Wine has an image problem, as a result of those promoting, creating and selling it. Everyday, wineries continue to promote wine as something special, or that you the consumer need an education to truly appreciate it. And as a result, its perceived as a privileged beverage, something that demands the consumer protections we afford car safety regulations.
Wine is consistently put in special bottles and separated from other beverages, only to be reached for on special occasions, by those who feel they know enough to confidently choose “the correct” wine. Often times leading the consumer to, out of fear, to choose the same wine every time so as not to get “it” wrong. Historically, wine was a beverage, something that you drink when you were thirsty or to imbibe with food. Today we separate it from other liquids, so that it’s treated differently and given a “learn first, drink later” badge to wear. The wineries, retailers and bartenders communicate: if you just want to have a drink, have a cocktail or beer, but for wine you must have a reason to enjoy it, or more appropriately, education.
The wine press is not helping in fixing this, and the wine industry is only helping to support the presses lack of initiative. The industry of wineries, writers, and retailers give value to points, falsely implying that wine is an objective discipline which leads people to think that if they don’t understand these points they can’t fully enjoy the wine. We call it a scandal or a travesty when we hear winemakers making wines in ways that are not ‘traditional’. Conversely, after the scandal breaks, we then reward those same winemakers as pioneers when we get tired of whining about what they are doing “wrong”, or when we finally taste the wine and realize that it actually tastes good.The consumer is then left wondering if they’re drinking something that is simply for enjoyment, or whether they need a degree to fully appreciate the glass that sits before them.
A few simple facts that I think every wine writer, drinker, legislator, wine maker, or educator should consider: Wine is a beverage first. Simple definition of a beverage is a substance that we swallow and does not need to be chewed; and most of the time, it comes in the form of a free flowing liquid. In the case of wine, it is flavored due to the environment it is made in, the winemaker’s skills or the cultural traditions it is born from. Just to give context, these are all considered wines: Vermouth, Port, Bordeaux, Mistela, PX, Champagne and Sherry. Each one has a very different way of being made, and the process of making each one affects the flavors of the final product as much as the grapes, terroir and culture that went into their creation.
What is interesting to me is all the various ways these wines are manipulated when created. Manipulated in ways that wine purists do not seem to complain about unless these methods are applied to certain wines. Vermouth has wood chips in the form of twigs and herbs thrown in for flavor, while Port is fortified with brandy. Bordeaux sees new oak lathered upon it to make the wines more cohesive and palatable. Mistela is not even fermented, or might be in small amounts, then fortified with brandy to wine alcohol levels. PX is much the same with the minimal fermentation occurring before the wine is put in barrels to age for years. Champagne needs its lees and yeast to give it character – the raw wine being undrinkable until it sits long enough in bottle. And finally Sherry, where Flor, or a yeast in other words, either protects the wine artificially – manipulating it so that an old wine looks young, or where the flor is absent – such as with Olorosos – where the time in barrel creates the flavors that we look for.
Ironically, today we’ll find people sipping upon Port wine, while complaining about alcohol in California Cabernets. Others may be sipping Vermouth on a hot day griping about “wood chipping” to flavor red wines made at cooperatives. I’m here to say this needs to stop! – which it won’t, but it should. If you don’t like a wine or its construction, it does not make it necessarily bad. We look for oak in Bordeaux, but if we learn that the oak was of “chip” in origin, we’re outraged. Some may say, “But Ryan, the ‘chipped’ wines won’t last as long as those who are aged in barrel”, to which I reply, “So why are you drinking them now?”
This comes to mind as I consider labeling myself, for lack of a better term, a liquid agnostic. I enjoy liquids with flavors: some more than others and some less. I love to find flavors that I don’t expect or that make my mind do a little spin with excitement as I sip. I don’t really care if their origins are fruit (wine), grain (beer), honey (mead), or a distillate from one or all the above. I enjoy the adventure, and sometimes that adventure leads to me tasting some pretty rancid things. Funny enough, that discovery of what I don’t like only helps to further shape what I will seek out next.
