In response to my column last week on American wines, a reader wrote that he was “bothered” that all the wines I described, while made in this country, used European varietals. “Surely,” he wrote, “there are good Niagara or Concord wines that exist and are worthy of consideration as truly American wines?” No, there aren’t.

That’s kind of nasty, but let’s get into this. What do we mean when we say “good”? Most food and wine pros base their preferences on taste alone; indeed, that’s what most people I know do. But arising concurrently with the popularity of localism, environmentalism, micro-health-ism and the rest, the definition of “good” has been forced open. Is roasted monkfish “good” if the fishing technique clearcuts the ocean floor? Are bananas “good” if working conditions for pickers deplete years from their lives? Is mac-n-cheese “good” if it causes the gastroenterological equivalent of a tornado?

We don’t agree on our terms anymore, but if you want a tasty all-American wine, you’re outta luck. I’d love to buy good Maine-made olive oil too, but until the benefits of global warming really kick in, not gonna happen.

All depends on intention. If you’re interested in what wine more firmly rooted in this country tastes like, seek it and let me know what you find. If it’s clumsy and cloying but your journey was interesting, that’s cool. Personally, I place a high value on eating and living locally because the culinary, health, community, environmental and economic benefits are high. But fetishizing food nativism can get maddening, quickly. The same people who prize small networks of food producers, and indigenous cultures generally (whether of people, grains, grapes or shops) are the last who’d admit to philosophical localism (nativism). They gain perspective from ideas generated across the planet. In our growingly interconnected society, remaining truly local is simply parochial – a psycho-emotional death wish.

Americans go crazy over this stuff because we’re unrooted, immigrant, and always worried someone’s going to peel off our mask. But we’re real. We’re real in our own way, though a perspective broad enough to acknowledge that Pangea split into seven continents and humans (sometimes carrying grapes) have traipsed the globe forever will note that Americans are more like everything else than we think. Which is probably as good a point as any to mention a very good wine made in Maine, USA:

Oyster River Winegrowers The Villager White, Warren, Maine, $10 (SoPo). Here’s a conundrum. Warren’s Brian Smith makes this splendidly crisp, off-dry German-tempered wine using grapes trucked from New York – and we all know how “serious” wine is estate-grown (made with grapes grown on property). Yet he uses two organically grown grapes (the cousins Cayuga and Seyval Blanc) that were developed (from European stock) at Cornell University specifically to be used in cold climates such as the Finger Lakes region and elsewhere. So, how do we define it? We don’t. We come to know it; Americans are experiential if nothing else.

The Villager is amazingly complex. Pears, ginger and exotic flowers explode off it at first, then it relaxes into a kind of calm, gentian-flower bittersweetness that screams for food. The combination of candied aromatics and dry-bitter finish, buoyed by very long-lasting acidity, makes me feel as alive as when I’m hiking fast through wet forest. Pair it with grassy-nutty raw-milk cheeses; Asian flavors such as coconut, sriracha, cilantro; or (seriously) pate. What could be more American than a wine so inviting of so many flavors?

 

Joe Appel’s day job is doing a lot of different things at Rosemont Market and Bakery. He can be reached at: [email protected]