Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wine Every Day, part one

Wine is most fun when it’s not relegated to special occasions or built up into a phobia. It should be part of your daily life. And now insert here the usual disclaimer about how there’s something here for everyone to appreciate, from the wine novice to expert. It seems like any wine writing must include that.

Wine enthusiast is a perfect term because these are people who tend to get inordinately excited when the subject of fermented grape juice arises. Give them a whiff of another person interested in wine, and settling them down is like trying to hold back a dog on a leash after it has picked up the scent of a hotdog. It’s hard to stop them, which leads to inevitable lapses into wine jargon and incomprehensibility.

But it is important to dispel the snotty attitude a lot of winos have. It’s also important to dispel the notion that writing about wine needs to be condescending. No jargon. No attitude. Just some simple, real information on wine that might be able to help you out in a liquor store sometime to impress the girl you’re cooking dinner for. (You do cook, right?)

Anyway, so the most basic question is, “Why wine?” Why not beer? Or vodka? Or rum? Or some other liquor? Why not mixed drinks?

There are five fundamental reasons wine is the ideal beverage. None of them will include flowery, complex descriptions that will mean nothing to you. If you want to start drinking wine, these are reasons you’ll stumble across all on your own. This isn’t to say there won’t be a place for Milwaukee’s Best in your lifestyle, but you might start to consider pushing aside grain alcohol punch, at least from time to time.

1. Flavor

This is obvious. Wine most likely won’t taste good or complex or compelling to you at first. It’ll probably taste like alcohol. What booze doesn’t? You have to show a certain amount of persistence to get beyond the alcohol taste, whether you’re drinking beer, liquor, or wine. As a society, we tend to manage this aversion through an ends-based approach: we want to end up drunk. But once you begin to discern a bit, you can realize the breadth of flavor available in even simple wines. There are five main types of wine: red, white, sparkling, sweet, and fortified. Yet within each of those five types are a variety of different styles because each comes from different grapes.

Wine stands out because of how closely the finished product winds up being to its source. It really is fermented grape juice, nothing more. You don’t have to go through complex chemistry to turn grape juice into wine. It’s a natural process that doesn’t even need the addition of yeast and, more importantly, one that changes the nature of the grapes very little. You can’t say the same thing about beer or spirits. In beer, the barley, hops, and other ingredients go through a heavy cooking process that changes their flavors dramatically. Distillation changes the fundamental chemical makeup of potatoes, grains, etc. to produce spirits. You don’t get nearly as pure a product in beer or liquor as you do with wine, which allows the characteristics of each grape variety — be it red or white — to shine through.

Good winemaking, as opposed to brewing or distilling, is largely a hands-off undertaking. You want the grapes to shine through on their own as much as possible. Beer and liquor, however, require a vigorous production process that tends to deaden flavor nuances.

2. Creation and variation

Beer and spirits are revered for their uniformity. This is a product of the processes used to create them, which is somewhat like a successful chemistry experiment replicated over and over again. It is admirable that Jack Daniels, for instance, can crank out barrels of whiskey with such consistency. The same can be said for beers, from microbrews to Budweiser. It’s comforting to know that, if you’ve tasted Absolut vodka once, it will taste the same two years down the road, but it’s not very interesting.

Wine, on the other hand, is admired for its variation. It is most frequently made from grapes grown in a single year (a “vintage”). A particular producer of wine may have a recognizable style or qualities in certain wines — like the minty smell often found in Heitz Cellars’ Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (that’s no bull; it really can smell like a fresh mint leaf) — but even wines made from the same vineyard in different years will vary is flavor and style.

There’s also the aging of wine, another variable that will change its taste and qualities. Hard liquor can go for years in the bottle and still be very much the same as it was the day it was packaged. Beer, after long enough, will spoil and is prized for its freshness. Without belaboring the point with too much detail, wine is like a favored pet: it has a precocious youth, steady period of maturity, and then moves past its prime.

Certain liquors are coveted for being aged, particularly whiskeys and rums, but that aging takes place in oak casks, not the bottle. Once capped off, liquor holds at a plateau indefinitely. And there is another way aged liquors are made: distillers simply change the chemical makeup of them and age them artificially. This is particularly common among rums, and tasters say the flavor of naturally aged spirits and their artificially aged counterparts is indistinguishable.

