Democracy in a Decanter

The Good Food Fight

At almost any wine tasting, the same precisely obscure terminology is used to describe the taste of the drink: a scent of stone fruit, balanced flavors, excessively young tannins. But to me, a certain unknown German wine evoked more unfamiliar qualities: a scent of gasoline or paint thinner, watery—perhaps not the sort of flavor profile the traditional elitists of the wine world would deem worthy of such analysis. But I found it intriguing. Sitting in Brooklyn Winery, as I sipped my friend’s wine—poured from draft, no less—I believed the taste to signify the end of elitism in the wine world.

Wine has often been seen as a luxury item, where a higher price tag is associated with a higher quality product. This supposedly necessary costliness, combined with an extremely obscure, specialized terminology for wine description, is enough to intimidate any amateur oenophile. But, most of all, it has been the enduring strength of tradition itself in the wine world that has made its consumption unreachable for many.

According to conventional wisdom, there are proper methods for decanting and serving wine, coupled with appropriate settings for doing so—fine dining, romantic dates, fancy parties. But Brooklyn Winery sets out to challenge all of these assumptions and to make the world of wine more accessible in the process. There is no air of pretension, no staunch holding to tradition. Brooklyn Winery makes wine from California-grown grapes in-house and serves them on draft. They have trivia nights, beer nights, and half-glass tastings every night. They even provide an extensive guide in the back of their wine menu explaining wine flavors, common terminology, and grape varietals.

Most compelling of all, though, Brooklyn Winery also offers various “winemaking” packages, enabling customers to crush their own grapes or design their own labels.  In these simple acts of creativity, power is reattributed—that is, the power to know and enjoy good wine and to determine how to enjoy it—from the winemakers and professional critics to the individual citizen. As Brooklyn Winery’s site reads, “No wine snobbery allowed!”

Brooklyn Winery is part of a growing movement in the wine world that is edging towards accessibility and democratization. As reported by the wine industry blog on Winespiritsdaily.com, younger consumers of wine are not only partially responsible for the 13-year annual boost in wine drinking, but also seek adventure in their wine choices. We millenials “view wine as an affordable luxury” and “don’t see wine as elitist or unattainable,” according to the site. The record number of attendees this year in the non-credit wine course taught by Harvard Kirkland House Master and Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of Visual and Environmental Studies Tom Conley seems to support these claims. Students come to the bi-weekly seminar interested and involved, eagerly conquering an ever more accessible body of knowledge in the world of wine.

Indeed, the wine industry is well aware of these new wine consumers pushing towards egalitarianism. A number of wine brands and retailers have catered to this need, including one company in particular, 90+ Cellars (for whom I have the pleasuring of working as an intern).

90+ Cellars buys highly rated wine from across the globe, bottles it under their own label, and sells it at a fraction of the original price. Such methods allow for the flourishing of accessibility to great wine, or as 90+ Cellar’s tagline reads, to provide “Great Wine. Anytime.”

So forget that fancy cheese pairing for your sauvignon blanc, and try some take-out sushi instead. Forget buying from a fancy winery, and try making your wine at home. And forget the classic glass decanter, and try, as author of “Modernist Cuisine” Nathan Myhrvold suggests, to decant your wine in a blender. While some traditions are great in their own right, in challenging tradition there is a more vital challenge to the elitism and snobbery of the wine world and a move toward more democratic drinking.

—Columnist Natalie C. Padilla can be reached at npadilla@fas.harvard.edu.

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