Why We Care
I could probably write twenty pages of material by distilling my thoughts from the past few days, but I'm short on time at the moment -- and in general -- so I'll try and summarize these feelings quickly. This past weekend was a busy one: we were short staffed on a hectic Saturday shift, I had to run the Good Food Awards judging committee on Sunday, and Monday was full of errands, but Nic Palazzi did come by my place in the evening to kick it with me and my dad. I also found myself diving back into Burgundy Sunday night, going through my Clive Coates books and revisiting the selections in my cellar. Why the sudden desire to drink this particular wine?
I think it's because the more I drink, talk, and think booze, the more I'm narrowing my interests with what I want to personally enjoy. I was driving with my dad back from Modesto yesterday and I was trying to explain the difference between "enjoyment" and "appreciation" when it comes to alcohol -- how you can have one, both, or neither of these two facets when approaching a beverage and why they're definitely not the same thing. You might be able to appreciate that a whisky is rare, well-made, or interesting, but you might not want to drink it. That's appreciation without enjoyment. Someone else might like how easy a cheap whisky is to drink, how it tastes pretty good, but then never really gives it a thought beyond that. That's enjoyment without any real appreciation. However, when you both enjoy and appreciate something it simply takes drinking to an entirely different level -- one that creates a high we long to revisit.
When it takes a high level of understanding to appreciate a wine or spirit, I think my enjoyment of it is exponentially enhanced by the amount of work I put into understanding it. Burgundy might be the most terroir-driven wine in the world, both the red and white versions of it. I enjoy drinking Burgundy perhaps more than any other wine because I'm fascinated with the idea of the land dictating which wines are good before they've even been made! The lines have been drawn, the maps plotted out -- if your grapes are not being grown in a particular type of Kimmeridgian soil, then they've already decided that your wine will never be great. Good, perhaps, but never great. That's where good Burgundy begins -- in the vineyard. It all comes from the quality of the grape, which is determined by the location of the vine. All you can hope for after that is competency in the winemaking cellar.
The amount of work it takes to truly appreciate what these Burgundians have gone through to make their wine is staggering. The more I read about it, the more I realize how little I actually know (but the more I am blown away!). Each grower is his own unique situation with his own particular particulars. You'll never really be able to lump Marsannay wines into one category and Morey St. Denis into another, like the guide books try to help you categorize them. Even within those village communes you have to take each wine, each grower, and each producer individually because they may share certain geographical similarities, but that doesn't mean their wines will taste the same. It's impossible that you'll ever master all of this information, so there's no point in trying, as each generation of producer may bring a new style of winemaking to the table that completely obliterates everything you've already learned. Maybe the father picked by hand, but the son now uses a machine to harvest. That changes everything, so you have to keep on learning, and learning, and learning, and learning.
What's the point? The point is that this uncertainty, this inability to lump alcohol into easily understandable categories, the fact that you'll never really be able to know everything about this subject is what excites me about booze. It's always changing and there are so many permutations of potential that it's almost panic-inducing. It's no wonder that the longer I do this, the more I gravitate to the products and producers that clarify what they do and explain how these processes create the flavor of their liquids. That's what allows for both appreciation and enjoyment. Tequila, Armagnac, and Burgundy are my three current beverages of choice -- is it a coincidence that they all involve agriculture first, then careful, hands-on production where the goal is to remain as faithful to the original base material? Is it also a coincidence that all three products involve small producers that I can meet, talk to, and gain more insight from on a personal level?
The Good Food Awards tasting was more of this same idea -- small growers or sourcers of responsibly-farmed grains and produce, making delicious spirits that reflected as closely as possible the quality of those base materials. We had clean, bright, and vibrant gins. We had fruity, ethereal eau de vies. We had juicy, supple fruit liqueurs. And we had round, wonderfully-matured brandies. Whiskey was not the big winner at Sunday's tasting, mainly because we haven't found that sourcing responsibly-farmed corn or wheat is making for a better spirit, but we like that there are people out there trying. When I saw the list of winning producers after the blind tasting, it was no surprise. Almost all of the winners were people I know well -- producers who really take the time to do things the right way, from the orchard, field, or vineyard all the way into the bottle.
As I sat with Nic and my dad last night, sipping a variety of spirits from the patio table on my back deck, we talked about the producers who made the products we were enjoying. Nic talked about his appreciation for Laurent Cazottes and his extremely esoteric eau de vies. We asked my dad what he thought after tasting the Cazottes Mauzac Rose and he said, "Well, I'm enjoying it much more now that you've told me all this background information." We discussed David Suro, the Vivancos, and the new understanding we had for the Siembra Azul blanco tequila. We sipped Armagnac from Darroze and compared the various Gascogne farmers on each vintage. And after Nic said farewell, and I had dropped my dad off at his hotel near the airport, I went back to my apartment and buried myself in more Burgundy text.
There's a reason why we do this and why we care so much about good booze. Good booze often comes from good people who take the time to explain why they make it so well. Often times, good booze can't be made just by anyone, anywhere, with any level of talent. Making a fine Chablis takes an understanding of nature, of the land, of the fermentation process, and many other lessons that can only come with patience, time, and experience. I respect this ability because I am incapable of doing it myself. I have no understanding of farmwork and even less patience for doing it properly. When I meet producers who do understand it, and can help me understand it as well, I am always more excited to drink their products. And, of course, help others appreciate them as well.