“I know it when I see it,” goes the famous quote from American Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. Stewart was talking about what does and does not constitute pornography, but the statement can go broader than that: it can be applied to anything that comes down to a matter of individual preference. I have always enjoyed a good glass of wine, but like many I’ve found the world of the oenophile somewhat daunting, with its stereotypical images of aesthetes with noses held high waxing pedantically about the subtleties of bouquets, the suitability of pairings, the ideal shape and weight of glass and why the ’59 is better than the ’61. Wine culture seems by its very nature to be impenetrable, a secret club replete with its own terminology and secret handshakes. As the steward pours out the sample and tells you to be mindful of the scents of currant and chocolate dancing across your palate with each sip, one can feel a spectacular sense of intimidation, or at least the longing to be trained as a sommelier (and possess a doctoral fluency in French) in order to appreciate wine the way it seems you are supposed to. But good wine is like a good book, a great movie or a beautiful woman – you know it when you see it.
This past Easter weekend, my better half and I decamped to a brief tour of Niagara’s wineries. It’s not something we do regularly, which seems a shame given that it isn’t a long drive away. We have never pretended to be experts in vintages; in fact, the stuff we love to drink would probably be frowned upon by more seasoned wine patrons. Our cellar, if you can call a wine rack in an unfinished basement that, is a mishmash of gifts from friends and relations and odd bottles picked up randomly throughout our worldly escapades, along with a few regular favourites. We’d fumble for an adequate response if asked to speculate about tannins, oaking and aging, or the intricacies of merlots versus cabernet sauvignons and pinot noirs. But we don’t care. There are few things we love more than a good bottle of South African shiraz with dinner. The smoothness of an adored wine heightens the elegance of a great meal, softens the mood and loosens the tongue from the awkward requirements of casual conversation about the weather and the plight of the Leafs, revealing a path into deeper, more meaningful interaction and connection. That’s my attempt at a literary explanation. More simply than that, it tastes frickin’ amazing – and it makes your food taste better too.
There is a growing resentment against what one would consider the finer things in life, and wine is often singled out, along with lattes, as a singular example of what separates societal castes – a distinction I’ve never bought into and have railed against in the past, as it seems largely invented by those aspiring to elected office. Wine is not, nor should it ever be, the sole province of an elite few. I can find no good reason why a guy who loves his Miller Lite and his double-double can’t appreciate a chardonnay as well. Nothing prevents him from walking into a winery and trying a few different vintages (it’s usually free to do that). Forget having to justify your taste with polysyllabic terminology and recitation of arcane lore – the question is just, as it is with anything, do you like it? No? Okay, try another one. The possibility of discovery is tantalizing – you may uncover a true treasure, as we did over the weekend, a rare (for our region at least) 2008 ice wine shiraz that trickles over the tongue like rich nectar. I don’t think that being able to appreciate that makes anyone a snob, nor should not knowing the history of the soil that grew the grapes or the entirety of Proust’s back catalogue prevent someone from trying it. Wine, like culture, is there to be enjoyed by all, and the only barriers to that world are those we erect for ourselves. You don’t need to know everything about wine to love it – to paraphrase Potter Stewart, you’ll know it when you taste it.
UPDATE: One of my Twitter connections advises me that the glasses in the above photo are in fact champagne flutes. Any port – pardon the pun – in a storm.