Sunday, March 3, 2013

Wine Made Simple

“Accept what life offers you
and try to drink from every cup.
All wines should be tasted;
some should only be sipped,
but with others,
drink the whole bottle.”

― Paulo Coelho, Brida

Four years ago, Lori (my wife) and I returned from Italy having experienced our own personal “Renaissance.” Her eye was clearer, her willingness to take risks unreserved, and her aspiration to be a great painter honed razor-sharp. My mind was more-open, my spirit more idealistic, and my palate reawakened to the beauty, simplicity, and essential joy of good food and wine.
Back in 2009 I felt the desire to share with others, via this blog, my reborn world-view. Perhaps, I believed, if others could get a glimpse of life through my eyes they would understand what had changed in me. If they could taste a morsel of goodness in their own life, they would find a renewed sense of happiness, hope, love... and good taste.
It was not in vain, but it was also not the “seed of change” I had imagined. After ten essays I had exactly five comments from readers and five blog followers. Alas, just because I felt like I had something to say did not dispose others to read. Honest discourse, it seems, is not the best way to inspire people these days. Lori has found a way through her paintings. I am still searching.
Then, a few days ago, I had a very short, very polite, exchange of opinions with someone on FaceBook. An author had published a download-able graphic; a guide to pairing wine with food. Dozens of readers had posted comments celebrating the chart as a Grand Unified Theory of wine selection. I was confused, and troubled to think that many people thought of wine as something one should “fit” into a meal like a piece of jigsaw puzzle. For the first time in three years, I had something to write about!
Simplification is not the issue. In fact, much too much over-sophisticated blather makes wine unapproachable for too many. The availability of so many different wines, each with a label hawking its merits, can be overwhelming. It would be a real benefit if there was a rubric one could follow to make a good choice. Not possible; but framing the topic from a fresh point-of-view may help others rediscover the joy that is wine.
The Basics. If you can understand what is written below, you can buy, pair, and drink wine without worry. All of these statements are generalizations, so I will use the words most and some with frequency.
• Most wine is made from grapes. Most of those grapes are varieties of the species Vitis vinifera.
• A wine that is made predominantly from grapes of only one variety is called a “varietal,” such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. In the New World, most winemakers create varietal wines to show off the quality of the grapes used, and to concentrate flavors that come from the soil, air, and water that nurtured the fruit.
• Other wines are made by combining the juice of different varieties of grapes to create a blended wine. These wines can be designed to impact your taste experience in a specific way. By blending grape varieties, a winemaker can make a wine that effects the drinker with intention, and expresses their own personal sense of “style.” Most European wines are blends. They are often named after the region where tradition has shape the basic blending practice; think Bordeaux or Chianti.
• Red wine is made from grapes with color in their skins. Those skins (and the grape seeds) also contain compounds that are flavorful and/or effect the wine as it is made and aged. Winemakers allow the crushed skins of the grapes to soak in the juice during the wine-making process to transfer those compounds to the liquid. The actual color of a red wine can range from light-pink to almost black.
• White wines are not necessarily made with grapes with less color in their skins, although this is often the case. White wines are more clear because the juice spends little or no time in contact with the broken grape skins during the wine-making process. The actual color of a white wine can range from virtually clear to almost opaque (in many hues).
• From the above descriptions, you can already deduce that most red wines are more complex than white wines (at least until white wine is aged in oak). It is correct to pair less complex wines with foods with subtle flavors.
• Most wine contains sugar, acid, alcohol, and tannin. Tannin is an astringent that reacts with other compounds in grape juice during the wine-making process and as the wine ages. Red wines contain more tannin than white wines.
• It is not helpful to single out each of the four components listed above when tasting wine. It is better to consider how they balance together, or if one aspect is more pronounced than the others.
• More excellent-quality wine grapes are grown today than ever before. Industrial methods have improved the availability of well-made wine to the mass-market. There are also many makers who care little for the quality of their product.
• You can buy many excellent wines at a reasonable price. However, maintaining high standards, even in a wine factory, comes with a cost. Cheap wine is cheap because the maker has not invested in their product. Of course, cost is relative to the economic health of the region where the wine is produced. As an example: in remote western Argentina they can grow excellent fruit and make a truly delicious wine, then ship it to the U.S., and sell it to me for less money than a California maker can make a bottle of undrinkable plunk.
• The best way to learn about wine is to drink it. Wine effects us at a very primitive level (our most-ancient senses of taste, smell, and sight), so the qualities of the wine will register deep inside you. No need to keep elaborate notes. Just trust your own memory.
• When selecting a wine to go with food, add the imagined flavors of the food to the “balance” equation and ask yourself what would make the taste experience more-completely satisfying. For example: if you are serving a rich pot roast with hearty vegetables, a wine with a little brightness (higher acidity, white or red) might help refresh the palate after each bite, keeping the taste buds from tiring out. Sugar robs the mouth of much of its sensitivity (that’s why we serve dessert last). Alcohol helps re-awaken numbed taste buds, so try brandy or whiskey instead of wine with that piece of chocolate cake.
• There is no wrong way to select or pair wine. When you shop for wine, always buy a bottle you have never tried. Maybe you’ll love it... or not. Give any wine/food combination a try, and you will immediately understand why some basic pairing rules have evolved. You will, in the process, develop your own schema.
• Not everyone likes wine. Not every wine drinker likes the same kinds of wine. It is possible to make bad wine. Even good wine can go bad because it is a biological product susceptible to spoilage. Do not drink wine you are not enjoying; whether because it is of poor quality, has gone off, or simply does not bring you pleasure.
• That’s right. Wine should bring pleasure. So ask yourself - Is the color beautiful? Does the combination of flavors contribute to a agreeable aroma and a mouthful of sensation? Do I want another glass, or is this stuff going down the drain?
If you want specific wine advice, please feel free to send me a note. I can only make suggestions based on my own experience, but am willing to point you in some possible “right directions” so you can grow your own wine drinking experience.


