When I was first approached to do a column on wine for SFR, I was flattered but skeptical. People’s tastes are deeply ingrained, and most people know whether they want some sort of decadent epicurean experience or an easy-drinking standby. Honestly, I try to drink with good judgment but no prejudice—so I believe in both, and I hope in this column to explore the world of wine without fetishizing it.
I like to compare wine to the microbrew movement, which began in the 1970s. It was a modern offshoot of more artisanal, traditional styles of brewing native to Europe, a "return to roots"-style rebellion against large-scale corporate breweries. A few years ago, I worked in the wine department at Whole Foods, and I remembered being inspired there by unique styles of beer that offered a higher quality and a new drinking experience (even if the price point was slightly higher).
It wasn't long before I perceived the same trends in certain wines taken to almost comical extremes. For example, there is no parallel to single vineyard wines in the beer world; I am unaware of a beer that proudly proclaims itself the product of a single field of wheat … although I would totally drink one if there was (even if I'd kind of hate myself for it), so please let me know if that's a thing. Eventually, I wondered why smaller-scale, limited-production styles of wines weren't more popular, or why the shopper with an all-malt Vienna-style lager in his shopping basket wouldn't also want to drink pre-prohibition old-vine American Zinfandel with the same level of curiosity and excitement.
While beer can be a beautiful experience, it doesn't suit every occasion. Sometimes you want to buy a bottle of wine for your friends in a restaurant and toast with them because you haven't seen each other in years. Sometimes you want to bring something special to your family's table because you're feasting together and you need something that deeply complements the kind of food you love deeply, the kind of food you can't find at any other table in the world. Sometimes you want to drink something from the year you were born. Maybe you're wondering how you can pursue quality in wine without being taken advantage of, talked down to, or ripped off.
So here's what to do if you're first starting out: Start out drinking cheap wine (for me that's wine around $15), but maybe don't buy it from a grocery store. Go out of your way to get it from a small retailer, even if that means you'll have to seek it out the way you might have to source good chocolate or good cheese. You'd be surprised at the passion behind a smaller and more eclectic selection. Wines on the shelves of a grocery store are bought based on what the majority of shoppers like to consume. But in a smaller shop, that one dolcetto on the sales floor is the one that, out of many others, really struck a chord with the wine buyer because it tasted the best. There's a singular intention behind it. Maybe you'll even find an advocate in a small local business that strongly supports your tastes.
Drink wine in local restaurants, especially anywhere with owners and staff you appreciate and admire. We have such a casual luxury in Santa Fe: a surplus of men and women with talented and thoughtful palates. If I've trusted a restaurant to craft a meal for me, I trust it to provide me with the wine that matches it. It can get expensive, but a good restaurant will provide you with options that might end up much cheaper than ordering a succession of glasses of wine.
So, in short: Drink wine locally, but don't get too married to the idea of local wines. The impulse that inspires locavores is noble, but historically, wine is built to export. For example, the French court cultivated wines from faraway Burgundy as the English aristocracy sipped on Bordeaux. Today the wines from both regions are totally different because the tastes that shaped them were different. From Champagne to Madeira, the process of exporting a wine can have as much of an impact on its character as the dirt where the vines are grown.
I don't mean to imply that wine is process-driven. But the people who drink wine have as much of an impact on the final product as the people who made it. If there isn't a local demand for good wine, regardless of whether it is produced locally or not, then good wine will not be sold locally. The demand has to exist in order for there to be a supply.
And it will. I'm in favor of empowering people to use knowledge of their tastes to expand their horizons, until eventually everything comes full-circle. Someday in the future, my children will rediscover the virtues (or lack thereof) of mass-market bulk blends and roll their eyes over anyone out of touch enough to drink anything under 15.2 percent ABV.