Monday, February 9, 2009

Wine - Expensive, but Does It Taste Good?

There is an aura and mystique surrounding wine. But it is also big business, contributing to the economy of many countries around the world. People have been growing grapes and making wine for thousands of years. In the past, it was grown on small plots, and different regions specialized in different types of grapes (pinot, gamay, etc.). The vineyard owners had a close connection with their land – the location, the climate and the weather. The drive to produce wine in large quantities for distribution around the world has brought changes.

The Battle for Wine and Love
In her book, The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, Alice Feiring expresses outrage that so many winemakers are now producing wines that all taste the same. Using chemicals and technology, they are manipulating the wine so that, regardless of its origin – its terroir – the wine is oaky, fruity and high in alcohol (properties much praised by wine critic Robert Parker). Feiring travels in France, Italy and Spain, ferreting out the winemakers who are continuing to use traditional methods of making wine. Some are organic, some are biodynamic – distinctive wines that reflect their terroir.
Feiring’s book reinforced my desire to eat locally-grown products and products from small producers living in harmony with the earth – asparagus sold by a local farmer at Saskatoon’s Farmer’s Market, bread from a small bakery where I have actually met the baker – and now wine made by a winemaker who respects the land and uses as few artificial products and procedures as possible.
A Fool and Forty Acres
One such winemaker is Geoff Heinricks, author of A Fool and Forty Acres: conjuring a vineyard three thousand miles from Burgundy. Heinricks moves his family to Prince Edward County, Ontario to start a vineyard of Pinot Noir grapes. Like generations of pioneers before him, he heaves rocks from the ground and carefully hand plants each vine. Prince Edward County is not traditional wine country so Heinricks is coping with cold winters on top of raccoons, voles and birds that start stealing the berries as soon as they are sweet. Heinricks’ love of the land, of its history, and of growing grapes is evident in every word he writes.

The poetry of Al Purdy, who also lived in Prince Edward County, opens every chapter of the book and complements Heinricks’ writing: “it’s as if a man stuck / both thumbs in the stony earth and pulled / it apart / to make room / enough between the trees / for a wife / and maybe some cows and / room for some / of the more easily kept illusions” (The Country North of Belleville).

The Billionaire’s Vinegar
In contrast, The Billionaire's Vinegar: the mystery of the world's most expensive bottle of wine by Benjamin Wallace is less about wine than it is about money: rich people who spend a fortune collecting more wine than they could possibly drink in several lifetimes; wine that is purchased to display, not to drink; wine that is two hundred years old and may no longer taste good. They hold wine tastings that last a full week in heritage castles, serving one wine after another from breakfast until late at night – one upmanship as each wine aficionado tries to outdo the others. And money breeds greed so there are fake wines – fake labels and corks, a new wine in an old bottle, and on and on.

All three books are well worth reading. For additional recommendations, have a look at my favourite books of 2008.

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