February 5

On Wine: Gift of time can turn wine – and other things – into something great

Even some inexpensive bottles may benefit from aging.

Just a day or two after New Year’s, I started getting the PR emails plugging various wines for Valentine’s Day. Rose Champagne, white Burgundy, Brunello … all’s fair in the commercialization of love and the war of marketing.

I love the inherent ironic distance between content and form: “Gaze into your beloved’s eyes, think back on all you’ve done together, how grateful you are to have found this mate, and what firm foundation you’ve built for an ever rosier future, and … BUY! BUY! BUY! DRINK THIS! IT’LL BE A KICK-BUTT LOVEY-DOVEY EVENING FOR JUST THE TWO OF YOU!”

Even if you’re not in the wine biz, you know what I’m talking about because you live in the marketplace, where we are all bombarded with anxious, ingratiating encomia to “love,” monetized.

At the root of the offense I take at this is the compression of time: here’s the latest, don’t miss this trend, it’ll be gone in a week.

At this point in my life I find it hard to truly feel the passing of time. I can’t chart its course or float in its currents; I mostly splash about a bit too effortfully, flapping my arms and trying to find an eddy where I can rest for a moment, before another flush of water sweeps me downstream.

If you too have felt this, then you too know how fragile your own soul can become if it’s not nourished. A distracted ignorance of time’s passage flattens a sense of value, where certain experiences are worthier than others. Fail to sense yourself in space and time and you will end up bored with everything.

Boring wine works this way. Boring wine is often made quickly, with one eye (at least) on getting to the market as quickly as possible.

A wine friend from France once told me, “Americans think 100 years is a long time and 100 miles is a short distance. We see it the other way around.”

Real wine is slow. It takes decades to get a vine you planted ready to yield excellent fruit; months to grow the grapes each season; days to pick grapes by hand and sort them. Then there are the weeks it takes to induce natural fermentation; months of tasting, conferring, adjusting.

All that is gestation: Once a wine goes into bottle, it begins an early stage of its life, but won’t be ready for a real relationship until several years later. (I’m not talking here of wines whose heart and soul lie exclusively in the realm of freshness and vibrancy. There are exhilarating wines meant to be drunk young, just as there are joyful flings to be had.)

Something like 97 percent of wines are consumed within a few hours of when they’re purchased. That’s understandable, because most of us buy wine as a nice way to round out our dinner plans or enjoy with a gathering of friends. We’re not collecting or investing.

But the buy-it-drink-it rhythm is a shame nonetheless, because it severely limits what we can let wine actually do for us: how it can stretch us, relate us more intimately to our natural world and one another, and help us reflect on our own passage through time, our own life arc, our own mortality.

Wines that have aged even a few years truly can do this. Their character, their essence, is so dramatically different from that of fresh/young wine that to call both by the same name is inaccurate, if not offensive.

Young wines suggest the time arc once in a while, almost randomly. Older wines are like older people, and older relationships: Their experience has yielded them insights that are simply unavailable to the young. They can communicate these insights more willfully, and therefore more unswervingly, more convincingly.

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