Grapes On A Plane: US Airways

usairwayswinesWhile flying from San Francisco to Phoenix this week, I noticed that US Airways offers not one but two red wines in the 187 ml size. Passengers can choose between a chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, (of course,) that mass-produced, cash-cow holy trinity, planted across mega-vineyards throughout the world. These three wines all come from the Colchagua Valley in Chile, south of Santiago, and are produced by Bodegas Santo Domingo.

The decision to feature two reds complicates a flyer’s choice of drink. Most people know if they’re in the mood for a white versus a red wine. But which red wine? Cabernet sauvignon has more prestige, but it is the better wine? I took the test with my mother and father, who are both vintners, and posted the combined tasting notes below. All in all? Good news for US Airways passengers, but don’t judge a book by its cover.

First, the chardonnay: Casa Amada  2013, Colchagua Valley

Medium nose: Red apple, lemon, and orange blossom, faint butter

The wine has great, medium+ acidity with a soft body. The acidity pushes the palate more onto a granny smith apple, apple skin, white peach direction. A floral twinge syncs neatly with a faint bit of marshmallow and dandelion green. There’s no oak influence on the nose or the palate. This wine was probably put through a tiny bit of malolactic fermentation in stainless steel tanks.

This is by far the best chardonnay I have tasted on a flight, and according to my father, once a prodigious business traveler, the best wine he had tasted on a domestic carrier in his life, period. Well recommended.

Doña Dominga merlot, 2012, Colchagua Valley

Medium but upfront nose: Red cherry, red fruit tea, sweetened  cranberry, Hershey’s kiss milk chocolate

The merlot has nice, medium/+ acidity, slight prickly tannins and a medium body, but the palate does not match the nose at all. The tongue encounters an onslaught of green flavors, like envelope glue, tree sap and mild brine, which overpower the red fruit and cocoa puff flavors also present. The finish tastes a little bit like ground black pepper and wood laquer.

Tunupa cabernet sauvignon, 2013, Colchagua Valley

Medium but incredibly upfront nose: Gym shoes, peanut brittle, red licorice, marascino cherry or brandied cherries

This cabernet sauvignon had only the faintest tannins, and medium, (inadequate,) acidity. Off-dry, and the palate matches the note: sweat, candy, and syrupy red fruit. Ended with a black pepper finish.

Red, white or screwdriver?

Hands down the white. This is a well-made wine that translates to the high-altitude setting. It would even be worth drinking off of an airplane. It’s far superior to the reds, and to the orange juice they’re serving.

OK, but I’m going to order a red. Merlot or cabernet sauvignon?

It’s really up to personal preference. The cab is closer to a sweet red if that’s your thing. While the merlot is drier and ‘earthier,’ it tastes more like grape stems than grapes.  So take notice: the merlot in this case is NOT the sweeter wine, as many might assume.




House Wine: Obvious Child’s Cheap Anonymous Red

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Wine signifies wealth on film. The successful boyfriend in the beer-fueled Drinking Buddies packs wine on a picnic hikeRobocop’s cocaine kingpin drinks it at work. In Say Anything, the heroine’s affluent family grills her blue-collar boyfriend while sipping from crystal glasses.

This connotation obscures a fundamental truth about wine: that it is often the cheapest booze available. A bottle of wine costs as little as a few dollars. Yet many film-goers would not recognize whether a bottle was expensive or cheap just from the look of it. Plenty of cheap wines have fancy labels, while prestigious boutique producers use the same eye-catching, colorful designs as mass-produced corporate brands. (Highly branded wines are the easiest to identify. Many people have a basic understanding that ‘Silver Oak’ is expensive, which underlies its popularity despite its poor price value.) If a glass of wine isn’t known to be high class, its assumed to be aspirational of high class. The same could be said of wine drinkers.

A pile of cans’ or ‘a flask’ visually connote cheap drinking more effectively, but their representation becomes inextricably tied with characterizations of desperation, and recklessness. So chalk it up to Obvious Child, whose heroine Donna finds herself knocked up by a relative stranger after losing her job, apartment, and serious boyfriend, to be the rare movie that documents the reality of the struggling wine consumer.

As a time capsule for the 2010s Brooklyn, Obvious Child captures the sparse apartments, the well-worn bars, and silent taxi rides of an urban twenty-something’s (and thirty something’s) life. It also articulates its characters’ drinking behaviors just as accurately. In Obvious Child, wine is only drunk at home, and its always red (the film is set in winter.) A lonesome comedian spills a good deal on his shirt, during a doomed seduction of attempt in his bachelor pad. Donna and her friends drink wine over dinner, haranguing and playfully debating women’s rights.


On the other hand, these characters order call drinks and beer at the bar, (notably hipster-staple Pabst Blue Ribbon and Brooklyn Lager by Brooklyn Brewery.) Donna and her date don’t order wine at the Italian restaurant, where it would be most stock in trade. Which makes perfect sense: ordering a glass out in most cities would start at $7 at the absolute cheapest. At a bar, the choice is between a good beer and a decent to terrible wine for $2-4 more. At home, the choice is between a six pack of good beer and a decent to terrible wine for $5 less. And if someone is bent on spending that $7, the cocktail will at least be stronger, and wouldn’t make you sleepy.



