I picked up a book titled Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise in a used bookstore a while back. Recently, I began reading and found the book to be akin to my own personal beliefs about why I enjoy studying, drinking and writing about wine in a number of ways. We (Theise and I) both believe that Connection as he calls it is an essential foundation block in the appreciation of wine. A consumer cannot possibly appreciate a wine - any wine - without some knowledge of the network of connections that have gone into producing it. Call it the social network of terrior, call it six degrees (or more) of separation between you and the maker of the wine, in either case if you don't have some viable connection to the wine you are drinking it's nothing more than alcoholic grape juice.
Obviously, this doesn't mean that you're going to fly around the world visiting every vineyard from which you've ever purchased a bottle. But, you simply aren't going to have the same relationship to a bottle of Cab Sav you picked at random based on an anonymous store clerk's recommendation versus the bottle you came across at a wine fest or on a lazy Sunday drive through a vineyard. You're probably never going to meet the wine maker or have a chance to discuss the in-depth process behind what wound up in that bottle (if you do - bully for you!) but you will at least have seen the vines growing or met one or two of the folks who play a role in making that happen. In other words, you'll have an understanding of the connections to that wine and, in turn, you will have become a part of that chain.
I've tried browsing wine magazines, reading wine websites, even foraging through a few wine stores in my search to understand why it is that wine proves to be a constant attraction to my intellect. All of that research has only resulted in my conclusion that I enjoy wine not for wine's sake, but for the story behind it. I have no story behind a rating of a vinifera on a website, except that some dude (or dudette) I don't know tried to quantify their taste buds (as if that scale somehow applied to my own). Hey, that's great! I'm glad you liked that wine! Tell me about you - your likes and dislikes - about the vineyard that grows that wine - who those folks are, what's their story - and maybe I'll have some way to relate to the essence of tobacco and dried cherries you're raving about.
The other day I stopped off at my local wine shop to browse after a long week at work. Walking the aisles I studied labels and realized two things. One, the only thing I would be able to appreciate from this vantage point were the artsy labels. Two, if my husband knew I bought a $350 bottle of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay he'd kill me. Why would I want that bottle, per se, and not something at a lower price point? Because I didn't connect to Chardonnay - I connected to the story of the vineyard that triumphed in Paris in '76! I wanted to know what was so great about this wine, sure, but I only wanted to know because I already knew the story and, thanks to however fictional Bottle Shock may or may not have been, I felt some level of connection to the land and the people behind that wine. That is what drove me to know more. (Visions of my husband's bug-eyed glare is what drove me to tell myself, "Save it for a special occasion.")
I left the wine store with nothing in hand and returned home to my collection of wines, each one purchased at a regional vineyard or festival, after tasting and talking with a wine maker or one of his or her crew. These are the wines I know and the wines I know I will enjoy drinking. And each time I pop a cork, the spirit of that initial encounter will come to dwell wherever I am, and I will have established yet another connection between myself and the grape that started off as a seed buried in the land.
A few weeks back I talked wine at a party with an older gentleman who fancied himself somewhat of an armchair sommelier. (This, mind you, is not an insult but an objective observation.) We talked body, structure, tannin and then he dropped a line that made me cringe: "I'm not a fan of Jersey wines, they don't have much body. I actually prefer Yellow Tail."
I'm way too polite to actually say, "Are you kidding me?" Instead, I referred this Yellow Tail fan to wineries like Amalthea Cellars in south Jersey and Unionville Vineyards up north, two wineries well known for their striking - and award winning - vinifera wines. I also asked if he had ever been to the Finger Lakes. He brushed me off. When I persisted he said, "Oh, maybe we'll have to try it."
Only today I stumbled across a new (to me) wine blog wherein a twentysomething wine fan covered "Around the World in 80 Sips" - a wine fest for Millennial drinkers. The Chateau Montelena table was packed (most likely because the Chris Pine fans were looking for him to pour samples) and was stationed in the same room with a college start-up company offering "orange wine-based beverages" for a low budget. It was a hipster scene meant to sex up a commercial product; you could have easily filled the room with the new French Coke & Wine creation and these kids would have been just as impressed.
That is not wine, that is industry and while I have nothing against industry I do hear an inward soul scream radiating from my being every time I see sales take value over character and substance. What good is it to market your wine if you strip it of its character and force it to dance to the latest pop hit? To paraphrase Anne Shirley, it's like seeing your baby tattooed with eye-catching advertisements that read "Drink me, I'm cool!"
This is why I will always gravitate towards the local winery, not just in New Jersey (although I have developed a special affinity for the wines of my home state) but wherever my travels take me. Here, in these places, I engage in a conversation with the wine; I am talked to, not at by the wine, the worker, and the land. This is an essential experience; without it, wine would be nothing more than another beverage you could buy at a liquor store. And what would be the purpose in that? To be like everyone else? If so, why are you even drinking wine in the first place?
Wine by nature is unique; no two vintages are exactly alike. Nor should their drinkers be. Embrace Connection in your wine and you will find that you will do the same with others and within yourself: appreciating the unique, valuing the essential, and making your story your own.