Wine is, in short, serious business.
There are people, the "connoisseurs", who know about wine, and then there are the plebs. There's a certain way to serve wine, to taste wine, to drink wine, to pair wine. You have to swirl the glass just so, stick your nose in thus, sniff, taste and sometimes (in my case reluctantly) spit. White wine goes with fish and white meat, red wine with red. White wine is served chilled, red wine is not. To avoid making a fool of yourself, you have to learn an entire new vocabulary. When did you last smell a "forest floor"? Try as hard as you can, you just can't remember what "pencil shavings" smell like, and the iPad generation probably don't even know what pencils are. Most of us have never opened a "cigar box". Shame on you if you incorrectly describe "baked apple" as "ripe pear". How should you know what "minerality" tastes like? Which mineral is this referring to? I've never actually tasted leather, have you? Wine can be so bloody intimidating!
If you haven't seen comedian Michael McIntyre's hilarious take on wine rituals, you have to watch it. I giggle every time I see it. While funny, anyone who enjoys wine will know that there is some truth and some value in the preconceptions about and rituals around wine. But the pomp and ceremony can most definitely serve to discourage, and what good is that? It can also ruin friendships. Don't believe me? Continue reading.
I feel rather fortunate that I took to wine from a young age. Growing up in the 80s in rural Zululand, South Africa, my family drank very little wine, and mostly a sweet or semi-sweet something at Sunday lunch. My otherwise conservative parents would occasionally allow me and my sister a little taste, and I loved it! I loved the bottles, the cork, the glasses, the sense of occasion, and mostly the taste.
I first became aware of wine snobbery when my parents befriended newcomers to our area, who relocated from the big city of Pretoria. After going to their place for dinner one night, where the hostess served dry red wine that was not particularly well received, she was overheard whispering to her husband that the "Zululanders have no culture". Needless to say, that friendship died an early death.
Fast forward a few years. Having consumed boxes of (dry) red wine (no not cases, I mean actual box wine) at crazy house parties at university, completing my articles at a large accounting firm in Durban, living and working in Slovakia and Slovenia, backpacking through Europe, falling in love with Thailand and its food, I had culinary and wine experiences I never dreamed was possible. And I risked becoming somewhat of a wine snob…
So let me share some of most valuable lessons I've been taught and insights I've gathered on my own journey to date.
While living in Bratislava, Slovakia for a few months in 1998, fellow-South African friend and colleague Harry and his wife took me to a wine tasting one night. The local wine maker was waxing lyrical about his wines, and the audience played along, sharing what they thought they picked up on the nose and palate. I don't recall what wine we had in our glasses at that moment, but I do remember that it all seemed like bull. The wine was dull and boring. Harry, with a twinkle in his eye, leaned over to me and said "watch this". He then bellowed over the din: "I smell pepper". A brief moment of silence followed. The wine maker seemed rather startled, but upon seeing Harry's towering frame and square jaw, quickly replied "I can see why you're saying that". Immediately there were nods of agreement from the other tasters, and an eventual conclusion that the wine had a lovely spicy note. Lesson number one: beware the power of suggestion. (Coupled with the fact that sometimes it’s all just a load of nonsense.)
In the early 2000s, I completed the first two stages or modules of the Cape Wine Academy course. My sole objective was to learn more about this tipple I claimed to love so much, so that I could enjoy it even more. One of our tutors, a Cape Wine Master, made a comment about enjoyment of wine. It had a massive impact one me; here was one of the most discerning wine drinkers I had ever met, and in response to a question about "good" and "bad" wine, she responded that the best wine is the one you enjoy drinking. That is lesson number two, and directly leads to lesson number three. Some think that knowledge breeds snobbery. On the contrary, most wine snobs I know are clueless. But that's a topic for another time. Knowledge only serves to enhance the experience, to heighten the senses, and to equip you to detect some of the complexities in a wine that would otherwise have gone unnoticed and underappreciated.
Most recently, I shared with one of my wine suppliers that I don't stock sweet wines (other than dessert wines) in The 'Other' Room, our little wine shop. She understood the reasons, and a conversation followed about our respective wine journeys. She commented that everyone has to start somewhere. If it is sweet wine that gets them hooked, at least they become part of the wine-loving family, and many will go on a journey of discovery themselves. Lesson number four then was a timely reminder…
While I was living in New York City for a few years, my mom came to visit and we went on a road trip to Rhode Island which took us along the wine producing North Fork of Long Island en route to the ferry to Massachusetts. We stopped for lunch at a cute little café in a quaint town and had the world's best soup, washed down with a glass of the (surprisingly lovely) local wine. We walked to let the lunch settle, browsing shops as we went. In one of these, I was amused by a little sign board that reads "Love the wine you're with", which my ever perceptive mother duly bought for me. I still have it on proud display in my house, and it’s a daily reminder of lesson number five: that there is a time and place for every decent wine out there. Some are deliberately easy drinking, others are deliciously complex. What's important is that you're enjoying it, loving the wine you're with at that particular moment in time.
I'm not sure I'm enjoying the grenache currently in my glass, but hey, it helped me write this, and for that, I love it!