  1. I'm reading your blog for the first time, but you are already gaining a friend and follower. I learned a good deal about wine from taking a couple of classes at a respected Nashville restaurant (Sunset Grill). Frankly, I cannot relate to wine writers who write about a wine's "oak-iness" (or some such) because I've never tasted oak... Thanks for a nice blog.

  2. Good to see you back, Marco.

  3. Thanks for the info! Could you give us direction on how to look for a good wine in a liquor store before we try it? I do not drink a lot of wine, so I would like to try some that have potential for everyday faves without breaking the bank. Is Argentina always best? or are there other choices? Is the place of origin on all labels?

    1. Thank you for reading! You've asked for guidance finding a "good wine" so I will list a few things to consider while standing in a wine store. Remember, even a good wine may not jive with your personal tastes, so these comments are pretty generic.

      A winemaker that cares about their product will never sell anything that might damage their reputation. Look for "estate grown" on the label. That means the winemaker actually grew the fruit, and has beginning-to-end control over quality. Good makers are willing to reject sub-standard fruit, and even finished wine, if it doesn't meet their strict criteria. The most-select fruit and greatest care is labeled "estate reserve." That's the stuff (in olden days) that the winemaker saved for their own family to drink.

      Other makers (mostly large-scale) buy the fruit they use, but are very careful to buy only the best grapes. They have contracts with dedicated growers that guarantee a level of quality that helps them make consistently good wine. So look for a narrow reference to the source of the fruit. A reference to “Russian River Valley” is more specific than “Sonoma” which is more specific than “Central Coast.”

      Then there are the companies that buy up whatever is left. You can’t make good wine from unripe, overripe, or damaged fruit. If the label just says “California” then the juice could be almost anything.

      Europe has a long standing tradition of wine classification systems that are supposed to guarantee wine quality. I have found this to be reasonably true, with some exceptions. In general, buying a wine from Europe is always a pretty safe bet because when the wine goes in the bottle it is perfectly ready for drinking. If you have some time, read up on the Appellation system in France, the DOC in Italy, and Qualitatswein or Pradikatswein in Germany.

      There is a glut of wine grapes in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and South America. That means two things: A) the wine is often quite affordable, so you can roll-the-dice to discover a hidden gem, and B) a lot of mediocre wine makes its way to American tables. I guess they believe that making a lot of OK wine is better than making a little great wine. Honestly, products by Yellow Tail are not great, but they are always better than the price might suggest.

      Here are a few of my everyday favs:
      Cabernet/Merlot blend by Concha y Toro from Argentina, $10 for 1.5 liter
      Citra Montepulciano di Abruzzo from Italy, $11 for 1.5 liter
      A Picpoul de Pinet (white grape from southern France) that’s sold in a 3 liter box called “Petit Frog.” We keep the box in the fridge and use this wine for all cooking needs and the occasional aperitivo. $27 for 3 liters
      Korbel Blanc de Noir sparkling wine made in the champagne method. $13 for a bottle of fun!

      Hope this helps.