When trying to understand a wine and its significance there are four dimensions from which one can draw. There is of course the taste and aromatics of the wine—the sort of thing you find in a tasting note. Then there are the technical aspects of the vineyard, its management, and winemaking—the varietal, vineyard characteristics, climate and weather factors, and all the techniques winemakers use that explain why the wine tastes as it does. The third dimension is your emotional response to the wine, its appropriateness for an occasion, the way it pairs with the food at a meal, the memories or thoughts it evokes, the personality the wine exhibits, or the way it nits together a social gathering with friends. This is of course a very subjective dimension.
The fourth dimension is the one I want to focus on. Steve Heimoff referred to it recently as “ambiente”, a term he discovered in Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy, by David Lynch and Joseph Bastianich:
In it, the authors introduce the concept of ambiente, which they describe as “the feel of a place…not just the geology, topography, and climate of a vineyard but the culture that surrounds it.” Included in this notion of “culture” are “the food products that grow in the same soil…the culture that created it…the people, the place…anecdotes…food talk, and recipes…” and every other slice of life that goes into and surrounds the interaction between human being and wine. “To know all that is to have a sense of ambiente,” the authors conclude, “which is a lot more fun than rooting around in the terroir.
This is a good term, picking up connotations of the French-derived term ambiance, but broader in scope; I hope it sticks. The problem with ambiente however is that not all wines have it, at least not intrinsically. Of course all wines are created in a culture because wine is made by human beings who naturally form cultures. But only some wines exhibit qualities that are explained by the culture from which they emerge. Anyone can with sufficient funds can open a winery, buy grapes, and hire employees to make drinkable wine. But that winery need not have any connection to its surrounding culture. Yet that cultural connection is one of the most important aspects of wine; an important reason why wine is so intriguing. This is part of the worry about industrial wines. They may taste good but lack ambiente although modern marketing techniques strive to make you think otherwise.
In fact, one could argue that only wines from traditional regions with long histories in which wine was the central cultural focus would exhibit ambiente. Places like Beaune in Burgundy for instance.
I think, however, that that is not quite true. As I visit wineries in San Diego for inclusion in our guide there is no doubt some of these wines exhibit ambiente even though San Diego is a relatively new wine region. There is a vibrant wine culture here that influences decisions made in the vineyard and winery.
My main point is that only some wines are a window into a culture and there really is no way to know without visiting the winery and soaking up the culture.
Which is why we head out on the road on Monday for 6 months—to wine regions in the Bay Area, then to Willamette Valley, Colorado, Missouri, Virginia, and the southwest—in search of ambiente.
Some of my travel writing may be posted here but most of it will be at Roving Decanter.