I’m guessing you have some form of idealized wine scene. Maybe it’s watching the sun glint off of Brad Pitt’s hair as he saunters shirtless up a hillside in Provence with a basket of Grenache (this could really happen btw). Or maybe you can just picture all of the elegant, educated, polyglot winemakers in corduroys and chunky sweaters, perched on ancient stone walls with a pair of obscure spaniels.
Those are nice vignettes (eh, at least the first one — amiright ladies?), but how much do they matter?
I’ve been rereading Kermit Lynch’s classic Adventures on the Wine Route, which is actually a book about people and the somewhat romanticized notion that winemakers create wines similar to their personalities. Lynch often finds earthiness, restraint, ageability, etc., in wines by winemakers who plow with horses or age in old-fashioned barriques. He also encounters the opposite: fancy chateaus, sports cars, and space-aged wine-making facilities. He thinks wines from those producers can sometimes be flashy and smooth, but shallow.
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To his credit, though you know he prefers more ancient methods, you get the sense that for Lynch it’s all about what’s in the glass. He’s not a slavish adherent to natural wine, but he definitely believes that care and attention will show. [Read this recent NYT interview with him if you’re interested in his philosophy.]
I do too. Even though sometimes a chatty sommelier will go on and on about hanging with so-and-so winemaker at her agritourismo in Northern Italy — and I’m often left asking myself, “But what about the wine?” — isn’t it nice to have some personal connection with where our wine comes from and the people who make it?
When my cellar’s getting too low for comfort and I have to make some purchases, I love looking at the bios of all of the winemakers and imagining their lives. One of my favorite importers (New York based) is Louis Dressner. The site always has a ton of photos and interviews that really give you a sense of place and just how batshit crazy you have to be to pick tons of grapes by hand. Wine is after all an agricultural product — and agriculture is nothing if not hard work, filled with blood, sweat, pests, droughts, floods, and the inevitable epic interpersonal meltdowns that arise from the same.
So on the one extreme where you have a set of wine glasses in front of you and you’re tasting blind, the only thing that counts is what’s in the glass. On the other extreme, all you have is narrative, which can feel an awful lot like branding — this cult winemaker, from this obscure region, from this obscure varietal, etc. Sometimes the story is too much and you need to just get back to your conversation about 10 year treasury notes or Lea Michele’s fashion bangs or whatever. Which is another way of saying, wine is precious, but it should never BE precious.
Anyway, if you do have the time, it can be a fun and rewarding exercise to look into the backgrounds of the people making your wine. You can find an importer you love and drink through their lineup, reading about each winemaker along the way. You can do something rather arbitrary, like build a case made up exclusively of women winemakers or dudes that look like old French pervs (shouldn’t be too difficult), and make their stories part of your wine-learning experience the next time you pop a bottle.
Matthew Mullet works in energy and also spends a lot of time writing code. In the summer, he can be found tending to a large garden and sipping chilled rosé on his porch in rural Ohio.
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