Wine is unlike every other alcoholic drink in that it is labeled with a year and a place.
While other alcoholic beverages attempt to replicate themselves identically from year to year – so that you know your 18 year old Glenlivet will be the same as the one you nipped from your grandmother’s liquor cabinet when you were 18 – wine announces to us that it will be different from year to year and place to place because it is a reflection of a specific location and time.
Wine embraces change as something inescapable, something you can taste.
Sure, Cognac, Scotch, Bourbon and other liquors are named for a place, but this is really about a local style that its makers must adhere to, rather than a reflection of a specific land’s influence on the beverage. Some liquors are dated too, but this is really about how long it was aged, not a reflection of the weather from that particular vintage.
Beer too is a recipe, not a reflection. Follow the same recipe, and you’ll get the same beer. For example, brewers go so far as to re-create water mineral profiles to replicate the exact “water ingredient” that was used by monks to make a specific Belgian ale so that the resulting brew will taste remarkably like the original even though made on a different continent, and by the opposite of monks.
The date and place on a wine label signify that wine is special. Wine promotes a concept that is unique in the world of alcohol:
Wine aims to reflect nature rather than control it.
This is why wine is so daunting for many people to understand. Wine is intimidating because drinking a specific bottle doesn’t translate to understanding wine. It may not even translate to understanding that bottle.
To understand wine, you have to know where it came from, how it was grown, what grapes were used, what that year was like, how it was made, who was involved, how it was aged, and how everything works together to play a part in what you are tasting now. Even knowing all this, at times when you drink wine it is still somehow greater than the sum of its parts. It transcends all knowledge and is sublime in a way that silences all the thoughts you were trying to apply to it.
And then along comes another vintage and new wines and you have to do all that research again times ten.
Oh, you can identify it in a blind tasting? Naming something doesn’t equate to knowing it. A name is just the title of a forgotten story.
Wine is a context, a comprehensive total, a web of interconnection.
95 points? Based on what objective yardstick? That’s like trying to explain a human behavior by labeling it either good or bad – it’s only helpful as a comfort for the simple-minded.
That is human nature, though. We crave comfort in the face of complexity, security in the face of uncertainty, and when we find something that brings us pleasure we want to repeat it again and again. We want to own it.
Wine is ephemeral.
We want that bottle of 2002 again, but it’s gone. Sold out. Consumed. You can only sip on memories of that bottle for the rest of your life.
Without all the knowledge that is necessary to understand it, wine is mysterious, scary. What if I spend $30 of my hard earned cash on a bottle only to find that it brings me no pleasure? There are so many options, so many ways to choose wrong. It can feel like we’re Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade, trying to select the Holy Grail from hundreds of goblets.
Deep down in our evolved psyches are centuries of surviving the fickle whims of nature by learning to harness its resources and forces for our benefit, controlling what we can and protecting against what we cannot. Our fears have trained us to avoid the capricious and the irrational.
Wine asks us to let go of all that fear and give in to the wild.
Out in the wild the wind howls through dark forests that conceal dangerous creatures. Shadows are deep, the moon is red, and the storm is on the horizon.
The scariest part is that we feel, beneath everything, that we will find an important part of ourselves out there: A bright-eyed creature who is completely at ease with uncertainty, even ravenous for the taste of surprise.
Of course wine can be made like beer or liquor. It can be made from a recipe with an intent to control nature and beat every aspect of its expression into submission. Nearly every wine in the grocery store is this kind of wine. The date and the place are actually meaningless for these wines – mere artifacts from a time when wine was made wild and true to nature.
We fear change, and these grocery store wines cater to our fears rather than challenging them. Because of that they control the majority of the market.
It can be shocking to transition between this type of wine and the other, between the known and the unknown. People must be prepared mentally for the difference or they will most likely not enjoy the transition.
But the other wine, the wine people mean when they use the word “authentic,” is why wine is special. It’s why wine is wine. It doesn’t taste of fear. It tastes of the fleeting, uncontrollable, primal currents of time and earth.
This kind of wine – wild wine – doesn’t come in a bottle. It comes in a snare that traps your senses with sunlight and wind and sea mist and the spinning of the earth through the universe.
You will only be able to taste it, to experience it as it is intended to be experienced, when you accept that it is change in a sensual form.
Wine is, at its best, unknowable.
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