Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Golden Age of Wine

It's easy to become disillusioned in this unsettled age of ours. One can turn on the TV and be flooded with stories of ISIS atrocities in the Middle East, of corporations exploiting people in pursuit of higher profits, of politicians bickering about the latest media-manufactured "controversy" or "crisis" rather than solving our nation's real problems, or whatever else. I don't really blame people who want to throw up their hands and conclude that the human race is a lost cause. But rather than dwelling on what's bad about the modern world, I think it's more healthy to turn one's attention to those aspects of the modern world which are pleasant and uplifting.

For me, one of these things is the undeniable fact that we live in the Golden Age of Wine.

Thomas Jefferson, in addition to being one of the great Founding Fathers and America's original Renaissance Man, was the greatest wine connoisseur of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. In his time, if he ordered a shipment of wine from a Bordeaux merchant, it might take as long as a year before it arrived, if it arrived at all. Today, one can go into just about any convenience store, in even the smallest town in America, and find a decent bottle of wine for less than $10. The art and science of winemaking has advanced over the last hundred years to such a wondrous state that it is almost impossible to make a bad bottle of wine. In fact, almost every bottle on the wine list of a nice restaurant is probably superior to the best wine that was ever enjoyed by Henry VIII or Louis XIV.

When I walk down the wine aisle of my local grocery store, I'm in a wine-lover's wonderland that Thomas Jefferson could only have dreamt of. The shelves are lined with wines from California, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and just about every other place that makes wine. For less than the average American's hourly wage, one can purchase a wonderful bottle of wine from almost anywhere in the world.

I love wine. As I often remind my wife, there are two things I cannot live without: books and wine. Mostly for my own edification, I earned my certification as a wine sommelier from the International Wine Guild a few years back.  Knowing about the history of the various wine regions, the processes by which the different kinds of wine are made, and the fascinating blend of national rules and regulations governing winemaking vastly increases the pleasure one gets from sipping a glass of wine.

I can't say that I have an especially good pallet for wine. I was recently reminded of this in the most humiliating fashion at a family wine tasting organized by my father on Independence Day. It was a blind tasting, with the bottles concealed in velvet wine bags. The five bottles ranged in price from $8 to $85. Despite my much ballyhooed sommelier certification, I picked the $8 bottle as the best and ranked the $85 bottle dead last. Needless to say, the family had a good laugh at my expense. I have always envied those extraordinary people, like Thomas Jefferson, who can sip a bottle of wine and tell you exactly what vineyard it came from. Such people are very rare, though snobs pretending to be such people are annoyingly common.

(My wife would be angry with me if I neglected to mention that she ranked the most expensive wine first and the least expensive wine last. She has a better pallet than I do.)

Despite the embarrassment it entailed, my Independence Day wine experience is proof that one does not have to have a lot of money to enjoy wine. I have enjoyed many bottles of wine between $10 and $15 that I found vastly superior to much more expensive bottles. While I would be overjoyed beyond belief if a friend gifted me a 1982 Chateau Lafite Rothschild or a 1973 Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, one does not need a huge amount of money to obtain good wine in this day and age. This, too, would have delighted Jefferson, who wanted wine to be enjoyed by ordinary citizens rather than just a wealthy elite. As Benjamin Disraeli once said, "I rather like bad wine. One gets so bored with good wine."

One does not have to up-to-date on the latest wine fads to enjoy wine. In fact, wine faddists should generally be avoided. I always wince when I hear someone say that such-and-such wine "is big this year." Anyone saying something like this clearly doesn't know what they're talking about. Human beings have been making wine for 10,000 years; there's nothing faddish about it. One should drink whatever wine one likes, not whatever wine happens to be the most popular at any given moment.

Every time one opens a bottle of wine, no matter where one got it or how much it cost, one is opening a little piece of magic with its own special history and personality, a product of a unique combination of land, weather, climate, and the skills and techniques of the viticulturists and winemakers themselves.

There are wines for every occasion. On a hot summer day, there's nothing like a crisp, chilled glass of Portuguese vinho verde or New Zealand sauvignon blanc. On a cold winter night, there's nothing like a glass of Burgundy in one hand and a good book in the other, preferably in front of a roaring fire. If you're having pizza, open a Chianti. If you're having a steak, open a California cabernet sauvignon. Id you're having Indian food, a Syrah is always nice. But these are just my preferences. Since everyone's pallet is different, everyone will have different tastes. There's no such thing as a right and wrong answer and, in the Golden Age of Wine, we have a virtually infinite variety of choices.

As Ernest Hemingway said, "Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things in the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other sensory thing."

So if you feel discouraged by the state of the world, remind yourself that we live in the Golden Age of Wine and take some comfort from that. Then, go open a bottle and pour yourself a glass.

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