As a child growing up in rural Nebraska, though I suspect that what I am about to write is true for millions of children around the world, Christmas morning was the most exciting morning of the year. For a full month, I had watched in eager anticipation as gradually more and more packages accumulated under the bows of a personally selected evergreen that was positioned between the sofa and the fireplace in the repurposed old church where I grew up. While living in a church may sound grand, looking back on things, we didn’t have a lot of money. My mother was a nurse at a rural hospital, and my father was often between jobs, putting his diverse skillset to work drilling wells, mowing lawns, or working as a loan officer, until eventually he opened a small independent bookstore on our little town’s quiet main street, which did much to provide him with purpose and direction, if, at least at first, very little to improve our lot.
I knew children who would receive guitars or drum sets, television, the latest video gaming systems, and later on in life, even cars as gifts, and I could not begrudge them their good fortune, though my gifts were often somewhat more humble. I remember collections of silver dollars, clothing, action figures, VHS tapes, model ships, sports cards, and books, always plenty of books. I cherished these gifts; they meant a great deal to me, in part because I enjoyed them, and in part because they came from my loved ones. Yet whether you received new cars or a balsawood airplane on Christmas (if indeed you celebrate Christmas at all), then I suspect you can relate to the great joy of eyeballing a neatly wrapped package, wondering what is inside, and the brief moment of elation as you begin to tear back the paper, revealing your prize. For nearly two decades, that was my favorite day of the year, and it is a tradition that my family and I continue to enjoy and practice to this day. It is also the reason I enjoy drinking wine.
When I first began to drink alcohol at the age of 13, far too young for most American’s sensibilities, I suppose, but not uncommon amongst children in small, rural towns in the Midwest (and also in virtually every other far more sensible country in the world), I found that amongst my limited options, beer was my intoxicant of choice. This stayed with me through my twenties, and as the craft beer movement picked up steam in the United States, I began to enjoy different kinds of beer: ales, porters, stouts. Then my friend Logan was transferred from Pearl Harbor to SHAPE, the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers in Europe, where he oversaw a small EU team, and I began to visit him there in Belgium. He resided in a tiny town known as Binche, which had only a town square, a monument to The Great War, an ancient fortress, and a brewery to keep us entertained. Sometimes we left, in favor of Paris or Berlin, but other times we stuck around, being more than entertained by the limited offerings available to the Binchois, our favorite among them the fortress and, of course, the beer.
After a while, I began to learn more and more about Belgian beers; I found them fascinating, came to adore them, and admittedly became something of a Belgian beer snob. I enjoyed the variety; the saisons, the dubbels, the Flemish reds, lambics, and seasonal beers. I also enjoyed the exclusivity; each beer coming with its own special glass, with less than 200 breweries in the entire country. And I enjoyed the tradition; the merchants would often whistle or sing as they poured, providing in addition to your beer a little bowl of seasoned cheese, and the beer itself could easily be from a brewer that was centuries, if not a millennium, in age. The Trappists became my favorites, Rochefort in particular, and their dark, rich, smooth quadrupels that weigh in between 10-12% ABV became yet another moderate obsession.
Eventually however, beer, even excellent beer, began to bore me. I recognize that I sound a bit like General Zaroff here, from Richard Connell’s famous short story, complaining about the bores of the hunt, however it holds true all the same. I had long ago stopped imbibing for the purpose of becoming intoxicated, and instead for the most part consumed alcohol casually, typically socially, and in small quantities simply to relax and enjoy the taste. And in this way, beer, even the best beer in the world, became tedious for its predictability. If you open a St. Bernardus Abt. 12 and drink it, and then a year later do the very same thing, that beer should taste precisely the same with no variations. Or more simply, if you buy a 12-pack of Miller High Life Light, you expect every bottle to taste the same. If it does not, it is because one or more of them is flawed. There is of course some level of comfort in the known, but this is where wine becomes so different.
Recently, I visited Grgich Hills Estate on Highway 29 near Rutherford in the Napa Valley. There, I tasted through a library of Cabernet dating back well over a decade, and I remember our hosts talking us through each wine. There had been a great fire in 2006, near the vineyards, and it left a faintly detectable, smoky flavor on the wine. Harsher conditions in 2011 left their Cab rich and tight, the product of struggle. Each new wine, though they were in most ways identical, was significantly different than the last, and this illustrates well the great complexities and ensuing intrigue that fine wine and only fine wine can offer.
