The Wine Exchange
Allen R. Balik
Wine. Looking beneath the surface
Years ago, British wine authority Hugh Johnson, OBE expressed his view of wine tastings in Decanter Magazine stating, “Wine is not only for tasting, nor analysis (let alone scoring). It is for living with, discussing and drinking.” Propelled by a new generation of wine drinkers and a growing international audience this decades-old statement remains even more impactful today.
While many view formal tastings as an expression of “wine snobbery,” they are also acknowledged by the trade, press, collectors and knowledgeable consumers as necessary components of appraising wines for their appeal, value and quality. No doubt tastings are an important vehicle for the evaluation of wines both professionally and personally, but they only reflect the surface of wine appreciation. Much more lurks just beneath.
I sample between 1,200 and 1,500 wines each year for education, critical assessment and personal pleasure. The knowledge gained from these tasting experiences is essential to my understanding of the wines, their place of origin, history and position in the market. While these tasting experiences form the foundation of my role in wine, they are simply a basis from which I can further explore more about a wine’s past, traditions and future development.
A social wine tasting should never be intimidating. Rather it should always be geared to expanding a taster’s knowledge and stimulating a sense of adventure in a relaxed atmosphere. Yet tastings on their own – whether professional or social – have never expressed the true character of wine in our society. Wine is also about fun, camaraderie, enhancing a meal and enjoying the moment.
As we look beneath the surface of a simple tasting, let’s follow Johnson’s thought on the role of wine in society. Wine has a history dating back through the millennia and across countless cultures. It has been an important part of mankind throughout civilization and a focal point for many personal experiences in our daily lives.
This observation may seem fairly esoteric, yet it has become the centerpiece of numerous conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues over a casual dinner and a bottle of wine. While talking about the wine, we often reminisce about personal memories of the vintage and the producer. Frequently, the conversation turns to wine’s multi-faceted role throughout history and its continuing impact on our culture today.
As an example, I often reflect on a time in the early 1990s when my wife Barbara and I were hosting a small group of vintners and winemakers at our home in southern California. In a celebratory mood and knowing our guests would appreciate something special, I opened a 1945 Chateau Haut-Brion – one of the five First Growths of Bordeaux from one of the most revered vintages of the 20th century. I must admit the conversation surrounding this legendary bottle was a revelation to me and every bit as intriguing as the wine itself.
We began talking about the intricacies of the wine, but that exchange quickly morphed into what was going on in the world during the mid-1940s and how those events have impacted peoples and countries far and wide ever since. Everyone had a meaningful observation and personal or family experience to share.
It was almost as though the wine itself retreated into the background after having served its purpose in bringing us all together in the conversation. Throughout the years I’ve partaken in many similar experiences. While each occasion is individual and prompted by different wines, the discussion along with my thoughts, appreciation and realization are always the same: There’s more in my glass than the wine itself!
In 1989, Barbara and I launched “A Culinary Evening with the California Winemasters.” Since its inception, wine has been a vehicle to engage our guests with an entertaining evening where wine and food benefit the research and care mission of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The event has grown tremendously through the last 34 years and is one of the country’s largest single-day charity wine auctions, but our objective has always remained the same.
The 75 participating California wineries pour about 125 different wines to pair with the mouthwatering dishes prepared by 55 chefs from across the country and abroad stimulating and entertaining our 1,250 guests with a thrilling vinous experience. Our guests appreciate that through “Winemasters,” wine serves as the conduit linking everyone’s enjoyment of the evening to our fund-raising success.
Since its early days, and across the globe, wine has held a position of respect and admiration among many of the world’s religious and secular societies by sanctifying their most important holidays and rituals. According to the “Oxford Companion to Wine,” the vine is mentioned more than any other plant in the Old Testament. A study at Brigham Young University in Utah also found the word “yayin,” one of many ancient Hebrew words used for wine, appears 140 times in the Old Testament. Similar results have also been found in studying the New Testament.
Champagne has long been used to toast newlyweds, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, usher in the New Year and the christening of countless ships. Important business and international agreements have been sealed with a memorable bottle and that’s not to mention the day-to-day role wine plays in simply making the meal or occasion a bit more special.
An old English custom was to purchase a pipe of Port (an elongated tapered barrel containing about 60 cases in volume) to celebrate the birth of a child and to consume over many years. A more modern tradition is to acquire and cellar “birth year” wines to enjoy for the newborn’s twenty-first birthday. And often we’ll hold a singular bottle for a special time not realizing that just enjoying that particular bottle can be its own special occasion.
The sheer pleasure of wine is expressed every day around the dinner table with family and friends. Whether drawn from a collector’s cellar or purchased just that day, wine has now become a far more common companion to mealtime enjoyment in the New World as it has been for millennia in the Old World.
In the Christmas 2022 issue of Decanter Magazine, François-Xavier Maroteaux (proprietor of Château Branaire-Ducru in Bordeaux’s famed St. Julian appellation) asked, “The most important thing when you taste a wine is, would you like to share that bottle one night with someone or not?”
So, yes, tasting is an important part of the wine experience. But it only represents the surface as there’s so much more to explore below when realizing its true value as described by Hugh Johnson more than 30 years ago: “It is for living with, discussing and drinking.”
Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an e-mail to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 40 years.