 Unfortunately, its difficult to determine how expensive the wines in Obvious Child are. Only one wine is potentially identifiable. Toward the beginning, Donna leaves a series of drunken voice mails on her ex’s line. She swaggers, jeers, back-pedals, hurls her phone, and brandishes a bottle of red wine. Bottles accumulate on the bedside table and dresser as the night drags on. The low quality of the video makes it hard to tell, but the cheery yellow label and neck foil are emblazoned with a logo of a black sun. Personalized neck foils are usually only found on highly mass-produced wines, where the extra brand-ability justifies the extra expense. Small production wineries opt for solid color neck foils manufactured for general use. The sun logo suggests a balmy appellation like Spain or Central California, which coincidentally are areas well suited to producing hundreds of thousands of tons of cheap, ripe grapes. The logo is nearly a silhouette of the Mirassou logo, and the yellow foil recalls Cupcake, two grocery story brands. (Except in New York, where wine can only be sold in liquor stores.) In its own way, this label is actually a pinnacle of iconicity—its so iconic, it evokes other generic brands without even being identifiable itself. A couple dozen wine store and website searches through NYC turned up empty. In fact, its possible that the wine is Mirrasou from a previous marketing cycle. Whatever it is, the wine looks polished and is probably priced at a dollar or two cheaper than the brands it rips off. Donna clearly stocked up in advance, which would have been between $6-$8 at a local wine shop. She even drinks it out of a mason jar.


Still, there are times when beer should be drunk in house. Especially when its purchased after midnight, and all that’s open is the deli below the apartment. Or, when its the only thing on hand at a young man’s apartment. Wine may be a cheap drinking option, but Donna’s wine consumption is as gendered as its close pint-of-ice cream correlate. David Cross, dressed in a ridiculous tank top, is feminized for comedic affect, (not unproblematically,) when he drinks wine later in the film. When Donna and her one-night-stand, Max, drunkenly revel through the wee hours of the night, they’re pounding local microbrews, (Brooklyn Lager and Sweet Action from Sixpoint Brewery.) The shining silver cans ornament the blissful scene of the two kids parading and messing around, which unfolds to the Paul Simon song from which the movie takes its name. This is also the moment that immediately precedes their off-screen, unprotected sex. The conflict and title of the movie are linked together in a moment of innocent bacchanalia.


Obvious Child is a comedy, but it also a fairly realistic portrait of a young woman making the decision to have an abortion. No matter where audiences fall politically, both sides would agree that this is a serious situation that preferably would have been avoided. It would be easy for the film to jettison Donna’s life-choices, if only to better illustrate her deepened maturity at the end. The bottle swigging and beer pounding could have been shown as problematic and unstable. Yet the drinking is shown normally, neutrally, with a streak of slapstick. It doesn’t seem to be part of the problem. Similarly, Donna doesn’t seem remorseful about her choices. She doesn’t waver in resolve to get an abortion, or agonize with guilt about it. She grows up a little, notably in her ability to connect with others, but without giving up pieces of herself. Obvious Child fiercely insists on the normalcy of Donna’s decision to have an abortion, and of the decisions that led her there. It doesn’t reject Hollywood’s conflation of cheap-drinking, immaturity, and bad choices, as much as say “Hey, we’re all human here. Let’s be generous.”

This post is part of the series on wine representation in film, called What Were They Drinking?!, co-posted on Hooded Utilitarian. 

The Nose Knows

leznezomaticsmallLe Nez du Vin holds the key to understanding the universe. Designed by, who else, a Burgundian son of the vine, Jean Lenoir, Le Nez is a master kit of fifty-four high-quality aromas often found in wine. Its encyclopedic layout condenses an enormous of amount of information. Each scent (let’s take butter—the bottles are tiny and last forever) has its own color illustration (a gooey country slab on a white wrapper), a detailed story of its chemical make-up (micro-organisms called Lactobacilius diacetylis make large quantities of butane-di-one), a lovely description of its scent, and even a list of specific wines (down to the individual producer) where you will find butter’s special qualities, like Meursault, Montrachet, Ruinart, Kistler. Along the way you’ll get your head blown off with stuff like this:


“Upon arrival in the back of the nasal passage, an odoriferous molecule works like a chemical signal, dissolving in the mucus and combing with proteins in the receptors to generate a whole series of reactions. The chemical message is instantly transformed into an electrical message which is projected in the form of an image onto the olfactory bulb, which is then processed in the deepest recesses of the brain, logged in the memory bank, compared to others in the temporal lobe, and finally associated with a pleasurable element in the far lateral hypothalamus.”


