If some Rip Van Wine Winkle from an earlier era, say, the 1960s (never mind the 1920s), suddenly woke up and looked around at wine today, he would be astonished.
Of course he would be gobsmacked, as the Brits say, at the sheer number and variety of wines on offer. A modern restaurant wine list would very nearly be incomprehensible to old Rip. (Hell, some of these lists are very nearly incomprehensible to us.) Ditto for the offerings on retail shelves. And not least, our pal Rip would be agog at the multi-lingual (and culturally diverse) Babel of wine discussion around the world, thanks to the Internet.
But after absorbing all of that, Rip Van Wine Winkle would experience a revelation: What happened to the wine romance? He would find much of the modern discussion of wine to be curiously sterile, even forensic. Everything seemingly would be analytic, dissective and freighted with scientific-isms, such as "phenolic."
"What happened to the romance?" he would ask, baffled and very likely even dismayed. Good question, Rip. The old wine romance, you see, is gone. Or is it?
This very question occurred to me upon watching a recent (2015) wine documentary, Somm: Into the Bottle, directed and co-written by the same person, Jason Wise, who wrote and directed an earlier (2012), related documentary simply titled Somm.
That latter movie followed the efforts of four young guys striving, with manic, fanatic energy, to acquire the credential of Master Sommelier. Nothing about Somm gave you the least inkling as to why these nudniks would want to devote seemingly all their waking hours to such a pursuit. One got the impression that, like frat boys deciding after a drunken weekend to take off for a trip to Tierra del Fuego, they would do it because, well, it was there.
Precisely because of that very shallowness, Somm and its protagonists came across as unrewarding. Why would anybody bother with wine, let alone to such a degree, literally and figuratively? Good question.
The answer, it turns out, arrives in the sequel, Somm: Into the Bottle. The same four guys reappear, with varying degrees of exposure. All of them have matured, in every sense. Once boys, or so they seemed, now they are men. They are thoughtful, balanced and above all, substantive. But, interestingly, they are not the follow-up focus of the film. Indeed, if they weren't present, you wouldn’t miss them.
Instead, the sequel is about wine itself. And what is truly amazing is how romantic—that's the only word—this new documentary turns out to be. Really, I haven't heard wine discussed this way in decades, like hearing a modern composer channeling Chopin.
Could it really be true? Is romance returning to wine? You may well laugh, concluding that such a question is just so much hyperbole. But believe me, I'm serious. It's been a long, long time since anyone has discussed, seriously and at length, the sheer “wonder of wine.” (That, by the way, was the non-ironic title of a wine book published in 1968 by the Bordeaux shipper Edouard Kressman.)
To say that we have lost sight of this wonder of wine would be understating the matter considerably. Wine scientists have vocally and aggressively denigrated the very notion as magical, even medieval, thinking. Cynics of various stripes—journalists, winemakers, wine business sorts—have dismissed the "wonder of wine" as just so much lubricant, useful for sales but hardly fit for polite wine company.
Yet Somm: Into the Bottle presents wine and its multifaceted beauty with just such a romantic vocabulary, both visual and verbal, and the effect is like pure oxygen.
For example, one leisurely moment in the movie dwells on the affection, even love, that various European wine producers in possession of old stone cellars have for the molds and fungi that grow on the walls and wine bottles in their ancient, humidity-drenched stone caverns.
These producers explain why these molds and fungi, some of them resembling a thick black wool that can envelop each bottle, are so important. They filter the air, we're told. (Which is true.) The wine producers are shown stroking these fascinating growths like a favorite house cat. A modern local health department would likely shut them down in a heartbeat.
Yet these producers know better. And they're right. I've seen many such cellars and, yes, they are a wonder to behold. (Go to the centuries-old cellars in Hungary's Tokaj region if you really want to see fabulous examples.)
When was the last time you saw or heard wine talked about this way? When was the last time that you heard or read about the seemingly inexplicable mystery of great wines without someone immediately and snidely debunking the idea of terroir as just so much marketing or myth?
It's all romance, we're told. OK, fine, it's romance. But so too is standing in a grove of massive, ancient sequoia trees and trying, vainly, to comprehend the immensity and antiquity of such life forms. Is that romantic? If it is, well then, what's wrong with that? If nothing else, it's a legitimate way to appreciate the beauty of the world we live in without insisting that everything must somehow be rationally explained—and therefore justified.
I've previously observed: "Today’s wine newbies need something now in short supply: a sense of the marvel of fine wine. If there is no magic of place, tell me: Where, then, do great wines come from?
"To marvel about fine wine," I continued, "is not to romanticize it, but to grasp its real meaning. Fine wine, like birdsong, is fundamentally wild."
Nothing has made me change my mind. Quite the opposite. We need the romance of wine today more than ever before. Did it ever leave? Not to me it hasn't—and I devoutly hope not for you either.