Kushman on wine

ROMANTIC OR RELIABLE?

Understanding what’s in your wine, and why.

WRITTEN BY RICK KUSHMAN
ILLUSTRATION BY HEATHER KLINGER

klinger janfeb wine final

Maybe we demand too much from our friend wine.

We want it to be romantic, even magical, with a connection to bucolic vineyards and generations of winemaking. We want a one-of-a-kind experience with each vintage.

We also want it to be reliable. We want every bottle from a winery to taste like the last one we bought there. With so many labels, grapes, and styles to sort through, who wants a battle with each bottle — especially when we’re shopping on a rushed Wednesday night and just want something good to drink?

So what wine is better, the romantic or reliable? The answer, of course, is both. Wine doesn’t need to be one thing or style, just as good food comes from fast-casual spots, elegant restaurants, and food trucks. Yet, in some wine corners, that empty debate takes on a cultish fervor.

Often, the fervor centers on how the wine is made. In the most general terms, it can follow two paths, though each one has multiple possibilities.

One is the route of mostly smaller producers, though this includes some big wineries, too. These winemakers let weather and place dictate the styles and flavors each year — although every winemaker does that to different degrees. Their many tools to affect the wine can range from fermentation techniques to the length and type of aging, but most of their wines have distinct personalities each year.

People love that. That’s the romance story. It’s what we expect when we go wine tasting. We want to be engulfed by vineyards and barrels and winemakers embracing the nuances of nature.

But also, there are those weeknights. When we’re shopping after work, maybe with a child in the cart, mystery and romance are rarely on the shopping list. Most folks want wine to be like any other store product: good, consistent, and easy to buy.

Many wineries focus on serving those customers. They make their wines taste the same year after year. Besides the tools of fermentation and aging, they might add color or sweetness (with grape juices) or a touch of acid for balance. They have a few other tricks, nothing nefarious, and the result is wine that still is entirely wine. But that’s where our empty debate becomes misleading.

In some of those cultish corners where wine is akin to religion, it’s a holy crime to make wine to match a profile, no matter how much customers want that. Those complaints mostly serve to confuse average folks. There has been a spate of media stories recently, complaining about how some wines are made with unsavory ingredients — often from people trying to get attention, but sometimes from wine professionals who live a rarified, expensive, food-and-wine existence.

What none of them says is that both options, romantic and reliable, are available everywhere. So we get to decide what matters most to us: how the wine is made, or how it tastes.

And why can’t it be both? Why can’t we love the unique wines that connect to our wine country experience and also love the predictable bottle on Wednesday night?

Wine already is complicated enough without someone demanding we only drink X or Y. The world is complicated enough. Sometimes you just want to pour a glass and not think about it. So whichever you choose, bottoms up!

Rick Kushman is a New York Times best-selling author, the wine commentator for Capital Public Radio, and the creator and co-host of the radio show Bottle Talk with Rick and Paul. To reach him, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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