In case of skepticism, Lenoir has kindly articulated within his Kit the exhausting and meticulous method for re-creating these scents and bottling them for practical eternity, about a few standard human lifetimes. There is no doubt of his aim: complete authenticity. Reaching it is perhaps another matter. Some scents (pine, redcurrant, saffron) are faint and distant while others (linden, chocolate, melon) singe the nostril hairs away. There does occur a weird schism in the brain where you will smell, say, pear and know there is no wine you have ever smelled which contains a note of pear like that. While it’s tempting to assigned fault to Le Nez, or at least accuse it of olfactory misrepresentation, it’s helpful to remember this simple fact: no scent in wine is ever smelled in isolation. Pine and redcurrant are usually faint and distant notes, rarely occurring with power. Chocolate and linden, meanwhile, often jump out of the glass. (Two other things to remember: you may not have tasted enough wine to recognize pear, or you may not be paying attention when you drink. More on the latter later.)

The more you use Le Nez, the more impressed you become with its craftsmanship and purpose. Though it is by no means a divine oracle that will touch your forehead with a perfect finger and impart perfect knowledge, it is a peerless education tool, a fun game, a sensorial inquiry, and a vault of humble wisdom. The extensive cross-references on vineyards, grape varieties, and aromas are almost worth the cost of purchase itself.

Let me repeat. Le Nez du Vin holds the key to understanding the universe. In addition to the Master Kit of Wine Aromas, Lenoir has branched out and developed other kits covering different olfactory themes: Wine Faults, New Oak, Le Nez du Café, Armagnac, Whiskey, and Roses (yes, the flower). That’s 186 scents over seven kits. Why, Jean? Besides the obvious answer of meeting the demands of the market and of scent being your lifelong passion, why? Lenoir had to self-publish the first edition of Le Nez in 1981, and though it was popular in some circles, it took nearly twenty-five years for his ideas to take hold in the larger mass consciousness and allow him to expand his product line. So…why?

As primer, read the two previous articles by this site’s administrator (it’s tempting to call her Superwoman*), Ms. Kent: Super-Tasters: Is This A Thing?, and The Sights, The Smells. Consider the former article and all its ramifications for culture-at-large. Consider the expansion of Le Nez’s product line. Consider the notion of smell itself and how in those sweet bygone times it was believed to be the source of the most piercing insights into a person’s true character. Weaving these disparate threads together, Le Nez and its growing popularity fits into a kind of perception that is finding a resurgence in contemporary life: we want to slow the world down. The cynic in you (beat them to death with a spiked bat) might say that Le Nez is just another manifestation of people with too much money to spend on too much ridiculous shit. (You’d be right and you’d be wrong. Paradox is the enduring state of our existence.) We can easily see how the culture of wine, in all its cons, can be quickly tied to associations of pointless leisure and indulgence, to show-offs and narcissists, to the know-it-alls and the men who would be kings, and kingmakers. There are those who want to speed the world up. Slowing it down is an unthinkable proposition.

In consequence, for many people on this planet, life moves at a speed that is nearly unbearable. This is, to go out on a vine, not healthy. We feel the truth of this on both a conscious and subconscious level and as remedy we seek experiences that slow the world down. Vacation, sex, literature, walks on the beach, meditation retreats in the mountains, intimate discussions with friends, fresh squeezed juice. There are many such experiences that give us this much-needed downturn in pace. Wine can be one of them.

Since we experience the world predominantly through sight and sound, smell is somewhat of a “dumb” sense to us because we do not often use it to its full potential. We do not cultivate smell. (Side note: among other things, Le Nez trains the nose like a muscle and allows for the development of a communal, and useful, vocabulary. Not to discount analogies and metaphors for describing wine—my favorite game—but Le Nez can convince you there really is an objective language for wine aromas.) So when we do use smell as our dominant faculty of investigation we must spend more mental energy to pay attention to what we are sensing. Quoth Lenoir, “Identification of aromas requires great concentration.” When we concentrate, we consciously limit the amount of information we are receiving from the world around us. This is called focus. This is how everything in the world gets done. The quality of its doing is dependent on the degree of focus. All of this—attention, concentration, focus—slows the world down, allows for a greater degree of understanding and appreciation of whatever task is at hand.

There is only one reason to smell wine: pleasure. We may be evaluating the 32nd Cabernet of the night at a marathon tasting or we may be popping the first bottle during a big family brunch. We may be amateurs or self-styled experts or certified connoisseurs, we may be discerning or clueless, but in that miraculous glass at the end of the rainbow, is pleasure. Setting aside individual preference for the moment: what is pleasure? Happiness and enjoyment. Heady satisfaction. A source of delight. We want this. We are looking for this every time we experience a wine. How do we experience it? Through the play of senses, all of them: the sight of the wine in the glass and its color as the light plays off its substance, the breadth and depth of its smell and taste, the sound of the winemaker describing their techniques, the touch of someone close to you as they lean over and ask you what you think. And later, after the experience, when we replay the memory, when we think about the wine, our pleasure has now shifted from the physical senses to the mental plane: our thoughts reinforce the pleasure of our emotions. Our body-computer has taken in data through our senses and filtered it through the matrix of our whole individual mental life and has created an experience of pleasure. And then what do we do? We seek to deepen that pleasure. We seek to prolong it. How do we do this? We gather knowledge and experience with the aim of improving our understanding and appreciation of that which gives us pleasure. We seek the true experience. The essence of the thing. (We still talking about wine here?) How do we find the essence of a thing? Though love, and pleasure is a great first step towards love.

