Why do we drink wine? No, really. Why do we drink what is essentially aged, yeasty, fermented grape juice? A by-product of the species Vitis vinifera for those who care. I thought about this at a wine club dinner in Bangalore. Every Indian metro, it seems, has a wine club where like-minded people gather to wine and dine. I like Indian wine clubs. Their events are pretty well organized; the food is okay and the wines are decent. Best of all, the people aren’t snobs.
I love wine, but I hate wine snobs. You know the type. People who sit at an expensive restaurant, quiz the sommelier till the man (or woman) squirms uncomfortably at the barrage of aggressive questions, then order an obscure label only to send it back because the vintage was wrong. All said and done, it is just a drink, even if it is, I dare say, a Chateau Lafite.
The worst wine snobs I’ve met are on Wall Street. They are the young, brash investment bankers with multimillion-dollar bonuses and little else to commend them. They seek to impress and, unlike nouveau-riche Chinese tycoons who specifically pick out the most expensive bottle and make it a point to let every guest know its price, Wall Street bankers need to show off their knowledge, too.
In contrast, most members at wine clubs here approach wine with an amusing earnestness. They want to learn everything about wine in 30 days or less. They want to know the right way to sniff it, drink it and acquire an encyclopaedic knowledge about its provenance. But information, as every oenophile knows, does not equate with a good palate, which can only be developed by drinking wine. Lots and lots of it. Which brings us back to the question: Why do we drink wine?
We drink wine for the alcohol obviously, but that isn’t much—15% to 22%. In contrast, most liquor has over 40% alcohol. If not for the buzz, we probably drink wine to relax—because we enjoy drinking and for the company.
These are all good reasons, but they don’t tell the whole story. Most people drink wine, I would argue, for the image it creates. By this, I don’t just mean the superficial image of wanting to appear suave—although holding a swirling wine glass in your hands and sniffing into it does impart an air of sophistication. But it goes deeper than that. Since the time of Bacchus, wine has been associated with the good life. Think about it. Think about wine and what are the words that pop into your mind? What are the images you see? The Provençal sun perhaps; Mediterranean vineyards spilling into an azure sea; shady Italian bowers with fragrant flowers; cheese and olives; leisurely meals with family; smiling ladies in flowery Laura Ashley dresses. You see? The good life. Nothing epitomizes it like wine.
Actually, Keats said it best. In his famous poem, Ode to a Nightingale, appears one of the finest descriptions of what I call the wine lifestyle.
“O for a draught of vintage,” he cries in between his existential musings. “Tasting of flora and the country green; Dance and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth…With beaded bubbles winking at the brim… That I might drink and leave the world unseen.”
There you have it: beaded bubbles winking at the brim. Nice alliteration, eh? It even sounds like wine. Words swirling around your mouth. Keats must have imbibed a few, I dare say.
Wine, to me, is a great decompressor. It forces you to slow down, to pause and savour. Cocktail parties are a most uncivilized way of drinking wine in my mind—unless the wine is mediocre, in which case you don’t care what you guzzle anyway. I like my wine the way the French and Italians do it: sitting with a few good friends in the fading evening sunlight, under a bower or in front of a fire. This is social drinking at its best.
After a couple of glasses, I get hungry. I like to drink wine with cheese and perhaps some grapes. They go well together—like strawberries and champagne. If I am lucky, I’ll have some warm crusty bread to go with it and some fresh olive oil speckled with fleur de sel. There is a West Asian spice-mix called zaa’tar that I am partial to, especially rubbed on bread and served with a bold Red.
Cheese mellows the wine and complements it. Although I happen to like Spanish Manchego and the blue-rinded American Chevre, I prefer less assertive cheeses with wine. A gentle Camembert, for instance, either from England or Australia along with toasted walnuts and a crisp pear. I dislike Italian cheeses as accompaniments to wine. To me, buffalo Mozzarella and Pecorino are cooking cheeses, better in dishes than plain. If all else fails, I opt for a French Brie or Etorki or even an artisanal American Cheddar.
So, why do I drink wine? To slow down, I guess. By drinking wine, we venerate the earth (the terroir) that produced it; we also pay our respects to the barrels that aged it; and we salute the winemakers who obsess over it. Wine to me is the finest symphony of human effort and nature’s vagaries, all compounded by that most undervalued of factors: time.
That said, it is only a drink.
Shoba Narayan is a Bangalore-based writer. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org