IT’S A QUESTION that I get asked often enough that you would think I’d have a go-to answer. In truth, I have several, but Well, it gets me drunk, isn’t the answer my mother likes me to give at family reunions. The real answer, my truest one, has been a hard thing to pin down because to me, the answer to “why wine?” is “why not?” A simple question deserves a simple answer, right? But what does that really mean? Well, erm, that’s where my answer gets a little more complicated.
I didn’t grow up with wine—I can’t ever remember a bottle being pulled out at the dinner table. If anything, my parents were teetotaler-ish, and even now, my mother only drinks when I ask her. Surely, mom, this is the wine you’re finally going to like. No, for me, wine was something of a late discovery. Late, at least in that it came after my discovery of cheap beer, cheap vodka and the ubiquitous kitchen-sink party punches that cloud the memories of my last years in college.
My first bottle of wine, that gateway drug, if you will, was a lowly bottle of Cupcake Vineyards’ Red Velvet. Looking back, it must have been a Facebook ad. This was the early twenty-teens before Facebook’s algorithms had become hyperpersonalized and invasive. Whatever the ad copy was, it had worked, and I read through a blog post highlighting a wine that had just been released into the market. Its selling point? That it tasted just like a slice of red-velvet cake. Having been born with a mouthful of sweet teeth, it didn’t take long before I was walking to my corner grocery store, bent on finding this wine. My memory of its taste is a little fuzzy, but I distinctly remember thinking that whoever made it had obviously never had a piece of red-velvet cake.
But still, the question remains: Why wine?
No one gets into wine with the idea to change their outlook on life, but one way or another, it’s bound to happen if you drink enough. In wine circles, it’s common to swap stories of what I like to call our “light-bulb wines”: that first bottle of wine that made us rethink our lives—or rethink everything we thought we knew about wine, at least. For me, it was a bottle of Domaine Serene’s Evenstad Reserve Chardonnay from the 2013 vintage. I drank it while lying in bed binge-watching Netflix and eating hummus straight from the tub, marveling at how, with each sip, the wine became less like a glass of wine and more like roasted nuts glazed in brown butter. I’d never known that a drink could taste like that, let alone a glass of chardonnay. A year later, the 2014 vintage would be named the best white wine in the world, and while it was admittedly incredible, it would never, could never, in my mind, match the 2013 for me.
Certainly, there have been many more bottles throughout my so-called “wine life” that have entrenched me even further into the drink. There have been those ancient wines, whose bottles have been opened only after a thick layer of dust was wiped away: the 1961 Barolo that left me in tears, the 1927 port that almost broke my brain. And there have been the wines whose beauty was in their unique ability to express their terroirs like no other wine on the planet, like the crystalline whites of the Mosel and the mystifying wines of Burgundy.
But through them all, the good wines and the great wines, and even the not-so-good wines, too, I’ve kept coming back for more—enough so that wine has become a career, enough so that my teetotalling mother has finally accepted that her son has made a living off the sauce.
Every time I open a bottle, I’m reminded that people have been making wine since the first human accidentally left a few grapes to ferment in the heat, and though things have gotten a little more high-tech and a lot more flashy, the process remains largely unchanged. There are few industries or products that can say the same—year after year, century after century, each bottle telling the story of one farmer or winemaker and their plot of earth. With wine, every bottle is a paragraph and each vintage a chapter chronicling the lives of wine growers and makers half a world away.
I’m reminded of a visit with Catherine Faller, the owner of France’s Domaine Weinbach, a storied winery, nestled in the foothills of Alsace’s Vosges Mountains. I sat at her kitchen table, in a home that had been constructed in the 17th century. “I hope you’ll enjoy,” she said in a half-asking manner as she poured me a glass of her Cuvee St. Catherine pinot gris ($55). “The grapes are just out there,” she added, pointing over her shoulder out a window. The first vines were planted in that vineyard in the 9th century, and here I was, over a thousand years later, enjoying the same product from the exact same patch of earth. The wine was full of fruit, like the Garden of Eden trapped under cork, but still, there’s the intangible taste of drinking in history, of a direct connection to a time when our modern world was beyond imagination. And now, each time I have that wine again, I’m able to at least attempt to share that connection with those around me. In what other product does our human history become so manifest and so tangible?
Yet, the question still remains: Why wine? The answer is wine because, for those who want to dig further into what’s in their glass, there is an entire world to discover. Wine because in a vessel as small as a wine stem, there’s a drink that, in the midst of a world that drags us inexorably forward, is unabashedly linked to the past. Wine because just as it has been for all of human history, the sun will always shine, and grapes will always grow, and man will always try to bottle the world under cork.