Blends: Community in a Bottle?

Red Wine Art Print by Judi Bagnato

Are “Varietal Wines” a reflection of individualism?  Are “Blends” an embodiment of community? 

A quick wine education:

Varietal Wine.  A varietal wine is one made primarily with a single type of grape.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc are a few examples of the plethora of specific grape varieties that are made into wine.  In the U.S. a wine must be made from at least 75% of the primary grape to be labeled with that grape varietal name.  Different grapes have unique flavors and aromas.  A Zinfandel (NOT the pink variety), for example, is characteristically peppery along with its wild fruit flavors.  Sauvignon Blanc is usually herbal with citrus overtones.

Blends.  In contrast to wines made from a single varietal, a blend is made from several different grape types.  There are a couple of different types of blends.  Varietal Combinations are made from two or three grapes and labeled according to the identity of the components:  Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz or Charonnay-Semillion are two popular combinations from Australia.  Another type of blend is the artisan blend which turns the winemaker into artist whose palate includes various types of wines that can be combined into a unique blend with a creative name to match.  “Meritage” is one of these blends that is reflective of the style of winemaking from the Bordeaux region of France.  It is interesting that some of the cheapest wine and some of the most expensive wines are blends.

New World and Old World.  There are a lot of differences between “Old World” and “New World” wines, including the basic issue of what to put into the bottle.  Wines from the “New World” (unpacking that could be another blog post!) are typically made and labeled according to varietal.  These include wines from the United States, Australia, Chile, South Africa, Argentina, etc.  In contrast, “Old World” wines from the classic wine making regions of Europe (France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, etc.) are labeled by Appelation and contain a blend of several different grapes grown in those areas.  Bordeaux, for example, is a geographic area, not a type of grape.  But Bordeaux wines are among the most famous in the world — and are made by blending grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet France, Petit Verdot, and a few others.  The characteristic is that these grapes are grown in the appelation.  Some wineries within these areas are producing “Varietal Wines,” but that is mostly a response to market trends.

I like both Old World and New World wines.  I like both “varietal wine” and “blends.”  I am quickly growing in my appreciation of blended wines.  Bringing the various unique flavors of varietals into a new mix creates some exquisite flavors.  More about this in a later post.

Varietal and Blends, Individualism and Community

As I reflect on this fundamental aspect of wine I am intrigued by the metaphor of “varietal” wines as an expression of individualism and “blends” as an embodiment of community.  The approach to single-varietal wines is to “be the best that you can be” by emphasizing an individual grape’s strengths and uniqueness.  Isn’t it interesting that this is the “New World” approach to winemaking?  We in the United States have been shaped in ways we can’t even imagine by our fundamental commitment to the individual.  So it’s no wonder this is the predominant wine-making style in the U.S.  It is also no surprise that varietal wines sell better in the U.S. than blended wines.  The market drives the artistry of wine making.  And the market is shapes the popularity of wines.  Remember when Zinfandel was THE wine to drink?  We’re on the downward slope of Pinot Noir’s popularity, whose meteoric rise to fame was driven largely by the movie Sideways.

In contrast to the “star-in-the-spotlight” approach to varietal winemaking, blending intentionally combines the unique character of the individual components into a communal expression.  The individual varietals are significant, to be sure, but primarily in their ability to add to the complexity of the whole.  It’s perhaps a more difficult task to craft these wines as it involves creation of both the individual varietals and the skillful artistry of bringing the flavors together.

The metaphor has limits to be sure, but doesn’t this offer a glimpse into our human ways of being individuals and communities?  I am afraid that much of our modern world exploits the “varietal” approach.  We seem to value the achievement of individuals rather than the complexity of blends.

