Ever prescient, we thought it would be fun to share this essay our own Alexandra Fondren, Account Supervisor and Director of Media Strategy wrote years before she entered the wine world. A quick study and a mad palate, this gal has talent in spades. We found it a great read and hope you share our enthusiasm.
Before I ever knew that one could have an actual career in wine beyond production, wine was my favorite hobby. Too young and broke to be familiar with the five first growths, the entire category of Barolo, or the fact that, to some people, DRC did not refer to a county in Africa - to me, wine had somehow always served as a social (and socioeconomic) equalizer. Looking back, I realize how naive that seems - and yet, it wasn't naive at all. I wasn't hanging out with people who cared about designer wine, but with people who cared instead about the pure discovery of wine. And it was - and remains - one of life's genuine thrills for me. I didn't (and still don't really) care too deeply about the price, reputation and/or technicalities behind a wine if its aromas, flavors and textures are sensually transportive. Writer Jay McInerney recently said that he didn't really understand malolactic fermentation for years after he started writing about wine, and - to me - he remains one of the most interesting scribes in his peer group.
This essay represents my first flirtation with the wine industry. It was actually an application for a fellowship offered by Francis Ford Coppola to writers wanting to transition into wine journalism. Ultimately, I made it to the final round but didn't get the offer, so I instead went to grad school as planned to study international relations. Somehow I found my way back to wine a couple of years after, and that time it stuck. I stumbled upon this essay in my files recently, and though I usually cringe at the kind of neatly-wrapped tropes I fell into here, it was still kind of sweet to revisit. I hope it serves to evoke the burgeoning wine-lover in you as it did for me, while rekindling the spirit of what brought us all here in the first place.
July 1, 2008
Wine is...Cultural Experience
A couple summers ago, on an archaeology dig outside of Lucca, Italy, I learned the
important difference between facts and experience. Anyone can memorize the academic
papers on The Iliad, see what one scholar can regurgitate about a certain translation, and
then argue for the merits of that particular translation over another (a real topic of dinner
discussion among my humorless companions). I find this to be a dry and tedious way of
making friends, and I would much prefer curling up next to a fire and wrestling my way
through the epic myself. But not when I only have six weeks in Italy! I had come all that
way to experience true Italian culture, not to be quizzed on my Latin over breakfast.
Which is why, when some lively Welsh toilet-paper factory workers asked if I’d like to
join them for a drink at our hotel’s rustic wine bar instead of yet another night of
“scholarly discussion” in the dining room, I happily agreed.
As I got to know these factory workers, and the charismatic Italian bartender, I realized I
was having a far richer experience than my cloistered peers. And as the bartender got to
know and like us, he brought out better and better wines. Before I knew it, we were
discussing the particular merits of each wine, something the factory workers and I had very little experience talking about. With the bartender’s guidance, our wine
vocabularies improved, along with our palates, and something unexpected happened; I became a novice oenophile. And there I was, a scholar, passionately discussing the subtleties of the sangiovese grape with guys that make toilet paper for a living; discovering that their comments were just as valid and interesting as mine.
Wine is like that, it brings the most unlikely people together. Over a good bottle of wine,
cultural barriers melt away and strangers quickly become friends. I discovered more that summer in the bar than I did in the field. Unlike my team, however, I left Lucca wholly satisfied with my experience. My peers failed to recognize the virtue in an open mind. Indeed, orientation to a new situation can be rather disorienting. I have experienced enough of them to understand that my dig companions’ willingness to speak only on that which they felt expert was probably just their masked cultural anxiety. If only they had
tried the Chianti.
My Welsh friends still bemoan the fact that my return home allowed the imposition of
my budding vino habit onto another major wine-producing region of the world. My
happiest memories have thus involved long weekends with friends, tasting my way
through California’s Central Coast and meeting the inspiring winemakers who dedicate
their lives to tending their vines. They opened up their vineyards and demonstrated how
wine can be more than just a drink, but an entire lifestyle. I have found that people
ensconced in wine culture tend to be as complex and earthy as their wine. Yet every so
often, I come across a similar sort of self-important posturing I encountered amongst my
peers on the dig.
I suppose the nature of wine culture lends itself to occasional snobbery. After all, it can
become a very expensive habit and some people just have more naturally discerning
palates. This, however, is no excuse to denigrate fellow sippers with affected eye-rolls at their earnest questions. I’m not sure what irks me more about pretentious wine drinkers: their air of superiority over those who do not understand malolactic fermentation, or the fact that they are missing out on the real experience of wine appreciation. Because when I hear that cork pop, I’m not thinking about the polyphenolic compounds in the bottle, I’m thinking about how fortunate I am to be sharing liquid gold with friends who will only become dearer with every sip. The ironic thing about pretentious wine drinkers is that they isolate themselves from the very culture they claim to know. Just like my fellow archaeology students, they may know all the facts, but they miss out on the experience.
Wine is experience. It is impossible to understand the most salient features of wine from
a guidebook. It must be seen, smelled and tasted. To put more emphasis on all the
minutiae surrounding it misses the point. I have found that the most knowledgeable wine
connoisseurs are often most likely to ask what others think when sampling a new vintage.
They know that the experience of wine is simply about sharing, learning and enjoying.
To do this is to participate in a rewarding, global culture, where the only requirements are
a passionate curiosity and an empty glass. Cheers!