Now: what if a New York City socialite has never smelled linden trees blooming along a country river? Does not knowing this keep her from having pleasure in a Savenneires? Of course not. Does knowing this and internalizing this increase the pleasure? Exponentially. Isn’t this what we want? Individual preferences aside, ask ten people and ten people will tell you they want to live a pleasurable life, want to have more pleasure in their life. Scents can lead us to more pleasure because it forces us to slow the world down, take it in, think hard about it, understand and appreciate it. And so, Le Nez du Vin holds the key to understanding the universe, as it prefers the reflective act of smelling to the instinctive act of drinking.

Administrator note: This description makes Kailyn feel quite bashful, and is quite undeserved.

Super-tasters: Is This A Thing?

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Illustration from The Five Senses by Maria Ruiz

A friend asked me the other day, “Are super tasters better wine tasters, or does it not matter?”

Which is something worth thinking about. The super-taster concept is well accepted in the world of wine. So well accepted that the personal taste of one self-proclaimed super-taster, Robert Parker, took hold of the market twenty years ago, and still hasn’t let go. Parker rates wines along the same 50-100 point scale teachers use to grade papers, which is an appealing subversive system to many Americans intimidated by wine. Parker published The Wine Advocate single-handedly for many years, and made or broke wine reputations with his scores. Winemakers began to change the way they made wines, so as to increase the chance of a better score. This would not have worked if Parker’s judgements had seemed to be ‘one man’s taste.’ He had to appear to have a superior sense of taste, to the extent that consumers would let Parker decide for them. In Lawrence Osborne’s words: “Remarkably, Parker’s reputation rests partly on certain purported properties of his own body. His palate is said to be equipped with a unique “cleft.” The Cleft, as it is known, is (one imagines,) a singular ravine over which the wine molecules play with happy freedom… The Cleft never tires…The critic therefore is not just an intelligent man with a  singular passion; he is a deformity of nature equipped with powers that you and I do not possess.” (127).

This is not the description of a critic. This is the description of an athlete: increased lung capacity, longer legs, an extra chromosome. Foodies do not wax neurotic about their inability to taste the difference between local and industrial beef. Music fans do not discount their limited ear-drums– if only they were a super listener!

The super-taster myth, or reality, (I believe it is a little of both,) persists because people are insecure about wine. The West stresses that wine is meaningful– ritually drunk in celebration, romance, and religion– but people know little about it. To make matters worse, many wines are visually indistinguishable from each other once they’re poured. Drinkers have to rely on memories of taste and smell alone, stored in a much fuzzier corner of the brain. It takes focus and training to recall what a wine tasted like, and how the glass in your hand compares to it. If people can’t taste the difference, or know how to taste a difference, how can they decide what to drink?

Different taste ‘profiles’ occur naturally among humans. Some people think cilantro tastes like soap. Others can’t smell musty pig testosterone in their meat (for the best.) As far as I understand the science, its not a the sheer number of taste buds that affect this, but the genetic code within the taste bud cells themselves. Upbringing also affects the perception of flavor. Spice tolerance seems to be partly cultural, partly genetic. So is wine enjoyment. My sister and I were raised to pick out specific aromas in wine as a kind of dinner-table game.  The power of suggestion always thwarted the objectivity of this, because as soon as someone said “This Riesling smells exactly like your hands after holding rebar,” everyone would suddenly start smelling it. The game was communal, not competitive, and the sway of perception brought everyone together. Some people seemed better able to do it than others, but once a ‘right’ smell was discovered, almost everyone became able to detect it.

When I studied at the International Wine Center in New York, I learned that the WSET suppresses this kind of specificity, and requires practitioners to stick to a close relative of the Davis wheel. This standardization works to keep wine equally communicable to all wine drinkers.  I continued to keep private, ‘subjective,’ notes, but also wondered at how objective the list really was– one student’s ‘peach’ was just as valid as another student’s ‘apricot.’ The culture that envelops a wine– be it a community or a family– can locate elements that make it nostalgic or uncanny. The back of a wine label, written for the common denominator, can only mention “blackcurrant and chocolate.” At that point, that’s not a specific description of the wine– that’s marketing.

History strips the super-taster concept further. Food descriptors only came into vogue with the health food movement in the seventies. Before that, writers primarily relied on class and sex descriptors to talk about wine. Previous generations of super-tasters would have likened a generous red to a Rubenesque woman. We’ve lost sight of the fact that wine-tasting is a game of metaphors. Food descriptors have some scientific basis (the presence of malic versus lactic acid in the wine, for example,) but drinkers use the same apparatus to locate these flavors as they used to assign bosom proportions to wines.

