I am going back to the USA today after two years (actually 1 year and 10.5 months) of living in Spain with my wife, Gabriella. Upon reflection, when I first came here, I honestly believed that a wine savvy American would have an easy time of finding work in a vineyard or wine shop. I assumed that with America rapidly becoming the biggest wine importing nation in the world, people would actually want to talk to me and ask me questions about consumers back home. I was eager to work. I was also eager to learn everything I could lay my hands on about Spanish and/or Portuguese wine.
Unfortunately, the majority of you know that our preconceived ideas make terrible filters for reality. Assumption messes with everything and with time you realize that what you “knew” was really a better indicator of what you didn’t know. I thought I understood wine. I thought I would come to a country where people knew more about wine than Americans, and where every meal flowed with bacchanal like excesses of vino! I naively believed that the blending of wine with other liquors and liquids would be looked down upon and disregarded as foreign ignorance. I now admit I was wrong.
First off, I have found on the Iberian Peninsula that what you know is not as important as who you are. Resumes? “Who needs stinking resumes?” is the cry from any office building here in Iberia. Resumes are business cards with a lot of other useless information. What matters most is who you know and whether they trust you as a person. If you are accepted by one person, you automatically gain the respect of everyone that person knows without question. Frustrating? YES! Effective? YES! Due to this policy, I now have the respect of some very important people and I also have some very dear friends.
Secondarily, just because you are a wine drinking nation does not mean you know anything about wine. This was hard for me to understand until I accepted a few things. Wine here is not taboo, nor evil, nor forbidden. Children are often given watered down wine for holidays, and as you mature, the level of water drops in proportion to wine. You learn it is a beverage first, and a possible way to be buzzed second. In school you may even visit a vineyard as a child to learn about its history and elaboration. Wine with a meal is important, while the name of the wine is less important. In the US, we were always worried about the perfect wine for the meal and if it would pair with the meal. Here all wines match the meal that is before you, as long as you have friends to share it with.
Thirdly wine is to be enjoyed, not “hoarded”. In the States, I always wanted to know how long a wine would last or would if it would improve. This is fun and I like the idea behind it, but here in Spain, wine is to be drunk and to be enjoyed. The older the wine is, while amusing, is not the most important idea behind it. Yes, we have our aficionados over here too, who look for that special bottle and try to talk of great past vintages. But in a culture where more people per capita consume wine then back in the States, a minority seem to care much beyond whether the wine is from their region and whether it’s red, white or sparkling. In the USA, Thomas Jefferson was our first wine critic, and due to his elite standing, wine has always been considered a beverage for the more enlightened, i.e. the wealthy. Whereas, in Spain, the wine has been made since the day grandma left the grapes to rot in the tub behind the house. Therefore, adding a little soda water to it, or juice to sweeten it up, seems to be a smart idea and is rarely considered faux pas.
Beyond these reflections, what is most important is that wine is fun! That’s it! Wine is fun because, yes, it can give you a buzz, but also because it lubricates the conversation, because the bubbles of a Cava can tickle your nose, because a candle in an old bottle is atheistically pleasing, because a good cork collection is fun to run your fingers through, and even more fun because it tastes so good.
So as I head back to the States, I’m going to remember some of these things and see if I can bring some of these ideas back with me. Yeah, I have a cellar full of aging bottles stored beneath the floor of my parent’s house that I will peruse and ponder which of the bottles will continue to stay resting for years to come; but in all honesty, I can’t wait to open some now and see what’s hidden inside. I’ll be with friends and family, and the juice within will hopefully help bring smiles to all those I share them with.
Till soon and Happy Holidays,