My ears perked up as two middle-aged traveling businessmen started up a conversation with an attractive young woman sitting next to me. I was in a wine-themed restaurant in the Denver International Airport on layover and passing the time by having a glass with some food.
“The only thing I’m hoping to get out of the wine is a little buzz!” the heavier set of the two who turned out to be from Seattle jovially announced after they were quizzing their new temporary friend about the wine flight she had ordered. They then proceeded to embark upon an honest conversation about the “proper” ways they have heard of to hold a glass of wine. At this point I almost interjected with an “Actually….” and then followed by something that I’m sure would have sounded pedantic, but I held my tongue. Everything in their conversation about wine had a revelatory tone about it as if they were trying to figure out a way to pass themselves off as part of a storybook bourgeois class. To them, drinking wine took a certain degree of etiquette that they weren’t quite confident they could achieve.
To me, as someone who has spent the past 5+ years traveling around the country to both infinitesimally small and large towns alike, the overheard conversation exemplifies the current state of American wine culture. We’re aware of wine, it is certainly in option in our beverage repertoire, but its primary role is either that of an intoxicating beverage or a declarative part as to some status of class (Mostly temporary as in during a fancy meal) in our minds. We’re also pretty confident that there are a number of people who know how to drink wine in a more sophisticated way and are judging us when we don’t. Yes, there are those on either side of the spectrum: Those who use wine in moderation to enhance the meals they eat on one end, and then those who don’t drink wine at all on the other. However, most middle and upper class Americans have a relationship with wine that is very similar to the caricature of a pubescent teenage male: awkward yet really, really wanting to impress someone.
Recently, I have been finishing up Thomas Pinney’s The History of Wine in America volumes which passionately, if not exhaustively details wine’s place in this country from colonization to the past decade. In terms of wine culture, the takeaway lesson from history is that the founders of this country and its early denizens had every intention of making wine an integral part of society because that was the type of culture they had come from. However, due to both a lack of knowledge of how to grow grapes of European origin in America and a lack of native grapes suitable to making the quality of wine people were accustomed to, wine was never there from the start to be a consistent feature in everyday lives. Once we figured out how to grow grapes of European origin on the west coast we had to wait until Prohibition passed and then some until we finally had a stable and widely available source of wine produced in this country. Even more recently, we are finally figuring out how to coax some of the native grapes into producing material of high enough quality to make wine that we are accustomed to with the European ones.
Yet, some context is needed before we get too humble about our country’s wine endeavors. Let’s keep in mind that thousands of years have passed from the time a human happened upon some fermenting grapes (Intoxicating, but I’m sure of dubious quality) to the regular production of wines of a standard that was originally set in Europe (Yes, primarily by the French). During that between-time was a lot of selecting of the best vines in every generation, cross-breeding intentionally or not, and trying vines out in different locations to get what we considered to be the perfect balance of acid, sugar, and the mix of flavor-related molecules known as phenolics. In America, we have only have around 300 years of history with wine. In that time we have figured out where to plant European varieties to produce wines that not only compete with, but can best wines made anywhere else in the world in international competitions. Also, our hybridization programs of our native grapes has gotten to the point where the wines produced from some of them are not only merely drinkable, but can even be confused for European varietals. Learning from the timeless and tireless work of others and innovating upon it is the American way [Chest Thump].
Yet, despite the fact that we can produce world-class wines, wine is still not an integral part of our culture. Why? It isn’t, as some snobbishly think, a difference between the culturally affluent city life and country bumpkins. We don’t vacation in wine city, do we (Although it sounds like a place where I want to be)? Historically speaking, I would say it mostly has to do with proximity. How many of us can say that they live in an area where or near where wine has been produced for the past 50 years or so; let alone 100 or 500 years? Again, you have to go visit wine country and it’s usually a hefty drive or flight away. Wine history buffs will know that wine has been produced in some form or fashion nearly everywhere in the country since its inception, but it has only been in places like California and more recently, Washington and Oregon that it could be considered a viable industry. These places were able to do something no one else in the country could: produce cheap wine in decent quantity and quality and get local people to drink it. Until most of the country can achieve this goal, wine will not become an integral part of the American culture.
Much could be said about the Temperance Movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the ensuing Prohibition that followed, but I think that grip is starting to fade. The Temperance Movement in its original state was not about banning alcohol; it was about getting people (mostly men) to not drink liquor excessively and go home and beat their wives. The founders and initial proponents of the movement had no concern over moderate consumption of wine and beer. The radicals that took over the movement are a different story though and the fractured alcohol laws that can be seen across the nation are certainly a hurdle to America’s future healthy relationship with alcohol. Despite what some say, it’s not that you don’t drink or you do (Which would mean: excessively). Moderate consumption of wine; the generally proven to be part of a health culture kind, is still an option.
…and then most Americans simply say, “So what?” Why do American wine lovers always seem so evangelical about getting other Americans to drink wine? While I’m sure I cannot speak for everybody, for me it is simply the desire to have a wonderful and shared experience with the people around me. I can and do enjoy a good glass of wine with a meal and find enjoyment in it, but that pales in comparison to the times where I can say, “Hey guys! Come look at this thing! Don’t you think it’s great?!?!” And someone simply says, “Yes”. I’m tired of wine being the domain of those who choose to adopt it as something that makes them supposedly more elite than everyone else. Wine, while being infinitely complex in the experience it can create, is at its heart a very simple thing: Tasty fermented grape juice.
I could certainly attempt to argue on economical grounds in terms of the wine industry’s addition to the local economy or the greenness of not having to ship as much wine to places that already produce their own. These in themselves are logical arguments that support the investment of making wine just about everywhere in the United States (Excepting Alaska’s milk wine. They may try and export it because no one wants it there.). I could also argue on health grounds, since wine drinking cultures rank highest in longevity and enjoyment of life, but let’s be honest: I just want to share the experience I have with wine with other people.
It is also about world-view though: The culture of having wine with a meal encourages moderation and relaxed sociability. Both of those items Americans could probably use a little more of. Forgive me then if I want those around me to take a step back, have a sip of wine, and enjoy the moment they are in with the people they are with. When it comes down to it though, no one, and I really do mean no one, thinks that’s a bad thing.