Wine Rituals: A User Guide

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Humans have always maintained a natural inclination to take our most proud and beautiful creations, and then raise them to the level of the sacred. We form rituals, putting these treasured objects behind glass cases and setting boundaries for how we honour them. You wouldn’t find a Rembrandt on the floor; no mosh pits during Mozart (though, no sitting at a punk show, either), and anyone who has felt the confusing pang of empathy and anger when a strangers’ cell phone decides to break the silence of an emotional moment of theatre knows precisely what I mean.

We do this because our gratitude is simply larger than we can understand. How have we created such beauty? To save ourselves from the exhaustion of answering this question, we find mutually agreed ways of enjoying the things we love. It’s our quiet way of communicating to each other just how much they mean to us, and how worth protecting they are. 

If you’ve ever experienced anxiety at the thought of ordering wine in a restaurant, everything I’ve just mentioned is responsible for that. You find yourself with a small portion of wine in your glass. It taunts you. The gentle restaurant candles have suddenly turned into spotlights affixed to your face, burning with the heat of one thousand suns. Your server holds the bottle towards you — it wants to watch. You pick up the glass with just enough speed to hide the tremble in your hands. What the fuck do you do?

 Consulting the modern wine list.

Consulting the modern wine list.

The rituals created around wine service began as a way to express our gratitude to a process very much out of our control. Mother nature is capricious, and for thousands of years, grapes have been nurtured to maturity through a combination of true farming and crossed fingers. Will it rain and rot? Will frost wipe out my entire harvest (as, despite modern technology, it continues to do quite regularly)? When the bounty is collected and the wine is eventually bottled, it seems obvious how small we’d feel in comparison to what it took to get it there. And yet, when you buy wine, none of this is apparent. What you buy is liquid in a fairly nondescript bottle, separate from the stories of how it got to you.

In a restaurant, the way these stories are preserved is through the faithful listing of regions, original languages, and obscure terminology found in the wine list. It is also one of the primary sources of confusion for those who just want to drink it. Step one is to relax. It is not your job to be an expert, and though a cursory knowledge will help guide your first few steps, good wine is indifferent to how much you know about it. If you are dining with someone annoying like me who must read the entire list, have a cocktail on deck to save yourself from thirst. Similarly, if you are that annoying person, treat your table to an apology bottle of opening bubbles while they stare at the top of your head for the next 15 minutes (note to self.) While it can seem counterintuitive to use the restaurant setting to challenge your wine tastes, this is actually the safest environment for it. First, you are likely dining at a place because they make food that you otherwise wouldn’t be making at home. It is then fair to assume that the bottles you typically enjoy may not always be the best fit with this food. Second, frankly, restaurants are aware of your comfort bottles, and are not pricing them with a mind towards giving you a deal. Popular wines made of popular grapes please popularly, and the ease by which they sell is something restaurants have always been conscious of. Flip that around, almost every restaurant with a wine focus also has their ‘passion project’ bottles — bottles almost universally liked by the staff, and whose under-the-radar position grants them a very favourable price. 

Using the restaurant staff as a sounding board for your choices is not only warmly welcomed, but highly wise. I assure you, at some 2:00 AM point in your server’s life, when all the restaurant sounds have quieted and they are sinking as deeply into the soft leather banquette as they are into a plate of warm off-shift food, they’ve been kept company by a glass of that wine that you are considering inquiring about, and they can tell you every lucid detail. And yes, quality and price are often related, but anyone who has experienced the highs of humble street food will know that there is nuance to this. I encourage you to be upfront with your budget. A restaurant that cares about wine will be extremely excited about the freedom this gives them to find you a bottle that you feel comfortable buying. 

Where some art is consumptive, wine is performative. Imagine going to see Mozart, only to be asked what movements you’d like to hear, and in what order. A small portion is played for you to confirm that its up to standard, before you yourself begin conducting the orchestra. This is precisely what happens when you order wine. It's the reason why the process can be so imbued with worry. The bottle is brought to you and you are asked to confirm it. What you are looking for is the name and the vintage to ensure that you and the restaurant understand each other. For those who spent the last 15 minutes gushing over the wine list, this is also usually the point where tremendous FOMO begins sinking in, as you consider the 80 other bottles you also considered drinking. Next, the cork. Some places have shed this habit, but when a cork is placed on your table know that this is an old ritual of trust. The cork has the date and winery printed on it, and presenting it is a proof of what you’ve ordered. This had much more relevance historically, when bottle labels would wear and disintegrate over time. While a cork can give you certain potential clues about the way the wine has been stored, it never tells you as much as the wine itself and so you can feel generally comfortable in ignoring it.

 Patron Saint of corked wine

Patron Saint of corked wine

When that first taste finally gets poured, you can feel relieved in knowing that you still are not required to do anything. The offer of the first sip is simply another offer of trust. There is a bacteria colloquially known as TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole for those making notes) that can infect wine, most often through the cork. It can happen in any style of wine, and while not at all dangerous, can make your wine smell and taste defective (it’s what people smell when they say a wine is “corked.”) Make a cloth wet, leave it in a pile to get musty, and you’ll immediately understand this smell. Once you get a nose for it you’ll unfortunately never be able to ignore it, but if you’ve never experienced it you can simply give the taste to your server and ask them to try it for you. In truth, the worlds’ leading restaurants already do this anyway; a sommelier will open your bottle away from the table, taste it to make sure it isn’t corked, and only bring it to you when they are certain of its quality. Any restaurant with a wine focus will have staff that have smelled and begrudgingly tasted corked wines, and burned those memories just deep enough to be recalled again when needed.

With no grand conclusion, the ritual ends. You find yourself with full glasses, warm plates of food, and a table full of loving faces illuminated by the now reasonably flickering candles. That vulnerable space you’ve created can instead be filled with gratitude. How can a drink elicit so much consideration? Simply put, wine is agriculture. When you obscure that sentiment, you replace it with feelings of status, prestige, or a glass case style of preciousness that can make you feel as though you can never truly appreciate it if you don’t know enough about it. Insisting that you have to be an expert to love something is the root of elitism, and, put another way, is the pernicious suggestion that taste is something you have to earn, rather than the simple, beautiful, birthright of self expression that we are all born with. Feel ease at ordering off a wine list, if only because you’re asserting your right to claim this taste as your own. Remember this: the most genuine way to revere wine is to enjoy it freely. It is the greatest condiment ever invented for the dinner table. 

-Evan Watson