There may indeed be super-tasters. Yet at the end of the day, does it matter whether the wine tastes like 80% dark chocolate, and not 65%? Is the inability to detect this a deterrence from getting into wine? While its enriching to remember what you drink, lists of flavor notes become arbitrary quickly. And these notes are affected by the cleanliness of the glass, what was eaten beforehand, your mood and the company you kept that night. So I place faith in the diametrical opposite of the super-taster– the suggestion taster. This is where the magic of wine-tasting occurs: when someone says, “This smells like a strawberry rhubarb pie,” and suddenly, the wine tastes and smells unmistakably like strawberry rhubarb pie. Everyone becomes connected for a moment, and transported together.


A Rosé By Any Other Name


Last week I stumbled upon one fun conceit of a wine list—Italian and American wines only. The bartender of the popular restaurant jabbed, “You can get French wine anywhere, but where can you find interesting things from Italy?” (This is almost true, at least on the East Coast.) The list covered a great deal of Italian geography, with a sort of the Noah’s arc approach: about one red and one white for each region. The Californian side showcased a similar diversity of winemaking philosophies—big cult-of-Parker reds, Italian blends and trendy Oregon Pinots. Sadly, while the Golden State holds as many diverse winemaking pockets as Italy, these didn’t make an appearance. The Californian offerings remained Napa-Sonoma-Willamette centric, even as the Italian section wandered far from Langhe and Tuscany.

For better or for worse, this selection confirms the textbook drills on Italian and American wines. Italy is a motley collection of thousands of local varietals and styles, most of which deserve consideration, even if they defy memorization. And the USA? The relevant wines come from north of San Francisco. The list could have easily prioritized the diversity of both places. Instead, it trades on their reputations.

Accordingly, the Italian-American concept breaks down where it needs to. Italian and American sparkling wines are offered, but it would be a little reckless for a popular restaurant to leave off name-brand Champagne. More strikingly, the rosé list is limited to two wines from Provence in France.

Not for a lack of options. Italy is about as Mediterranean as a country gets, with every region producing fascinating, gutsy pink wines from a huge range of varietals. I’ve had a savoury Tuscan Sangiovese rosé that swelled from a featherweight to a pendulous mouthfeel in thirty seconds, a trick I’ve yet to see any red or white wine pull. In the American corner, many producers like to champion the underdog, and there’s no kind of style more maligned than rosé. Californian pink still dredges up associations with White Zinfandel, but producers make dry rosé from every process, varietal and appellation imaginable. The restaurant could have even featured something semi-local, like Wolffer from Long Island, which garners more good press each summer. But Wolffer is an exception, not a rule, and judging by the words of Francis Underwood, a Long Island rosé (or any wine) lacks an established reputation.

Rosé’s reputation has recovered slowly over the last few years. In fact, its barely been resuscitated. Its still acceptable, if not laudable, to outright dislike rosé wines. They are feminine, so little can be gained from being seen drinking one, unless someone wishes to appear European, (or, at a bar in a landlocked state, girlish.) If the drinker heroically doesn’t care how the wine appears, only what it tastes like, it’s still fashionable to be indifferent. Even a dry rosé still lives or dies by the quality of its fruit flavors, and while plenty of rosés carry mineral or underbrush undertones, complex, ‘high-brow’ aromas play second fiddle.  A good rosé is not unlike a bowl of fresh strawberries. Yet Americans don’t nostalgize rosé as a simple, seasonal pleasure. Unless they want to be French. And Provence rosé has more popular cache than Tavel and the Loire rosés combined.

At least, that’s my theory. It was partially formed by working in a New York City wine store during the spring and early summer of 2013, when we sold boatloads of Provence rosé, and struggled to keep it stocked. Meanwhile, I hand-sold every other kind of pink wine we had, (with the exception of Sofia cans and the residents of the budget bin.) It was a lot of fun, especially when men in backwards baseball caps would come in and meekly ask for “Whispering Angel.” And it was frustrating to see so many others dismissed because drinkers couldn’t tap into a pre-established fantasy by drinking them. Provence is a brand, making it a guarantee on one hand, and a luxury on the other. It holds much more power than the word ‘rosé’ itself.


It’s summer, drink



Do you feel that your favorite butter-ball chardonnay no longer gets the attention it deserves? That good old fashioned Davis winemaking been’s overshadowed by natural yeast and moon charts?  That the young people drink dirty things to look cool, with no respect for the clean wines that built this industry?

You’re right. All the somms are hanging out at La Compagnie, they’re having more fun than you are, and they only drink natty.

If they could tap a concrete egg fermenter, they would.








The Sights, The Smells

There can only be so many variations on the travel guide. Southwest Airline’s inflight magazine Spirit can be applauded for aiming at originality in any case: last month’s cover story recommends a list of destinations by smell. Broken up into the categories “Fresh,” “Sweet,” “Smoky” and “Aged,” writer Tim Neville selects places as diverse as a Mexico City Churro shop, a Tibetan temple in Indiana, and a Washington lavender farm. The article is worth reading simply for the claim that Bryce Canyon National Park smells “of sunshine and dinosaurs.” An accompanying article about the science of olfaction shores up the claim that aromas help visitors form stronger memories and a deeper connection with their surroundings.