For wine, there’s no faking it. (Or maybe there is, as this excellent piece discusses.) Aging can be a good or bad thing. You never quite know what’s in store for you when you open a bottle that has been in the cellar for ten or more years. There’s a certain risk when you deal with variation, but the rewards can be so terrific it becomes part of the fun.

3. Moderate alcohol, light weight

Relatively speaking, wine tends to have moderate alcohol, ranging from eight-percent in lighter wines, such as Riesling (a white grape), to about twenty-percent in fortified wines, such as Port. More alcohol than that would destroy the balance of flavor. Less alcohol would give it a heavier, more fruit-juice-like quality.

Spirits, obviously, have much higher alcohol levels, generally in the range of forty to fifty percent. Alcohol itself is heavy; it weighs you down. That’s why a martini, for example, isn’t the ideal dinner accompaniment. Most mixers — such as fruit juices and carbonated waters — are heavier still because of their high sugar contents. Mixed drinks, without a doubt, can be deliciously refreshing. Who would say no to a good margarita at Hugo’s? But drink three or four, and you’re going to feel anything but light on your feet. Beer, on the other hand, has carbonation that makes it filling. It expands in your stomach and quickly gives you a somewhat bloated feeling.

4. Food companion

You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a beverage, other than water, that goes well with as many kinds of food as wine. Beer has its place, most definitely. Pizza and burgers and chili are great with a cold beer, and sometimes it just hits the spot. Even liquor, at times, does the trick as a food accompaniment. For example, rumjungle, at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, does an admirable job pairing rum drinks with Brazilian pit barbecue.

On the whole, however, beer and spirits don’t complement food as completely as wine does. The range of flavors found within a single glass of Pinot Noir can enhance you’re the full range of flavors on your plate. Enjoying a good food and wine pairing brings out all the best elements in wine — its range of flavors and its unique expression of the grape and place of origin. Plus, with wine’s balance, relatively low alcohol, and light weight, you can enjoy it throughout a meal.

It’s hard to describe in general terms why you should drink wine with food. The best thing is to experiment for yourself. Bordeaux with good lamb? It’s a magical fusion of tastes and textures that cannot be duplicated with any other beverage. The pairings don’t have to be fancy, though. Try Champagne with popcorn or macaroni and cheese -- these have become common “odd” pairings over the last decade. The guide just has to be what pleases your mouth. There is such a range of styles with wine that, chances are, you can find something that matches your taste and your food. It is with food that beer and liquor seem the most one-dimensional.

5. Wine, my buddy

You might not think about this, but if you get into wine, one of the most rewarding aspects is the relationship you build with certain bottles. If you decide you like wine enough to start building a cellar for yourself, you’ll wind up with bottles that will stay on your racks for years.

You will learn the pain and pleasure of agonizing over when to drink one prized bottle — will it be too young? Too old? You’ll probably end up talking to it from time to time, wishing it could pipe up and give you some wisdom about the development of the wine within. This is all part of the fun. It’s a somewhat similar rush to gambling. You hope you pull the cork at the right time, that your investment of time, money, and space will pay off. You’ll feel exhilaration and disappointment.

You can get intimate with a wine, if you really want. Go see the vineyards. When was the last time you felt the urge to check out the potato farm or corn field that feeds into your favorite vodka distillery? There’s something tremendously organic about wine, and I don’t mean that exclusively as a method of farming. It’s a unique aspect to a beverage that actually takes on a life of its own. Not to mention the fact that wine has held a romantic place in the human condition for centuries. Wine in parts is hedonistic, sacramental, exhilarating, and depressing, and it is never without passion.

But perhaps the most important realization to make about wine is the easiest to grasp.
Ignore wine enthusiasts, no matter how well-intentioned, who fill beginners with jargon and complexity, which they love to flash like it’s a membership card to some secret club. Having a good bottle of wine is always better with friends, but a tongue-lashing from a wine snob is the easiest way to ruin it. All you need to know is what you like, and drink that.


SirRon said...

I just discovered your blog (via Eating Our Words). Being pretty interested in the adult beverages myself as well as being a homebrewer and (below average) home wine maker, I read through both of your wine posts.

You are really way off on a few of your points in this post.

1. I never thought about my connection with wine being tied to the fact it was most like the ingredient it is made of. This is a good point. However, the claim that its hands off is exaggerated. I've made wine. Getting the grape ready and making the additions required to begin the fermentation process isn't too much easier than brewing (I guess in brewing I don't malt the grain myself first). And the claim that wine "doesn’t even need the addition of yeast" is totally false, by the way. Beer doesn't need a "heavy cooking process either" to be beer. To end with "vigorous production process that tends to deaden flavor nuances" is really silly.

