“This is not a ‘wine country.’ There is nothing in this country’s history that speaks to
wine tradition, and we’re only now trying to discover it.” – Charles Smith, Winemaker,
Wine can be intimidating. Simply put, there’s a lot of wine out there and no easy way
for neophytes to get started. I’ve studied it for years now and still get overwhelmed at a
restaurant’s wine list. Red or white? Does Chardonnay go with baked ziti? Does Malbec
work with steak? Who’s going to judge me if I make the wrong pick? Is it really worth
getting so worked up about glorified fermented grape juice?
Probably not. But it does raise questions about wine’s place in American culture, and if
there is a place for it.
Many European nations have a strong sense of wine as culture. That is to say, all aspects
of wine and the process in which it is made and enjoyed are intimately connected to
the culture, and the people are truly passionate about it. Italians, French, Spaniards,
and Germans know their stuff, and they live it every day. One might think that with the
legions of immigrants from the “Old World,” who in many other ways strongly shaped
American culture, something surely would have rubbed off on popular gastronomy
besides pizza and hot dogs. But there just is no widespread American equivalent.
Even when pioneers like naturalized American citizens Konstantin Frank and Mike
Grgich began planting the vines that would pave the way for the 1976 “Judgment of
Paris,” (that watershed moment when Californian wines shocked the world by outranking
top French wines in a blind taste test), having any wine at all was considered luxurious
and even ostentatious for most of us. Nearly 40 years later, wine as culture in America is
still a ways off.
There are thousands of stories from all over the world in dozens of languages about
each winery’s labor of love. Full mechanization, hand-picking and sorting, use of oak
or stainless steel containers—the options are many and the process complicated, and
the result is an almost endless list of styles and varietals. Indeed, the sheer depth of the
passion for wine can be intimidating, if not unbelievable, as well. Maybe not everyone is
ready for Sciacarellu from Corsica, crafted by one of Napoleon’s general’s descendants
who’s convinced playing music to his wine in barrel will instill within it a greater sense
of balance and, dare I say it, harmony.
But America’s hesitance to this point is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a great advantage.
There is usually one revelatory moment that makes one fall in love with wine. The stories
and people referenced above contain one crucial fact – they all share that same love and
want to share it with the world. Instead of worrying about knowing it all, America’s
relatively clean slate can help us sense what individual story truly resonates. So when you
find that one bottle, the one wine that makes you realize “I think I can get into this,” then
you’ve already begun walking through the door. And that’s when the love affair begins.
Instead of worrying about what everyone else knows or likes, focus on your individual
tastes to find what speaks to you. Domestic or imported, red or white, it doesn’t matter!
To quote Charles Smith again, who took a break from managing rock bands to craft some
of the best wines in Washington State, “It’s just wine. Drink it.”