I should warn you, this post might get a little philosophical.  I promise I won’t get misty or woo woo, but if you see words like “transcend” or “Gestalt” or “Platonic”[1] here, well, you’ve been warned.

Among alcoholic drinks, wine plays an interesting social part, because for all its alcoholic qualities, it is considered bad form to get really drunk on wine.  Now, mark me, I’m not an idiot, and I’ve seen all the Italian plays with the stumbling drunk with his jug of wine,[2] and I won’t be shocked when someone takes me aside and defines the term ‘Wino’ to me; but turn down the volume[3] and hear me out.  Think of the Ur image of someone drinking beer.  They’re in college, they’re loud, and they’ve already had six or seven.[4] Whiskey happens at a bar, and the drinker is angry about something.  Cocktails?  Also at a bar, and someone is trying to get someone else drunk for one reason or another.[5] I won’t make an extensive list, but the gestaltiness[6] I want to illuminate is that alcoholic drinks exist in our minds primarily as means to get hammered.

All of them except wine.  The image of wine in our minds[7] is of a glass at dinner.  Even if the practice is three or four glasses, and I’ve had my share of unsavory moments of wine inspired tipsiness, what we remember is that thoughtful moment savoring that elusive burnt toast note we’ve been chasing.  What I mean to say here is that wine transcends[8] the cast of a simple alcoholic beverage, and is really much more about the thoughts, the emotions, and the memories you connect with it.  In order to get the Platonic[9] experience of wine, it’s actually bad to get too drunk.  Vodka is about proof.  Beer is about the six pack.  Everclear is… is about something.[10]

Wine drinkers sneer if the alcohol is too high; and they do that because wine is fundamentally about moderation.  This sense of balance begins in the vineyard.  Growing grapes is tricky work, because you never want the most fertile land.  Left to their own in verdant valleys, vines will pump out giant amounts of[11] totally boring water balloons.  Grape growers look for the land that will stress the vines in just the right way that they reach sugar ripeness and “phenolic[12]” ripeness at the same time, which means constant chopping of leaves, or training of vines, or dropping fruit on the ground.  Winemakers in the winery need to stay up 20 hours a day during harvest to make sure fermentation proceeds slow enough to develop the flavors but fast enough to avoid the dreaded “stuck ferment”.[13] After harvest, the winemaker wants to put her red wine in oak barrels of various ages from carefully selected forests to impart just the right amount of oak influence so the fruit flavors won’t be overwhelmed.  Then they should age until the flavors harmonize, mature and integrate.

Every part of the life of wine is about balance.  The last bit is about paying attention to your meal, staying aware of the senses of the moment and the people you’re with.  Isn’t it ironic that we can get all that from a little mashed fruit left to go bad in the heat?[14]

[1] Don’t worry, I’ll only use these words in a highly ironic and self-referential way, and for the legion of grammarians I seem to attract/have gone to college with/be the child of, I promise to use irony correctly.

[2] Seen, heard of, assumed that a bunch of them exist because I read about one, these are roughly the same thing.

[3] One of my favorite phrases when talking about heavy things like religion, politics, and philosophy.  Thank you, Professor Bregman.

[4] In Portland, where We Do Beer, I constantly recall the Craft Brewer’s Festival of midsummer.  Every conversation you have in that temporary beer garden is interrupted every five minutes by some guy letting out a sustained “ooooOOHHHHHHHHH”, which lasts until the other five hundred people in the tent have joined in the, um… Is it a toast?  To plasterdness?

[5] For example, James Bond at an exclusive party trying to pump someone.  For information, get your mind out of the gutter.

[6] Good move down low, And one!

[7] I’m using my standard model where I/me/my = we/us/our.

[8] “From Downtown… Nothing but net!”

[9] He’s unconscious!

[10] Suicide.

[11] Gallo Chablis

[12] Or Physiological ripeness.  This is the softening of the tannins, the development of the flavors of the grape, (maturation of the phenols, you might say).  Think of it this way.  A twenty-five year old guy might be six feet tall and a hundred eighty pounds.  That means his sugars are ripe, but he hasn’t reached Phenolic ripeness until he’s holding down a steady job and an apartment.

[13] This is when the yeast all die before they finish eating the sugar.  Tossing in more yeast can screw up the wine, and stuck ferments can stay stuck for months.  It’s basically the worst thing that can happen to a winemaker other than falling into a deep ferment bin full of fermenting grapes and CO2 while doing punchdowns in an empty winery, which is an embarrassing way to die.

[14] I lied.

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