It has been quite some time, four weeks to be exact, since I have written here about wine. That is the longest hiatus since WineZag launched in 2009. Extended and distant third world travel, ailing elderly family, and our children’s and their friends’ return home from university have shaped the silence. More to the point, the confluence of these events cast a chilling spell on my faith in wine enthusiasm. No mea culpa, though. Now, faithful once again with a near perpetual crisis in wine enthusiasm averted, I need to write something about this tumultuous period that might even be interesting enough to hold your attention.
Organizing and hosting serious wine tastings is a regular activity in my world. Hanging out with wine trade and geeks goes hand in hand. Reading, researching, tasting, conversing, dissecting, debating, buying, cellaring, and a hornet’s nest of compulsive deliberation about wine fills the majority of my discretionary hours.
The final blind tasting I conducted in 2013, on December 23rd, was organized for a bunch of 21 and 22 year old friends of my children. That experience had a profound impact on me. These kids are all really regular, smart, responsible, and solid citizens. They were aware I knew a thing or two about wine; the reason they asked me to hold a tasting for them. As twenty something kids will do, they were just peeling back life’s layers and wine was somehow on their collective agenda. We tasted several flights of interesting wines in what I hoped would be an instructional format. It included:
Comparing old and new world Chardonnay
Recently released and aged Beaujolais
As the evening took shape, I remember the exact moment these wines lost my attention just as clearly as I recall the palate impression and aromas (as winos do) of my first bottle of Henri Jayer Richebourg I drank 27 years ago over dinner at Tour D’Argent in Paris. The kids’ unfettered appreciation, innocent discussions, openness to learning, fascination with discovery, and absence of any pretense or need to impress anyone filled the room and disarmed my ritualistic wine inspection framework. This was wine appreciation at its most unadulterated core. When I woke the next morning my brain filled with all of the maneuvering and affectations plaguing the wine cognoscenti filled arenas I play in. How could I ever boil wine appreciation down to its most pleasurable innocent levels, back to the place that lit my fuse almost 30 years ago? Why can’t wine tasting images look as innocent and appreciative as this all the time?
Two days later, I left with my wife and boys on a three week trek through East Africa. Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania were on the agenda. Of course, we mostly stayed in comfortable tents and impressive lodges that had a bottle or two of South African wine available. I had little interest in fine wine at this point, happy to be away from it all, conflicted by memories of the simple enjoyment tasting wine with the kids. Besides that millennial tasting, it was impossible not to feel sorry for the Rwandan women and children toting heavy (bulging from fermentation) plastic yellow containers filled with banana beer (12% alcohols, more like wine than beer) up and down roads for 10 kilometers and more to sell at open markets for a few schillings to help cover some basic living needs.
Home brewing, schlepping, and selling a few containers of banana beer made the politics and problems of over regulated US wine distribution, something I have written about and debated so fervently for years, feel several degrees below trivial. How could I ever again justify fixations like going to the end of the earth to acquire a latest release of glorious Clos Rougeard when there are 6 year old boys carrying 30 kilos of banana beer on their heads for 20 kilometers just so their families could afford some flour and potatoes?
How arrogant to be publicly obsessed with the nuance in my silex soil Chenin Blanc. Questions about the man hours I invest immersing and chronicling the luxury end of wine enthusiasm plagued me. Could I really return to the US after that millennial tasting and kicking around East Africa’s post-genocide Rwanda and Uganda’s current wartime-refugee-camp-dotted landscape and write another post about how 1985 Lynch Bages is performing better today in magnum than 750 ml bottle? Fanatic wine enthusiasm felt wholly inappropriate. The cherry on my personal crisis in wine enthusiasm had my mother, battling advancing stages of Alzheimers disease, hooked to a ventilator in a Florida hospital to keep her breathing. Does it really matter to me anymore whether or not there was an early and bountiful harvest in Sonoma County? I sunk fast, plotting ways to unwind my fine wine connections.
Surprisingly, two simple developments rescued me from this hellish vortex of declining self worth. First, I discovered that there is an early stage grape farming and winemaking economy budding in Tanzania. Since there are two growing seasons and harvests each year, the economics are encouraging. In Tanzania now, families that are even able to find jobs can not generate enough income to send their children to appropriate schools, manage health care costs, nor buy a proper house in a good area. In Tanzania’s Dodoma region, where the sun shines brightly, irrigation is understood, and cooler climate combines with soils that are a combination of sand and stone, wine growing is showing its face. Chenin Blanc, Cabernet, Syrah and a local Makutupora are farmed organically. The acreage is minimal for now, as is the production, but more projects with good government backing are planned. The fact that wine growing has emerged in East Africa to create jobs and income for people that need it badly was a first critical dose of medicine in my wine enthusiasm recovery plan. Fine wine seemed like a constructive endeavor again. Just drink the wine.
Secondly, I ended my trip at the other worldly Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. Atop this naturally wondrous crater on a ledge that reaches for the African sky, is an over-the-top lodge that sits in direct contrast to the local villagers and nomadic Masai that scratch out their existence every day. In that context, ending my trip here felt indulgently repulsive.
At dinner in the lodge dining room, I dipped a toe back in the water and ordered my first real wine in three weeks; 2010 Boekenhoutskloof Syrah. It tasted so good. I was amazed by its freshness (turns out some whole clusters are placed in the bottom of tanks and carbonic maceration occurs) and its seriously sleek mouthfeel. Pepper and minerals jumped. I loved the feeling of drinking this Syrah without thinking too much about it at all. As the evening unfolded and my family and I shared this delicious bottle, we were brought closer together. Conversation was easy, smiles took shape, food tasted better, and relaxed moods prevailed. I slipped back in my chair and things felt familiar all over again. Innocent joy. Simple pleasure. The earth was sitting on its axis better…again.
My obsession with wine always had something to do with its quality as a lubricant for human connection. Drinking wine with friends and family shifts my perception and reality in delicious ways. All of the anxiety and self doubt about a life wasted in wine enthusiasm drained from my body like blood rushing to my extremities. I smiled thinking that I added something positive to a bunch of twenty-something lives. Taking wine seriously seemed OK again because I recognized enjoying it for its most simple pleasures. I felt energized and recommitted to understanding whatever I could about an intensely pleasurable beverage that delivers on its magic to bring people closer together and make their lives richer. Crisis averted…thank you for listening.