Last June, when picking up some of my favorite hops (beers) in the USA, I was surprised to read on a bottle of oak aged IPA from Stone Brewing, “aged with oak chips“. Imagine that on a bottle of wine?! Sacrilege!! Yet, as anyone in the industry knows, this is by far a rare occurrence. I have seen chips used at top wineries who claimed they were only used on their bulk wines. In the practice of labeling a beer, as such Stone has, acknowledges that wood has flavor, and a flavor – that surprisingly – many people love. I personally am not a fan, and I try to avoid oak in many of the beverages I drink, with a few exceptions. Scotch, Bourbon, and other whiskeys primary flavors come from the oak and oxidation that it causes, and for me, these liquids have a special place in my version of heaven. Not to mention the “oak aged” Stone brew I speak of which was damn tasty.
While this is not an advocacy for the use of oak chips in wine, something that I hope we will slowly see less and less of(or not), I want to make the point that wine is not that special. And it is not an objective science. Wine, liquids and all flavors are subjective.
Hit a Chinaman, a Canadian and a Englishman on the hand with a hammer, and they will all scream out in pain. Objective.
Give the same three people all a glass of wine from the same bottle and ask if they like it, and you probably will hear very different reactions. Subjective.
Points helped the western world understand wine at a time when there were nasty and potentially dangerous drinks being sold to the masses. Wine points today only work to move markets and I would argue distract from the discovery of new flavors. They have zero basis in reality, as far as to what is in the bottle, and the experience one has with it. Any wine person who now wants to leave a comment below telling me I’m wrong, stop and think about the fact that we’ve had the following experience in one way or another and with very different results. Pour a 100pt wine, or a wine that you think is exemplary to a group of wine lovers, and ask them each what they think. We all know that consensus is not guaranteed. Why don’t those of you who are in need of points to do business do us a favor and keep them behind a professional wall, hidden from all but those consumers with the highest “geek factor”, protect the public from their scarring ways. Even the best critics of today cannot rate the same wine with the same points from one day to the next, so why do we think they are standards that we should believe in?
Wine only 300 years ago, more or less, was consider undrinkable, if not sweet. Go further back and it was blended with everything from seawater to pine boughs to make it palatable; partly due to how it was made, but also due to a preference for certain flavors. Today, as we who are lovers of what we affectionately term “the stickies” know, sweet wine has fallen out of favor (then again you could argue this is true when you see people calling Kendall Jackson Chardonnay ‘dry’).
My final point and main point of this post is this: Liquids can range in style and quality. They do not fit neat stereotypes that we all want to put them in. Beer is not defined by Budweiser any more than wine is defined by Blue Nun. Fruit wines can and should be considered as important as their ‘grape’ cousins. Rather than attempt to place an artificial hierarchy on the world of beverages, why not spend more time exploring that world, worrying less about what is in them and more about the emotions they can bring to someone who is in love with flavors. I’ve drunk 15 year old beers, and 1 day old wines and enjoyed both. I’ve paired beers with foods that wines can’t match and visa versa. The truth is they are liquids with flavor. Nothing more. (Flickr Photo by whisperwolf)
Perception tends to cloud reality. I think of a night when I opened a 15 year old Samiclaus beer with a friend of mine. When I told him it was a beer and that it was fifteen years old, he tasted it and said “that’s not beer”, to which I replied, “it’s just not a beer you recognize”. The disassociation came from it tasting like an old port or maybe a younger tawny. The irony was that later that evening, we did opened a tawny port which he seemed to enjoy enthusiastically, while the half finished glass of his “tawnyish” beer sat untouched. The idea that the beer was “off” caused him to reject it for that reason, and not for the flavors that it held.
Flavor is flavor. Nothing else. Enjoy it, explore it, and quit trying to pigeon hole it based on its fermented origins.
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