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What Makes a Wine Great? Maybe Not What You Think!

Vinted on April 30, 2008 binned in commentary, winemaking, zen wine

What makes a wine great?

I don’t mean great as in “pretty tasty, I like it, it’s got a nice beat and I can dance to it” great.

I mean eye-popping, life-changing, “the heavens opened ancient mythology style” great.

That’s a tough question, even for those of us in the wine biz, because so few of us have actually tasted a truly great wine.

I’m going to give you my view of what makes a wine great – and it’s probably not what you’d think.

But before I do that, I need to set the record straight about how I think greatness is judged in the first place…

Winemaking is more art than science. If you disagree with me on this one, then I invite you to read my previous post on the subject.

If you still disagree with me, then you might want to skip the rest of this article entirely, because the rest of this post will be drawing parallels between winemaking and art. For those of you who couldn’t stand art class, I apologize in advance!

Personal preference doesn’t matter. I don’t like pilsner beer. Does that mean that all pilsners are no good, or that they can never achieve greatness? I love the works of Picasso. Does that mean all of Picasso’s art is great? When you stop to think about it, it’s obvious that greatness has nothing to do with any one individual’s personal preferences (not matter how highly that individual might regard his/her own opinion…).

The light red wines of Medieval times would no doubt seem watery and insipid to our Parker-ized palates.

Collective preference does matter. The collective consciousness of a given society and its era in time does matter when it comes to greatness. This is borne out time and time again in art history – and in the annals of wine history as well. If you flip through the pages of Ancient Wine, or the superb Story of Wine, you will learn that the wine of the ancient Greeks and Romans likely would be too cloyingly sweet for our tastes today. The light red wines of Medieval times would no doubt have seemed watery and insipid to our Parker-ized palates. Times make the society; and societies make the collective decision on greatness.

Material matters – but not that much. Is a Picasso painting “greater” than a Picasso sculpture, just because the medium is different? Probably not. In wine, while some grapes (such as Concord) may never make truly great wine, it’s pure folly to discount any one of the “noble” grape varieties when it comes to greatness – all of them are capable of making a great wine. Unless you mixed them altogether. That would probably suck.

Is a Picasso painting “greater” than a Picasso sculpture, just because the medium is different?

Nature matters – and so does nurture. Old World winemakers will tell you that terroir – the nature and place from whence a grape came – is the determinant of whether or not the resulting wine can be great; the winemaker’s job is to interfere as little as possible with the natural process. New World winemakers will tell you that it is trough savvy vineyard practices and the use of modern technology in the wine cellar that greatness is achieved. They’re both right – start with a great pedigree, and finish with great care, and a wine may just achieve greatness.

So how can we measure a wine’s “greatness?”

In The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil offers 5 criteria that can be used to determine if a wine is great. Her take is as good as any other, so I’ll share a synopsis of it here:

  1. Distinct varietal character - a wine exemplifies the true characteristics of its grape(s)
  2. Integration – the wine’s components (alcohol, acidity, fruit, etc.) are harmonious
  3. Expressiveness – the aromas & flavors are clear & focused
  4. Complexity – like an artwork, the wine keeps you coming back, discovering more nuances each time
  5. Connectedness – the wine embodies qualities that link it to the specific place where it was made.

Not a bad list at all. I think it’s missing an important element, however. To me, the most important.

So I’d like to add something to Karen’s fantastic list: Great wine is like great art, or a peaceful meditation, or even a great life lived to its potential with humility and true grace.

Great wine is a Mystery.

By mystery, I don’t mean a problem to be rectified, a secret to be revealed, or a puzzle to be solved. I mean a Mystery like the seat of human consciousness in the brain, the origin of life, the feeling of love, and the nature of pure being.

Great wine is a true Mystery, because it is greater than the sum of its parts in a way that synthesizes our mental, physical, and spiritual selves; connecting us to ourselves, to each other, and to a place and time, and to the earth. The greater the wine, the less likely it is that any words will be capable of adequately describing the experience.


Great wine is a tiny miracle of the universe that cannot ever be fully explained.


Now, before you all start sending me lava lamps, crystals, or patchouli, remember the words of Albert Einstein – “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.

Which one would you pick?

Cheers!

(images: winefront.com.au, clevelandart.org, restaurantlacaravella.com, macedonian-heritage.gr)

Meditation By The Glass: The Mindfulness of Wine Appreciation

Vinted on April 14, 2008 binned in best of, learning wine, wine appreciation, wine tips, zen wine

(images: all from Joe’s house!)

Although I was raised in the shadow of Roman Catholicism, I am not by any stretch of the imagination a religious man.

