Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why I Like Wine

Why do I like wine? I hope, dear reader, you can understand what a strange question this is. Strange, not because it is a question unfit for an answer, but because of the shear scope and length of a truly just answer. I shall attempt to offer a concise yet reasonably accurate response for you, as well as for myself.

Wine consumption in the United States has risen drastically in recent years. As a result, there is now at least one winery in every state in the union. Although the state of California still dominates the wine industry by producing approximately 90% of all U.S. wine, other states are starting to develop names for themselves by producing quality wines at reasonable costs (California is arguably the most “inflated” state with regards to wine prices). Washington, Oregon (making some noticeably good Pinot Noir), Arizona, and New York State are all locales on winemaking “upswings.”

As far as the “typical” wine drinker is concerned, people tend to keep track of what they like, and continue to buy that very item, over and over again. Although I sometimes cringe at this behavior (a result that almost certainly stems from my fascination with many different grape varietals, as well as my eagerness to taste them all), I can’t come to blame it one bit. As conventional thinking goes, why would consumers not buy the items they know aren’t going to let them down? For example, my best friend’s family is, as far as I am concerned, comprised of wine drinkers. Every week, while on their grocery runs, they purchase rich amounts of Robert Mondavi Chardonnay (Private Selection, mind you!). By rich, however, I do not simply mean in large quantities. In my opinion, Mondavi Chardonnay is the equivalent of buttered toast with traces of alcohol. Actually, I consider this wine to be rather indicative of the American wine-drinking standard – provocatively rich and sweet. It is no wonder that Chardonnay dominates the American wine market. When people taste something they enjoy, they are bound to buy it again… makes sense, right?

Yes, it makes perfect sense… unless you are someone like me, tragically (or not so) enamored with the subject. Believe it or not, there are approximately 24,000 names of grape varieties on the globe. Of these 24,000, 5,000 are genetically different from one another (Zinfandel, for example, has been genetically verified to be the same grape as the European varietal, Primitivo. These two names would be included in the 24,000, but not the 5,000). Of the 5,000 truly different grape types, only about 150 are commercially planted. Still, this leaves 150 different grape varietals to try (of course, this figure does not reflect the blending of grape varietals). If you have ever been to a winery or carefully perused a wine shop, you should have noticed that a given winery generally does not produce wine made from a single grape varietal exclusively (although this sometimes is the case). Often, rather, a winery will produce wine from many different grape varietals, depending on the decisions made by the winemakers, which are often dictated by the climate in which the winery operates.

Now that I have “set the scene,” so to speak, I’d like to offer some very personal takes on why wine and its study brings me such joy.

First and foremost, wine is delicious. While it may not seem so to the young drinker who possesses ardent adoration for cheap liqueurs and poor tasting beer (I hope you learn better), for myself and countless others around the world, wine is an unrivaled beverage. At it’s most elementary, wine is fermented grape juice. Oh, but it is so much more than that! The brilliance of wine’s taste can be attributed in large part to the complexities behind its taste and smell. When I drink a can of Cherry Coke (one of my other favorite beverages), although delightfully refreshing, I taste what I have tasted every time before. I savor the recognizable flavors, comprehend the copious amount of sugar present in the non-diet cola, as well as the carbonation which should be present (few things are worse than flat soda). These components are as constant as constant can be.

A bottle of wine, as compared to a can of soda, is almost inexplicably more complex. A wine’s flavor is not just influenced by the grape from which it is made, but from elements of the winemaking process. These elements range from the identity of the growing-season climate, the time at which the grapes were harvested, the winemaker’s decision to (or to not) blend different grape varietals, the “vessel” in which the wine was fermented (e.g. French oak or stainless steel containers), along with a myriad of other variables. Each of these influential factors is present in the bottle of wine that will make its way onto a store shelf, and eventually in the glasses of consumers. One of the most exciting things about developing a taste for different wines is learning how to identify some of these nuances in the wine upon consumption. It is rather satisfying to learn about some strange characteristic that affected a particular wine’s creation, only to discover that you are able to detect that very characteristic when tasting the wine.

The subtle and intricate factors that influence a wine’s character also influence why the subject is so near and dear to my heart. Wine truly is an academic subject. More than many scholarly subjects, and certainly more than any beverage, wine challenges and splendors the human mind. In truth, my affection for wine’s gargantuan information base may simply come from some form of scholastic masochism. More likely, however, is the genuine appeal of the knowledge to be attained. I am fascinated by wine from the position of consumption, history, viticulture, global influence, etc. Even more thought provoking is the fascination I have with wine’s elusiveness from the perspective of acquirable expertise. The moment I think I know quite a bit about wine, I am taken back by new and fascinating information. From a more pure academic standpoint, the information available on wine is as grandiose as it is enticing. This “book” knowledge, however, doesn’t touch on one of the most fun and enlightening ways to learn about wine – to taste. While it is certainly true that there is an inordinate amount of information in wine texts, this information is only part of the battle of “conquering” the subject of wine. Here is a decent example…

… there is an organization known as the Institute of the Masters of Wine. Presently, there are only 270-ish individuals to ever earn the title of Master of Wine (MW). In order to earn this prestigious title, one must independently study the subject of wine for an average of 3 years. After a person has thoroughly and properly prepared himself or herself, he or she must pass the MW qualification examination. The exam lasts approximately three days, and consists of essay questions on various topics related to wine (from viticultural practices to wine business, so on and so forth). After the written portions of the test, the candidate must partake in blind tastings of 36 different wines. During this tasting portion, MW candidates must offer responses to questions related to the type of wine they have tasted (varietal, region, etc.), as well as questions concerning the “place” of a given wine. For example, a candidate may blind taste a wine and be asked what “place” that wine has in a global market. Upon completing the exam, candidates are asked, finally, to submit a dissertation on a unique wine-related topic. Although dastardly difficult, the demands of the MW qualification program reflect very well rounded perspectives on wine. In other words, it is not enough to simply know about various fermentation processes or the history of a particular appellation. One must understand wine from having tasted and experimented with it. Emphases should include raw academic knowledge, while paired with extensive consumer-driven knowledge.

Apart from the wine’s fascinating properties, there is a sort of romanticism and mystical quality surrounding its consumption. Although it is true that, like any other beverage of the alcoholic variety, wine can be overused or misused, there is just something about people’s behaviors and conversations when wine is present. One of my greatest joys as a lover and appreciator of wine is sitting in a wine bar, noticing what wonderful times other people are having when accompanied by a delicious Cabernet or Pinot Noir. Whether it is a date between two people (usually indicated by one person’s overzealous perspiration) or a group dinner, empty wine bottles seemingly perpetuate good times. In actuality, the apparent correlation behind wine consumption and the presence of good times may just be the result of the alcohol contained in the bottles. However, I like to think that wine offers something different – subtle, practically undetectable properties that enliven conversation and challenge the human mind.

Surely, one does not have to be a certified sommelier or master of wine in order to enjoy the beverage. The point of this piece was not to promote wine “snobbery,” and was certainly not meant to convince every wine drinker to memorize the Oxford Companion to Wine. Rather, I sought to convey a passion and genuine love for wine by discussing which of its properties I find truly fascinating and enjoyable. In the not so distant future, I hope you can all toast to a subject you feel equally passionate about. Cheers!

© 2010 Brent Bracamontes