I repeatedly ponder two questions about wine appreciation. First, I query myself about my evolving preferences, wondering if my shift to more authentic old world wine is palate driven or trend inflicted. Secondly, I ask myself how so many practical people get so wrapped in wine minutia, devoting large chunks of their waking time studying, tasting, buying, growing, reviewing, debating, rating, blending, importing, selling, discovering, collecting or simply quaffing fine wine to chase a foodstuff of choice. And just as I ask this very question, here I go again approaching a keyboard contemplating the metamorphic shift of a personally profound wine story into homogenized resonance for easy and wide embrace by willing wine enthusiasts. This time, I am pushed to this place by the unsurprising coincidence of two separate stories involving social aspiration, Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay, and Mateus.
The first story is a short and boring one, and it is mine. I drank Manischewitz at Passover tables and Mateus during all night Hot Tuna jam sessions in New York’s 14th Street Academy of Music balcony seats before I turned 18. Not unexpectedly, I disliked wine but appreciated its aura of being a step above beer, two beyond Mad Dog, buzz-worthy, and the undisputed incumbent as most noble beverage. This was the extent of my personal wine experience through the age of 24: I disliked a beverage I aspired to embrace; alluring and frustrating all at once.
The second story is a more fascinating one, told by Terry Theise in his new book Reading Between the Wines. Coincidentally, and not to draw any comparison between me and this legendary James Beard award winner for excellence importing Champagne, German, and Austrian wines of important and honest origin, Theise also came across Mateus Rosé at a Rod Stewart concert just a couple years earlier than I did and a few blocks east and south of the Academy at the Fillmore East. Only for Theise, he was sharing the actual bottle Stewart slugged from, passed to him through a few front row hippies before he got his own taste of bad rock star wine. The wine was distasteful to him, but Theise thought and subsequently wrote:
“Metamessage for me: wine is cool, rock stars drink it. I want to be a rock star. This was crucial information. I had to at least pretend to like wine.”
I remained confused about wine following my Mateus and Manishewitz hazing phases until my first real wino friend, Dr. Peter Adesman, had my wife and I over to dinner in 1986. He served us a bottle of Lindeman’s Bin 65 Chardonnay, a mass produced but legitimate $7 bottle of tropical fruit laden Aussie Chardonnay. I am glad I didn’t know too much about wine that night, because holding $7 Chardonnay while walking through Peter’s 200 case cellar of 1982 Bordeaux, early 80’s Rhones, and California Cabs would have offended me. But Peter knew exactly what he was doing,providing a novice drinker with highly expressive wine of loud flavor, easy mouth feel, and just enough structure to be unimposing. The wine turned my head big time, and it marked the beginning of my indefatigable infatuation with wine, needing to understand more about this phenomenon that can coax grapes into masquerading as a viscous melange of melon, papaya, pineapple, and orange with the ability to convert surface scratching conversation into mystical human connection. The evening also marked the validation of wine’s inference of social and class fitness, as this once rough edged boy from Brooklyn rubbed elbows just fine on this wine infused evening with these smart suburban doctors whose cellars overflowed with correct vintages and makers.
For Theise, it did not take anything resembling 1961 Chateau Latour to turn his life upside down either:
“As I grew older, I (and my girlfriend du jour) would often score a bottle of wine- most of which I hated-for a Saturday night. The first wine I ever drank and actually wanted to drink again was…(here go my credentials) Blue Nun. It was a novel feeling to enjoy drinking wine. It was a relief to drink something with low alcohol and fruitiness. …second, I bought a bottle of Riesling for the first time. This was different! I had never tasted a wine with so much flavor that wasn’t “fruity”. It tasted like mineral water with wine instead of water. I needed to know what this odd new thing was….”
These separate stories of budding wine enthusiasm are rooted in honest curiosity stirred by cheap and easy expressive wine. At one extreme, the experience belongs to me, an avid consumer/hack wine blogger, and at the other end of the spectrum to an extraordinary wine professional that took advantage of living in Germany for his Dad’s job and explored the Saar extensively and naively to eventually help expose the New World to honest wines from the Old World where:
“….wine itself began. It’s more grounded there. All things being equal, it is more artisanal, more intimately scaled, humbler, and less likely to be blown about by the ephemeral breezes of fashion. Its wines are made by vintners who descend from other vintners, often for a dozen or more generations. They are not parvenus, arrivistes, or refugees from careers in architecture, dermatology, software design, or municipal garbage disposal systems. They don’t know about the wine lifestyle, and if you tried to tell them, you’d likely draw a blank stare. You won’t see a huge wite stretch limo pulling out of their courtyards like the one I saw emerging …from Opus One in the Napa Valley. You will never find Bon Apetit taking pictures in these growers’ kitchens or at garden parties on the grounds.”
Because of the non-discriminatory nature of wine appreciation, where folks from different cultures, knowledge, or background can appreciate the same wine at multiple levels, I often quietly contemplate the mystical qualities of wine. While its creation and transformation can be chemically or physically explained and manipulated, its real growers rely on terroir and traditional sensibility. For me, the intersection of earth, sun, nature, and wine maker as Sherpa transcends logic and formula and gets to the heart of the human connection it facilitates. It explains why some wines create transcedental experience and others do not, or as Theise sees it:
“If you want to experience wine with your whole self-not only your mind and senses, the wine has to be authentic. And what confers authenticity is a rootedness in family, soil, and culture as well as the connections among them. These are aided by intimacy of scale. And they form the core of a value system by which real wine can be appreciated and understood.
Wine can talk to this thing in us. Some call it soul. Wine is not apart from this being within us….all it needs is a soul of its own. It can’t be manufactured; it can’t have been formed by marketers seeking to identify its target audience. It needs to be connected to families who are connected to their land and to working their land and who are content to let the land speak in its own voice. ….True wine takes its legitimate place as part of your entire, true being.”
So how does one graduate from Mateus and rock concerts to Eastern religious thought and authentic wine? Theise calls it a cultivation of “a particular approach to wine, whereby one prefers the finer over the coarser virtues, the quiet over the noisy.” I can weigh in that it is a natural journey of personal palate understanding, facilitated by deepening exposure and education. Wine makes itself available to everyone, which appeals to my innate sensibility and why I protest the trends that launch certain wines and their makers to celebrity status and price points. It is why I drink very different wines today than I did in my early days of wine enthusiasm. Theise made it easier for me to understand this as a natural process of palate recognition and maturation, now leaning towards the once undiscovered growers tucked away in their centuries old, Old World vineyards.
It is fun to recall your early and personally important transcendental moments with wine. Reading Theise’s Reading Between the Wines will uncover or reignite those moments for you and shed some new light on all of it…..for certain. Most importantly, Theise also gets to the heart of the fanatical pull of wine appreciation, and the legitimacy of the evolution of personal palate, especially where authentic, old world wines are in play.