Thursday, April 17, 2014
By JOE APPEL
The growing chasm between people who have enough money to live comfortably and those who do not is the single greatest social challenge facing humanity. This chasm manifests in every facet of society. One facet of society is wine.
Anyone involved in the world of wine -- from casual consumer to dedicated oenophile, from buyer to seller -- who ignores the chasm between rich and poor, who indeed fails to engage with wine on a level that seeks to bridge that chasm, is at least weak, and at most culpable.
How do we drink wine, when approximately three-quarters of a billion humans do not have consistent access to clean water? Not "how can we?" but literally, "how do we?"
Like every other social product, wine is a field on which the game of cannibalistic capitalism is played, sometimes viciously. On the palate, wine can be bright, earthy, crisp, unctuous, savory or sweet. In the market, wine can function as a token of bragging rights, a commodity intended to enrich the rich.
Cheap wine has gotten cheaper, dear wine has gotten dearer. Wine as product is natural. Wine as commodity is unnatural. Wine as luxury-good commodity is reprehensible.
As with other cultural artifacts such as literature or cinema, wine's significance is often expressed most prominently in terms of sales. We are most impressed by market share.
What would happen if wine prices were set the way book and movie ticket prices are set -- that is, roughly, standardized? The "capital" necessary to engage with wine would be more cultural than economic. Yes, cultural capital often arises from economic capital. And yes, in an era of mass reproduction of cultural artifacts such as books and movies, scarcity is not the issue that it is with wine. But the thought experiment -- all wines roughly the same price; which would you pick? -- is compelling.
Some of the greatest wines in the world come from Burgundy, but there aren't too many people who can buy good Burgundy anymore. This is in part due to the natural constraints of scarcity in the region, but more due to speculation, and to the mafia classes (Chinese, American, Russian, just for a start) drawn by the scent not of earth and roses in wines of the Cote d'Or, but of money in velvet-draped bottles at Sotheby's.
In my job selling wine, I recently put together a selection of wines for a collector. He told me what sorts of wines he likes and is interested in laying down in his cellar. I proposed wines, which he approved. In procuring the wines, I ran into the usual assortment of out-of-stock challenges. When I told the customer of certain substitutions we'd have to make or bottles he'd have to do without, his responses were so nonchalant -- the overriding sentiment seemed to be, "just fill up the boxes" -- that I wondered whether he even loved wine at all.
There is a wastefulness at the heart of our culture. We are collectively responsible for creating it, and for reinforcing and sustaining it.
Most of the smartest, most passionate people working in wine today -- importers, sommeliers, writers -- cut their teeth in an era when the great wines of the world were available to drink. They learned at the feet of the masters.
If so many classics are now unavailable, a new conceptual framework for wine appreciation must (actually, has begun to) develop to address this relatively recent sociological fact. Younger wine lovers today orient toward adventure, the undiscovered, the context in which a wine is produced. In terms of flavor, they orient toward immediacy, interestingness, affinity with contemporary cuisine. Less and less wine these days is flawed, but flaws are not necessarily of utmost importance.
The oppressive mechanisms of capitalism are enraging, but there is no room in this contemplation for armed revolution. Perhaps the best we can do is bring attention to what's in front of us. Wine has taught me this above anything else. Pay attention to particulars, and gratitude, restraint, lightness, sensitivity grow. From such traits comes empathy. Perhaps empathy -- defined somewhat un-technically as sympathy that lasts -- will lead us to a life of wine that is not antagonistic, wasteful, ignorant, ego-driven.
Last night I prepared a dinner of quinoa, corn, zucchini, avocado soup, goat cheese. There was a bottle of Kabinett Riesling to drink from. (For our purposes here, the name of the producer doesn't really matter. It cost $14. I've written previously of plenty of Kabinett Riesling in that price range. You should ask your favorite wine seller to speak with you about Kabinett Riesling, and go from there.)
The food, on a Tuesday night with my family, was so simple. The meal, though, was extraordinary. The natural sweetness in the corn and slow-cooked zucchini was complemented beautifully by the natural sweetness in the Riesling. The tang of acidity in the goat cheese, in the garlic that flavored the squash, conversed with the piquant bite of acidity in the Riesling. The fresh farm-like savors of the quinoa mated the slate-y earth tones of, yes, the Riesling.
We enjoyed each other immensely during dinner, my family and I. We just talked and came together in a spirit of love. It is not anthropomorphizing to say that the foods and wine did the same. I caught a glimpse of how the "best" thing has little to do with "quality" as narrowly defined by a consumer culture. The best meal is not a collection of atomized best products (best quinoa or best beef, best Riesling or best Brunello).
The best things attain their status through collaboration, through intimacy. We say, "it all came together." When osmosis occurs, when different expressions of the world enter each other, we catch that fleeting hint of the oneness underlying everything and everyone.
Our failure to consistently regard that oneness is what produces a world of disparity and despair. Our endeavors -- the word not used lightly: they are not our habit, and take work -- to touch it offer the only chance to produce something else.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at: