Sunday, March 23, 2014

Variety's the very spice of life

                               The Sycophant
Who waits to dress us arbitrates their date;
Surveys his reversion with keen eye;
Finds one ill made, another obsolete,
This fits not nicely, that is ill conceived;
And making prize of all that he condemns,
With our expenditure defrays his own.
Variety's the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavour.
     -William Cowper, The Task (1785)--'The Timepiece' (Book II, lines 599-607)

Wine is an immensely diverse product. Flavors and aromas vary widely depending on grape cultivars, places of origin and wine styles. Wine quality and price is as diverse as the number of SKUs available on the retail shelf. The wine world is a wide world of variety - and that is a good thing. Wine's diversity, and those who cheer it on, should not be discredited as being "a losing path." Wine does not fit nicely into some Platonic universal. Every person tastes wine differently and every person has an idea of what Wine should taste like. Some people like big, bold wines while others prefer light, delicate wines. Some drink only red wines, whereas others only drink white wines. Some only drink wines from a specific place, others explore the vast universe of fermented grape juice. Being able to choose to drink a wine from the United States of America, France, Italy or any other country is something that should be celebrated. Being able to choose from a variety of styles not expected from a specific place is also something that should be celebrated. Pleasure seeking through wine should also be celebrated, but so too should the idea that wine can offer more than just a party in your mouth.
I enjoy trying wines from around the world. If I see a wine with which I am unfamiliar, I usually want to try it. Sometimes I feel like my cat, whose sole mission in life, apparently, is to get through closed doors. Sometimes she knows what is behind the barrier and sometimes she doesn't, but the thrill of exploration is always present. But some people (and cats) have no desire to try and explore the larger world. My other cat is afraid of his own shadow and is hesitant any time a door opens in front of him. Fear of the unknown is to be expected. Some people embrace it and others avoid, or even denigrate, diversity without trying to understand what it might entail.

I suppose I am guilty of avoiding the unknown, too. I'll come right out and say it: Italian wine scares me. Well, it doesn't really scare me, but more takes me out of my comfort zone. I am much more familiar with French, Spanish and American wines. Spanish wine was the gateway drug that led to my vinous obsession. My wife is a Spanish teacher, I speak a little bit of Spanish, and I've been to Spain several times. Yes, I am comfortable navigating the Spanish section in a retail shop or on a wine list.

French wine is how I actually started learning about wine. French wine and French wine regions are more often than not how highly interested neophytes start to learn about the larger wine world. Case in point, just open any major wine book focused on the whole world (World Atlas, Oxford Companion, Opus Vino): France is always the first country discussed. My first serious effort to learn about wine was a class on French wine. French wine is the standard in the wine world. All pinot noir is compared to Burgundy and all cabernet sauvignon is compared to left bank Bordeaux. In fact, the noble varieties are all French varieties. That's not to say French wine is always the best, but rather to what most New World wines are compared. Yes, I feel comfortable with French wine.

American wine is accessible. I can more easily interact with American winemakers, and U.S. geography is (or should be) easy for an American to understand. While all fifty states now produce wine, the American wine industry is firmly built around California. Most of my wine consumption is of California wine, not by desire but more by habit and familiarity. California is also the standard bearer of quality and diversity for the American wine industry.

However, from where a wine originates is not the most important aspect of the wine. Quality is what matters. That being said, quality is subjective, thankfully. It is not about the color of a wine, the appellation or even the alcohol content. Over the past decade or two, quality around the world has improved dramatically. This has been a boon for consumers. Better wines means more choices. More choices means more unknowns. More unknowns means more exploration.

As is likely the case with most consumers, choosing from unknown choices is daunting and I suppose that's why I find Italian wine daunting. With the countless indigenous varieties and hundreds of regions, Italian wine can be confusing. Anything and everything that you can think of regarding wine is regulated in Italy. And all of those rules have exceptions. In the past, I've dipped my toes into the realm of Italian wine, but haven't really explored the peninsula with the effort it requires.

I mentioned that I attended a nebbiolo tasting in Napa a few weeks back with a handful of highly-regarded (or misdirected, depending on who you ask) winemakers and a couple of Master Sommeliers. I've tasted wine from Barolo, Barbaresco and Carema before, but tasting a collection of wines from the some of the greatest Piemontese vignerons from vintages going back to the 1970s really sparked an interest in learning more about Italian wine and all its diversity.

So, after seeing grignolino, a little-known Piemontese grape cultivar, get some weird press of late, I decided to open a bottle myself. Yes, the wine was almost light enough to be a rosé. It was not an overly complex wine, but it was enjoyable. It had lovely aromas and matching flavors of cherries, strawberries and Herbes de Provence. It most definitely would not garner a big score from a critic, but I don't drink numbers, I drink wine. 
2012 Grignolino d'Asti

Despite what some might say, hedonism is not the only goal of wine. Intellectual stimulation and historical exploration are two other reasons why people may choose to drink a particular wine. In fact, those were two of the main factors I considered when I decided to pop the cork on the 2012 La Mondianese Grignolino d'Asti. I wanted a light, fruity red to accompany pizza, so it fit the bill in that regard, but more so, I could not remember trying a grignolino in the past. I know a grignolino from Napa stirred some emotions last month, so I was also curious to see if a wine made from the same cultivar, but in its homeland, would do the same for me. Also, after tasting more Piemontese wines (almost exclusively Barolo and Barbaresco) in the past month than I probably have in all my life, I was curious to try another northern Italian wine.

Just as Piedmont is more than just nebbiolo, the Napa Valley can be, and should be, more than just cabernet sauvignon. If entire wine regions were monocultures of what they do best, the wine world would be so boring. What if there were no grignolino planted around Asti? That might almost be as sad as if there were no grignolino planted in Napa. Yes, variety truly is the very spice of life.

It is almost as if the elite of the wine world are caught in a battle between and aligning themselves with Epicurus or John Stuart Mill. One camp clearly stands firm with the belief that an abundance of flavor is what makes wine good. The other prefers pleasures which come on a mental level, as opposed to physical pleasures of the senses. Just as Epicurus looked at pleasure on the individual level so too does wine's big flavor camp, and while Mill looked at pleasure on social and moral levels, the other camp recognizes that there is more to wine that just flavor. But ultimately it is just sad that people have to defend their tastes from professional and personal attacks.

We really should stop condemning others for their preferences. Wine in all its variety and flavors should be celebrated.  I happen to enjoy some wines that might be categorized as jammy and hot, but I also can see the value of wines on the other end of the spectrum. I drink wine to enjoy it, but I also like to think about what's in my glass and how it got there. Grignolino is just one example, out of thousands, that perfectly illustrate this point. I urge everyone to try a bottle of something new or unexpected and just enjoy it.

1 comment:

  1. Kyle,

    Check out "The Wines of California, The Pacific Northwest & New York" (Summit Books, copyright 1982) by Roy Andries de Groot.

    He covers Grignolino made by Joe Heitz, whose original Napa property was planted to that grape.

    See pages 115-117; 251; 261.


    ~~ Bob