May in California vineyards

May in California vineyards

Sunday, May 3, 2015

There's a story behind that wine!


Much like other beginning wine enthusiasts, I needed a stress-free, guided route through the intimidating maze of wine appreciation.  A good friend of mine, our daughter’s pediatrician, introduced me to the early writings of Robert M. Parker, the originator of the now standard, 100 point rating system. While his 90+ ratings seized my attention, it was his creative prose, in the form of evocative wine descriptors that snared me.  If those hedonistic, mind-altering wines were that good, then I had to have some. My journey began, but additional pathways would also emerge.

Parker also did a first class job of identifying the better companies who imported the wines that he was reviewing.  Because he was located in Berkeley CA, across the Bay from my home, one of the importers I began to follow rather closely was Kermit Lynch.  Kermit’s strength, at that time, was locating and importing artisan French wine producers that previously had little or no visibility or following in the USA.  (In fact, as I discovered during our visits to France, many were unknown even within France.)

In his monthly mailings, (no emails in those days!) Kermit published no Parker ratings—or no one else’s for that matter.  He simply told the story behind the wine: who were the winegrowing families (usually with multi-generational histories); where their vineyards were located (typically with a terroir exposition thereon); their typical winemaking routines and what result they were aiming to achieve; and given those aspects, why there was something quite special and meaningful about them and their wines. 

 He often also included a photo or two of the principals as well as the vineyards. The whole effect of personalizing those wines really connected with me.  Moreover, after buying many of his recommendations, and whether merely swirling and sniffing—or more importantly enjoying them at dinner—I often reflexively imagined the stories behind the wines. 

For quite some time thereafter, (whether sourced from Kermit Lynch or others) following the who, what, why, when and where pathway delivered my most fulfilling wine experience.  My shelf of wine books quickly became a wall of wine books.  I wanted to know more about those people who provided me with bottled pleasure. 

When I encountered  producers from, say, Rioja or Ribera del Duero in Spain, Saint-Émilion or Pomerol in Bordeaux, Alsace or Côte-Rôtie or Bandol in France, I purchased whatever books were available to learn more about them and the appellation wherein they worked their magic.  Quite clearly, wine became something more than a mere beverage for me.  It became my hobby.

Researching the personal histories of winemaker families, domestic and foreign, took an additional route through the maze when I attended the periodic evening food and/or winemaker presentations in and around the San Francisco Bay Area.  More often than not, those gatherings were headed up by the winemaker or someone from his or her family. They explained their family history, their winemaking philosophy and commitment to the excellence of their product.

While many were California based, two that linger long in my memory banks are Maison Trimbach and Domaine Weinbach, two of the very best winegrowers in Alsace.  I only mention them because Alsace, which borders the Rhine river between France and Germany, is a brief drive from my wife’s home town, which is near Germany’s Black Forest

And during one of our scenic, wine and dine tours through the Baden-Württemberg region, we continued on to the  beautiful Alsace Wine Route and reconnected with our “new best friends” from Trimbach and Weinbach.  Enjoying food and wine at the source has never been better!

To be sure, there is much more to a wine than a professional critic’s lofty numerical rating.  There can be, and often is, a real and meaningful history of the people who make it and the unique vineyard location (terroir) that nurtures it. One's sensing or otherwise appreciating those aspects can deliver a special kind of pleasure. 

However, I must also acknowledge that relying on an expert's experienced-based assessment does tend to minimize the wine store angst that is known to afflict many a wine buyer. (20% according to recent research.)  On the other hand, with the Internet now replete with information on specific wines and the people who produce them, one’s emotional comfort can be but a few keystrokes away.