Online interactions may be effective, but minus body language and touch, they are not nimble.

BRUNCH Updated: Jun 07, 2020 14:24 IST

Shoba Narayan
Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

Unless you are in the company of oenophiles, the problem with wine talk is that no matter what you say, it sounds pretentious. You can wax eloquent on about the aroma of a good Barolo or the greatness of the 2009 vintage. For the average person you might as well be talking about Einstein’s theory of relativity. Terms like bouquet, mouth feel, tannins, finish, and terroir mean specific things to wine connoisseurs but are meaningless to the general population. How then to decode wine talk?

In India, the problem is compounded by the fact that storage is shoddy.  Imported wines are stored and transported in warehouses that have no concern for temperature-control. Red wines can end up too tannic and white wines too sweet or “baked” as some call it. How then to figure out the original bouquet of the wine?

Consider Chilean Merlot. Most people say that New World wines are young and ought to be drunk fairly quickly. With Indian wines, you would think the same rule applies.  Well, that depends. Some of the blended reds that wineries in India sell are too raw, leaving the sandpaper edge in your tongue. They have to settle down for a few days before you can drink them. Of course, you can decant. But what if you are the only one drinking? I found a solution. You open an Indian wine bottle, pour yourself a glass and leave it in a cool place, in the back of your cupboard (if you don’t own a wine frig). I find that it ages well while in the bottle so that it tastes best three days after opening the cork. My brother opens the bottle and puts it in the fridge for a day before actually drinking the wine. A friend’s solution has been to decant it for 3 hours; pour the (Indian) wine back into the bottle, and drink a glass or two the following day, after it has calmed down. 

Palate is a term that sounds pompous but really isn’t. In fact, it is the simplest way by which you can decide what wines you like. Some of it is practical or logical and some of it is just you. Being vegetarian, my taste veers towards aromatic, dry and off-dry, cool-climate wines. Low alcohol content (under 12%) is nice to have but not always possible, particularly in New World wines. After trying out several, these are my current picks. Torrontés, Viogniers, Alsatian Rieslings, Vouvrays from the Loire Valley, and Pinot Gris (Navarro Vineyards of Mendocino if you can get them). These in my view go well with light vegetarian food. I used to like Gewurztraminer but haven’t had a decent one lately.  Like most people, I am picky about my chardonnays, perhaps the most ubiquitous of white wines.  I liked unoaked Chardonnays. I haven’t met a Chablis or Sancerre I haven’t liked, perhaps because its alcohol content hovers around 10%.

The opposite too must be true. If you relish a heavy juicy steak or a rich complex biryani, I imagine that your palate veers towards heavy-bodied French, Italian and Spanish wines made from grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tempranillo.

Tolerance for bitterness is an underrated aspect of your palate. If you are one of those who can tolerate karela or bitter gourd and revels in 85% dark chocolate, then it opens up a whole range of wines that have a tinge of bitterness. Austrian Gruner Veltliners are a start, as are some Italian reds. I drank a wonderful Amarone at a dinner at the ITC Grand Chola’s Italian restaurant in Chennai. It was high in alcohol (14%) but had a delicious tinge of bitterness. Wine wisdom says this bitter tinge is due to the phenols in wines and otherwise moderate people have devoted reams of prose supported by chemical equations to describe exactly why wine becomes bitter (and they say this as if it is a good thing). Most people describe Cabernet as bitter but the Sauvignon rounds it off. Another quixotic phrase is “minerally with hints of asphalt”, which is akin to saying that you are drinking concrete. Somehow, this is viewed as a positive by wine critic Robert Parker and his acolytes. A phrase and type of wine I like is “dry wine”. To me, this means that the wine is not sweet. Then again, I don’t have a sweet tooth and if I had to pick between gulab jamun and bhujia sev, the latter would win each time.

I don’t know if you are feeling Zoom fatigue but I am. Staring for hours at tiny boxed humans with tinny voices on the computer screen painfully brings to focus how contextual communication is. In other words, it is not what your colleague says. It is how, where and when he says it. As social animals, we humans are adept at reading expressions, gestures and unspoken body language. We read between the lines. We change our message based on a lifted eyebrow across the table or a yawn from our friend. Gauging feedback is hugely difficult in Zoom, particularly if your colleagues have their videos turned off under the guise of poor bandwidth.

Clicking on the ‘raise hand’ icon makes one feel like a student whose finger the teacher had rapped and said, “Stand up on the bench”!
Clicking on the ‘raise hand’ icon makes one feel like a student whose finger the teacher had rapped and said, “Stand up on the bench”!(Photo imaging: Parth Garg)

You know what I have discovered thanks to virtual meetings? The eyes are not the mirror of the soul. The whole body is. Think of this situation. You and your friends are sitting around a table at a restaurant. Someone at the table is ranting – about their boss, in-laws, work, wireless network. It doesn’t matter. You open your mouth to offer a solution. The friend sitting next to you lightly touches your arm. You close your mouth. You shut up. Your friend has effectively communicated feedback with just a light touch on the arm. She has told you, “Stay quiet. Let her rant. She is just getting stuff out. Be a supportive friend. Shut up and listen.” How do you do this online when you cannot even see the hand, let alone raise it or touch someone?

Now, the entire world is touch-hungry – and this is affecting some people more than others. Are you a hugger? One of those Munnabhai “jadoo ki jhappi” types? Because I am. I actually hug loved ones for 15 seconds or more because that is how long it takes for the oxytocin (good hormones) to flow. How do you do that in this new world? Although most of us spend countless hours online, I think we also have intuited that the virtual world is a poor substitute for the real one. Holding hands, smelling the roses, touching a child’s cheek, hugging a friend, sharing a beer or wine – all these require physical presence.

Some companies are talking about working virtually on an indefinite basis. Yes, there are many things that can be done from home. But if your job involves brainstorming, ideating, negotiating, mediating and building consensus, virtual meetings fail on most counts. If you are a people person, the virtual world is a poor substitute.

We meet for four reasons: to connect, to talk, to get feedback and to absorb context. Virtual meetings allow us to connect, but they are spotty with allocating whose turn it is to talk. In Zoom, every gesture needs to be thought out or staged rather than spontaneous. You cannot simply raise your eyebrows and stop a colleague from rambling. You have to click the “raise hand” button.

In real life, interrupting colleagues in a meeting is an art. It is a way for junior colleagues to make their voices heard, and for seniors to exert authority. It is a way to put people in their place with the “one second, one second, let me finish.” It is a way of balancing politeness and assertiveness. How to do all this virtually?

The most difficult part of virtual meetings is that they are stripped of context. If you are the boss, the mere act of looking away or out of the window can cause a rambling employee to speed up his or her presentation. In Zoom, where are you going to look? People will think you are distracted by your cat or kid. It looks unprofessional. So we force ourselves to focus on audio and visual cues because that is really all we have to go by. And then you realise how much gestures and body language add to the whole process.

So what next? Go hug a friend, won’t you? Take a walk with your mom. Just like that. The joy of physical interaction is its flexibility. Online interactions may be more effective but are less nimble. We simply don’t have enough cues to steer the conversation in any direction except what is prescribed or written on the agenda.

Life on the other hand is full of detours. And this strange time may be as good a time for taking those detours.

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

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From HT Brunch, June 7, 2020