Not to say there’s nothing to do at these places besides smell them. Visitors can see the aromatic arts at work in a Miami cigar shop, a coffee roasting company, a tea factory, a cheese cave, a hops farm, a chocolatier, and a perfumier to name a few. Yet there’s an elephant in the travel agency. No winery makes the cut, despite the fact that Southwest Airlines flies to four airports in Northern California, (not to mention Southern California, New York, and Austin,) and the fact that wine tourism popularized the smell-cation in the first place. thesightsthesmellssmall

This may be due to the persistent misunderstanding that wine is to be tasted, not smelled. Different wines are assumed to have different tastes, but identifying wine aromas is often considered pompous hogwash. The statement, “Can you really smell wet stones in this?” is about as beloved as America’s favorite modern art go-to, “my three year old could draw that.” Thrilling to the scent of a popped cork is culturally associated with alcoholism. There’s no iconic, desirable smell tied to the act of winemaking. Vineyards smell of the underbrush growing in them, and the winery’s heady, oxidative stench can be off-putting to the uninitiated.

Yet many drinkers never realize that the tongue picks up a fraction of a wine’s character. The nose detects much more. Straight quaffing reveals very little. A tasting room is an olfactory destination in and of itself—few other countertops afford so many diverse impressions of fruit, earth, vegetable, animal and chemical scents, all colliding together, in surprising, decadent and stirring ways. Yet this dimension is often sidelined in favor of panoramic vistas, party buses and inebriation.

The neighboring article in Spirit, written by Annie Monjar, addresses this: “ …our chief experience of food comes not from taste but from flavor: a combination of sensory stimuli, most prominently taste and the small puffs of aromatic molecules traveling from the back of our mouths up the nasal cavity.” Monjar describes a woman who lost her sense of smell after an infection, and while “she can pick up on very sweet or salty tastes… the feeling of food in her mouth mostly just serves to remind her of what it used to be like.” When drinkers forget to smell the wine, they suffer from a kind of voluntary anosmia—the wine will have little of the depth or emotional impact it could have had. As Monjar writes, smell is the only sense that heads directly to the limbic system, an emotional and memory center of the brain, without processing; “you could say that smell is the world at its most raw.“

Monjar does justice to the ineffable quality of smell. “While a car horn can be ‘beep’ and a flower ‘pink,’ a smell can only be described as its own shadow. Even perfumiers use words that just swipe at the perimeter of smell, detecting only subtle differences in their mixtures or comparing smells to other entities: ’Floral,’ ‘Freshly mowed grass,’ ‘Romantic’…” Then she proceeds to make the familiar mistake, according wine to the domain of taste, and not smell. “Our taxonomy for the taste of wine, the chords of classical music, and the colors of modernist painting is boundless. People make a living finding words to describe these.” Wine critics fish for words just like perfumers, and employ the identical vocabulary, including the words above. Art and music critic’s processes aren’t far off either. Their descriptors –orange blossom, wet pavement, enervating, sappy– are boundless, because the answers aren’t clear in the first place. A violent red or repulsive concerto are all desperate graspings at a phantom-like level of truth, nearly inarticulate but felt. Criticism isn’t supported by an art form’s ease of description. Rather, critics do the hard work of describing intangible things, partly as a service to consumers who can’t.

Monjar contradicts her earlier point about the inextricability of wine and smell, and feeds two misconceptions about wine: that wine is about taste, and that wine is fenced off and formalized. The latter may actually account for wine’s omission from the list of unexpected, underdog vacation spots. There may be plenty of unpretentious wineries to recommend, but suggesting people go there primarily to smell tar, roses and whatnot in the wines seems far-fetched to many, and the province of snobs.

Wine and Prejudice

On Monday, Newsweek published an article titled,  “Why ‘Natural’ Wine Tastes Worse than Putrid Cider.” This is a very misleading headline. Written by Bruce Palling, the article doesn’t touch on the question of ‘why’ natural wine tastes the way it does, (and I have had a few that fit that description.) It would have been better for the author to have ditched the wine-speak, and simply said, “Why ‘Natural’ Wine Sucks.” Palling’s piece is vitriolic, whiny, and circumstantial. Most damningly, Palling’s generalizations about the wine world, on both ends of the ‘natural’ spectrum, sweep the legs out from under the his few good ideas.

I have a soft spot for contrarions. I often play the devil’s advocate myself. While I admire the work of many natural wine advocates, still, somewhere inside me, I itch for an intelligent voice to take them on. When I worked at a wine store, I bristled at customers who requested ‘natural wine,’ assuming all the other wines to be chemically adulterated plonk. Sulphite-phobia makes shop-owners pull their hair out, especially when nobody minds the sulphites in their salad, or their beer. Yet I would never spite the sale of a natural wine. Natural wines already have so much not going for them. They don’t sell quickly, and yet expire faster than mass produced wine. They rarely fit that magic $15 price point, and often have cluelessly ugly labels, and chunks floating at the bottom of the bottle.



