What is the Meaning of Wine?
This may seem like a ridiculous question, but it's been on my mind for some time now. More specifically I wonder, What is the purpose of this blog? Why do I keep writing? I doubt that wine reviews are useful or interesting. A few of my readers have said they are not and that many of the wines I write about they can't find. Since my day job is writing brand copy, I worry my wine reviews and winery posts are beginning to read like formulaic marketing. So I thought I'd look to the beginning. Why wine? What does it mean to me?
I could line up the usual clichéd romances like tin cans on a wooden fence post for you. Everyone can make these shots: wine makes food taste better, brings people together, helps us relax and blow off steam, and when we drink enough it helps the clothes slip off. Those are all true to varying degree and circumstance. When I first discovered wine I fell in love with the symbiosis between science and art. In the documentary Sour Grapes Jef "Hollywood" Levy says wine is "the ultimate existential art form. It's living in a bottle, it's alive. Then you drink it and absorb it into your body. It becomes a part of you, literally."
Wine has both personal meaning for me and roots in a community of like-minded people. I'm an introvert with a strong extravert game. Most of the wine I drink is consumed alone, in the evening watching television or reading with my cat, Alice, stretched out along my raised legs, a paw and tail dangling off, as if my limbs were those of an acacia tree and she a lioness of the Serengeti. Here I'm able to savor a wine, form my own opinion - or no opinion - without having to explain or justify the flavors and sensations I experience. At laymen parties, laymen being people not in the wine business, when I get asked about wine it often feels like I've been asked to perform a party trick. And while I'm careful to say only what I'm 99% certain is true, which is 24% more than needed to pass the CSW exam, I really could say anything and they'd believe me. I don't mind it, but neither do I want to be a prophet among neophytes.
When I am among wine people, those who've discovered wine, fallen in love with it and made a career of it, magic happens. I might have just met you, but the immediate level of comfort is so great that I feel 100% myself. Maybe 110%. I'm bold, confident and liable to say anything that comes to mind, which is probably going to be opinionated, maybe a little off-color and quite possibly hilarious. Or quite possibly off-color and maybe a little hilarious.
For example, this past fall I had the great pleasure of meeting the lovely Louisa Sawyer Lindquist, wife to legendary Bob Lindquist of Qupé and maker of her own Spanish varietal wines under the Verdad label. I read in Swirl wine bar's newsletter that she was coming to New Orleans so I emailed her and asked for a meeting. To my surprise, she said yes. As we sat at the bar at Marcello's on St. Charles Avenue tasting through the lineup of Verdad wines, another wine person standing on the opposite side of Louisa interrupted our meeting. We had been introduced when I first arrived but I didn't put it together who he was until later - a sales rep with a small distributorship who does not represent Louisa's wines. He also "makes" his own wines in California, which I found, even before that fateful afternoon, to be ostentatious and disjointed, starting with the gaudy labels.
I thought the intrusion rude, but whatever, I can go with the flow. Sometimes. He feigned interest in her albarino so she generously poured him a taste. Wine people love to share. I was busy scribbling notes on the rosé when I heard him compliment the wine. "It's nice," he said. "It doesn't have that fishy smell a lot of albarinos have." Then he says, "You know who likes those fishy albarinos? Lesbians. You can sell those to lesbians." Before I recognized having any thought at all, brave loud words barreled from my mouth. "Man, fuck you! That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, and as a lesbian I'm personally offended." I caught myself before the next thought slipped out. I'd wanted to say, And anyone who equates lady parts with the finned and gilled has either never had a taste or has an aversion to it. As soon as I realized what I'd said, and how audibly, I thought I'd ruined everything, offended the winemaker and poorly represented my category of wine people. Wine bloggers are the lowest rung of the wine world. It used to be sales reps - my previous occupation - but now we have bloggers.
Poor, lovely Louisa Lindquist, she nearly fell off the stool from laughing so hard. He tried to backpedal, claiming it was a lesbian who told him this about albarino. She was, according to him, run out of New Orleans because she owed too many people money. She also refused to sell him wine, he said, unless he first drank tequila shots with her. The wine business has a habit of attracting addicts and fuck-ups as well as passionate lovers of knowledge, and doesn't require a particularly high IQ.
