May 31, 2007

Wine or beer?

Red, white.JPG Swirly white wine glasses.JPG

Har, har, an article in Slate about brews titled "Beer in Headlights." Shoulda been called "Beer is Flat." Thomas Friedman-like, Slate's Field Maloney takes 1,700 words to say what we already know instinctively: wine's a drink for elitist snobs, beer's for real men. Wine is "aspirational," beer is practical. The current Henry Weinhard (*) campaign puts it bluntly: beer tastes better than soy milk. Well, duh.

Beer's great, no doubt about it. Thirst-quenching, satisfying in ways wine can never be. Most wine people love beer.

But here's the problem: beer has always been popular because of its predictability. A Bud while you're mowing the lawn in Laurelhurst (assuming you mow your own lawn, probably won't happen if you live in Laurelhurst) is going to taste the same as the one you swig at the Safe...or Shea Stadium. A Bud's a Bud, and the production folks at Anheuser Busch spend a fortune making sure that one Bud tastes like all Buds.

So why is wine getting more cred than beer? Read on.

Rhone Guigal.jpg

A pretentious wine connoisseur will expound on differences (grape variety, national origin, soil conditions, weather), but most of today's wine drinkers are attracted by the predictability of certain flavors. They associate the name "Chardonnay" not with a grape variety from Burgundy (where, in fact, there are dozens of different soil conditions) but with a beverage whose flavor has become familiar comforting, like a brand of toothpaste.

What percentage of wine drinkers are “flavor-driven”? Hard to say. But here's the best part, for folks who actually care about wine: the rising tide of popularity floats all barrels. Everywhere you go, there's better wine, better-made wine and more interesting wine, because the industry has a new base of support.

And even as the purists bemoan the globalization and Parkerization of wine, the tendency to make fine wine for the preferences of a specific critic and for competitions where bigger flavors mean better medals, there's a backlash that values subtlety and uniqueness.

So what's unique? French beer, for example. We're fans of the brews from Alsace, in eastern France. There's a brand called Meteor that they flavor with a shot of bitters, Picon Amer, makes it taste almost like a dark ale, with a touch of sweetness.

On the wine side, whites in general get little respect...kinda like beer, no? Current favorite is the zingy, grassy sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, though it's not in danger of becoming the new chardonnay. Other whites from northern Italy (as long as it's not pinot grigio) and Sicily have terrific appeal. On the red side, cabernet franc from the Loire Valley makes for wine that's great with food. Wines from Georgia (the country, not the state), the birthplace of the vitis vinifera grape vines, are coming back.

Aspire all you want, wine snobs! Once again, Cornichon finds itself living in the best of both worlds. Craft beers like Manny's, brewed in a Georgetown warehouse. Craft wineries like Willis Hall, vinified in John Bell's garage in Everett. We are happy travelers indeed, and we don't even have to travel far.

(*) Aspirational Ditty

'Enry's life was all frustration,
Never could improve his station.
For 'Enry was a lazy bloke,
It showed whenever 'Enry spoke:
'E lacked the proper haspiration.

Posted by Ronald Holden at May 31, 2007 1:48 PM