“It’s made by fermenting grapes” my friend Craig once told me, rummaging through his ‘fridge for the right bottle, “and grapes are food. Wine is not distilled like whiskey or vodka. Therefore it is food!”
It’s hard to argue with the pure logic of a sommelier, so I didn’t. Then, with the skill of a great showman he uncorked a white Burgundy, fills the bottom third of two narrow-tapered, long-stem glasses and hands one to me. I raise it to my lips.
“No! Not yet! It’s too cold! It’s not beer, you know! Cup it in your palms… let your hands warm it up a little.”
I do and gradually the sweet complexity of Chardonnay and Semillon grapes, vanilla and oak enhances my every inhalation. Craig twirls his glass before a flickering candle.
“Opulent and golden,” he says, “outstanding clarity and great legs… I like that!”
We toast, raise our glasses to our lips and taste, very slowly, not swallowing until its essence has caressed all of our taste buds and filled our consciousness. Yes, folks; this truly is the drink of the gods. And while consuming any alcohol has drawbacks, there are also some documented health benefits associated with wine. So if you are in good general health, there is no reason you can’t enjoy some tonight.
Of course not all wines are created equal. The variation in price and quality is huge and unequalled by any other consumable I can think of. The key is to proceed with awareness.
I see the wine world as divided into two camps. In one corner, weighing in with a massive advertising budget and an international distribution system, we have “industrial strength” wines. You know the names, Mondavi, Beringer, Sterling, Kendal Jackson, Almaden, Inglenook, Turning Leaf, Yellowtail, and many more.
These wine producers have more in common with your local Coca-Cola bottler then they do with traditional wine makers. They buy the cheapest grapes from the biggest vineyards and load up their product with sulfites, a preservative that ensures a long shelf life and can cause some of the worst headaches you will ever experience. Not good. They have also led the parade to replace traditional cork with screw caps, a practice shamelessly promoted by Wine Spectator and other media heavyweights, where these producers dump huge portions of their advertising budgets.
And in the other corner we have the underdog: clean wines produced by smaller vintners, who grow their own grapes and use traditional techniques. This is where I live. And while all wines have naturally occurring sulfites, producers of clean wines add little, if any, to their product. The result is a glorious, headache-free companion to any fine meal.
Right now, we are enjoying some great low-to-mid priced wines from Argentina. Retailing in the $10 to $15 range, every label I’ve tried from the Catena Valley has been exceptional on the palette and easy on the wallet. They are rightly known for their superb Malbecs, one of my favorite reds, which occupies that magic space between a big-nose Cabernet and a mellower Merlot. And it seems to be a big secret, but their Chardonnay is a near perfect blend of buttery smoothness and cleansing crispness. You can taste the rain, the sun, the soil and the grape in this rich and satisfying wine. It’s a far cry the “designed in the lab” taste offered from so many California producers. And… no headaches! This is clean, clean, clean wine!
Italy exports some amazingly good wine too. I love the Tuscans and the Super Tuscans, but they tend to get pricey. Known mostly for sweet desert wines, I have discovered some great Chardonnays from Sicily, at bargain prices. And Prosecco, white, dry and sparkling, is the perfect for that New Year’s toast, or any festive occasion where you want the bubbly tonight but not the pain tomorrow.
Look into the Spanish wines too. Avoid the large producers and don’t be afraid to experiment. Sadly, although French wines are generally the finest in the world, very few affordable, clean wines ever get exported. Sorry, you’ve got to go over there to find those!
The real good news is that wine is not just another party-food. There are numerous studies that link moderate daily consumption to some specific health benefits, including lower cholesterol, decreased risk of stroke, heart attack and cancer. Red wine in particular, with its higher levels of flavanoids and resveratrol, is rich in antioxidants, helping prevent to the cellular damage cause by “free radicals.” I’m not talking about those ’60s Weathermen still on the loose, but a cancer causing, oxygen-infused chemical in our bodies. Most health experts agree that moderate consumption means one glass a day for women and two for men. Sometimes being a guy pays off!
But this is party season, and we are more likely to consume more than one glass, aren’t we? One of my favorite survival techniques is to alternate between wine and water, all night long. You will remain sober, which can be very important if you have to drive home. Avoid any wine that has screw cap or comes in a box. Pick one wine and stick with it for the night. Don’t mix your drinks. That’s just asking for trouble. When all else fails, keep a bottle of Nux Vomica nearby. It’s a homeopathic medicine that can bring you back to the land of the living, if needed. But when you remember that “wine is food” and eaten with awareness, you can enhance any meal, improve your health and bring a smile of the gods into your heart. I lost track of Craig when he moved to the West Coast, landing in the heart of wine country, north of Marin County, his version of heaven on earth. I remembered him fondly when I came across this quote from Thomas Jefferson.
“No nation is drunken where wine is cheap and none sober where ardent spirits are the common beverage. Wine brightens the life and thinking of anyone.” It’s the kind of thing Craig would say as he refills my glass.
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