In fact, after attending an Oblate grade school, a Franciscan high school, and a Jesuit university for undergrad, I ended up totally religiously-confused. Not exactly a poster-child for American religious education.

Still, despite being (more-or-less) totally religious-averse, I would consider myself a spiritual person. Over the last few years, my wife has introduced me to Zen and Buddhist principles that we have tried to integrate into our lives, with some great results. I don’t claim to understand any of the universe’s mysteries, but there is no denying (for me, at least) the powerful & moving experiences of communion I’ve felt when meditating.

“This small word – witnessing - contains the whole of spirituality.” – Osho

And by “meditating” I don’t just mean the familiar image we have of someone sitting on a pillow silently exploring the depths of their witnessing (though doing that is great and I’d highly recommend it to anyone). I mean going about your daily life activities and truly witnessing each moment of your life – trying to be “in the zone” and really living, treating every action you take as sacred – whether you are washing the dishes, walking the dog, negotiating an important business deal, playing music…

…Or tasting wine.

It’s by truly being meditative when tasting that we can most maximize both our enjoyment of wine and our wine appreciation skills…

I’ve written a few “glasses of zen” articles in the past, but I’ve never really explored how the simple act of witnessing can enhance the enjoyment of wine.

Some of the greatest noses in the wine business follow a similar “witnessing” tasting method, though they themselves may not call it meditation.

Take the love-him-or-leave-him wine critic Robert Parker, for example:

“When I put my nose in a glass, it’s like tunnel vision. I move into another world, where every bit of mental energy is focused on that wine.” - Robert M. Parker, Jr.

A similar tasting ethos has been expressed (quite eloquently) by the venerable Christie’s wine critic Michael Broadbent:

“You do not need to be an expert, or even that interested in wine to enjoy drinking it. But tasting is not the same as drinking… The important point is that there is a reason for every colour, smell and taste. Every facet of a wine’s effect on our senses… is meaningful. Exploring and understanding these facets helps us to appreciate a wine more fully.” – from Winetasting, by Michael Broadbent

Those are some serious big-league wine-tasters, whose opinions have been known to make-or-break sales for virtually any wine that they happen to taste. So, you don’t just need to take Dude’s word for it!

I could wax philosophical on how the quality of our focus may or may not increase the quality of our wine appreciation. But I’ll leave that one to the book Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine which has already explored it in great detail.

Instead, I will simply leave you with another quote, and then request that you do just one simple thing. Here’s the quote:

“Meditation is not something that we just do for 20 or 40 minutes every morning and then forget about. Meditation involves a principle of awareness that you can practice in every moment of your life.”Wildmind.org

Here’s the simple request:
The next time that try a glass of wine, really taste it, don’t just drink it. Don’t think, just taste.

If you find yourself marveling at how all the disparate aspects of nature have come together to allow you this moment of real, focused living – connecting you to the small miracle of how the fruit of a wild plant can end up producing the complex and pleasure-giving drink in the glass in front of you – well, my friend, then you “get it.”

Nothing left to do but sit back, relax, and offer up a small prayer of gratitude to the universe for the gift you have received.

Well, that and finish your glass, of course.


Cheers!

20 Things About Life I’ve Learned From Drinking Wine

Vinted on February 22, 2008 binned in best of, commentary, wine appreciation, wine tips, zen wine

(images: davidzinger.wordpress.com, elsnoozo.blogspot.com, history.com, aceface.com)

It’s been said in some Eastern traditions that to be born a human is a rare event. To be a human and to question the source of life (to become a Seeker) is rarer still. And rarest of all is to seek and find your guru, the way to enlightenment.

Well, I’ve had many gurus in my life. My dog, for example, has taught me a lot (including how to better smell my wine). Wine itself can be one of your life gurus, if you only take the time to pay attention to what it has to tell you.

“Reality is an illusion that occurs due to a lack of wine.”
- Anonymous

Inspired in part by a recent post in Zen Habits, below are 20 things about life that I’ve learned – from drinking wine. I fully expect that the list will grow, as my life journey of wine appreciation continues – but who knows, sometimes I’m stubborn, and I’m also prone to forget stuff, so I’d better share these now!

Roll up with me, if you will, and let’s enjoy together a glass of ‘Zen Wine‘…

20 Things About Life I’ve Learned From Drinking Wine

1) Old is Beautiful
Anyone caught up in our youth-worshiping culture need only to crack open a well-kept aged classified Bordeaux, taking in all of its complex aromas & flavors, to realize that not only do good things come to those who wait, but time offers the gift of real beauty to those who age with grace and humility.

