May 1, 2013

Appel on wine: Our conversation shouldn't end with 'what's in the glass'

By JOE APPEL

Most people still equate "learning about wine" with learning how to taste it. Once one has decided to delve deeper than "I know what I like," one asks: What aromas and flavors am I picking up? Do I like fuller body or lighter? Perfect dryness or a touch of sweet? Earthier tones or fruitier?

These are all necessary questions, lending access to all sorts of revelations, and bear continual asking. But they fall into just one category, which we could label "what's in the glass." As central as those questions are, a fixation on them risks reducing a very complicated nexus of factors to a falsely static, unalive product. Karl Marx might have called it commodity-wine fetishism.

While many people -- including great chefs and the vast majority of self-defined "foodies" -- continue to assess food in a similar light and claim that "all that matters is taste," a growing number of eaters is seeking to understand the wider drama of food production. Agricultural practices, health, distribution networks, oversight, packaging and selling have all entered the story. So far, this more macroscopic perspective has not seeped very far into the consciousness of American wine culture. But we're going to change that.

We're going to change that by placing our lot with winemakers, who, when conscientious, make their own decisions based not on what they want to show up in the glass, but on what the terrain they work and the fruit they have ask them to do. (If that sounds kooky, read Michael Pollan's "The Botany of Desire" for proof that humans are but instruments of the natural world's grand plan.)

So, after asking what aromas, flavors and textures are in the glass, we ask why and how they got there. We ask about the soil, weather, elevation. We ask about treatments and practices in the vineyard. We ask how the grapes go from vine to cellar. We ask what happens to them when they get there. Then, when we taste the wine, we have a much more accurate appreciation for what we're drinking.

The inspiration for this undertaking came to me in a moment of revelation when I was standing, appropriately, in a vineyard. On a recent tour of several wineries in northern Italy, I was interviewing various winemakers about how they worked. It was exasperating that every one of them, confidently and honestly, to some extent contradicted the confident and honest-sounding assertions of the winemaker I'd just previously met.

One of them exulted in the positive changes wrought by his conversion to biodynamics; the next laid out in exhaustive detail how many biodynamic practices are irrelevant or worse. Just after hearing in Friuli about how diligent hand-harvesting ensures that only the best, most physiologically ripe grapes are brought to the cellar, I encountered a Trentino vintner who showed how machine harvesting can save a crop when the weather turns ornery at harvest time.

Viticulture: organic or conventional? Origin of fruit: single-estate or co-operatively farmed? Inclination: steep or flat? Harvesting: by hand or machine? Fermentation: temperature-controlled or determined by the elements? Containers: used oak or new cement or stainless? Yeast: indigenous or cultured? Management: family-owned or negociant? What makes better wine? What's the trick to ending up with the ideal liquid "in the glass"? Everyone is so certain of the answers, but the truth never comes from a single person, never comes from certainty.

I desperately wanted all these guys to have a conversation in one room. I would put all those questions to each of them, force them to collectively determine "the truth" about what is "best." But for many reasons, such a conversation will never take place.

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