What Wine is all About
Family, Friends, and Memories
What wine is really all about
by Cathy Hastings
I started drinking wine when I was 8 years old. That was when it first started to taste good, which was the only criteria that determined the correct age to start drinking it according to my Russian-born aunt whom I spent every summer with in San Francisco. That made me a
late bloomer by local European immigrant standards – my aunt’s best friends were Italian immigrants and I’m quite sure they put wine in their toddlers’ sipper cups. I’ll never forget Mario, their son who was a few years younger than myself, and at 6 could drink a lot of American adults under the table. Mario also learned to read by checking wine labels to make sure they were Italian before he would partake, and if not could turn up his nose up with such effrontery that even the snobbiest of aficionados would have been impressed. His standards were quite simple – Italian, good. Everything else, bad.
My aunt’s standards were equally uncomplicated. She would make two or three trips to the local vineyards a year and taste everything. Since communicating in English had always been more trouble than it was sometimes worth, she liked to keep her sentences to one or two words. “No” and “I like” summed up most wines. Once in a while a particularly jolting wine might elicit a response like “Oy!” But sooner or later she would find one she really liked, and then the sentence became slightly longer. “This one is good. I buy ten cases.” That would then become the wine we would have every night for the rest of the summer, regardless of what was for dinner.
On one occasion I showed up for vacation and saw at least a dozen cases of unlabeled wine stacked on the floor, none of which were being served with dinner. When I asked about it, my aunt explained that and she and my uncle and the Italians had decided to get together and make their own wine. I thought about that: the Russians and the Italians getting together, all of them barely able to speak the only common language between them (I never could figure out how they understood each other so well when I could barely understand any of them), and making wine – how much better can a visual get than that? What kind of wine does that make? Even better, what would this do to Mario? I wanted to hear about how they did it, but all she said was, “We take shoes off and stomp!”
In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.”
It wasn’t images of Lucy grape-stomping in the vat that I thought of first, but my uncle’s socks in the laundry – that, of course, explained why no one would drink that wine. I didn’t even want to touch the bottles. I’m not exactly sure when I figured out that my aunt was joking about stomping the grapes, or when I discovered the fabulous vinegar in all those unlabeled bottles, and I never did learn exactly what she and my uncle and the Italians did to create it – she stuck by the stomping story to the very end. But I do remember attaching handmade labels touting “gourmet vinegar” to every bottle that were later presented to my aunt’s friends at Christmas. And I do remember that the vinegar made such a lovely salad dressing that when we finally came to the end of the inventory – two or three years later – I missed it.
Having a childhood full of wine-related memories seems like the most natural thing in the world. It was not only a part of every celebration or important life event; it was as much a part of every dinner as the main course. Wine was something you shared with family and friends, every day. In a city like San Francisco where European traditions prevail to this day, a guest would never show up at your home empty-handed – and with the occasional exception of flowers or dessert, that gift was always a bottle of wine that would be empty before the night was over.
My early education in wine vocabulary was “I like” and “No,” and it would be many years before I knew that anything else was necessary. When I would watch a wine tasting as a young adult with the swirling and the sniffing and the examination of the legs on the glass and then the language that would follow, “bold and unpretentious with hints of vanilla and earthy mule sweat…” I’d wonder what the heck were they talking about? Do you like? Or No?
King Henry IV
Over the years I’ve come to appreciate what the swirlers and the sniffers are doing. I’ll admit it, I even do that myself. There’s nothing like getting a good raucous swirl going in a freshly poured glass of wine and then sticking your nose down into it and inhaling a nice heady burst of aroma. I can get a pretty good idea if I’m going to like the wine by sniffing it first. But someone who really knows what they are doing can tell you how mature the grapes were when they were harvested and what the weather was like when they were growing. A wine professional’s first tool of the trade is their nose, and that poetic sounding language they use to describe it is their technical terminology. The winemaker will start smelling the juice of the grapes long before they are picked, noting the changes in sugar levels (or “brix” as they call it) and then may use descriptions such as “green tea” or “cut grass” which to them, means the harvest is still a week or a few (depending on what they are after) away. They might be anticipating something specific, such as “rose petals,” to signal that the harvest is within days. Most people could not begin to detect the subtleties in a sniff that make up a winemaker’s science any more than they could detect each individual instrument in a hundred piece orchestra; the only person anyone expects to do that is the composer. Like a composer, winemakers are artists, except they create their beauty in bottles. And like composers, it takes a tremendous amount of technical skill, expertise, and rare talent to create a masterpiece. One of the differences, however, is that most people don’t think they need advanced degrees in music theory to enjoy listening to a composer’s end product.
For many people, reading about wine is like reading Shakespeare; the language is lovely but almost incomprehensible to all but scholars in the field. That’s because most of it is written for scholars in the field and presented in a way that suggests anyone who drinks wine should understand what it means. Complicating matters more is what seems to be a secondary language forming around wine critiquing that at times can be so far-fetched that it’s almost comical (let’s face it – does anyone really know what a “forward-thinking” wine is?). That secondary language in particular has contributed to the gradual rise of wine from the table to the pedestal over the last century. For the first time in history, enjoying a glass of wine is transforming into an esoteric art form, making it something to be had and enjoyed by an elite few.
Having spent my formative years in the presence of immigrants who didn’t know that only a savant could appreciate wine, I relied on the “old school” method of finding wines I loved – that is, never passing up the opportunity to taste a new one. Just recently, while shopping and drinking coffee with cream and sugar (perhaps the worst thing I could have in my mouth right before drinking wine, with the possible exception of shaving cream), I was offered a sample of a South African Shiraz and could not resist trying it. It was brilliant, with a luscious smoky, spicy flavor that instantly made my mouth water for a thick steak right off the grill. At only $8 a bottle – an unbelievable bargain for a wine of that caliber – I will keep that Shiraz on hand for the next impromptu barbeque. Minutes later I was offered another sample, this time a Chardonnay from an unfamiliar winery in California. I could describe it, I suppose, as “a young wine that has not yet proven itself, with sharp notes of rancid fruit and pressure-treated lumber…” But I think my aunt hit it on the head with, “No.”
This section will offer a series of ongoing articles that offer more practical and down to earth suggestions for readers who are left by standard wine reviews scratching their heads and thinking, “Huh? Did that say something?” If you would like to try new wines but do not know whether a “highly approachable wine” would be better with your chops than one with “elegance and flair,” then hopefully you will find here an alternative route to discovery. Wine is still for everyone, even if that fact has become increasingly forgotten over the last few decades. Sampling different wines and discovering, in your own language, what you like or don’t like about them will give you a far better education than any textbook. My aunt understood perfectly what wine is really about: family, friends, and memories. If you can count your favorite wine memories on one hand it’s time to make more, and with a thriving wine industry and many outstanding selections right here in our backyard, it’s easy. Cheers!