It’s Valentine’s Day so I’m reposting this Valentine to Wine from the archives.
Among all the alcoholic beverages we consume, wine is most often linked with romance. The Roman poet Ovid, in his 17 A.D. work “The Art of Love” writes of wine that “It warms the blood, adds luster to the eyes, and wine and love have ever been allies.” The loss of inhibition and gain in confidence make wine a natural ally in games of seduction. But why not a nice craft beer or a shot of bourbon? Why is wine the beverage that signals romance? If it were the alcohol that explains the connection to romance any alcohol would suffice—yet, a can of “Bud” just doesn’t have the same meaning as a bottle of Dom Perignon. There must be something about wine in addition to alcohol that connects it to romance, likely its symbolic or metaphorical significance. Why does the idea of wine symbolize romance? One reason might be that wine can be expensive and thus signifies wealth. Expensive things are often seen as romantic. But, on the other hand, a 40 year bottle of Glenfiddich (Scotch), although it might set you back $2500, doesn’t connote romance either. So it is not just the expense that matters.
Wine is also conducive to sharing. One bottle for two people is the perfect amount for an evening. By contrast, beer is sold in individual containers and typically not shared, and trying to share a whole bottle of Glenfiddich would hardly contribute to romance, unless passing out on the bathroom floor hugging the porcelain throne is your idea of romantic. But the wine bottle’s perfect proportion is not substantial enough to establish a robust relationship between wine and romance; and in any case wine was associated with romance long before it was served in bottles.
I don’t think it is the concept of wine that connotes romance so much as it is the sensuality of the experience of it. Romance, in its most concrete way of being, is not really about perpetuating the species, sharing a life, or assessing the value of something. Yes, love is about these things, but romance is more narrowly focused. It is about small things that activate the senses. It is initiated by a shy smile, an intriguing glance, the way someone moves across the room, the shapely outline of bodily form, or a well-placed murmur of approval insinuated into a conversation. It is sustained by the anticipation of things to come, the unfurling of mystery, an evolution without end that perpetually concentrates the future in a pregnant now. Romance is about sensuality.
It is one of the great gifts of life that consuming fermented grape juice can resemble the experience of romance. The curvaceous shape of the bottle, the pop of the cork, the deep ruby or pale gold color as it splashes into the glass signal the beginning of sensation. Aromas that remind us of voluptuous fruit burst from the glass to be replaced by earthy, musky fumes that connote carnal knowledge. As we sip, we hold the wine in our mouths to maximize the sensation of creamy viscosity or light, racy runnels of flavor. Each bottle of wine promises new and different perceptions and a new summit of sensation, and each sip, if the wine is of quality, can reveal something previously hidden. Wine’s evolution in the bottle, in the barrel, and from vintage to vintage is its most mysterious, capricious aspect. One never knows what to expect and its improvement or degradation hangs in the balance.
It is therefore no accident that words such as sexy, seductive, supple, or luscious are used to describe wine. A bottle of wine can be an alluring and capricious mistress, boldly grabbing your attention with aromas and tastes that disappear, leaving you wondering exactly what you are tasting. Or a wine can be reticent at first, shyly revealing new layers of flavor with every pour.
Some people fall first for a voluptuous Merlot, then become intrigued by the power and structure of Cabernet Sauvignon, and finally settle on the beautiful but elusive Nebbiolo. But for me the temptress has always been Pinot Noir. Most great wines are flavor driven. They are attractive because they have deeply concentrated fruit flavors that explode in the glass and persist, commanding your attention through a long, luxurious finish. But Pinot Noir is all about texture. It is silky and supple in a range from gossamer to well-worn suede. It languidly sits on the tongue, charming, beckoning but demanding nothing and making no bold announcement. The good ones from Burgundy, upon further inspection, reveal earthy truffles and animal-like aromas that unveil their libidinal charge. These are fleshy and fecund. They manage to be elegant and carnal at the same time.
Wine can take on the meanings of romance because the experience of it is the closest thing in life to those magic moments when love beckons through exquisite sensory awareness. The next time your favorite wine critic describes a wine as sexy, its not only her imagination that is running wild.
Adapted from a longer essay published at Three Quarks Daily.