2) Young is Beautiful
Fruit bombs can be fun – there’s something refreshing about the forward brashness of youth. If you want to stay young at heart, you need to keep a bit of youthful bravado, through thick & thin.

3) Nature matters
Start with a crappy vine, and you could end up with crappy wine. Start with a great old vine, and you’ve got a better chance of making some killer vino. We need to remember our roots – if you don’t really know where you’re starting from, you might not be able to get where you want to go!

4) Nurture matters, too
Just as good wine needs a caring hand in its development, we need to seek out strong role models and a positive environment to reach our best in life.

5) Real change comes from within
A great wine starts with a decent pedigree, loving hands during its formative time (fermentation, etc.), and a good environment in which to mature. After that, all the magic happens within the bottle with virtually no exposure to the ‘outside’ world. Like a great wine, once we’re given what we need to succeed in life, the rest is up to us!

6) The greatest pleasure is being in the moment
Pour, swirl, sniff, sip. If you want to get the most out of tasting a wine, you need to let yourself BE, clearing your mind and just accepting everything that the wine has to offer. In other words, you need to be in the moment. Tasting wine is a sacred act – just like walking the dog, getting married, making love, or reading the newspaper. All of our actions become minor miracles in the universe when we give ourselves up to them completely.

7) People & relationships matter more than stuff
We get just as much pleasure from sharing a good wine with good friends as we do tasting that good wine. Wine is a lubricant for life – not a substitute for it. The objects in your life should be used for your life (and not the other way around).

8) Sharing is caring
A friend of mine called me recently, telling me how excited he was that he would be pouring magnums of `60s Ch. Petrus at a dinner, and that he would probably get a chance to taste some of this amazing stuff. Why did he call? “I needed to tell someone who would appreciate it!” he said. The better things in life, like wine, are best when they’re shared.

9) One size does not fit all
I don’t like Retsina. In fact, I hate Retsina. But there are people out there who love it. And both are totally OK. There are over 7,000 brands of wine available to consumers in the U.S. – and that’s AWESOME. Because variety (especially of varietals!) really is the spice of life.

10) We have a duty to ‘Go Green
Wine is arguably the best and most artistic interpretation of the bounty that the earth has to offer us (the French terrior concept shows that they figured this out a long time ago!). We owe a debt to mother nature to be sustainable and nurture her as she has done for us (and hopefully will do for our children).

11) Looks can be deceiving
My wife used to buy bottles of wine because they had pretty labels. And a lot of them sucked. Don’t judge based on appearances – eventually, it will burn you.

12) Not everyone ages gracefully
I’ve tasted decades-old Barolos that were still tannic. I’ve tasted aged Rieslings that smelled more like vinegar than flowers & petrol. Some people just get crotchety and negative, and they’re best avoided.

13) All things in moderation
I’ve tasted a lot of wine. Sometimes a lot of wine in one night. And sometimes, I’ve hugged some toilets. Trust me, things are best when they’re not overdone!

14) A place for everything, & everything in its place
You can’t age wine just anywhere, and having the right storage system makes keeping wine a hell of a lot easier. Life is smoother and more tranquil when you remove clutter from your surroundings (and your mind).

15) The best views come from the toughest climbs
The most beautiful views usually come from the highest peaks, and you’re going to need to do some difficult climbing to see them. Most of the best wine on earth is picked, sorted, and managed by hand – made even more difficult when done from steep hillsides at high altitudes. A labour of love & passion may not be easy, but it usually gets you the best of what life has to offer.

16) Sometimes we need to be challenged to show our best
Better wines come from better fruit, and better fruit comes from vines that are stressed (for water, nutrients, etc.). When we are challenged, we grow. And when we step up to the challenges of life, we really know what we’re made of.

17) You are what you eat (& drink)
If a wine is fed bad water, on bad soil, and doused with pesticides, it’s probably going to turn out bad. Which is why you should never drink plonk if you can avoid it. Also – never cook with a wine that you wouldn’t drink! Our bodies are not that different and they don’t take well to being fed lousy eats. Eat food, mostly vegetables, not too much. Give your body the best chance it can have, by giving it the best food you can get.

18) “The secret to being a bore is to tell everything”
Wines that don’t have much complexity can get really boring, really quickly. Wines that evolve over time in the glass, revealing layer upon layer of aromas and flavors, are among the world’s most exciting. Leave a bit of mystery to life, and to yourself - not everything can be explained, and not everything is worth explaining.

19) Never stop learning
If you want to appreciate wine, you will need to learn a bit of science, geography, history, biology, chemistry… I’m sure you get the point. As Ghandi said, “live as if you will die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever.”

