Greatness and the Intersection of Wine and Culture

In Eric Asimov’s most recent column in the New York Times, he asks a question that every serious and thoughtful wine drinker should take time to consider: What makes a great wine?

It’s an academic question, but one that if answered to your satisfaction should help clarify your relationship with wine. That’s no small achievement. Many of us have thought about this question in offhanded, casual ways as we buy wine to drink, to age, to give and to possess. And each of us has an inkling WHICH wines are great. But have we settled on why they are great? That was Eric’s endgame.

And in a way, he dodges his own question by noting the subjectivity of the question then landing on this:

“What I’ve come to believe is that greatness is not limited to only these transcendent, classically great bottles. Rather, greatness in a wine is defined by its ability to meet the needs of a particular occasion.”

This answer is not too far removed from the point that Henry Jeffreys recently made in his ode to average wine in an article for PIX wherein he recalls the bad to average wines he drank on occasions he remembers well.

The nod to the wines that meet the occasion or that are on the table when a memorable occasion occurs won’t be reckoned with here. This is not a dissertation on how taste and smell interact with memory. Instead, I want to draw attention to Eric’s caveats.

While he admits any wine that meets the occasion can be great in that moment, he does make the point that he cannot consider even these wines great if they 1) are produced in a way that abuses the land, 2) are made in a manner that abuses the workers, or 3) are wines that do not reflect the people or culture that any wine of terroir must.

I got stuck on this last criteria. It left me wondering…how does a wine reflect the culture of the people that made it?

On the one hand I’d argue that all wines, regardless of quality reflect the people that made that wine. They must. Despite the insinuations of the Natural Wine brigade, wines don’t make themselves, but rather are reflections of human decisions. And specific humans at that.

But “Culture” is something else.

Imagine Ms. Wendy Winer. She was born and raised in the Hunter Valley in Australia where her family has grown Shiraz grapes for four generations. She and her family are of English descent having emigrated from Sussex to the Hunter Valley in the late 19th century. They almost immediately took to farming, first fruit trees but not too long after they added the grapes.

Wendy grew up Australian in every respect, even possessing respect for the Crown and its faraway island country. Her great grandfather fought in World War II. He survived and returned to tell the tale, which Wendy enjoyed hearing. She began working the vineyard in her teens. Eventually, she went off to college, studied agriculture and finally traveled to France, where she studied enologie at the University of Bordeaux. She would stay in France for a decade working at various wineries in Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Southern Rhone Valley.

She was then offered the job of Assistant Winemaker at one of New Zealand’s largest export wineries. It took only five years before she was promoted to Co-Winemaker, a position she shared with a slightly older New Zealand gentleman. Two years later they were married. Together they made a dynamic wine couple that became very well known within the New Zealand wine industry and even internationally.

Five years on, Wendy and her husband were made an offer they could not refuse: They were to become Co-Heads of Winemaking at a prestigious Napa Valley Winery that had an international reputation for producing some of the finest wines in the United States. They jumped on the opportunity. Five years after that they had two children, 2 years of age and 10 years of age, the older of which was thoroughly Americanized. Moreover, their work at the Napa winery and the wines they produced had increased further the reputation of the winery. Its wines had doubled in price, received glowing reviews and ratings. The Co-Winemaking couple even started their own small brand.

Along the way, Wendy, who produced the wine for the couple’s brand, made a Napa Valley Syrah (which they called a “Shiraz”). It was an immediate hit for the unusually balanced yet rich character many said would last for decades in the bottle.

All this is by way of asking if a great wine must reflect the people and the culture of those that produced it? Could this Napa Valley Shiraz produced by an Australian be “great”? What culture did it reflect? Does the great wine need to reflect the culture of the “peoples” of the region or simply the culture of the person who made the wine in order to be great?

Does Wendy’s Napa Valley Shiraz reflect the culture of New Zealand, of the Hunter Valley, of Australia cum the Rhone cum Napa Valley?

Some people say that culture is the sum of Language + History + Geography. For example, when many Sicilians moved to America in the 19th Century, they maintained their culture by speaking Italian, passing on and remembering their often tragic history and by merely being from Sicily. Over time, as their descendants spoke only English, did not recall the homeland and had few in their family that could pass on the history of Sicily, the culture could not be said to be maintained. The children of the children of the children of the immigrants had adopted an American culture and left the Sicilian culture behind.

Of course, I’m questioning here whether culture or even people can be truly reflected in wine and, by extension, whether suggesting that great wine reflects the people that made it is any different than saying that people make wine.

I would not argue with Eric’s suggestion that a great wine is that which appropriately meets the moment when it is served. As he points out, attempting to describe what makes wine great is largely a philosophical act akin to trying to define beauty or goodness.

But I think we read too much into wine when we attempt to peg it to culture or people. Tradition? Surely a wine can reflect a winemaking tradition. But it needn’t in order to appropriately meet a moment. Should we insist a wine be produced by people that care for the land and for the people that work that land and the grapes it produced? This is a low bar, so of course, we might insist these criteria be met before we assign status to a given wine.

As for my own idea of what makes a wine great? All I know is that it is better than most others…And I’ll be the judge of that.


2 Responses

  1. George Ronay - December 2, 2021

    Interesting thoughts. Brings to mind Tim Hanni’s comments from the “wayback machine:” Is the bottle of White ZInfandel that you drank with your girlfriend on a picnic that wound up with more amorous activities a higher value wine than some deep brooding Cabernet Sauvignon that was swirled, sniffed and discussed for far too long by a group of old wine geeks??” I’d personally vote for the White Zinfandel…..

  2. Julie Pedroncelli St. John - December 7, 2021

    To add another source here is a great article by Dave McIntyre:

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