At a time when America has become, and will continue to be well into the foreseeable future, the largest wine consuming nation on Earth, most consumers of fermented grape juice remain frustrated, confused, exasperated and thirsty.
For those of us old enough to remember the birth of the home computing movement (yes, all the way back to 1985), a similar alignment of the stars took place which, for a while, resulted in the most consumer-unfriendly set of market circumstances imaginable. Who the hell knew DOS or the crazy commands that had to be fed to the device in order just to get the damn thing to print a document?
The common expression then, and it still holds some weight, was/is that “computers are not toasters.” You cannot just walk up and start working without some basic understanding and knowledge about how the machine wants to go about its work, which meant your preferences were not the driving force behind the operation of the device.
Well, bucko, wine is just like that. It seems like the darn stuff ought to be easier than it is. But it’s not. There are rewards for knowledge, the most obvious being a beverage that is both enjoyable and fits a broad spectrum of life’s experiences. But getting to the heart of the matter requires some education, prior understanding, practice, and a desire to be an intelligent consumer.
And all you really need to know to enjoy one of the oldest processed beverages known to civilization, is an understanding of agriculture, an appreciation of history, proper evaluation of the context in which you would like to enjoy wine, a familiarity of the breadth of wines available, a working knowledge of the producer and the geography in which he works, culinary expertise about whether this wine goes with what you are eating, the ability to read labels even in a foreign language, and a respect for what everyone in your party will enjoy. See? It’s easy. But really those kinds of challenges and barriers to enjoyment are not the same as operating toasters.
Still, it really is not all that difficult and along the way it’s fun. Likely, growing up you never had any idea that knowing the weather patterns for six months out of a particular past year in central Oregon would come in handy. And I’ll bet you never considered that the same limestone stratum that defines the White Cliffs of Dover, England would be under the grape vines of Champagne. And that major geographic feature would eventually play a role, along with global warming, in the emerging sparkling wine industry of the English coast. Blimey, I feel like one of those well-spoken snobs who host programs on PBS, connecting yo-yos to hover boards.
Okay so let’s assume you find all of this most interesting and you have a desire to learn more about what makes wine wine.
Now along comes some show-off who tosses around wine-speak terms like he or she actually understands them. Take for instance the term “grapey.” Sounds like it would be a good thing since that’s the core ingredient in fine wine. Actually it’s a term of derision and indicates a wine that is poorly made.
The term “hot” does not refer to your dining companion but rather is a slam at the fact that the alcohol present in the wine – something very necessary for structure – is not well integrated into the wine, another manufacturing flaw.
“Fruity” sounds nice and friendly, but often means the wine is not made from good quality raw product and is therefore not of good character or age worthiness. “Oaky” sounds like a compliment but is really a slam at the winemaker for too much of what is normally a good thing.
And you can figure out that a long finish is better than a short finish, even though both terms are subjective and not applied consistently to the tactile footprints a wine leaves after it has left your mouth and traveled further south in your body.
In short, there is no substitute for pulling a lot of corks, unscrewing a lot of caps, and tasting a bunch of wine while trying to understand what the wine is telling you. Me, I’ve always enjoyed a good story so putting in the time is not a chore but a rewarding pleasure; not an embarrassment at what you don’t know but a treasure for what tales you can share.
Or you can stand in front of the Great Wall of Wine at your retailer and pick out the one with the little lizard on the label.