This guest post written by Wardsmith!
Billions of words have been written about wine. There are magazines, websites, clubs and classes. If you’re /that/ serious about wine, please stop reading my drivel and go there, immediately if not sooner. On the other hand, if wine is just something that barely qualifies as hobby on your radar by all means grab a glass and read on. Seriously, stop right now, take a minute, open a bottle and please enjoy this opinion piece with one in your hand, because I’m writing this with one in mine. Um, if you’re at work or operating heavy machinery – well at work you should just save this for later and if you’re operating heavy machinery, what are you doing reading a blog? Park that D9 by the side of the quarry or read this later.
About 30 years ago my sister gave us a case of wine as a wedding present. She went to one of those places that private label wine for a small fee and created a label with our names and the wedding date. Actually a brilliant idea and one some enterprising person with an MFA in Puppeteering should consider since I suspect that company from 30 years ago is no longer in business and it is tremendously easier today, what with printing on demand and the web. But I digress. At the time I really had no use for wine, it was something you may or may not order in a restaurant when the waiter came by to push up the restaurant’s profit margins. I did have a basement however and the wine went down there in a little used room that stayed relatively cool with minimal temperature fluctuations. Now and then especially after I got a hot tub, I’d grab a bottle and we’d head outside and drink from wine glass shaped plastic glasses while we enjoyed a soak. Over time, this became something of a habit and that little case rather quickly dwindled down to a single bottle I’m saving for our who knows how high anniversary. The stuff will probably be vinegar by then but I’m hoping we’ll be too old or senile to know or care.
Like everyone who made it through college, I’d had plenty of wine growing up. The most popular was something called Mad Dog 20/20. I was even foolish enough to shop for that in high school by name, when the /real/ name was Mogen David. Needless to say, MD 20/20 is about as appetizing as drinking used bathwater and only idiot adolescents like I once was would stoop to such a thing. I can attest that it tastes about the same coming up as going down, if that’s any indication. Since that was my idea of wine, I had zero interest in the stuff for many years until I met a girl called, let’s say “Betty”. Betty was full of charm and could have doubled as Dolly Parton’s sister if you get my drift. She refused to drink beer so I bought something called Liebfraumilch. My mistranslation of the German shows you where my head was at when I purchased it. I bought a couple of bottles (later to become a habit) and we went to the Drive-In where I discovered that classy bottles of wine require something referred to as a wine opener. Engineering student that I was, I proceeded to McGuyver something out of the materials at hand including junk I had in the trunk (not the kind you’re thinking of – shame on you). Unfortunately “Betty” was less than impressed with my Boy Scout preparation skills and the date did not go particularly well as I recall. Somehow I ended up with a half-empty bottle of (for my then-budget) fairly expensive wine and a cork that was in 20 or 30 pieces. Therefore the only sane thing to do was drink the damn stuff. It was surprisingly good. For several years afterward, Liebfraumilch was my wine of choice and I would happily order it with (gasp) steak in a surf and turf.
One time in one of those places where the staff treats you with equal parts obsequiousness and disdain I ordered my (then) usual of a steak and the white wine. Well the stuff came out tasting like gasoline. First I asked for a different glass, thinking one of the kitchen staff had perhaps needed to pour gas in their carburetor to get a recalcitrant engine started. That wasn’t the problem, if anything “breathing” (to be discussed later) had only added to the ethenes this swill was producing. I’m guessing the bottle was something like $20, a princely sum in the late 70’s (who knows, maybe $70 in today’s money). I did what I had never done before and sent it back. The sommelier showed up and told me it was my fault for ordering a white with red (meat). We argued for a bit about taste, chemistry and customer service and finally I had the bright idea of having him taste a glass for himself. The picture was comical, him trying desperately not to gag while we watched him gamely attempting to drink more than a sip. He acceded that perhaps this one was a bit – something, and offered a substitution. He went away for a bit and came back (pretending no doubt) telling me there were no whites available but he’d substitute a red on the wine list. My last experience with red had not gone, shall we say particularly well and while still recalling the unusual nature of it tasting the same coming up as going down I picked the single most expensive bottle of red on the menu. Customer service after all. The sommelier made the same face he’d made previously while trying to drink the gasoline and left to come back (a deal’s a deal) with the red wine. Clos de Vougeot was on the label, which I studied at some length while I steeled myself for the torture to come while the sommelier poured some in my glass with classic remonstrations and much twirling and swirling. I gave it a peremptory sniff to make sure I wasn’t going to have to use this to coax my Chevy Malibu into starting properly and decided that it wasn’t horribly bad. Then I took a sip.
I’d like to pretend here that I heard angelic choirs and instantly understood the terroir’s somatic influence on the grapes, the character, the balance, the complexity, the vision and the orchestra that is a fine wine. Truth be told, I was just thinking that I’d screwed this pompous jackanapes out of about a $70 delta in wine price. As we kept drinking the bottle (and I drank the majority) it had the magical quality of seeming to get better as we went along. Naturally I ascribed this to the alcohol’s effect and thought nothing more of it. However, the gasoline taste of that white has stuck with me ever since, and I have a hard time looking a white in the face till today always sniffing for that ever so faint gasoline character and occasionally finding it. Hence my current distaste for whites.
