Romance and Patience

published in the LA Times 2-13-08 Savoring Time in a Bottle

PICTURE a few people at a table in a restaurant or in a home kitchen, with sumptuous food on the way, getting ready to pull a cork on a good ten-year-old bottle of Côtes-du-Rhône.

First we anticipate the wine (I’ve included myself in the gathering — who wouldn’t?), which was bought five years ago but might be approaching its prime now. Then we pour and take our first smells from the glass. Then the first sips, and then, on our own time, as the evening progresses and the wine relaxes, we might consciously or unconsciously take a dreamy wander through a vineyard on a warm September afternoon in 1998, when the guy who made this wine was tasting grapes and decided it was time to pick.

Scenes like these, at the dinner table and in the vineyard, are what give wine its reputation for romance. When we put a corkscrew into a cork, our experience is characterized by anticipation, by the sensuality of smells and tastes and the sharing of that sensuality, and by the fantasy of imagining the origins and the life of the bottle.

But if we don’t take our time, if we don’t consider what we’re drinking, if we turn the bottle upside down and drink the contents like it’s light beer, there aren’t any flavors in the world that will make up for what we’ve lost. And much as we might hope that pleasures of the dinner table might be exempt from the global rush to quicken, miniaturize and streamline, there is ample evidence to suggest that they need some defending.

To survey the gastronomic concepts that have most powerfully captured American imaginations and curiosities over the last twenty years — critics’ scoring systems, which have encouraged wine drinkers all over the world to consider the differences between 92 and 96 point juice; or the popularity of wine flights, which invite tasters to compare and contrast sips of wine in multiple glasses as though they are examining laboratory specimens — is to find generally that we might not be savoring as much as we could should be.

The last few years have seen a proliferation of what might best be called wine dispensaries, little shops where patrons purchase single ounces of wine at a time by swiping their credit cards in much the same way that we pay for gasoline. The upside of this presentation is the opportunity to sample from a huge selection of wines, some of them very expensive, without committing to buying more than an ounce. Just like numerical ratings and wine flights, these shops can be great resources, especially for those working in the industry.

But I’m reminded of a remark the French chef Mimi Hebert once made to me while decrying the proliferation of menus offering small plates. “If the dish is good,” she said, “I don’t know what’s really happening until the fifth or sixth bite. It takes me that long to figure out all the flavors and textures.”

She might just as well have been talking about good wine, which becomes eminently more approachable as it’s shown the courtesy of a little patience. From its infancy as a bubbling swamp of fermenting grape juice to its shining moment on a dinner table years later, wine is an ever-evolving living organism, with vulnerabilities, and expressions of maturation, and distinct personal quirks and harmonies.

Complex flavors are what make great food delicious, and the nuance they bring to the dining experience is no different than what great character development does for novels or subtle foreshadowing does for great symphonies. None of these elements are discernable immediately, of course, and nor would anyone want them to be. Their very appeal is that appreciating them is a gradually evolving process.

That the same is true for good wine is something that anyone who has ever drunk a full half of a good bottle understands. The experience of that wine after ten ounces and forty minutes is entirely different from what it was when the cork came out of the bottle.

I once heard Aubert de Villaine from Domaine de la Romanee Conti in Burgundy say that he thinks of his wines as prisoners until they are let out of their bottles—living in suspended animation until they’re allowed to breathe again. The great Chateauneuf-du-Pape producer Henri Bonneau once compared an easy-drinking, fruit-forward wine to a prostitute, who he said puts all of her charm on display instantly. Better wines, he implied, leave a little something to be discovered down the road.

Here again, one is reminded of all the world’s great art forms, and the time it takes to appreciate all of them. Who would want to absorb the emotional experience of a great film in thirty seconds or a painting in one glance? What charms us is the duration of the thing, the consideration, the chewing on it.

At a winemaker event last summer at the restaurant where I work, winemaker Bob Lindquist, who has spent the better part of the last thirty years tending the vines and barrels at Qupé Wine Cellars outside Santa Maria, stood before a small gathering of people who had assembled to taste his wines and hear him say a few words about his work. When the chatter subsided to the point that Bob could be heard, he chose not to speak about the flavors of his wines, the qualities of certain vintages, or macerations and fermentations. He simply said that when he started making wine in the 1970’s, he did so mostly because he was struck by the sanctity of one simple experience: the act of two people drinking a bottle of wine together over dinner. The sharing of the bottle, he said, was for him the holiest part of the process, and was the most important motivating factor behind his life’s work.

Probably because I work so closely with wine, tasting dozens every week and spending countless hours dissecting flavors and considering values and looking at scores, and probably also because I’m something of a romantic, I’ll never forget what Bob said that night. There are few pleasures in the world as magical as savoring a great bottle of wine, and all we need to unlock them is patience and time.