Parsnip Apple Coriander Cumin Soup
Cooking parsnips is an exercise in understatement. The vegetable’s greatest virtue is likely its willingness to take a back seat to richer or more assertive ingredients. Parsnips want to be roasted with red pepper or mustard seed or cinnamon, or sauteed with mint or ginger. I roast them, along with carrots, to almost burnt, tossed in maple syrup and a splash of bourbon. I whip them together with turnips (and butter, cream, nutmeg, and roasted garlic) into a substitute for mashed potatoes. But my favorite is a simple soup made from parsnips and apples, along with coriander and cumin. I think this recipe showcases the subtlety that parsnips can bring to a dish.
For this soup, I like to caramelize the apples first, but even if you don’t want to do that extra step, this recipe works well enough by just tossing in the apples at the same time as the parsnips. For the apples, I like to use Stayman or Winesap or another thicker-skinned variety. Use more or less cumin and coriander, as you like. If the soup gets too thick when you puree it, just add a little extra stock. This recipe shouldn’t take more than 30 to 45 minutes to make. It is very forgiving. Much like the parsnip itself.
2 tablespoons butter
2–3 apples, sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 pound parsnips, peeled and chopped
3 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper
In a pot, on medium-high heat, melt butter. Add apple and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Set aside apples.
Add olive oil to the pot, then add onions and cook until softened, about 2 minutes, then add coriander and cumin and cook for another minute.
Add caramelized apples, parsnips, and broth, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat, then simmer, stirring occasionally, until parsnips are tender, about 20 minutes.
Purée soup in the pot with an immersion blender or in batches in a regular blender until smooth. Add more stock if it gets too thick.
Salt and pepper to taste. Serve garnished with apple slices if you want to be fancy. Serves 2 to 4.