Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The End of the Bottle. The End of the Year.

I get reflective when the calendar flips to this chunk of the annum. I like it – and I think it’s healthy. It makes me appreciate how nothing happens in isolation. And how the interplay of circumstance and happenstance creates our day to day lives.

I believe it’s a natural time to do it, considering how our society looks at the calendar. We talk about the changing of the seasons, but not many folks are out there celebrating Beltaine or Saturnalia. Our collective point of annual reflection is the last week of December, culminating in the concrete marker of New Year’s, with its resolutions and promises sometimes kept.

What does a semi-professional wine reviewer reflect on during this time of year? Open a magazine, go online, or just read the rest of the issue where this column appears. You’re going to run into Best of 2013 lists, Top 10 lists, Bottom 10 lists – we love our lists. We collectively enjoy putting things into categories.

I thought about doing something like that, but I quickly realized that my own experience isn’t broad enough to put together a proper spread. I’ll leave that sort of thing to some of my other compatriots in the wine world.

When people I meet discover that I’m a wine writer, the countdown begins to the inevitable, “A wine writer? What’s your favorite kind of wine?” I’ve learned, in the spirit of Bull Durham’s Crash Davis, to have my clichés ready. “Whatever’s open!” is my usual quip.

That usually earns me a couple of weak chuckles and I can move on to other topics. Why? Because if I try to answer the question honestly, I fall to stammering. An honest definition of my favorite wine is my “one hand clapping.” It changes and slides, depending on the season, the day, even the hour. When I try to think of the best juice to cross my palate – I can’t conjure a singular image.

That doesn’t mean I can’t try. When I do, little vignettes play across my cerebral cortex of times that I’ve tried this wine or that. I can recall opening a shipping box to pull packing material from a particular wine I’ve been waiting for, or the memories of a particularly good meal that the Sweet Partner in Crime and I put together to go alongside a bottle we’d bought on one of our travels. I can sometimes close my eyes and remember the music I was listening to when I experienced a certain wine. I still, however, can’t definitively identify a favorite.

While I may never be able to come up with a singular answer to that seeming simple question, meditating on it a bit made me consider why I like wine as much as I do – and I’ve come up with an answer that, for me, is good enough:

Every glass of wine, whether from a jug of cheap plonk or a thousand-dollar bottle of Bordeaux, tells a story, and wine tells more stories than any other beverage. Wine comes from earth, air, water and sun. (And yeast.) A glass of wine communicates the soil the grapes were grown in; how they were harvested; how long ago they were bottled. There’s a direct, unadulterated line from the seed through the harvest past the winemaker to the glass. And that’s pretty astounding, if you take the time to think about it.

Other alcoholic beverages require additional work. Beer requires mashed grain. Whiskey, vodka, rum, tequila – they need to be distilled. You can brew a craft beer in any of the 50 states and it’ll taste like a craft beer. I’ve seen bourbon from New Jersey and scotch from Washington. But pinot noir won’t grow in Maine. You’re not making good sparkling wine in South Florida. Each glass of wine communicates something unique. Scent. Taste. Flavor.

I don’t have an extensive wine cellar, but there are some pretty good bottles down there. Many of those bottles came from trips that we took. There might have been something about the description of the wine that resonated with me – be it a detailed description of the terroir or just an interesting tale about how the winemaker came to follow that trade.

For instance, I have a number of bottles of pinot noir from a winery we discovered in Oregon called Libra. We tried these wines on the back deck of the home of the winemaker, Bill Hanson, at the end of a beautiful day. We swapped tales. We drank wine and watched the sunset. Is it the “best” pinot in the world? Who knows? But every time I open one of those bottles, I flash back to that deck, and it’s glorious.

In fact, the night I wrote this, I was doing dinner prep. Roasted duck breasts on sweet potato puree with wilted greens. I asked the SPinC what pinot she thought would go best. Without skipping a beat, she said, “One of the Libras.” She said later, after she read this column, that she’d pictured that moment on Bill Hanson’s deck before she made the suggestion.

Every civilization lives through its stories. Stories connect the present to the past; demonstrate place and longevity; and connect an individual to something larger. The story, the ritual -- that’s what keeps me coming back, and that’s my favorite thing about wine.

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So as not to leave you empty handed on Christmas or New Year’s – you might need a bottle of sparkling wine before heading out this time of year. If you’re looking for a bottle under $10, you can’t go wrong with my old faithful – Freixenet Extra Dry Cava. In the black bottle. Simple, basic bubbly that’s good with just about anything, food-or-occasionwise.

If you’re thinking under $15, consider Da Luca Prosecco. This Italian sparkler was the bottle we cracked as an aperitif when my family came calling for Thanksgiving. Prosecco makes you happy, and it goes delightfully with almost any appetizer that you might want to throw down.

And if you want to spend up to $25 for a bottle to ring in 2014, I’d be hard pressed to find anything better than Mumm Napa Brut Prestige. Extremely elegant, flavorful, and appropriately celebratory. I think you’ll like it very much. If you don’t – I’ll be happy to take any unopened bottles off your hands.

And with that, The Naked Vine closes the books on 2013. Thanks for continuing our mutual wine explorations. May your year be full of good health, much happiness, and excellent times.

Later days.



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