f it’s true that people can be divided into two categories: those who want to solve life’s mysteries and those who want to be drawn further into them, then I am in the latter category. The “mystery of wine” fascinates me, particularly the mystery of Italian wine. I love the fact even the top scientists at the University of California-Davis and the University of Bordeaux can’t fully explain why a wine tastes as it does or why I like one wine more than another on a given day.
First comes the mystery of “wine alchemy.” It may be true that a given grape variety, planted in a certain place, and raised and made into wine in specific ways, will yield a wine with certain characteristics. But no one has yet determined the precise effect of any one factor or in what exact way the factors interact. There are a lot of variables: the contours of the land, the soil type, the angle of the sun, the direction and speed of the wind, the timing and amount of rainfall, the grape type, the age of the vine, the growing system, the pruning, the date of harvest, the pressing of the grapes, the time the wine spends “on the skins,” the yeasts used for fermentation, the time and temperature of fermentation, the containers, the aging… and so on.
Some of these factors concern the swings of weather. Some are related to features of the land and the soil. Some have to do with decisions made by the winemaker. Trying to map them all out is akin to trying to find a scientific explanation for how two people fall in love. Nobody can do it. The mystery remains.
Each bottle of wine carries with it an imprinting of all that has gone before, not just in the cycle of that year’s harvest, but the way the land has been shaped for eons before, the roots of vines deep in the soil, and what the vintner learned from watching a grandparent day-after-day in the vineyard and in the cellar. This is particularly true of small, artisanal producers in Italy.
In a given area, such as Barolo in Piedmont, if the same nebbiolo grapes are planted 50 meters apart by two different winemakers the results can be shockingly different — which means that to know Italian wine well means also knowing individual producers in each region, since no two Chiantis or Amarones are ever the same.
There is also the mystery of how a wine tastes to me, where my mind drifts with the first sip, what thoughts and emotions the wine conjures up. It’s a deeply individual experience. Tasting Italian wine can bring back a place in time, the way a familiar tune by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens or James Taylor can restore memories of high school and college.
A taste of crisp, cold Forlini Capellini Cinque Terre revives the fun of sharing a fritto misto with friends on a roasting hot day… all of us in bathing suits still damp from swimming in the sea. A delicious mouthful of Quintarelli Valpolicella reminds me instead of a midwinter dinner, pasta con sugo and una tagliata di manzo, consumed with friends and acquaintances at huge old farm table while a crazy blizzard roared outside.
I recoil at the idea of assigning scores to wines in the same way it seems twisted to me to “score” my friendships. I have different kinds of friends: childhood friends, college friends, friends I go to yoga with, friends I like to travel with, friends I met when raising my children, friends I’ve found in Italy, and among all of those, a few, treasured “soulmate” friends with whom I can share my most intimate thoughts. I don’t have a “favorite” or a “98 point” friend. I know each of them in a certain way and in a certain context.
I won’t like or be friends with everybody I meet, nor will I like every wine I come across. Some attract me more than others. Those wines become my “friends.” Those are the wines I want to know more about, where they came from, what the land is like; how the grapes were planted; who made them and how; what their story is.
And then, their story becomes part of my story as I drink the wine, know the vintners, share the wine with friends, and tell the story to others. With wine and with people, the “mystery” of how they are and who they are unfolds slowly but is never resolved. It gets deeper and deeper, richer and richer, more and more interesting.