In search of the source of originality in wine

Vineyard road, Zorah Winery. Rind, Armenia. October 2015.

We long ago settled the question of whether cigarettes are bad for you and whether seat belts save lives.  While nothing seems more obvious now, it wasn’t always the case.  When I was growing up in what is now settled science on these topics was still up in the air.  Where it would come down no one could then say.

Just what we should be pointing to as the driving force conveying originality in wine isn’t a public health issue upon which lives hang – but it’s an intriguing question and, despite what you might hear, it’s still up for grabs.

What makes one wine different from another?  One way to address the question is to appeal to the grammar of wine marketing.  How is wine originality explained by people trying to sell it?

There are surely exceptions, but as a general rule the most basic sort of commercial producers find that identifying their wine by constituent grape varietal (usually restricted to a handful of the most recognizable, such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot) gains the most traction with the market segment they are appealing to.

This (mainly American) approach is in contrast to the European penchant for organizing and identifying wine based on place. In this scheme, wine is represented in association with a defined geographic area (Alto-Adige; Clos du Vougeot).   It’s true that there are many rules that govern the production of what we can call appellation wine besides those that stipulate where the vineyards may be located- but from the consumer’s point of view these are largely opaque.  It’s place that’s front and center.

A third way de-emphasizes both varietal composition and place as primary identifiers and instead highlights an individual property or, as is increasingly the case today, a single individual.  Top Bordeaux estates are especially good examples of the former are;  of the latter, Olivier Lemasson in the Loire Valley and Abe Schoener in California come readily to mind.

In this view, it almost doesn’t matter where the fruit is sourced or which cultivars are in play – their roles are overshadowed by the sheer force of the personalities involved and their (often well-deserved) reputations for making memorable wines of whatever materials they choose to work with (part of their genius, after all, is choosing well).  Winemaker-as-artisan-hero on a quest to realize  a personal vision isn’t without legitimacy as a partial explanation of what makes one wine different from another.

In fact, none of the partially alternative partially complementary explanation so far offered is illegitimate, per se.  But each does suffer from a drawback common to all marketing grammar: simplification that risks falsification.

The stubborn and slightly embarrassing truth is that though we have some clues, a complete picture of how to account for wine and its multivarious permutations still eludes us.  But should this really come as any surprise?  We still don’t know what makes humans tick.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at

Where English is spoken but only Georgian is drunk Cozy spot in Tbilisi Old Town sources natural wines from peasant vintners

The night we arrive at Bottle Shock wine bar, the neighborhood is enduring a power outage.

TBILISI, REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA.  If the steeply winding, cobble-stoned climb from Tibilisi’s old town up Metekhi Rise leaves you with any breath at all, be prepared for the view from its heights to take it away.  Before you a broad swath of this wildly romantic city unrolls like an exotic carpet– from the gracefully curving Mtkvari River and its incongruously modern Reebok sneaker of a bridge to the ancient and still imposing Narikala Fortress perched on an opposing hilltop.

We’ve made the ascent to this tidy, up-scale neighborhood because we’ve heard whispers of a little-known wine bar offering natural wines made by peasant vintners from indigenous Georgian grapes (with Armenia, Eastern Turkey, and northern Iran, Georgia shares the world’s oldest wine culture), but finding it proves challenging.

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The sign that should have been out on the sidewalk.

A city-wide party whose reason for being we never discover is clogging the streets with revelers and the sandwich board that is the sole marker of the bar’s location and which (we later learn) is normally positioned on the sidewalk had been taken in lest partying hoards invade the tiny space. It’s not that they wouldn’t be welcome. It’s just that our destination isn’t the kind that can, or cares to, cater to a crowd.

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When we drank it in Tuscany . . . Imagination is wine's secret sauce

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I drew this cartoon a few years ago after a conversation with my wife about just how much the where and the when of wine affects our experience of it. It’s especially common, we decided, with people who have just returned from vacation with a bottle or two in their suitcases. It seemed almost supernaturally delicious there, but doesn’t have quite the same old magic when we pull the cork here.

Re-living that original experience would require conjuring up a whole world — the view of the mountains from the terrace, the sweetness of the boy waiter, the lovely sequence of courses, the pleasantness of the conversation and in general, just how good a time it was.

It’s a let-down when, expecting our suitcase wine to recover it all for us, we find it’s not up to the task. But it’s not the wine, per se, that’s letting us down. It’s a failure on our part to acknowledge the degree to which the pleasure we derive from wine is context-dependent.

Food, people and places all provide context, but perhaps the most powerful structures for framing and mediating our experience with wine are the intangible ones provided by imagination.

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Rhymes with Radicchio Food friendly Verdicchio has become our go-to white wine

Recording a segment in America’s Test Kitchen Radio

The late Yogi Berra is credited with saying that you can observe a lot by watching. As with many of the late Yankee catcher’s quips, it seems silly at first. Only upon reflection do you begin to see that there’s something meaningful hiding behind those tortured semantics.

If we were to apply the Yogism to wine, it might come out something like this: To understand what kind of wine you most enjoy and value, look closely at your buying habits. It seems obvious, but isn’t entirely. Speaking as a wine buyer purchasing a lot of wine every week, I know it’s possible to fail to see the patterns in your own actions until one day, while stocking the shelves or reviewing invoices, you notice something you hadn’t before.

So it was a couple of weeks ago at Formaggio Kitchen when we became fully conscious of the number of wines made with the Verdicchio grape that had maneuvered themselves onto our shelves. It sparked a conversation here about why we seem to be drawn to wine made from a grape with a name that must be just about the only one in any language to rhyme with radicchio.

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Dropping in on neolithic happy hour Child sacrifice and cannibalism at the world's oldest known winery

The cave complex at Areni, Armenia houses the world’s oldest known winery.

ARENI, ARMENIA.  As caves go it’s not the sort to attract attention. There are no souvenir shops on the approach and no dramatic lighting within intended to highlight the kind of fantastic calcified structures that are so beloved of spelunker-wannabe tourists. There is only a vertical opening like a nasty unhealed wound in this ancient rock face in the mountains of southeast Armenia not far from the border with Iran.

The otherwise nondescript cave made big news, however, in 2011 when a team of archaeologists led by Professor Boris Gasparyan, co-director of the Armenian Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, announced that they had discovered in it the remnants of a winemaking facility dating back more than 6,000 years.

I knew about the cave and had written something about it in 2012, so was amazed when the opportunity came to visit it. I was even more thrilled to discover that our guide that day would be Professor Gasparyan himself.

Continue reading Dropping in on neolithic happy hour Child sacrifice and cannibalism at the world’s oldest known winery