I don’t like Chardonnay. More specifically, I don’t like oaky, buttery Chardonnay. It’s the malolactic fermentation, the lingering buttery mouth-feel that gets me. It reminds me of a crappy gas station donut, the film that’s left on the roof of your mouth after you eat it. I can absolutely taste a Chardonnay that’s been oaked and tell you it’s Chardonnay. That’s not hard. But I swear I’m getting to the point where I can smell a wine and tell you it’s Chardonnay.
Which is why I was thrilled when I found myself at a deductive wine tasting class last week and took one whiff of White Wine #2, thought it was Chardonnay and that feeling was confirmed 20 minutes later when we deduced the color, flavor, and mouth feel indicated Chardonnay.
I’m taking little steps toward building my wine knowledge. A class here, a tasting there. Reading books about Kermit Lynch, Robert Mondavi, the entire region of Champagne. And drinking new and interesting wines. Taking a chance on the wine guy at my neighborhood liquor store, trusting him to recommend a bottle of red wine based on my predilection for Spanish reds. And balancing these new wine experiences with bottles I know I like to drink – Pine Ridge Viognier-Chenin Blanc, Bodegas Atalaya Laya Garnacha-Tintorera-Monastrell, Gruet Brut Rosé.
Because, when it comes down to it, all the science, magic, and artistry that goes into making wine doesn’t mean shit if you don’t like to drink it.
Which is why I hate when people take wine to seriously. It’s beverage. Some should be consumed with food, some without. Yes, there are good pairings – the bright, fruity characteristics and high acidity of Chianti cuts through the rich, heavy flavors of roasted lamb. But if you don’t like Chianti, don’t drink fucking Chianti.
The people who take wine too seriously ruin it for me. I recently re-watched the documentary Somm on Netflix and wanted to punch these guys in the face. I get it, these guys have a goal – to become a Master Sommelier. And that’s hard. Ridiculously hard. Hundreds of people go to a Master Somm exam weekend and maybe 5 pass the exam and earn the title. So these guys aren’t messing around and that I respect. But are they actually enjoying the wines they’re drinking? When you get that intelligent about the history of wine, the science of winemaking, the geography and varied climates of winemaking regions can you even enjoy the product anymore?
And maybe these guys are decent guys. Maybe they are able to turn it off and go to a party and enjoy whatever is poured for them, enjoy the company around them, the ambience of the venue. But the image portrayed in this documentary is that of a bunch of douchey, mostly white bros who have way too much time on their hands.
When I moved onto the sequel documentary, Somm: Into the Bottle, I felt more of the same. A bunch of mostly white men talking about wine and some of them, expressing themselves quite poorly. There are a few things on which I absolutely agree with them: when in doubt on a wine/food pairing go with Champagne and Robert Parker’s point system is bullshit. But I just want to punch these guys. Maybe some of it is jealousy; they’re doing a job I would love and they’ve reached a pinnacle in their career that I only dream of. However, some of it is absolute frustration over the fact that they’re almost all white men.
Part of that is the fault of the documentary crew. They sought out and interviewed very specific people for these films. But a lot of that is the fault of the industry. You find a lot of white men making wine out in Napa Valley. Why? Because in the ‘60s when land was available, it was white guys who had the money, the privilege to quit their jobs and buy a plot of land and take a gamble on making some wine. And if they failed, they still had their law degree or MBA to fall back on. And now? The only way you’re getting a plot of land in Northern California to grow grapes and make wine is if you’re a millionaire. But this pattern is replicated across the United States. The people who can afford the risk of wine making are mostly white men.
And this pattern is replicated in sommelier culture: the people who can afford the time and energy and money to learn everything about wine, to pass the Master Sommelier exam, which costs $1,500 and which you can only take after you’ve successfully passed three pre-requisite exams that cost a total of $1,845. And they’re only offered in certain cities in America, so you have to buy a plane ticket and pay for a hotel room. Do you have an extra $3,345 lying around for exam fees? Plus the hundreds and hundreds of dollars you’re going to spend on books to learn all the material and wine to taste in preparation?
I’m trying, little by little, to chip away at bourgeoisie wine culture. Because wine shouldn’t just be for the elite. It shouldn’t just be for white dudes with money. Historically, wine was consumed by everyone – the wealthy leaders of the Catholic Church who owned large vineyards and the peasants who actually worked on those vineyards. And it should be that way again.