For no good reason, we’re intimidated by wine. We’ve forgotten that it’s not some coveted, pedestal worthy artifact. It’s simply something that people drink.
For a few years I worked at a wine bar in Manhattan. Effectively, I sold wine. I described the wine, I got excited about the wine, and I was pretty good (not great) at getting people to buy wine. And the truth is that most people don’t understand wine but feel like they should, it so a great deal of fakery happens.
You get the first date people who want to impress each other so one of them squeezes or smells the cork. Then they swish the wine in their mouths before swallowing it, pretending to smell or taste something that tells them about the wine when it’s clear that they don’t know what they’re looking for. (Which, incidentally, is totally fine).
I detect strong notes of the Morchella Angusticeps mushroom. Oh what, you don’t taste it? Your palate must not be as delicate as mine.
This is what Lauren (the wine director at Oleana) has to say about squeezing the cork and swishing the wine:
- Squeezing or smelling the cork tells you next to nothing about the wine. Next to nothing, unless you’re an importer who’s about to commit to 500 cases of wine and wants to be sure that the winemaker isn’t using crap corks that are going to disintegrate in a matter of months. You can feel whether it’s dry or wet or crumbling, but I’ve opened bottles whose corks turn to wine-and-cork-mud as soon as they’re pulled that still taste fresh and amazing. Inspecting a cork is really only useful AFTER you’ve already found a flaw in the wine, as the flaw might not have much to do with the cork at all.
- “Swishing” the wine around in your mouth is less bunk. What you’re doing there is aerating the wine, which will help wines “open up” — or become more readily accessible — in your mouth. It’s the same principle that’s behind decanting a wine; the rapid introduction of air to the wine changes its expression and in some cases makes it more vibrant than it would be if just “sat there.” Here’s a link for a more science-y explanation.
We’re so busy doing a performance of wine appreciation that I worry we’re not taking the time to do any actual appreciation. We’ve forgotten that wine is just alcoholic juice. Which, when you say it like that sounds delicious and fun. Not intimidating at all.
If someone offered you some “alcoholic juice”, you wouldn’t feel compelled to detect notes of earth, and blueberries. I mean, maybe you would taste them, but you wouldn’t feel obligated to taste them. You would feel free to just say:
This is delicious!
This one is not for me.
I don’t love this one.
And this is what Lauren has to say about wine culture and wine appreciation:
“If you’re doing showy things at dinner in order to prove to someone that you know something about wine, that’s the wine industry’s fault. You learned that from us.
Somewhere along the way, everyone forgot that the first wines were drunk by farmers, peasants and royalty alike because wine was a popular beverage when water was of questionable safety. Wine was something served at every meal, often out of pitchers pulled from giant barrels kept in barns and root cellars. Kids drank it, parents drank it and old folks drank it. Incidentally, it was also delicious.
As is the way with human nature, we all saw a good thing and became preoccupied with making it bigger, better and more complicated. The idea of a wine as an exclusive, luxury brand accessible only to people with custom-built, temperature controlled cellars and eighty different sizes of wine glasses is very (very) recent. I’m not saying that there isn’t a time and place to think deeply about the complexities, nuances and potential of a wine, but that experience should be for your own benefit and growth as a student and/or appreciator of wine, not something done in the spirit of competition or intellectual one-upmanship.
There’s no such thing as Big Brother Wine. No one is watching you. Drink what you like right now, not what you think you would like if you had 20 years of wine education and travel under your belt. Meanwhile, lets let the little natural wine movement do its thing and hope we’re all working hard enough in the interest of you drinking out of whatever glass you want and leaving the cork for someone else to recycle. Like Lillian said, it’s just grape juice.”
So lets all just relax, and have a lovely, healthy, tipsy time.
Photo credit goes to the amazing and fantastic Kathi Bahr.
Filed in: Interviews