The Boston Phoenix October 19 - 26, 2000


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Joy of grapes

Who stole the fun from our wine?

by Thor Iverson

Wine is intense stuff. It inspires poetry and song, turns simple food into a celebratory feast, and drives columnists to flights of descriptive fancy. Wine is also complicated, so much so that it is quite literally impossible for anyone to know everything about the subject.

Because of this, people tend to endow wine with a certain gravitas. Anyone who has endured the elaborate and stuffy ritual of ordering wine in a fine restaurant has seen this in action. This formality, coupled with wine's inscrutable complexity, is what causes otherwise confident people to break out in a cold sweat when contemplating a wine list or a wine store's shelf.

But all this solemnity misses the point. Wine is, or should be, fun. It should bring smiles and laughter to the dinner table, and enjoyment to any gathering. It should be a social lubricant. If wine is not fun, wine is wasted.

It's not hard to see how we came to this point. The stilted vocabulary of tasting notes, the long-held belief that wine was part and parcel of upper-class living, the deliberate obfuscation by marketing departments wanting to position their wine as anything other than "common" -- all these are legacies of the British conception of wine that Americans have, unfortunately, inherited. High prices don't help, either.

In the countries where wine historically has been produced, however, a different story emerges. There, wine is not discussed in language that is alternately scientific and anthropomorphic. Wine is consumed with simplicity or with passion, but hardly ever with brow-furrowed concentration. It is not something to be analyzed and judged and rated and idolized. Rather, it represents a synthesis of nature and humanity that has been with us since the beginning of recorded history. Wine, for those closest to the Old World vineyards, is pure liquid enjoyment.

Of course, it's true that some wines are serious from conception to completion -- first-growth Bordeaux, for example, or the new crop of California cabernets priced in the three- and four-digit range. But there have always been wines to counterbalance what the French call vins de garde, things like Beaujolais and Pouilly-Fuissé, Chianti and dolcetto d'Alba, New Zealand sauvignon blanc and inexpensive Aussie shiraz.

Sadly, in the "bigger is better" world in which we live, those simple, fun wines are nearly extinct. Or rather, they're being recklessly camouflaged with extreme overripeness, brutal tannin, heavy oak treatments, acid adjustments, enzyme enhancements, and artist-designed labels intended to allow 200 percent price increases. I'm sure this is "fun" for the winemakers' bankers, but to the rest of us it's hardly a recipe for levity.

Stores and restaurants also leech some of the joy from wine. The War and Peace-length wine lists bound in leather, the pretense and ceremony accorded to inexpensive wines that don't require such pomp, the endless shelves of wines stocked by stores whose employees couldn't tell a shiraz from a chardonnay (leaving the consumer adrift in a sea of confusion) . . . all are designed to surround wine with ritual and formality that it doesn't need.

We writers also share some of the blame. Too often, we focus on whether or not wine is good. That's a valid question, but it's much less important than the one every wine drinker should ask with every sip: do I enjoy this wine? No writer or critic, no matter how helpful, can answer that one for the readers. What we can do is educate, inspire, and -- ideally -- free the consumer to view wine as something to be savored, not feared.

There is a time and a place for analysis and careful study. Part of the pleasure of wine is that it allows examination both superficial and detailed, beguiling drinkers both studious and bacchanalian. But no matter how intensely one studies wine, this essential fact remains: if it brings no enjoyment, if it does not lift the spirit and refresh the soul, it might as well be water.

Remember, when Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast, he didn't perform this miracle so people could analyze, study, score, and pontificate. He did it so the party could continue. There's a lesson there.

Some wines that bring nothing but enjoyment:

Yves Pastourel "La Vicomté de la Peyrade" Muscat de Frontignan ($18). The fortified (strengthened with alcohol) sweet muscats of southern France all share similar flavors: orange blossom, honey, melon, etc. The best, like this non-vintage version, add a bright acidity that lifts and enhances the succulent fruit. Serve by itself, or with fresh fruit.

Prunotto 1998 Dolcetto d'Alba ($16). Light and floral with red-cherry and cantaloupe flavors, this is simple and fruit-sweet -- exactly the kind of fun yet food-friendly wine to have around for everyday drinking. Serve with heavy dark-fish dishes (tuna or bluefish, for example, or grilled swordfish) prepared with a little spice.

Ruet 1998 Brouilly "Vieilles Vignes" ($14.99). As thirst-quenching as a Beaujolais should be, but with a red-apple, strawberry, and earth character that should intrigue those desiring a little more contemplation. Serve about two degrees colder than most reds, with roast chicken.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

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