Joy of grapes
Who stole the fun from our wine?
by Thor Iverson
Wine is intense stuff. It inspires poetry and song, turns
simple food into a celebratory feast, and drives columnists to flights of
descriptive fancy. Wine is also complicated, so much so that it is quite literally impossible for
anyone to know everything about the subject.
Because of this, people tend to endow wine with a certain gravitas.
Anyone who has endured the elaborate and stuffy ritual of ordering wine in a
fine restaurant has seen this in action. This formality, coupled with wine's
inscrutable complexity, is what causes otherwise confident people to break out
in a cold sweat when contemplating a wine list or a wine store's shelf.
But all this solemnity misses the point. Wine is, or should be, fun. It should
bring smiles and laughter to the dinner table, and enjoyment to any gathering.
It should be a social lubricant. If wine is not fun, wine is wasted.
It's not hard to see how we came to this point. The stilted vocabulary of
tasting notes, the long-held belief that wine was part and parcel of
upper-class living, the deliberate obfuscation by marketing departments wanting
to position their wine as anything other than "common" -- all these are
legacies of the British conception of wine that Americans have, unfortunately,
inherited. High prices don't help, either.
In the countries where wine historically has been produced, however, a
different story emerges. There, wine is not discussed in language that is
alternately scientific and anthropomorphic. Wine is consumed with simplicity or
with passion, but hardly ever with brow-furrowed concentration. It is not
something to be analyzed and judged and rated and idolized. Rather, it
represents a synthesis of nature and humanity that has been with us since the
beginning of recorded history. Wine, for those closest to the Old World
vineyards, is pure liquid enjoyment.
Of course, it's true that some wines are serious from conception to
completion -- first-growth Bordeaux, for example, or the new crop of California
cabernets priced in the three- and four-digit range. But there have always been
wines to counterbalance what the French call vins de garde, things like
Beaujolais and Pouilly-Fuissé, Chianti and dolcetto d'Alba, New Zealand
sauvignon blanc and inexpensive Aussie shiraz.
Sadly, in the "bigger is better" world in which we live, those simple, fun
wines are nearly extinct. Or rather, they're being recklessly camouflaged with
extreme overripeness, brutal tannin, heavy oak treatments, acid adjustments,
enzyme enhancements, and artist-designed labels intended to allow 200 percent
price increases. I'm sure this is "fun" for the winemakers' bankers, but to the
rest of us it's hardly a recipe for levity.
Stores and restaurants also leech some of the joy from wine. The War and
Peace-length wine lists bound in leather, the pretense and ceremony
accorded to inexpensive wines that don't require such pomp, the endless shelves
of wines stocked by stores whose employees couldn't tell a shiraz from a
chardonnay (leaving the consumer adrift in a sea of confusion) . . .
all are designed to surround wine with ritual and formality that it doesn't
We writers also share some of the blame. Too often, we focus on whether or not
wine is good. That's a valid question, but it's much less important than
the one every wine drinker should ask with every sip: do I enjoy this
wine? No writer or critic, no matter how helpful, can answer that one for the
readers. What we can do is educate, inspire, and -- ideally -- free the
consumer to view wine as something to be savored, not feared.
There is a time and a place for analysis and careful study. Part of the
pleasure of wine is that it allows examination both superficial and detailed,
beguiling drinkers both studious and bacchanalian. But no matter how intensely
one studies wine, this essential fact remains: if it brings no enjoyment, if it
does not lift the spirit and refresh the soul, it might as well be water.
Remember, when Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast, he didn't
perform this miracle so people could analyze, study, score, and pontificate. He
did it so the party could continue. There's a lesson there.
Some wines that bring nothing but enjoyment:
Yves Pastourel "La Vicomté de la Peyrade" Muscat de Frontignan
($18). The fortified (strengthened with alcohol) sweet muscats of southern
France all share similar flavors: orange blossom, honey, melon, etc. The best,
like this non-vintage version, add a bright acidity that lifts and enhances the
succulent fruit. Serve by itself, or with fresh fruit.
Prunotto 1998 Dolcetto d'Alba ($16). Light and floral with red-cherry
and cantaloupe flavors, this is simple and fruit-sweet -- exactly the kind of
fun yet food-friendly wine to have around for everyday drinking. Serve with
heavy dark-fish dishes (tuna or bluefish, for example, or grilled swordfish)
prepared with a little spice.
Ruet 1998 Brouilly "Vieilles Vignes" ($14.99). As thirst-quenching as a
Beaujolais should be, but with a red-apple, strawberry, and earth character
that should intrigue those desiring a little more contemplation. Serve about
two degrees colder than most reds, with roast chicken.
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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