First-time visitors to Central Bottle in Cambridge, Massachusetts are generally charmed by its appealing design and handsome, understated furnishings. I can tell you it’s a pleasure to spend a workday in its light, cheerful space. The near-absence of signage leaves some shoppers a little disoriented, though. “How are the wines organized here?” is a frequent question.
I point out the various areas and note, with some delight, that the wines on the Italian wall and the French wall are arranged to correspond to their real-world, geographic relations. That is, bottles from northernmost vineyards are arrayed on the top shelf of the wall; those from southern tiers along the bottom. The middle is filled in by applying similar logic. It makes perfect sense — although I have to admit that I don’t know any other wine shop that does things this way.
In plenty of places Italian wines are jumbled together in one area, in a kind of mash-up. Then they hang a big sign over the area that says “Italy.” France and Germany get the same treatment. Others shun the nation-state system in favor of a varietal approach. In these places, you wander from chardonnay to malbec to cabernet.
Still others set a regional tack. In these outlets, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany, and the Mosel inhabit their discrete domains. Some retailers have sections devoted to wines made from organic grapes or wines that are low in sulfites. Wines with high Parker or Wine Spectator scores are occasionally given special accommodation. Sparklers are normally segregated, as are stickies, half-bottles, and magnums.
It’s not just wine shops that have to wrangle with the organization enigma. Restaurant wine lists have to deal with it, too. Here, you’re likely to encounter the same range of alternatives (country, region, variety, color), but sometimes there are interesting twists. I first encountered an approach designed to facilitate food and wine pairing at Les Zygomates in the 1990’s when Lorenzo Savona organized his list under categories like “big, bold reds,” and “crisp, dry whites.”
While this approach is relatively common today, it can still raise an eyebrow – especially when the categories aren’t what you’d call self-explanatory.
At Kenmore Square’s Island Creek Oyster Bar, the wine list names “Rusty Whites,” which seems clear enough, alongside “Deep Roots,” which is a little harder to get a handle on (old vines? old vineyards? elderly winemakers?). At Central Bottle’s sister establishment, Belly Wine Bar at 1 Kendall Square, owner and somm queen Liz Vilardi’s prodigious imagination is frequently seen off the leash. Categories on her current list include the vampy “Vitamin Pink” and the not-for-the-risk-averse “We Dare You.”
“How are the wines organized here?” is a frequent question.
In some sort of feedback loop, at least one wineshop known to me (The Urban Grape) has adapted the trick for retail and arranged its shelves to create a progression from light to heavier wines, with the more muscular types farther from the door — possibly to discourage them from making a break for it. As an arrangement, it doesn’t depend on so much on discrete categories as on a gradual shading of temperament.
The way we organize wine in shops and restos is one thing, the way we organize them conceptually and rhetorically is another entirely. In our heads there are almost too many categories of wine to track.
For example so-called natural wines constitute an important category today, even though it’s not really clear what these are or how we go about including or excluding candidates for the descriptor. I think the category is a legitimate one, but I’ve had to create sub-species to distinguish among the variations – not to say factions — that have emerged within its ranks. I think of some in the movement as idealists, others as folklorists, primitivists, or cosmics. No doubt other shadings exist and only await a nomenclature.
But hang on a bit. There’s lots more. The technological, terroir, traditional, and international wines, for a start. Authentic wines are a category, too, to judge from the literature, not to mention Parkerized wines, celebrity wines, and the New Californians. There are organically and biodynamically-farmed wines from properties which are certified by some authority. Or not. “Wild yeast-fermented” seems important enough to constitute a category.
Say, have you got any vegan-friendly wines? Orange wines? Wines made in clay pots? How about high-latitude chardonnays? Reds that love a chill? Fireside companions? Glou-glou? In my days as wine columnist for the Boston Globe, I was once asked by an editor to write a story on “After-beach whites.”
In our heads there are almost too many categories of wine to track.
Even in Les Zyg’s clever taxonomy the identity of each wine was front and center. How gobsmacked were we, then, at a visit to the then week-old restaurant Ribelle in Brookline when we saw that Teresa Paopao had furnished her list with descriptions (“light and pretty, delicate acidity, back-n-forth flavors of citrus-n-mineral”), but never revealed the identities of the wines described? That’s right, unless you press the server for the information or twist your neck around to get a peek at the label while she’s pouring it, you don’t actually know what you’re drinking.
In the Ribelle system, every wine seems to be a category in its own right, different in some however small way from every other wine on the list and, presumably, in the world. Seen from one point of this does away with the classification problem entirely – by just ignoring it. Maybe this is how it should be.
A key element of wine talk these days is the enduring, unchanging character of the land. It thrills us to learn that a family, like that of Marc Kreydenweiss in Andlau, Alsace, has been farming some of the same parcels (and living in the same house!) since the 16th century. The land stands still, and some families stay put, but both winemaking and wine consuming remain restlessly busy activities.
And as long as they do, you’ll have to forgive me if after pouring something for you at the tasting table, I pause long and thoughtfully over the innocent question: “What kind of wine is this?”
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