It would be easy to label this as the difference between Capitalism and Socialism.  To be sure, that is one expression of the difference.  But it goes deeper than economic or political ideology.  For me it goes to the heart of who we are.  On one hand personal achievement is a good value.  But it cannot be an end in itself.  There is a lot about me that is pretty good.  I have been crafted into a person whose gifts and talents are used in some good ways.  But I know that not only am I better when I am part of an interconnected community, I am intended to be connected.  My wife and I together are better than either of us individually.  The same is true for the office in which I work.  And it is true for the church community I serve.  And I would suggest that the same is true of all of our human communities.

The problem is that “the market” of our individualism keeps us separated.  We are divided around so many differences — gender, race, sexual orientation, economic level, education, national loyalties, etc.  So many systems and institutions in our world work very hard to keep these divisions in place.

I have a vision for our world and for each of us in it.  I imagine a world in which I can enjoy BOTH a fabulous Cabernet Sauvignon AND a Bordeaux (a varietal and a blend).  Where I can open a bottle of dark, jammy Sirah and be seduced by its oppulence AND where that same Sirah can be part of a complex, multi-layered Chateauneuf du Pape.  We don’t have to live in a world defined by either-or, New World versus Old World, varietal or blend.  There is room in my cellar for all of it…

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6 Comments

  1. Punny punny… But don’t make me drink pink! Ok, there really ARE some nice Rose wines, and I SHOULD remain open to all incarnations of communal expression.

    Reply

  2. I’m tempted by the Capitalism vs. Socialism metaphor… I’ve been reflecting about the varietally-focused, generally New World wine drinker, in contrast with the chateau/negociant-focused, generally Old World wine drinker, and what drives those preferences.

    When I was just learning about wine, it was easier to learn a few grapes that I liked than it was to learn producers that I liked. When I discovered I liked Sauvignon Blanc, for example, I would then try the same grape by different wineries; I stuck with something reliable, but still got to try new things.

    Also, don’t you think that trust comes into it? When you are a varietally-focused drinker, you don’t put your trust in the winemaker/blender, you put your trust in the grape. It’s easier to feel in control when you trust things over people, right?

    Thought-provoking post, Jeff! Thanks!

    Reply

  3. Amen, Brother! Your analogies are quite intriguing. Could we then not also take the process into account. I would like to share a story…

    I recall, some years back, when I interviewed for a job with one of Napa Valley’s foremost winemakers. He, too, had an academic background and so posed some intriguing questions during the interview. “What is your favorite metaphor for winemaking?”, he asked. I replied that I had often thought of the winemaker as midwife – Being present to assist at an example of the marvel of creation, not getting in the way too much, easing the transition, and being ready in case of an emergency to do what you must to help bring about a happy ending. This did not rest well with his enormous ego and he said, “Well, the reason my wines are among the best is that I make the wine. Without me and my choices and my talent, there is no wine.” Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.

    Following your theory, we would be correct in assuming that this winemaker makes exclusively varietal wines. That is how he puts his individual signature/profile on a bottle of wine. His Pinot or Cabernet tastes like HIS pinot or Cabernet, not like someone elses. He oversees the smallest detail in growing, even though he has a significantly qualified vineyard manager and crew. He micro-manages every detail of the cellar even though many on his cellar team could be winemakers in their own right. He makes all decisions on sales and marketing even though he has no background in these fields. He has issues.

    That being said, his wines are often exquisite and their reputation, golden.

    Reply

  4. I’ve worked with chefs like that. They produce great food. But they are pretty much pissed off all the time and everyone is afraid of them. To what purpose? Ah…vanity. It is all vanity.

    Reply

  5. This has become a really interesting thread. There is something to be said, I think, about “ego” and “individuality” and “taking credit” compared with “midwifery” and “mutuality” and “participation.” Not mutually exclusive, of course, and the metaphor can only go so far… but there seem to be some fundamentally different approaches to life and to the world that are played out even in the world of wine. I love your story, oenophilus, about the interview and your image of the winemaker as midwife. Beautiful! And what rich questions, Scamp, about trust and control. Wow! This conversation could go somewhere!

    Reply

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