The first wine I ever purchased was Beringer White Zinfandel. It was cheap, pronounceable, from California and recommended to me by a friend. As I began to branch out, I’d select wines based on how fetching the label was; abstract art, pop art, naughty words—all winners as long as the wine was sweet enough to gobble down those first sips.
This is how it goes for most. Evolution beyond this foray into comfort-zone drinking happens for too few. While not as extreme, this same pattern emerges for art as well. Do you draw like a 12-year old? There’s a reason for that, and it might not be because you suck at drawing. Most people don’t get encouragement to keep at it, to put in the anything nearing the 10,000 hours necessary for mastery. But drinking wine? 10,000 glasses won’t cut it.
Having recently tasted my first wine from Massachusetts and survived, I realized I’ve been comfort zone drinking for quite some time. Even my wording—“survived”—reflects something much more dramatic. You’d think that I’d just tried pufferfish or sipped out of what I hoped was the real Holy Grail. I survived?
People fear change, and I’m no exception. While I’ve been living on the wild side when it comes to different types of wines from different parts of the world, I’ve neglected stateside. South Dakota? Texas? Massachusetts? Illinois?
To be sure, I’ve tried my fair share of stateside wines. Red Ass Rhubarb is produced by Prairie Berry Winery in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I think it’s probably the most popular wine coming out of South Dakota, and part of that is—I think—the homonym power of the word “ass.” There’s a world of difference between a donkey and a derriere, and in the very polite realm of the Upper Midwest, this playfulness of language is a nice reprieve from social mores.
Things grow serious when studying the research coming out of places like the University of Minnesota as they attempt to develop heartier varietals that grow faster and withstand the extreme climes, among other amazing things. Illinois is a little different with French settlers recognizing a familiar climate and planting familiar grapes dating back to 1778. But what happened? Illinois is definitely not on the map when it comes to competing with the west coast wines. While I’ve tried several Illinois wines, I forget about them as I slink back to my comfort zone made up of Italy and Washington, Australia and Chile, France or California. What about New York? Texas? Arizona?
Not too long ago, I watched a documentary about Tool’s Maynard Keenan and his winemaking. Called Blood Into Wine, it delves deep into not only the man and his wines (one of his vineyards is called Merkin Vineyards, and yes, that’s funnier than Red Ass Rhubarb and might illustrate the difference between Upper Midwesterners and folks from the Southwest) but wine growing in Arizona. While I found the documentary enthralling, I soon forgot to look for Arizona wines; the lull of the comfort zone was too compelling and comfortable for me to break free from.
Over a year later, I found myself in Massachusetts in October. If you don’t know, this is the time when vineyards harvest their grapes and crush them for their delicious juices. Hence, this is also referenced as simply “crush.” And so, with crush on my mind, I stopped by Westport Rivers Winery and jumped through the hoops of not only a tasting but a hayride. I discovered that this place produces incredible sparkling wines that have been recognized all the way up to the White House as well as an array of other varietals ranging from intriguing to typical (which is a feat given how exotic the location seemed to me) to stunning.
I grabbed a few bottles and took them home to conduct a more thorough examination, all the while reminding myself that while the climate is very similar to Champagne, France, there are clear differences. Massachusetts is not France. The soil is different. The sun is different. The wind is different. What ends up in the glass has to be different…doesn’t it?
Comfort zones are good. Comfort zones are necessary. But boredom is just shades away. Illinois isn’t exactly known as an exotic destination, unless you’re considering its AVAs. Live wild. Try something other than West Coast the next time you’re imbibing.
And now, some of my notes on wines that aren’t readily available in Illinois. Yet.
I’ve had a couple different Massachusetts reds by now (all non-vintage and all blends), and I’m starting to suss out what I think can be considered a characteristic: they’re light yet viscous, sweet yet you sense that the sugars are holding back something fierce and tannic, and this “ferocity” (I know I’m reaching here, but bear with me) gives off subtle old world perfumes of forest, mushrooms, dirt and, well, stink. I freakin’ love it.
This Sakonnet Red (blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and something new to me, Chancellor) can be described as such. The acidity wasn’t as plentiful as I would have liked, so if you’re planning on eating something rich with this, you might be snuffing out much more of the delicate qualities that tempt me to call this wine elegant. It’s not quite there, but it has enough complexity to linger on each sip. Just a bit.
As I was smelling this wine, I found myself in one of those situations where it really helps to have a wine to compare it with. The comparing or “control” wine was a Chardonnay. This wine, a Gruner Veltliner, was very—I’m just going to have to say this: You know how if you fear you’re smelling a fart, you, in almost a panic, smell feverishly, inhaling so deeply and with such earnest intent, you remind yourself that this is why so many people do yoga and so, too, should you. But instead of relaxation and increased blood to your brain, you are working on a hunch of something amiss in the air. Well, that’s like what happens when you smell the Gruner; you keep getting hints of something very non-fruit-like. Whether it’s white pepper or something bitter and strange that you get when you smell a strange weed, it all happens on the tails of a plume of subtle citrus and soft fruity and floral aromas typical of a white wine and minerals much like it had just rained on a pile of rocks. As the wine warmed, apple aromas filled the glass.
The mouthfeel of this wine lends to a medium-body feel (think 2% milk versus skim or whole). It’s one of those wines where I get a bit of yeast on the finish. I’m not sure if I’m even referring to that correctly. Nonetheless, its bouquet is realized, and I’m grateful it’s not just another sweet, fruity white. There’s something spicy in this white that I’m just in love with.
On the nose, the fruit is so lush and ripe, it’s as if it was a vine-ripened pineapple/orange/cantaloupe/papaya/banana Monsanto monstrosity that was so ripe, if you touched it, your finger would pierce all the way through and the juice, more like sap, would ebb from the wound. Not drip but ebb.
There’s clearly been some toasted oak involved with this wine with the butter and caramel fuming in the fruit, but it not overwhelming. It’s strange, but there’s a type of restraint in this Chardonnay that I was fearing wouldn’t be there. In this way, it’s interesting. I keep smelling it in anticipation of something I can’t quite identify finally coming to the fore. Alas, it won’t come.