Hirotake Ooka’s Le Canon Primeur has the design sensibility of fake Barbie packaging from a third-world country. Valli Unite’s ‘de-skilled’ Il Brut and The Beast possesses a little more credibility: it’s supposed to look raw, unfinished, brutish. But you know what? It’s ugly. It’s really ugly. Which is probably the point. These bottles did not fly off the shelf, even across the street from Pearl and Ash, and shouting distance from a dozen other natural wine bars.

Revealingly, Palling doesn’t attack natural wine advocates, or  winemakers. He targets natural wine bars. While he showcases the voice of a wine importer who claims “It would be a disaster if we sold it,” then pulls a 180 and leers down from Mount Crumpit, resenting that natural wine bars have become ‘the place to be.’

If the popularity of these bars is so deplorable, obviously natural wine isn’t that disastrous of a business proposition. The article even misses the opportunity to herald a doomsday, predicting some precipitous drop in wine sales when suddenly everyone realizes, “You know, wine tastes like putrid cider!” Palling is just scraping for whatever negative evidence he can get– he attacks natural wine both on the grounds that it can’t sell, and that it sells too well. Essentially, he argues that natural wine its not worth its own success.

Hype can drive a good critic crazy, and its tough to watch a segment of producers lionized while profiting from desperate, delusional buying behavior. People drink natural wine for fear of missing out, not unlike the way they drank highly manipulated, 100 pt monstrosities before. Like any cultural product, wine is subject to fashion. Both great and terrible wines can be fashionable. Palling makes a wise point when he says that wine is essentially the product of human intervention, and pretending otherwise is dishonest. Yet this does not invalidate the contemporary urge to minimize this intervention, and see what happens. Winemaking covers a large, largely unexplored terrain– sometimes people wander in one direction, only to track back and cover another.

I look forward to finding voices who will reconcile both sides of this argument, and if ‘the natural wine craze’  is happening on a meaningful scale, articulate what people learned from it, and which fallacies were capitalized upon. Until then, look around. What wines are being sold by the cargo-loads? What wines are available in every damn little pizza joint and grocery store on main street? Which companies are extinguishing small, risk-taking distributors, only to expand the reach of monolithic, board-room brands? If there’s an ethics to wine, Palling’s article is worse than misguided. It demonstrates a monstrous lack of perspective. Traditional wines are being prejudiced against by the natural wines? Hardly. Yet what does this echo of? Here, in a dismissible piece of wine-writing, simmers that poisonous insistence, that the top-dog always deserves top-billing, top-dollar, and the hero’s mantle to boot. Drink natural, and stick it to the case-stacking barons of the world.

Adjusting for Food

Even those who don’t know much about wine know they are supposed to pair it with food. Yet the key to correctly matching the two is not well understood. To capitalize on this, pairing suggestions appear on the back of commercial wine labels, and menus occasionally advise certain combinations. Rarely, experts can cite a concrete connection between the wine and meal.  Take Chablis and oysters—Chablis wines are named for a northern French region where chardonnay is almost exclusively grown, and the best vineyards send their roots deep into a bedrock of chalk, the calcified deposit of ancient seashells.  A handful of pairings are common knowledge: steak and cabernet, white wine with fish.

Still, how many of these pairings are complete fallacies? There are red wines that go well with fish, like Pinot Noir or Frappato, and white wines that don’t. Plus, a successful pairing would depend on the fish, and how it was prepared. Cheese and chocolate are consistently terrible with wine, as they cloak and numb the palate. Yet many wine drinkers continue to pair them together. Its possible that many haven’t heard that cheese and chocolate deaden wine flavors. More troubingly, most people probably haven’t noticed.

Is a cabernet sauvignon, or some other hefty red, always the best pairing with a steak? Or is this the result of grouping them into a similar category of indulgence: a masculine, heavy, luxury-wine with masculine, heavy, luxury-food? And why shouldn’t a sommelier consider the asparagus or creamy mashed potatoes most of all, when pairing food? Isn’t that medium-rare steak  the most accommodating thing on the plate already?

These are just a few of my hang-ups. I think wine-pairing encourages many drinkers to overthink things. It forments wine’s reputation as an unknowable, risky, high-maintenance ritual, which works to ensure the survival of the higher-end offerings, or alienate people to the point of sticking to cheap plonk.

A drinker’s experience of wine is already subjective. Why wouldn’t its compatiblilty with food be equally subjective? Successful pairings are subject to light shifts in acidity, salt and seasoning. They are also dependent on one’s emotional state during dinner. I don’t want to shore up the recent claims that wine can, and should, be paired with certain kinds of lighting and music ‘for maximum affect.’ Yet its hard to control for the experience of wine in the first place. And if it isn’t readily apparent that the semi-dark chocolate bar makes a Tempranillo taste really bitter, who’s to say that pairings aren’t primarily cultural in nature?

