Write a regular newspaper column as I did for quite a while and you quickly learn that you have to to settle into a routine in order to get the work done. The first step in my routine was generating an idea – a single question, issue, or problem that could be clearly stated at the outset, wrangled with for a few paragraphs, then brought to a more or less satisfying conclusion by the time I hit the word count.
It’s not as easy as it sounds because while I had no shortage of topics that interested me, how was I to know what it was that readers had on their minds and were eager to have wrangled with that week? I could only guess, and hope that by the end of the piece the reader is thinking something like “Yes, I always wondered about that,” even if he never had.
Operating in a retail environment, as I do now at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, means that I no longer have this problem. Since my job is essentially to meet and chat with guests and answer their questions about wine, I have a pretty good idea of what’s on their minds. They tell me. What follows are the five questions I field most often, and how I respond to them.
Q. Why does one wine cost more than another?
A. Wine pricing seems arbitrary because it’s impossible (without a lot of experience) to determine by looking at a bottle what might distinguish it, in quality terms, from another. As with many other products, a winemaker receives only a fraction of the shelf price. There are middlemen involved and Formaggio Kitchen is, of course, one of them. Up to something like $50 or $60 (there’s no hard and fast rule about this and certain extremely low-yield, labor-intensive specialty wines don’t qualify for this rough bracketing) per bottle, there’s a very direct link between the costs of production and the shelf price. After that it’s a matter of supply and demand driven by trends, fashion, and reputation. It’s certainly true that virtually every step a winemaker takes that is legitimately aimed at improving quality — yield-reducing pruning; dropping grapes to concentrate flavors; hand harvesting; time spent at the sorting table — costs him money. Ultimately you, the consumer, are the judge of whether you got good value. If it’s any comfort, the small-scale producers we favor at aren’t getting rich making wine. With many of them, wine is just one of the things they produce in a mixed farming operation.
Q. Of the wines you’re suggesting, which is the best?
A. Based on what I’ve been able to draw from our conversation and the price constraints you’ve indicated, the wines that I’ve taken down from the shelf for you to consider should all work fine. They’re all a little different, of course, but the differences aren’t the kind that make one better than another. At a certain point, wines are like colors: it isn’t meaningful to talk about one color being better than another, but one may end up pleasing you more than another. Which one it is will likely be based on circumstantial factors, such as the room’s size and how much light it gets. In a similar way it’s very often circumstantial factors (food, company, mood, time of day) rather than something inherent in the wine that leaves you thrilled or disappointed.
Q. What is a ‘dry’ wine?
A. Dryness in wine has two meanings, one objective and one subjective. A wine with very low levels of sugar in it is said to be dry. It’s objective because the sugar content is something that can be determined by analysis – there’s a number to point to, usually presented as grams of sugar per liter. Sugar in wine may be the result of an intentionally incomplete fermentation (as in Port) or it may have been added in some form after the wine was made (as in Champagne).
Wine in which you barely perceive sweetness is also said to be dry, irrespective of its sugar content. The perception of sweetness is subjective because it is readily influenced by other factors — notably acidity and temperature. A note of sweetness can be experienced in wine even when there is very little sugar in the wine if it is perceived as being very fruity. In these cases dry is used to mean not fruity. Because as a descriptor dry is inherently ambiguous in this way, I prefer to use it only to mean low or no sugar in the wine. I use ‘savory’ to describe a wine in which fruit is less of a feature.
Q. What does this wine taste like?
A. The most asked question and the hardest one of all to answer. Wine is inherently complex and the impressions it makes are notoriously subjective. We routinely use two reference points to describe wine: (a) the tastes and smells of other things and (b) other wines. The most useful by far is the latter. Is there a wine you had recently that you can use as a reference? What were were the qualities in that wine you particularly favored or disliked? The more reference points you can provide, the more likely it is that I’ll understand what you’re looking for.
Q. Sulfites give me headaches. Do you have wines that are sulfite free?
A. We’re sympathetic to the naturalist approach to winemaking whenever and wherever it’s possible to carry it out (it isn’t always). An important part of the naturalist approach involves minimizing or even eliminating added sulfur. But it’s not clear that for most people sulfites are the cause of headaches. We know this is because since white wines are more susceptible than red wines to the things sulfur is intended to protect against (bacterial spoilage of various kinds; loss of fresh fruit flavors and aromas) they routinely get more heavily dosed than red wines. In spite of this, most people who complain of headaches say they occur after drinking red wine, not white. What’s going on?
One reasonable explanation is that it’s not sulfur that is causing their headaches or flushing. Red wines have a more complicated chemistry than white wines. In fact, the components in red wine are so complicated that scientists have not yet exhaustively teased them out. Any one or group of these compounds could be the culprit, and it may have nothing to do with sulfur. Even if you have an acute sensitivity to sulfur, a no-added sulfur wine may not solve your problem, since sulfites are a natural product of fermentation and all wines contain some.
Reach Stephen Meuse at firstname.lastname@example.org