Vancouver—Wine, said Dr. Samuel Johnson, makes a man mistake words for thoughts. He could have been talking about an entire country. An epidemic of oenophilia seems to have seized the nation, like the vapors of spring. Last week, Canada’s most popular radio show had a segment on the sound of grapes fermenting. (They sound like raindrops in an echo chamber.) British Columbia’s most important newspaper wasted three full pages on a local wine festival. A local university boasted about the work of its Wine Research Center. And Pinot Noir sales are going through the roof, thanks to the hit movie Sideways (which, by the way, is a euphemism for “intoxicated.”)
It’s a scandal. The producer of an award-winning documentary on the wine industry. Jonathan Nossiter, says we are all being ripped off. There are more wine labels than ever, Nossiter said, but “increasingly you’re getting the same product inside, whether it’s five bucks or 50 bucks.”
But it’s not the industry that riles me. It’s the wine geeks. I should state my bias up front. I drink beer, and the only thing I dislike more than wine is wine snobbery. When the leading character in Sideways complained about “too much oak and secondary malolactic fermentation,” I left the theatre. When wine tasters rhapsodize about a burgundy’s “nose” or “legs,” I put down the cheese and head for the door.
How many evenings have been ruined by the dinner-party bore just back from the Napa Valley, with all the details of a new Shiraz he’s discovered?
All it takes is a little research to expose the many myths associated with wine. For example, I’m told there’s no difference between a screw-top and a cork. In fact, a screw-top keeps the wine fresher. Matching wine with food is mostly a marketing gimmick. Reds and whites are interchangeable with many foods. (Germans drink Riesling with sausages and sauerkraut, and love it.) Wine in boxes is just as good as wine in bottles. In fact, it stays fresher in a plastic-lined box. Opening a bottle to let it “breathe” is a waste of time: wine only breathes when it’s decanted. Smelling a cork in a restaurant may impress your date, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the wine. And old wines are usually undrinkable; 95% of all wines should be consumed within two years.
In an article for The New Yorker magazine, bon vivant Calvin Trillin set out to prove that most wine drinkers, if blindfolded, couldn’t tell the difference between red and white wines. After some marathon testing Trillin was able to show that even experienced drinkers are wrong 30 per cent of the time. (He also found that heavy wine consumption while blindfolded can be a lot of fun.)
My favorite research fact is that a bottle of champagne contains 49 million bubbles. Drinking champagne is like “inhaling” the essence of grape. Now that makes sense.
(This is one of a series of columns I wrote for Hong Kong's South China Morning Post in 2004/5)