Skip a couple of decades. It is now the late 90’s and I’ve sold my dotcom business and am busy trying to lose my winnings by investing in the” next big thing”. While out to dinner with some investment bankers; I tell a bit of the story about the wine list. One of the bankers exclaims, “Oh Vougeot is my favorite appellation!” He then proceeds to order a bottle in the swanky San Francisco hotspot. By now I’ve actually had a few (well, more than a few) bottles of the red, both that night and in the intervening years. I think I’d acquired a sense of what a red should be, how it mellows the palate and the soul. My biggest regret of that night is I didn’t get the exact year and chateau for that bottle. The stuff was literally heavenly. I vaguely remembering it cost about $250 and he’d asked for it by name and year but it was too loud and I was too distracted by all the vultures at the table trying to get me to invest in their (as it turned out) sordid schemes. Smooth but strongly present the wine both demanded attention yet floated in the background. Like a great woman. It may have been the year, it may have been the bottle, it might even have been precisely how they treated that bottle in the intervening time, but it was truly nectar of the gods. And I was hooked.
When I got home (thankfully I didn’t invest in their dot bombs), I set about fixing my “wine cellar”. I went out and found the wood (kit really) that allowed me to build up a honeycomb arrangement of bottles. I then set about buying bottle after bottle, case after case. I went through uncounted Vougeots, none of them quite had /that/ character I’d tasted the one night. I did find there were other vintages that came close. Engineer that I am (was) I analyzed the pattern (there was scarcely one). I began to detect that it was all in the luck, the chase, the capture. Wine /was/ like a woman: Mysterious, loving, hidden, exhilarating, unique and continuously different. Not only that, but after the bottle was open (and still like a woman) it continued to evolve and change and show new character and complexity. Later I learned this is called “breathing” and eventually my son bought me one of these so I wouldn’t have to wait random periods of time for the wine to “air” properly.
What is wine and why am I taking so long to write this? Ok, the bottle is talking I admit, but wine is more than the liquor inside. As Wall put it, you could just add vodka to grape juice and fool the unwary. But wine is a gift from the gods. It takes us to that world that alleviates our sorrows, widens our horizons and gives our imagination wings. It’s that good. It isn’t so much the stuff in the bottle but the whole menagerie around that bottle, the land, the grapes, the workers, the weather and the storage. When I drink a wine from Chile, or France or Australia, I’m transposed across the world, I am tasting something from the soil of a place I may or may not have ever set foot. When I decided to write this piece, I originally was going to take my notebook down to my wine cellar and talk about the bottles. But it isn’t about the bottles. To me it is about the two adventures, the chase and the capture. The chase is all about looking at random wine bottles in the store, wondering if the label is just schmaltz salesmanship or artisans seeking an audience. That’s where my buying two bottles trick comes in. I’m as big a dunce as the next consumer and will willingly lay down my shekels for something that seems genuine while positively screaming “sell-out!” On the other hand, I’ve found wonderful masterpieces that tasted great at the moment yet stood the test of time in the cellar and tasted even better after aging. The capture is the drinking experience. Wine should not be hoarded (regretfully my sin) but enjoyed. It is best enjoyed with loved ones and friends, and over time the friends are nothing more than additional loved ones. The best thing I’ve done is have my “Wino night” because it gives us an excuse to spend time with our friends and show the love. They can bring beer or food, but no wine, the purpose is to cruise the cellar and find jewels (and duds) to imbibe.
Cheap versus expensive wine. Wine is made with yeast. Yeast is alive; in fact it is almost impossible to kill a yeast spore (much like a mold spore). The yeast acts on the grapes and the sugars therein to produces the alcohol. Some folks like Ernst and Julio, who make wine by the tanker, can’t wait around for the natural yeast to do its job and jumpstart the process with essentially brewer’s yeast and often processed sugar. Other vintners handcraft their wares and allow the natural yeast already present on the grapes to interact with the sugars already being produced /in/ the grape to produce a natural fermentation not appreciably different than that experienced by Odysseus when he made wine. They may not have big names, they may not have big budgets but there is /something/ about wine made that way. It is worth looking for and well worth finding. My experience is the big name; big volume producers are not to be trusted, no matter the sales price. Intermediate producers may do things the old fashioned way, and may have figured out a way to replicate their success. Small producers are a complete crapshoot, they might be doing things the old fashioned way, or they might be like my older brothers who used Welch’s and bread yeast and made wine that would choke a rodent. I have a friend, an attorney who gave up law to produce wine. He said, “The best way to make a small fortune in wine is to start with a large one”. They’ve had their up and down years, but overall they are producing a wine that can stand the test of time. As for pricing, most of what you’ll find in stores are big volume producers selling cheap to buy market share, intermediate producers selling at intermediate prices and small producers either selling very expensive or very cheap depending on how business is thriving (or isn’t). Naturally I gravitate towards these but reinforce my cellar with old standbys that I can trust. My Jesuit lawyer (not the same as the vintner) had been “stationed” in France on the Papal vineyards. He taught me scads about French wine, but I’ve forgotten most of it. There are those who will drink nothing else, but I’m not so inclined. He also introduced me to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In the old days it was considered a yutz wine because it was everything and the kitchen sink as far as grapes were concerned. But you should just try it, or not, the damn stuff is getting too expensive since everyone wants it now.
Wine and cheese go great together, and if you think you’ve had a hard time choosing a wine, go to the fancy cheese boutiques and stand around there trying to figure out what might be good and what might be a disaster. Just like wine, it has character and is alive. It will change while you own it, but you can’t wait too long or it will go bad. Once you get good at wine, you can start anew trying to get good at cheese. 😉