By Richard A. Baxter, MD
You may have noticed a recent trend to dumb down the process of choosing wine, even as the number of options increases. Wine selection can be baffling. Retailers and restaurants hope to de-mystify the process by organizing the offerings according to style rather than by varietal or region.
It’s all well-intended and no doubt helpful for many. If it serves to encourage people to take an interest in wine and to discover new wines, nothing to argue with there. But to wine importer Terry Theise, author of the paean to German Riesling, Reading Between the Wines, wine needs to be “re-mystified.” He wants us to rediscover the transcendent qualities of wine as a living thing that connects us across time and place to its source. So what if it’s complicated? It’s worth the effort.
De-mystifying wine may seem like a new sales strategy, but I think it actually started a long time ago. Interestingly, it may have been the incomprehensible way German wines are labeled that sparked the idea. German wine producers, looking to expand their market, recognized that wine could be made according to easily recognizable styles, rather than be defined by place of origin, producer, or grape varietal. The answer was a blended wine they called “Liebfraumilch,” or “Beloved Lady’s milk” in reference to the Virgin Mary. It was a semi-sweet and simple wine, and would become widely distributed under the Blue Nun brand.
There’s no question that we need affordable, everyday wines as much as we need evocative, even inspirational ones. The good news is that while top-tier wines have become unaffordable, bulk wines have gotten better. The search for the wine that holds us in rapture, one that expands the merely sensory experience into other dimensions, is still a worthwhile pursuit.
It may be a wine you discovered on a wine country vacation that transports you back. I can picture the summer lavender-laced vineyards of a particular Washington State viognier with the first sip, and the minerality of Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape carries me to a warm October afternoon in Provence. For Theise, his beloved Reislings evoke wistful memories of afternoons in the Rhine with the growers. It’s these associations that enliven wine as much as the complexity of flavors and textures.
But if you are just picking up a bottle for a weeknight dinner, that’s a bit over the top. And since much of the mystique of old-school wines comes from bottle aging, unless you have a cellar the options are limited. The subtlety at the essence of awe-inspiring wines can’t be conjured up like a genie; it takes time. The new sales strategy understands that few people have the means, interest, or long-term approach to buying wine to care about mystique. That’s why I think wines like Trader Joe’s “Two Buck Chuck” (a direct descendant of Blue Nun, by the way) won’t go away anytime soon. As far as I’m concerned, wine is still plenty mysterious.
Richard A. Baxter, MD, is a plastic surgeon in Seattle and the author of Age Gets Better with Wine. His column, “The Doctor’s Glass,” will appear in each issue of Plastic Surgery Practice. Dr Baxter can be reached via [email protected].