When I am among wine people, there's an unexplainable sense of being in the present, of being this person that I am in this moment without conscious knowledge of myself. Maybe it's just the wine talking, and to hear what it's trying to say, I have to slow down and pay attention.
What is it about wine people that bring my whole me out of an otherwise socially appropriate shell? For one, wine people are often assholes. We just are. We're opinionated and righteous, even when we're wrong. My late father Harry Collins, rest his soul and I do miss him, was for better or worse an asshole. Familiarity runs deep. And outside the Christian cults, techie world, financial sector and men, I'm not sure you can find a more righteous group of self-appointed pros. Is it coincidence that those industries are male-dominated?
Wine people run the gamut. You've got your conventionalists, which is a nice way of describing grape growers whose land is brown and barren in the winter, raped of life by chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Their wines are inexpensive and will rot your gut, if not also your spirit. There are the Parkerites who only buy and drink wines rated 95 points and above on the 100-point scale borrowed from elementary school report cards. These wines are high in alcohol, over-extracted, ultra-perfumed and embarrassing, like the host of a dinner party who dominates the evening conversation with huge alternative facts about his tiny inauguration crowd. These wines get you drunk and sloppy before the entrée arrives. The naturalists, those who tolerate nothing but natural wines, are the alt-right of the wine world. Their rules are conservative, narrow and unwavering. Biodynamic farming only with shit-filled cow horns buried every three rows of vines, absolutely no sulfur at any point during winemaking or bottling, and any wines that inch outside these rules are determined evil. These folks also tend to never have hangovers and eat only raw or steamed vegetables. Then there are the Modernists versus the Traditionalists, a tiny sect of Barolo enthusiasts who matter most to only themselves. Other factions of wine people include orange wine hipsters, Yes Way Rosé ladies who lunch, riesling freaks, chenin blanc freaks and pinot noir freaks. The latter are often the least respected because they champion pinot noir on the merits that it's not merlot. At least until trendsetting sommeliers decide merlot is hot again.
I myself prefer wines with high acid, light to moderate alcohol and soft tannins, preferably from the Loire Valley and made by a vigneron with no Twitter account and a book shelf lined with French existential philosophy and 19th century Russian novels. If he has an Instagram page at all, there's a single photo from 2013 of a black dog standing among the winter vines. The wine can be natural, it can be organic, sustainable, white, red, pink or orange. Size does matter, and I prefer those in small production, but above all and without question, it must be delicious.
Perhaps the most beautiful thing about wine people, is they can come from anywhere. Joining the club is a truly democratic process. All you have to do is love wine enough to make it a job and drink lots of it. Yes, we need more women and people of color in the club, but what club doesn't? I've met lawyers who gave up the practice to sell wine, artists and writers who began as restaurant workers who fell in love with the juice and the higher probability of making money. Many wine people, myself included, try out restaurant, retail and wholesale, seeking their niche within the niche. Some, like my friend Louisa Lindquist, eventually become winemakers, the foundation and holiest level of the wine industry pyramid. Master Sommeliers are at the top, stuffed inside a diminutive triangle with three sharp points that cut deep. Sales reps and retailers hold their own mid-pyramid. Critics and bloggers lie subterranean.
But maybe the most comforting and common thing among us is that no one is in it for the money. There's no money in wine! If you're a top sales rep in New York, yeah, you're bringing down a solid six figures annually, but it's not Wall Street money. It's not even professional money. The pretty people with state of the art tasting rooms for their Napa wineries, where the spittoons are nicer than anything in my apartment, had a fortune before they decided to play grape farmer. With few exceptions. Sommeliers are capped, even those who oversee corporate lists for multi-city restaurants, and retailers may be the least paid and hardest working of us all. Even the douche bags who make quadruple what I do (not that hard) with half my knowledge and experience still convene with the rest of us for one single reason. Pleasure. We are in constant search of that next banging bottle of whatever gets us off. If we can find a way to pay the bills in that pursuit, we think we've struck gold. Maybe that we all recognize our own genius is what makes us righteous assholes.