Dancing With Wine

"Wine Dance" by artist Janet Ekholm

I love these "new California" wines. Many a night they grace my table and make my meal and my life better. Yet as full of pleasure as they are, they seem rarely profound. The same goes for many so called "natural" wines coming out of Europe these days. Delicious, full of pleasure, exciting, but not profound. Their experience is more in their juicy fresh flavors than their soaring soul. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Perhaps it was because my palate was hammered on the anvil of the classics that I cannot find profundity here. One of the advantages of being a certain age is that when I was young and just getting into wine in the 1970s, great wines were just minor extravagances no more dear than the price of a dinner at a good restaurant; Lafite, Gaja and Lafon were all under $50. They've put on a few zeros since then.

Today's anvil, that everyone is pounding on, is confusingly called "natural wine". It's an odd phrase as wine, if left totally to its own devices, is just a stopping point on the way to becoming vinegar. While in the past bigger was better, now it seems that being different is, on that merit alone, now better. As usual we replace one oversimplification with another.

For example, much has been said about indigenous yeast fermentation although the science these days points toward the idea that such a concept isn't really possible. Obviously there is still much we do not know about how nature gives us wine. Yet, common sense tells me there must be some difference in regions where indigenous fermentation existed for hundreds of years before yeast were even discovered, much less produced industrially. In these areas natural selection would have refined the yeast population as it is clear from recent research that although we like to think of indigenous ferments as benefiting from a myriad of yeasts to build complexity, in the end one strain wins out and runs the show anyway. But what about the new world where densely packed wineries have been using aggressive commercial yeast strains for decades? It's fair to assume that those strains are now dominate in so called indigenous populations of compact areas like the Napa Valley. 

However, this does not preclude that in many cases an indigenous fermentation may produce a more interesting wine than one from cultured yeast. It is also clear that the opposite can produce the same results. In other words anyone who says they know the answer is full of something or other. You can only do what you as a winemaker believe will craft wine to your own taste. Your vision and palate is all you should rely on as it is well proven that no matter the road you choose, if you have skill, great fruit, passion, focus and dedication to what you believe, you will make wines that will turn heads. Maybe not the heads of critics, but those of people who love wine. 

Diversity is to be celebrated, but not for the fact that just being different is enough. As exciting as it may be to find an old vineyard in California from lesser known varieties like barbera or fruliano we must remember we do not drink in a vacuum. Yes that juicy barbera from Lodi may be tasty, but it's good to remember that in Italy old barbera vineyards are not a rarity.  Forced to pick between a "new California " barbera or an old vine Barbera d'Asti, I know where I'll put my money. Some of this rush towards the obscure is driven by writers who always need something new to write about so diversity in itself becomes glorified as writers also have to find a way to stand out from the pack.

There is also the dirty little secret of many of these "new" wines everywhere in the world. Too many are marred by winemaking faults, which some confuse with terroir. The most common problem I run into is reduction, but the list is long. While not obsessed with squeaky clean wines, I just can't tolerate faults that obliterate sense of place and variety.

That being said I am an unabashed fan of many of these new wines, but that does not preclude loving the classics and once in awhile finding that wine that goes beyond delicious into profundity. Not every variety planted can be profound, but many can be delicious, which come to think of it, is a pretty good thing.

Winemaking is often called art, but to me it is more artisan. Like a fine piece of furniture crafted by a master craftsman or a master chef turning out a classic meal, these are things we live with and that make our lives better.  For me this is the most wonderful part of wine. It has a unique ability to bring us together, to slow us down and make us smile. These are the highest callings a wine can aspire to achieve.  Anything beyond that is too subjective to quantify. 

Is it a wine's job to be profound or to bring pleasure, happiness and health to us? A simply delicious wine with friends, family and food is one the great synergies of existence. Perhaps profound is for museums (aka three star restaurants) and simply delicious is for living. 

Delicious wine makes me happy. I can live with that.