I thought I’d take a break from my more informative encyclopedic posts and do something a little more editorial. The wine industry encompasses such a huge body of knowledge, from chemistry to soil science, wood working to viral marketing that sometimes I get so involved in the process of producing wine that I lose sight of why humans put so much effort into crafting the highest quality wines the world has ever seen. What’s so special about wine that it has developed into a worldwide phenomenon? Why is it that in the pantheon of Greek gods, Dionysus, the god of wine, sits among the elite Olympians? I don’t remember Frank, the god of mead, sitting on a throne next to Zeus. Moreover, wine has created a subculture that is woven into the fabric of many different societies. Wine lovers from across the globe seek each other out in a variety of forums to share their experience and passion. So what’s with all the hubbub?
Wine represents a truly unique substance, not just unique in the sense that it is different from all other food and beverages, but also in the sense that every vintage is unique, further diversified by the conditions of the region, the varietal, the vines, the winery that produced it, the technique, the artistry of the cooper, etcetera etcetera. The complexity of the chemical composition of the grape itself and the stupefying amount of variables involved in producing a particular wine, make duplicating it an impossible task. This stands in stark contrast to beer, which can be exactly reproduced following a recipe, to the extent that generally no difference is discernable. Any wine enthusiast will tell you that a good bottle of wine is a reflection of the time and place from which it came.
There’s a fourth dimension to wine as well: Time. Wine isn’t like a snapshot of the year that it was produced. Sometimes the cork gives us the impression that the wine is hermetically sealed and existing apart from the rest of the world, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s not a frozen in time but instead is a living thing that changes as it ages, just like the rest of us. It might take time to find itself when it’s young; have a particularly awkward adolescence; then blossom into maturity and age gracefully. Or it might go the way of Jim Morrison, and live fast and die young. Wine is ever changing. Incorporated into this idea, is that drinking wine is an experience that we have, and like a moment in time, no experience can ever be replicated. So you might have enjoyed a wine at a fun dinner party with close friends and its impact is different than it might be if you enjoyed that same wine winding down from a long day.
So my theory is that wine occupies such a unique place in our culture precisely because it is a fleeting experience. The sensation of wine on our palate is so ephemeral. Perhaps that’s why we prize wines that linger on tongue, better known as wines with a long finish. Subconsciously, when we uncork a bottle, we are searching for a familiar experience we had enjoyed before or are in search of a new and exciting one. Maybe it’s this reflection of life that draws us in and enchants us. Oh, and sometimes it tastes good too.
I’ve written before about how winemaking is the convergence between art and science, equal parts cooking and chemistry. Our taste bud’s receptor cells bond momentarily with the specific and identifiable chemical structure of the liquid, but in that instant the sensation of those neurons firing in our brain is translated into our conscious perception of the taste of the wine something transcendent occurs. That perception is inherently subjective and it is then, when the science is elevated to the status of art. In that moment, too, the nuances of the wine drinking experience become blended, like Red Rex, with neurons triggered by all manner of other sensory input from our surroundings: Our perception of wine is intrinsically related to circumstances in which it is enjoyed.
A wine enthusiast knows that their palate is easily influenced by wines enjoyed earlier in the night that are still lingering on the tongue. It helps tremendously to chew on a piece of bread to clear your palate. If you’ve ever seen a jar of coffee beans in a tasting room and wondered what the story was, it’s a similar idea. You just sniff the beans to clear out the sinuses. It actually works amazingly well! In the same way that food usually tastes a bit strange right after you brush your teeth, that garlicky Caesar salad has the same effect of the subtleties of wine, though you may not necessarily realize it.
Yet beyond muddling different foods and wines that may cloud our palate’s perception, which is perhaps a more conspicuous effect, there also is the ambiguous influence of present moment: What mood you are in when you taste the wine; the setting in which it is enjoyed; the company that you share the experience with. Subconsciously, all of these factors impact the verdict. It’s true that wine changes dramatically over time, and that individual bottles of wine can vary. Next time you have an experience where you tried a wine once and didn’t like it, yet on another occasion reversed your stance, consider that perhaps it wasn’t the wine that changed, but it was you.
When we created our tasting room in Deerfield’s cave we understood that the atmosphere of the room itself is intrinsically related to the wine drinking experience. Instead of a long wine bar where you stand shoulder to shoulder with other guests, we created an open and inviting space with deep couches and comfy chairs, arranged in a way that you can enjoy the company of your friends. The people you share your experience with are equally important, and that’s why we have a staff that is friendly and knowledgeable, because while wine is a truly fascinating topic of conversation, it’s mainly about having fun!