Wine doesn’t need to be complicated, but it often is. It is an ancient, almost primal product, the function of fruit being transformed by wild fungi (yeast) via fermentation to become an intoxicating and often delicious beverage. It is a drink for the people, essentially, only requiring fruit and natural processes. And nothing else. It’s truly democratic. But it rarely seems to be.
Wine has often been seen as a badge of the elite. Well, wine appreciation has at least. And with the dizzying upward spiral of wine prices at the fancy end of the spectrum, it’s not hard to see why.
The snobbery has been smashed by many, with stemware swapped out for tumblers, and makers, writers and servers alike assuring us that it is just a drink after all. Which is fine. But wine has such mystique because it has so much more to give. And this is where the ‘wine whisperers’ come in, whether they be writers, teachers, retailers or sommeliers.
The best sommeliers are able to transfer their knowledge without recourse to the raft of technical exotica in their heads. Communication – which is a large part of a sommelier’s job – is about translating and transferring meaning, not grandstanding. Few have mastered this as well as Jane Lopes, formerly of Eleven Madison Park, NYC, and latterly as the Wine Director of Ripponlea’s Attica.
Lopes recently had her debut book published by Hardie Grant, where she distils some of her knowledge into one of the most engaging wine books you’re ever likely to read. In Vignette: Stories of Life & Wine in 100 Bottles, Lopes takes the reader on a very personal journey through wine (though not just wine, with beer and spirits getting a look in, too) and life, quietly unlocking secrets for the reader, layering up knowledge without ever ‘teaching’ as such.
In his foreword for Lopes’ book, Ben Shewry, the legendary chef-owner of Attica, talks about the awkwardness that he often felt around wine, as well as the talents of Lopes to quell that anxiety and allow him to finally “learn to love wine.” Shewry nicely captures, through his own lens, what it feels like to be a wine ‘outsider’ and how with the right guidance a new and sometimes magical world can be opened for us all.
Debunking wine anxiety is a topic close to our hearts, and so we wanted to share this with you.
The following is an edited extract from Vignette: Stories of Life & Wine in 100 Bottles by Jane Lopes, published by Hardie Grant Books RRP $40 (au), and is available in stores:
I always hated wine.
That is to say wine always made me feel socially uncomfortable. There’s a kind of class system to it, especially around the ﬁne stuff, and a perception that if you didn’t come from a moneyed background, you couldn’t possibly know how to appreciate it. Wine people use terms like “the bouquet of wet dog” to assert their superior knowledge over others less enlightened. Hearing talk like that, I shrank away and closed my mind to wine’s possibilities, because if you grew up in back-country Taranaki, New Zealand, you knew three things:
A “wet dog” is to be avoided at all costs, especially one that has been chasing sheep in a muddy creek.
Grapes grow wild along the roadside and are only for foraging to eat as a treat. A basket press? That must be from the laundry.
Wine is served from a cardboard box, except when – on very special occasions – Uncle Tracy turns up with the “good stuff”: a bottle of Henkell Trocken. (Although I never tasted it, I was in awe of the gold foil and exotic-sounding German words.)
My ﬁrst major interaction with wine came when I discovered the forgotten bottles left in the cellar of Uncle Tracy’s new house. At age 13, having no interest in wine, I decided to make a little money by selling the dusty bottles to the older kids up the road. I did, however, help myself to some Coca-Cola, late 1950s vintage (an excellent year, showing buttery hints of barnyard caramel).
When I qualiﬁed as a cook at age 18, wine was something we served to customers; it deﬁnitely wasn’t something for us lowly cooks – and it wasn’t something any of us could afford either. As I said earlier, wine has its own class system: most restaurants survive off wine sales, but most cooks will never get to taste those wines.
Jane Lopes came into my life at just the right moment. A perfect storm of frustration had continued to build for the years that I’d been working as a chef and then running my own restaurant. Boy, did Jane have her work cut out with me – she must have thought I needed therapy with my wine issues! But when talking to Jane for the ﬁrst time – she in NYC, me in Melbourne – I suddenly found myself becoming passionate about wine. I didn’t feel self-conscious. Jane and I agreed that the whole natural wine thing was a bit misleading, and we bonded over our opinion that bone-dry Aussie Rieslings can be pretty darn rough, preferring a little residual sugar in those wines (now who sounds like a wine snob?).
I knew I had found the person I wanted to oversee the Attica drinks program: someone who could democratise wine but still have a creative vision based on our shared principles of quality and integrity; someone who was an absolute expert on wine, but who didn’t act like one; someone who I knew would help people make great, informed decisions about what to drink.
But how to convince Jane to completely move her life halfway around the world? I’m certain that she wasn’t persuaded by my wine knowledge. Nevertheless, Jane took the opportunity and ran with it, developing our strongest-ever drinks program and team, in all the ways that matter to guests and to a chef-owner like me.
The three things I now know about wine, thanks to Jane:
Wine is mostly about farming. Humble winemakers like the great Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda will tell you, “All my work is in the vineyard.” The last time I visited Rick he was ﬁxing the vineyard motorbike. You won’t read about that in the next issue of Decanter.
The future of wine is women. It is not in men-only beef and Burgundy clubs. Men can’t help but let their egos get in the way with wine. In addition to the amazing Jane, it was my better half, Kylie, who “forced” me to make the ﬁrst visit to Giaconda. (She now calls Rick my “boyfriend.”) It was women who got this man into wine.
If you like a wine and it was made by people who care about the environment (and therefore care about you), it is good wine. Nothing more to say.
I’m certain by reading this book you’ll learn to love wine – if you don’t love it already – in the same way that I did: from Jane. Wet dogs and all.
– Ben Shewry