There may be a bit of a wine snob in all of us, it inspires a false sense of superiority.
If you know wine, it is easy to view those who don’t with contempt. If you know what you like, it is easy to view wine snobs with contempt. If you choose a wine because you like the way it sounds, you’re obvious and everyone views you with contempt.
When I worked with dogs, a colleague made the observation that when a dog wins “Best in Show” at the Westminster Kennel Club it damages the breed. When a breed wins more than once in a decade, it destroys the breed. The idea was once a breed becomes popular every Tom, Dick, and Billy-Bob starts breeding them in their garages. The resulting dogs are inbred and even cross-bred, and the purebred features of the dog are lost.
The snobbery part can be seen in music. You all know that guy who has to be the first to hear a band, and then when other people start listening, he’s moved on and your interest in the band is passe. Yes, I’ve seen one hit wonders overplayed, and bands that worked years to get one album with their best work together, but most bands improve over time, touring is great practice. It’s only when they’re pushed to release work that’s not ready that bands get worse.
Wine works the same ways. Zinfandel is a wonderful grape, and Sutter Home in California made an intense Zinfandel back in the 1970s. The way they concentrated the wine was by using the saignée method, in which some juice is bled off before fermentation, giving the remaining juice more contact with the skins. The juice that was bled off became “White Zinfandel”. A vintage of white zinfandel had a bad or “stuck” fermentation, leaving it sweet. Some spawn of satan vintner preferred this version, and within years “Zin” was a white wine, very few even remembered it was a red grape. It became so popular and over produced the product suffered. While rosé wines are beautiful white renderings from red grapes, saignée wines are only poor copies, and I don’t care for sweet wines anyway.
Merlot suffered a similar death, one colleague at the winery opined it was because people liked the way it sounded. “Mare low”, said slowly, with lips staying in a circle long after the word is finished. The grape itself is a mainstay of Bordeaux, depending on harvest style it can either feature acidity or tannin, making it perfect for use in blends. As a varietal, Merlot can have any number of presentations, most usually a low tannin earthy wine. How it turns out depends on the vineyard more than the grape.
There is nothing special about wine as a beverage. There is nothing special about painting as an art-form. Their merits rest in the subjective experience of the beholder.
There are a number of traditions associated with wine. They each have a purpose, and are a tool in separating wine snob from wine snob poseurs.
Corks. The purpose of a cork is to seal the bottle. Oxygen is the enemy of wine (remember that, there’s a test later). Cork expands when wet, so a bottle stored on its side keeps the cork moist, and the bottle sealed. Cork is a natural product, and with the increase of wine consumption it has become scare and costly. Rubber and plastic corks seal regardless of whether they’re moist or not, so you can store the bottle upright without worrying the cork will dry out. Synthetic corks can be a pain to drive a screw through, so twist tops are an even better solution. They lack elegance, but they do the job well enough that Coca Cola bottles one billion bottles with screw caps every day.
Storage seals. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t finish a bottle of wine in one sitting, you’ll want to close the bottle. Stuffing the cork back in doesn’t always work, and considering that you want to keep oxygen away from the wine overnight, there are a couple of ways to purge the bottle. The first I saw was canned nitrogen, which could be sprayed into the bottle before it is re-corked. The method I use is a vacuum cork, a rubber one way valve that fits in the bottle, to which you apply a hand pump to create a vacuum in the bottle.
Cork Screws. While I’m on the subject, let’s cover the physics of removing a cork. If you’re using an archimedian screw, you’re working against yourself.
This screw winds into the cork, causing it to expand and thus press against the sides of the neck, making it more difficult to remove. If the cork is old, you can end up boring a hole in the cork. A worm, preferably teflon coated, winds into the cork, grasping it. The prong type takes a little practice, and I’ve pushed a few corks down into the bottle with them, but they work cleanly on cork or synthetic.
Temperature. Temperature hides certain aspects, so white wine is typically at its best cool. Red wine is appreciated for the qualities that disappear when cooled, so reds are typically served at room temperature. Those are the rules. If you are drinking uncle Tony’s wine that he makes in the cellar, go right ahead with the ice cubes, it will probably be better cold and watered down.
Red with meat, White with fish. Wine is food. Yes there are general guidelines, but if we never tried new combinations we’d still be eating raw antelope. Just as different people prefer different foods, different people prefer different wines, and the combinations will vary. Broccoli rabe may overwhelm a sauvignon blanc or even a chateauneuf de pape. Which foods you pair with which wine is a personal taste.
Decanters. Before there were filters, wine would develop sediment in the bottle. In order to prevent this sediment from making the trip into your glass and onto your tongue, you might decant the wine, typically into a bottle with a wide flat base. This allowed the sediment to stay in the decanter. Today, they allow the wine to oxidize.
Letting a wine “breathe”. Speaking of oxidation, lately I have seen aerators for wine. these impart oxygen to wine, what we used to call “letting the wine breathe”. If you are serving a wine heavy in tannins, you might want to expose it to oxygen to reduce the astringency. You might also ask yourself why you bought an expensive bottle of wine and drank it before it aged properly. Tannins are the molecules in wine that absorb oxygen and allow the wine to age.
So here’s the test.
I’ll post answers in the comments section in a few days, or after someone gets it right, whichever comes first.
1) What is the enemy of wine? (Bonus points for why you might want to go to all the trouble of keeping the wine safe, and then expose it to the enemy at the last moment).
2) In the film “Sideways”, Miles, who railed against a certain varietal during the film, had a cherished bottle, a 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc from St. Emilion. What was the varietal? (Bonus points for the grapes that are blended in Chateau Cheval Blanc)
The wine doesn’t make the occasion special, the occasion makes the wine special.