Tue 26 Jun 2012
We all know what wine is, right, wine is … Well, perhaps the whole topic bears some thought and scrutiny. Here are five definitions, ranging from simple to complicated, rather like the order of wines at a tasting.
I. Wine is a beverage made by fermenting fruit through the action of yeast so that the natural sugars are converted to alcohol, which becomes an inextricable component of the beverage, and carbon dioxide, which is allowed to escape, except in the second fermentation of Champagne and other sparkling products. Wine can be made from any fruit (or vegetable, for that matter) whose sugar content is sufficient to result in alcohol — apples, pears, peaches, various berries — though the dominant or most important form of fruit turned into wine, both in economic and cultural terms, is grapes. As an alcoholic beverage, wine is intoxicating and inebriating; it gets you drunk, and the more you drink, the drunker and more impaired you become.
That was straightforward enough, but let’s take a different tack:
II. Anthropologically and historically or seen as a function of commerce, the production of wine ensures that a valuable crop, in which a farmer has invested time, effort and money, does not go bad and become useless. Crates of picked grapes become compromised after a week or so; once you buy grapes at the grocery store, they need to be eaten within a week. Turned into wine, however, grapes, in their new form, last longer and are easier to transport. Even in its simplest more immediate form, wine offers more longevity than the fruit from which it is made. Wine also commands a higher price than its constituent fruit. This modality holds true in the example of distilled spirits (though they are not, strictly speaking, our topic), which can be seen as agents for prolonging the production of the harvests of corn, rye, wheat and potatoes beyond the pleasurable but limited functions of the breakfast and dinner table. Again, the economic factor is crucial; a bottle of Scotch commands a far higher price than a box of Wheaties, a comparison that somewhat stretches the point, but you see what I mean.
All right, let’s look at wine and its symbolic relationship to the grapes from which it is made:
III. Not intending to do violence to T.S. Eliot’s notion of the adequacy of narrative and metaphoric forms in the expression of action and feeling — which he writes about in his radical essay on Hamlet, published in 1919 — but I’ll borrow his concept and assert that wine is the “objective correlative” of the grape. That is, wine, especially at its greatest, is the perfect vehicle to fulfill the highest level of a grape’s possible achievement. In this perception, wine conveys a sense of inevitability that other beverages or agricultural products rarely contrive. One does not drink beer, for example, even in its best or most powerful manifestations, and think, “Ah, yes, this is the apotheosis of cereal grains.” The grape, however, is never far from one’s thoughts in the swirling, sniffing and sipping of a glass of wine, nor is the notion, depending on the quality and complexity of the wine, of the place where the grapes were grown and the wine was made. Which leads us to:
IV. A glass of wine, perhaps the one you’re holding in your hand now, serves — let me say should serve — as an emblem of a piece of earth, a stretch of vineyard, a swath of sky, a defined region where its grapes were nurtured and harvested. That sentence summarizes the notion of terroir, the French idea that wine is influenced by and reflects the nature of the vineyard where the grapes were grown. Factors in terroir include the character of the soil and sub-soil, the specific climate in all its nuances and broad strokes, the lie of the land and its direction and exposure to the sun and its drainage. (A few winemakers in California try to assert that terroir includes whatever processes occur in the winery as well as the agency of the winemaker him- or herself. Any thoughtful person will see that this caprice is nonsense; too often the winemaker interferes with a wine and negates the effect of terroir.) The concept of terroir and the belief that a drinker can smell or taste or somehow sense the presence of the vineyard in a wine is controversial. As an ideal, one would want every wine to express its terroir; how a wine would do such a thing remains nebulous, unless the taster possessed years of experience and could tell the difference between, say, Burgundy’s Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses and Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes, vineyards that occupy sites a few yards from each other. We’re approaching a digression here, however, so let’s extend the definition of wine as follows:
V. As a cultural artifact, wine represents an aspirational signifier that no other product of the farm or orchard could hope to emulate. Wine is not “necessary,” just as a car is not a necessity; one could walk or ride a bicycle, as in many societies people do, and food is perfectly palatable without wine. The automobile, however, though merely a mechanical contraption fashioned from steel, plastic and rubber surrounding an internal combustion engine, represents myriad rungs on the ladder of accomplishment, self-image and status, and wine, while we say it’s just a beverage, betokens similar ambitions and yearnings in the realms of knowledge, style, sophistication and prestige. The almost reckless surge of the newly wealthy in Asia, and particularly China, to buy top French Bordeaux and Burgundy wines is motivated by exactly these values.
In 1997, a demographic survey of the readers of the newspaper where I worked full-time revealed that among the local followers of my national weekly wine column the largest group consisted of professional young black women. Initially, I was surprised, but it didn’t take much thought to figure out why this was the case. Wine — in the choosing, serving and matching with food — marks a path toward social acceptability, refinement and savoir faire, whether one is having friends over for a party or dinner or is selecting wine to go with a meal in a restaurant. Few responses are more empowering than the enthusiastic “Excellent choice!” from the waiter when you have selected your bottle of wine from the list. Knowledge of wine and the ability to determine quality and value are ways of completing one’s education in life and joining the ranks of real adults. That was then, and only 15 years later I would say that the attitude among Millennials regarding food and wine is probably more casual, if not effortless, though there is a degree to which wine still represents the pursuit of a paradigm. The ideal for the 22 to 35-year-old cohort, however, tends to be well-made inexpensive yet authentic products (under about $30) that come with interesting back-stories and preferably originate from small, organically-run family estates, and it doesn’t hurt if the wines display off-beat or “fun” labels; in other words, not their parents’ wines.
Images: three wines glasses from fitfloridian.wordpress.com; loading wine casks onto cart from ebay.com; Italian vineyard from italylogue.com; friends drinking wine from richardtimothy.com.