A million factors can influence the flavor of a single barrel, beginning with the winemaker and his or her choices, e.g. how much time spent on oak, what kind of oak, and what blend of varietals? One might use French oak, or perhaps American, or even Hungarian, or a combination of those. One might also use steel, and may or may not insert oak chips, oak spirals, or even oak powder. And for how long does the wine stay on the oak? For how long does it stay on the skins? If labeled Cabernet Sauvignon, is it 100% varietal? Or perhaps does the winemaker take a cue from the French and do some blending? 10-15% Merlot may take some edge off that Cab, or perhaps some Petit Verdot to give it greater structure and fuller body? Perhaps both, or something else entirely? All of these are the decisions of the winemaker, the brushstrokes of an artist, and all of them influence how the product ultimately tastes.
Where the grapes are sourced matters as well; is this estate bottled? Single vineyard? The same as last year or from a different farmer? While growing, did the vineyard manager “drop fruit,” cutting some grapes from the vine before they were ripe to improve the quality of those that remain? This is an expensive practice, but often yields tremendous results as less fruit becomes the beneficiary of the same amount of nutrients and sunlight. Grapes will begin to ferment the moment they are picked, so how close to the winery or the portable stemmer and juicer the vineyard is may turn out to matter quite a bit. And what if any chemicals were used on the vines to try to keep away pests? What sort of soil did they grow in, and what altitude does the vineyard rest at? These things all dramatically impact the fruit, which in turn impacts the wine.
The vintage, or year, of course matters a great deal as well, primarily for two reasons. First, the weather that year can change everything. Drought or too much rain, early or late frosts, fire, hail, and other factors can all impact the grapes and the wine that is made from them. The vintage also reveals the “bottle age” of the wine; how long it has rested in the bottle matters significantly because wine is always changing. Generally, over time, the bold fruit flavors will begin to fade in place of a drier, more delicate and balanced profile. Some people enjoy this, while others do not, and some wineries dictate their available vintage or vintages to a great extent. While I write this, one can easily walk into a wine store and purchase many 2015 wines, very young wines from last year’s vintage, while Chateau Musar’s current vintage is 2004, just as one example. In this way, wineries can have some impact on the way their wine is tasted by controlling what is on the market.
Most significantly, the palate and the pairings matter a great deal as well. I always tell people that good wine is whatever you like that you can afford. This advice may in part be the product of my rather unsophisticated palate, but I believe that it is nevertheless true. How you taste things is different than how I do, and the flavors you experience on a glass of wine may indeed be different than those I may pick up on the same glass. If you pair your Pinot Noir with aged Gouda and I pair mine with Salmon, the very same wine may indeed taste quite different. And if you decant your wine, and for how long, or if you aerate it to add oxygen, well, this will change it too. The glassware you select, be it plastic or crystal, will also impact the flavor; I prefer to drink Pinot Noir from a Pinot Noir glass, specially designed to hold the bouquet near my nose and offer what Riedel thinks is the optimal amount of oxygen to each glass. Some people think this is silly or going overboard, but if you ever have the chance to taste the same Pinot Noir from a plastic shot glass, a glass-glass, and a true Pinot Noir glass, I suspect you’ll change your mind.
In the end, of course, all of these things, from the vintage to the winemaker and his or her methods, to the pairings you select combine on your palate in a triumphant moment of climax. There are hundreds of flavors that a wine can take on, from asparagus and banana to graphite and rubber, from cherry, blackberry, peach, and currant to forest floor, bacon fat, ginger bread, leather, pepper, and countless more, all in addition to ranging from cloyingly sweet to desert dry and everything in between. In other words, though I was never good at math, I suspect that there is no limit to the number of flavors and factors that can combine in a single glass of wine, and every one is different. To my knowledge, wine is unique in this regard, and therefore I regard wine quite uniquely, as a special, wonderful thing that pairs perfectly with a life well lived.
All of these things are, to me, what makes wine so enjoyable. Every new cork popped is a chance to taste something entirely new. Sometimes, it can be an ugly sweater, or a superfluous as-seen-on-TV kitchen appliance, yet other times it’s grandma’s antique salt-seller collection, an autographed Joe Montana rookie card, or even a new car. Regardless, for a brief moment, the pop of a cork can instantly take me back to the Christmas of my childhood, but instead of annually, this ritual can take place nightly, or at least several times a week. As an adult, every time I cut the foil from the bottle neck and begin to work my corkscrew in, a small part of me is returned to those special, snowy mornings when I received my Susan B. Anthony dollars, which I still have and cherish, or one of any number of Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl books which I now read to my son.
People often ask me what it is about wine that I love so much, and I think the answer lies in the unknown. It lies in Robert Louis Stevenson’s idea that wine is bottled poetry, and it comes in the form of a gift, a package usually 750ml in size, with a world of unknown inside of it just waiting to be poured out and enjoyed with friends. So why wine? Because there’s a youthful hint of Christmas past in every pull of the cork. Because the element of surprise can be one of the greatest joys of life. And because there may very well be nothing in the entire universe as diverse and complex as a single glass of fermented grape juice. Why wine? Perhaps the better question might simply be, why not?