I like wine. I like to drink it; I don't need to understand why I like to drink it, but I've learned in the past few years that a lot of livelihoods depend on me wanting to know why. So when I travel to California's wine country, which has become an annual event to visit friends, I include a winery tour, not so much for the sake of those livelihoods, but for the same reason people who travel to New York and Paris visit MOMA and the Louvre: to advance their knowledge of art and culture sufficient to become annoying at parties.
The conceit that you must carry on these tours is that all those intriguing facts about the weather (mild, temperate, wet), soil (volcanic, alluvial, sedimentary) and vines (bud break, berry development, fruit ripening) will help you develop a keener understanding to differentiate between that 2014 Calistoga Zinfandel and the 2005 Estate Cabernet. (Hint: it's the one that retails at Ralph's for $9.99.)
Anyway, people who know me know they're far better off with me not knowing much about a given wine's nose, palate or finish (especially those who've endured me during my readings of the lives of Robert Moses, Fidel Castro and Vincent van Gogh, for instance.) It also helps that I have a particular and peevish dislike for those pretentious types who do drone on about "top notes of violets" or "a soupçon of asparagus."
I learned on our tour that that 2005 Estate Cabernet, for example, was aged for 18 months in 100% French oak barrels. That 2014 Zinfandel was stored for 14 months in French, Irish and American oak barrels. Should I assert an America First nativism, and insist my sommelier serve me only wines coddled in barrels of American oak? Will I be shortchanging those "top notes of violets" if I insisted on American oak only? More importantly, would I be quietly ushered out the back door of a Ruth's Chris by my elbows for even making such a request?
This minutiae of details of a wine's origins are in and of themselves pretentious. These are grapes we're talking about. Ralph's sells them by the bag for $2.99, and doesn't even tell us whether the weather was mild, temperate or sticky with humidity. What if I'd been told those chicken breasts I bought recently are a blend of Leghorn and Cinnamon Queen varietals, and had been raised in drizzly weather within coops of Italian wire and Latvian birch, producing notes of cracked corn and cigarette butts, with a finish of old world village idiot simplicity. And if I make Chicken Kiev, should I pair it with a chardonnay aged in barrels of Ukrainian oak?
Speaking of which, I don't much go in for for this snooty "pairing" pretense. While I might prefer a semi-sweet rose with my hot dog and relish, I don't at all mind a virile cabernet or even a playful pinot noir to "pair" with a trio of sliders at Applebees. For the most part, I'm happy to eat what's served, paired with what's opened.
Finally, I don't spit, so whatever I did learn on our tour was completely forgotten in that commodious haze that results from drinking wine on an empty stomach.
If you are thinking, “This guy is ruining wine for those of us that appreciate wine and the whole vineyard experience”, I deserve that. I do really love wine, even if I don’t understand it. So to make it up to you, I worked with Jill White over at Napa Valley Tours who was kind enough to send over her top picks for Napa Valley. I included it on another post, linked here.