2. I don't think you understand craft beers or bottle fermentation, but I also don't think you understand the blending that goes on in wineries (or maybe the barrel vs. fermenter aging for wines). By the way, winemaking includes many chemical additions too. You have a point about vintages, but their are many many breweries that do something similar with annual bottle conditioned beers (unpasteurized *live* beer, with residual yeast in the bottle).

3. Totally agreed about wines being light. Huge plus for wines, and this is why I prefer a good bottle of wine among family and friends to a good bottle of beer.

4. "You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a beverage, other than water, that goes well with as many kinds of food as wine." When you started with this, I thought you were kidding. I'm not sure that you were. Your opinions on wine and beer pairings are both very wrong. This is not opinion.

5. I've visited multiple distilleries, breweries, and wineries. I've had a great time at each type. The advantage wine has has nothing to do with the beverage and everything to do with location. Most wineries (West Coast, East Coast... wherever) win by location alone. I went to a brewery on Nantucket Island that was just as serene as something in Healdsburg, CA though.

Wow... now I'm "the guy" who writes super long and mean comments. Oh well. I only type this because I care. You at least won me as a reader going forward :)

Unknown said...

Ron -- very glad you're here and reading. Hope you stick around. This is just the kind of spirited discussion that makes food and drink so enjoyable.

I definitely appreciate your point of view -- and am unapologetic about being super pro-wine -- but I have to disagree on a couple points:

1. Perhaps it would be better phrased as wine "can" be hands off. It is absolutely true that you can make wine with only the native yeast that is on the grapes themselves. This is similar to starting a sourdough with yeast present on apples, for example. I'm no aware of a brewing process that doesn't require cooking, but I'm always open to being better informed.

2. I think you conflate what can be added in the winemaking process and what normally is. I'm well-versed in blending and barrel aging of wine, but you don't have to add any chemicals to wine. Sure, there are various techniques such as adding acid or water or other chemicals, but often it is nothing more than putting argon in a barrel or occasional additions of sulfur to prevent spoiling during elevage. I did ignore the vintage and "live" beers, which you bring up, which probably is unfair. I tend to drink wine that isn't mass-produced, so comparing that to things like Budweiser may not be the most apt comparison.

3. I'm confused about what is wrong about my opinion on wine pairings. Are you saying that red Bordeaux with lamb isn't a classic? I would argue that wine, compared to beer or spirits, certainly is more versatile and has more nuances revealed in various pairings, but this is all subject to personal preference. (One reason why I don't like the often-prescriptive attitudes of some things that certain wines "only" work with particular foods.)

4. That wine is made in areas that are visually appealing -- and that vineyards hold a romantic notion themselves -- doesn't make or break the enjoyment of what's in the bottle. There is just something very farm-to-table about the winemaking process that allows it to be quite self-contained and appealing, adding another layer of mystique to the beverage. That's all I meant by that. Not that one wouldn't be inclined to grow your own hops or be excited about seeing the barley field. Maybe it's better seen this way: the connection between wine's raw material (grapes) and that of beer or spirits is immediately associated with the finished product. See a vineyard, you can get that flash of a bottle in your head. I'm not familiar with a similar phenomenon when viewing a potato farm. It's just one of those things that has built up over time in our society.

Regardless, I appreciate your excellent comments. Please keep reading. Your perspective is most welcome.

SirRon said...

Beer can also, and was for some time in history exclusively, fermented with wild yeast (no yeast addition).

On #3, I only disagree with the statement that wine is more versatile and has more nuances revealed in various pairings. Like I said, this isn't just opinion. Beer is WAY more versatile in pairings. You are correct that there are some classic (and fantastic) pairings with wine that can't be touched by any beverage. However, you use the term versatile, and I am just pointed out that if you took every dish served at a restaurant from bottom to top of the menu, beer would win more pairings.

4. Maybe you overvalue the "farm-to-table" factor. I just like good friends and good drink... and I value location. Maybe people are way more like you than like me though. I can live with that :)

I dig the passion in your posts (and comments)... RSS added to my google reader and blogroll at

Unknown said...

Really happy to have your perspective, Ron. And thanks so much for reading and commenting. You raise some really good points. Thanks for the add! Added you to my tasting reading, as well. Cheers!