20) Your greatest asset is Patience
If you want to taste a wine aged to perfection, then you need to wait and let it age to perfection, undisturbed, without your meddling. Lao Tzu asked if you have the patience to wait until the ‘muddy water’ of your mind is clear.

And as Pete Townshend asked “Well… do ya?!?

Cheers!

My Readers are Smarter, More Talented, and More Attractive than Me (Reader Haiku)

Vinted on February 21, 2008 binned in wine blogging, wine review, zen wine

(image: dailyzen.com)
It’s official.

1WineDude.com readers are smarter, funnier, more talented, and in all likelihood more attractive than I am. I say this because:

  1. I am arguably an impish gnome with a half-baked palate trying to earn an honest living from near-constant drinking (curse you, Zane Lamprey – you stole my job!), and
  2. I have received incontrovertible proof of how awesome 1WineDude.com readers are.

Long-time Dude friend and 1WineDude.com reader WillyBouy (a.k.a., WeeRee-San) has rewritten my twitter wine Mini-Reviews

…As haiku! And they’re better than my original reviews! Just try this example on for size – let’s compare my original with WillyBouy’s reworked version:

Original:
`06 Sauvignon Republic Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley): Just not into this wine. Citrus and tropical fruits, but what’s w/ the toast?

As haiku:
`06 Sauvignon Republic Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley):
why does toast surprise
the citrus, tropical fruits?

Climbing out of here.

And my personal favorite -

Original:
’06 Misterio Malbec (Argentina):
Coats yer palate like smokey black fruit tar. A steal at $7

haiku:
’06 Misterio Malbec (Argentina):
palate is soothed

smokey black fruit tar
wallet is still fat!

Classic! Read on for more excellent haiku versions. Thanks, WillyBouy!


’05 Bracco Chianti Classico (Italy):
bracco soprano

still struggles to find her voice
-
reduced, overpriced.

`06 Touraine Sauvignon La Pointe Domaine Ricard:
pink grapefruit grenade

launched from the valley loire

tingles the nose bright.

`05 La Crema Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast, CA):
red berry hinting smoke
tasting great in the moment
is there a future?

’00 Ch. de Sales (Pomerol, Fr):
a mouse in the house
-
supple velvety red fruit
leaves no worries.

’06 Misterio Malbec (Argentina):
palate is soothed

smokey black fruit tar
wallet is still fat!

`04 Quintessa Cab (Rutherford, CA):
fruit as black as night
finishing suburb complex

lay your money down.

`05 Bon Cap Cab Sav (Robertson, SA):
softly the blind feel

red currants dance free
-
organic bliss now.

NV Perrier-Jouet Fleur de Chapagne (Epernay, Fr):
apple pear bubbles

burst in nose with toasty spice
-
heart leaping joyous!

`05 Le Premier Pas Domaine Le Pas de l’Escalette (Cot. du Languedoc):
grapes of the south Rhone
-
french red without the shackles
blend harmonious

`05 Banfi Centine (Tuscany, It):
burnt cherry sunrise

to sunset gently biting
-
economico rosso.

Ratzenberger Spatburgunder `04 (Bacharacher, DE):
alcohol pools a

slowly drifting berry boat

nicely delicate

`03 Savigny-les-Beaune “Le Grands-Liards” Patrick Javillier-Guyot (Meursalt):
leather greets nicely

but calls out for fruit hidden
-
prudence calls to me.

Aleveda Vinho Verde (Portugal):
drunk in the meadow

crispy spritzy citrus-y

pennies drop lightly.

Frog’s Leap `05 Napa Zin:
plum, blackberry yes

sweet toasted coconut hugs

vanilla oak, yum.

Opus One `98 (Oakville, CA):
a bad year undone
fruit, red and black, on oak

dear in all respects.

Twin Brook Cab. Franc (Pennsylvania):
wafting red berry
but tepid palate saddens
-
all hope is lost now.

`05 Rosso Piceno Tourquis Brunori (Marche, It):
sangiovese

joins montepulciano
kicking me to smile.

`04 Domaine André Bonhomme Viré-Clessé (Burgundy):
bourgeosie madam

proletariat nightspot
-
apricot, oak – class

NV Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle (Champagne):
fresh baked almond bread
with honey triumphs – grace and strength

my spirits soaring.

’03 Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino (Italy):
pour, sniff, slurp – again

cherries and leather greet me

with a warm embrace.

’06 Lorenzino Ettore Germano Dolcetto d’Alba (Italy):
cherries, tobacco
sing out harmoniously
-
could be livelier.

`05 Ravenswood Old Vines Zin (CA):
berry and spice nice

for the right amount of dough

haiku cannot rhyme

Cheers!

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