Still. Reflecting on this brings to mind the French word for wine-pairings, mariage, a cognate of the English marriage. Its a fitting term for that occasional, blissful experience when wine and food really become arresting together, feeding off and lengthening and deepening each other. They can work together almost symphonically. Its not common. I experience this so rarely, and yet I’m eating at wine-oriented restaurants, and cooking mindfully for myself all the time.

Food affects wine in all sorts of ways, often good. Yet at the end of the day, many of these changes are not significant. They are minor adjustments, like setting the force of the air conditioning in your car, or the height of a chair. They can make the experience more or less pleasurable, or just a little different. And sometimes, rarely, the pairing acts like true love, and it sticks with you for a long time. Which is high praise for anything taste-related. While aroma and flavor may be the most closely linked senses to human memory, they are mysteriously the most difficult to preserve, and to justify their importance later.

Shopgirl: What Were They Drinking

shopgirl illus

This is the second part of a discussion on the contradictory portrayals of wine in the book and film formats of Shopgirl. You can read the first part here. 

Shopgirl-the-film displays wine much more often than the book—wine only seems to be absent from Mirabelle’s hand. In the film, director Steve Martin uses wine to illustrate, even incriminate, illustrate that Ray as a man of taste, and decidedly not a man of the people. Wine is only mentioned a scant four times in the novella, yet the references are structural, not simply descriptive.  Each mention supports the story arc like a column.

At the start, Mirabelle’s wearies of her lonely life, drinking “wine” at disappointing gallery openings. Her innocent confession that she is still learning wine enchants Ray, and they share a single glass of Barolo on their first date. In denial of their incompatibility, they get tipsy on a bottle Bordeaux the next time. This trend toward excess backfires when Ray gets stinkingly drunk on several bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon with an ex-flame, breaking Mirabelle’s heart.

The story starts with falsity, or better put, a mismatch. Whatever plonk they are serving at the gallery opening barely deserves to be called “wine.” Similarly, Mirabelle may be beautiful, but she goes unnoticed. She may dress fashionably and work at a department store, but she barely scrapes by. Then, in the book’s own words, she’s discovered. Ray introduces the glamour and connection that was missing from Mirabelle’s life. They mistakenly believe that this can be ritualized, or intensified, with even better results. Ray and Mirabelle lose touch with the other’s reality, almost to a point of nihilism, where wine becomes a generic sexual strategy, as opposed to a meeting point with Mirabelle. Ray takes this strategy to another woman, with terrible results. Just like in the film, wine does not feature in happy ending, or at least Mirabelle’s self-actualization. The finale is literally sobering.

With the exception of the first wine, the book’s wine-cameos represent three of the most prestigious and expensive kinds of wine available. Barolo, a red wine from North-east Italy, is made in very limited quantities, and aged for three years before release. It is almost always expensive. Bordeaux can be cheap, (and it can also be white,) but the name is often associated with the region’s exemplary reds, made from certain chateaus. “New world” wine regions propagated Bordeaux’s most heralded grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, so as to better their own reputations. Today a handful of ‘cult’ Cabs command astronomical prices. All three are stereotypically heady, heavy and tannic, with flavors ranging from black fruits to tar to tobacco to clove. They are often described as ‘masculine,’ especially in comparison to more ‘feminine’ wines from neighboring appellations, (Barolo versus Barbaresco, Left Bank versus Right Bank.) Ray spares no expense in communicating his virility to Mirabelle. By allowing her to tap into it, she becomes empowered by his desire for her.

Yet as the varietal name-dropping becomes more obvious, the connection fizzles. Distinction becomes prized over nuance, and fantasty replaces true connection. Barolo might be well known to wine drinkers, but it doesn’t have the same cachet as Bordeaux, which again is overshadowed by the name-brand recognition of Cabernet Sauvignon. Ray is surely getting drunk with another woman on a ‘New World,’ (aka, not Bordelais,) Cabernet, wines that are increasingly dismissed as showy, aggressive, and opportunistic– just like the philosophy of their planters.  According to some contemporary sommeliers, cult Cabernets are simply high-octane, break-the-bank cousins of whatever “wine” was being poured at the gallery opening.


Ray’s gradual lapse from Barolo to Napa never happens in the movie, where he drinks cult Californians almost the entire time. (There is one Chateauneuf du Pape, although explaining why this is makes things worse would take another blog post.) The server pours Merryvale’s Profile on their first date. Ray drinks Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc and Stag’s Leap Diana with take-out, by himself. Even a bottle of Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon appears on the table of the tacky Mexican restaurant. These might be the product of product placement: Clos du Val can be found in quite a few movies.

That doesn’t change the story they tell about their drinkers. Infamously, New World cult wines don’t demand that their consumer know anything about wine, only that they can remember the words ‘Cabernet Sauvignon,’ ‘Napa,’ and be willing to pay for it. Gone are the intricacies of Bordeax geography and Chateau ranking, or small appellations tucked far away in Piemonte. Ray may be from Seattle, but Ray drinks Californian. And innocent, hardworking Mirabelle can barely be shown drinking at all.