The New York Times’ wine critic, Eric Asimov, recently inaugurated what he calls Wine School, a monthly interactive column that invites readers to drink similar wines and share their reactions online. It’s very good. It’s organized mostly by region: the first four installments have been on Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Sancerre and (German, dry) Riesling.
I recently led an in-person wine class based on one region: France’s Loire Valley. The Loire’s tremendous diversity of soils, grapes and vinification styles allowed me to stage a short introductory course on how each of those factors influences what ends up in the glass.
A primary consideration of a given place – its soils, its climate, its fruits and traditions – is an excellent way to teach people wine basics. But I’m afraid that it skips over what comes before even the basics, something like a foundational sense of how the world works.
I left that class feeling I’d neglected to impart the Reason It All Matters.
Wine – what humans do with grapevines growing in soil – has taught me a lot about how to live. How to see connections, both horizontally through space and vertically through time. I’d like to develop an Ethics of Wine which might investigate these connections, though I’m not yet sure how to do it.
It’s fun to begin to sense why Sauvignon Blanc might be best suited to silex soils while Chenin Blanc is better served by clay. I can show that to people relatively easily. But it’s harder to discuss how it might be hypocritical for the French wine industry to be so particular about labeling wines from grapes grown in specific regions but allow, unlisted, such non-native ingredients as sugar, cultured yeast, and excessive sulfur to be added to grape juice.
Of course, if I’d led off a wine class with all that proselytizing, most people would have barfed or yawned (or both, which would have been exceptionally gross). Should the what’s-this-really-all-about question come early in one’s education, or later? I suppose there’s plenty of time in the future to align ones morals with one’s hobbies, but if the entry is always technical and narrowly focused on taste, do we risk molding mindsets based on technique and tongues?
We have developed the depth of experience and the enological knowledge to make flawless wine, even engaging wine, on a broad enough scale that any middle-class first-worlder can drink better wine for $10 a bottle than kings fought wars over not so long ago. That’s a great story, but not the only story. And not the best story.
The story that grips me accounts for the entire chain of production. I’m not necessarily talking about U.S. Department of Agriculture certification of organically grown grapes, or designation of practices that can garner a “sustainable winery” badge. It’s that but not only that. The full extent of it is harder to assign words to. I’m talking about situating ourselves within a web of connections built out of appreciation, intimacy, humility, awe.
Asimov’s most recent book is “How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto.” It argues for an emotional connection to wine instead of an overly analytical one. The world works through love, so he’s on to something. But it’s possible to love something harmful. If I love a wine produced under circumstances that subvert the world’s harmony – destroying a habitat with chemical additives, say, or adding so much sulfur that the soil’s imprint on the vineyard is eradicated – then what went wrong?
Do you build knowledge and appreciation from the ground up or from the heavens down? Maybe the basics are too distracting. Maybe the mystical stuff is the most helpful.
In web- and book-based wine education, there’s the “simplify this arcane, complex, intimidating subject” approach; the “explain the distinctions among the world’s wine regions” approach; the “here’s what each grape tastes like” approach; the “learn what you love” approach. Which opens the door widest for awe?
We need a QR code placed on every bottle. Your mobile device zaps the code and instantly displays the information about how the vines were tended, what they got or didn’t get sprayed with, the yield levels, whether the land was irrigated, to what extent sulfur was added, the processes in the cellar (oak treatment, all the additives thrown in the tanks, reverse osmosis, chaptalization, alcohol reduction, acidification, de-acidification, all the rest). For each factor, you can tap to find out why it’s important, the varying opinions on it, and so on.
All that when you just want to buy a bottle to go with your roast chicken? Insane, right? But think of where our culture was 50 years ago with ingredient listing on foods. Most people today who try to shop for food conscientiously have no idea how the bottle of wine they pulled from the shelf has been altered and abused by chemical treatments, unsafe labor conditions (really) or destructive environmental practices. They would be aghast.
We need the killer app. I’m too old and ignorant to do this. Wherever you are, young techie whippersnapper with an eye on the cosmos, take my idea and fly. Make a billion bucks. Run free.
We all need to gain enough self-awareness to know what we love and why. I will continue to take, and to teach, wine classes. And I will continue to read books that encourage a love for wine. But we also need to gain enough world-awareness to know how what we love affects everything and everyone else. There’s a Wine in the World course syllabus somewhere out there, waiting to be written, whose textbook would be How to Love the World, with Wine In It.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at: