A lot of wine experts claim to offer ways to “simplify” or “demystify” wine, but they never will, because wine is too inherently complicated. That’s not a marketable claim, but it’s true. This is because like anything else that’s alive, wine only exists in context; it cannot be fixed in space or time.

That might sound like facile philosophizing, but I mean it as a purely practical matter. Blenders and desk chairs are lifeless objects: as long as the power stays on and the screws hold, they do the same thing every time. Wines are live beings, and we are too, so they will taste different in different contexts.

This is exciting. But it’s also a largely unacknowledged factor in the professional appraisal of wines, which bears upon all wine drinkers, who consume according to decisions made by wine professionals. Now is the time of year when such considerations come to a head, as new vintages enter the market, trade shows occur and wine buyers decide what they like and will try to sell.

The first hint that wine is sold according to something other than pure “quality” is that it’s rare to hear the agents, export managers and other salespeople discuss how a wine tastes (other than the parroting of some references to berries and herbs), rarer still to hear what they enjoy. Instead, the preferred term is show. As in, “the cab is really showing well today.”

Recently someone I respect recommended to me a certain sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. This is one of those regional categories that have legions of fans, and I get why but personally usually dislike the wines.

The friend enthusiastically recommended as a counter-example the wines of famous NZ SB popularizer Kevin Judd, specifically the Greywacke Wild Sauvignon 2011 ($28.99, Pine State), so named because it is fermented only with “wild” (i.e. native to the grapes and vineyard itself) yeast.


I got a bottle, opened it and tasted. Hmm, OK, this is … fine, I guess. I was expecting all sorts of strange and interesting flavors, fuller and more intricate textural presentation than “ordinary” NZ SB, since this wine is fermented in oak barrels rather than stainless steel tanks, is stirred on the lees, undergoes partial malolactic fermentation and rests on the lees for an additional five months before being racked and bottled.

All of that should have produced a more interesting wine than I was tasting. The next day I tasted it again with some wine friends, and no one was impressed. I stuck the bottle back in my fridge. On the fourth day open I poured myself a half-glass, mostly out of boredom, and that’s when the wine gave everything to me. New impressions of caramel and exotic fruits, the acidity finally calm enough to serve as backdrop rather than scene-stealer, an almost fibrous texture. Wow, thought I, this is an incredible wine.

The delayed delivery of the Greywacke could be my issue alone, some missing component of my palate, for the assertion that a wine’s character is contextual is an assertion about the drinker’s context as much as it is about the wine’s (and the Greywacke happens to attract positive notice in print and online wine media).

But after exuberantly finishing the bottle, I thought how unfortunate it was that in most every encounter this truly wild wine is bound to have with humans, it will only “show” a slender allocation of itself. Opened at a restaurant, it will be drunk down while still in infancy. At home it may make it to early-adulthood, half-forgotten in the fridge for a few days, but even there the odds are long.

The show will go on, but the truth will remain hidden. Is this what is meant by “demystifying wine”?

Another example, this one with a more positive conclusion: At a recent trade show, I tasted for the first time a viognier from the Paso Robles, Calif., producer Vines on the Marycrest, whose reds I have cherished for a long time. Viognier is a white wine grape, though in its native home in France’s northern Rhône, and elsewhere, it is sometimes blended into reds from syrah.


Viognier, generally: eh. Sure, there are Condrieu and Château-Grillet, the tiny appellations at the foothills of the Massif Central, whose stony slopes produce incomparably fragrant, rich, chalky white wines from viognier, for $75 and more a bottle. Otherwise, basically, show me a viognier and I’ll show you a bar of Crabtree & Evelyn soap that fell into a bucket of decomposing apricots.

The Vines on the Marycrest Viognier 2012 (probably $22, SoPo) is exhilaratingly different. Vinified in a manner more akin to a red wine, the crushed grape skins remaining in contact with their juice for days, the wine takes on an orange hue, silken texture and intoxicating richness.

Some similarly vinified “orange wines” are oxidized and intellectual, but this viognier isn’t like that; it’s happy. It’s a fresh, dry white wine that behaves in the mouth and at the table like a red, taking the phenols, tannins and bodily oomph from the extended skin contact to become exceptionally rich and intense, an elegant potion of half-dried apricot, kumquat chutne, and subtly smoked brininess. There is not much acidity to it, but no flab, either. The balance comes through mineral, not citric.

At the tasting table, we all thought, “Great! But pretty geeky. It ‘shows’ out of category. How do you sell this thing?” The next day, I had the opportunity to drink it with some non-professionals, just normal people who are interested in normal wine. And they swooned over it. We had clearly bypassed showing, and arrived at being. We’re hoping the wine sells in Maine.

So. You never know. You never know what you will enjoy. You never know what others will enjoy. And I’m sorry, but this means none of us will ever truly understand anyone else, at least in any way that can be fixed.

Let us then kindle the fires of unknowing. In the past few weeks I have encountered many exciting wines that just arrived in Maine for the first time, or are on a truck or boat as we speak, or are still in limbo, waiting on a clear sign from professional buyers here that the new options will be supported in the marketplace.

At any given moment, we can signal our enthusiasm or rejection. But everything that comes after that is up in the air. The best is yet to come.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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