The World to Wine

The ancient practice of winemaking is good for the spirit, but the spirits are not always so good.

The old yearning toward physical self-sufficiency for families and clans runs strong in uncertain times. It is stoutest in the country if only because more self-sufficiency is feasible on dirt than on pavement, and nearly all of us rustics, whether we have “returned to the land” or never left there in the first place, have a medium-to-large shot of it flowing in our veins. Society being complex and many-tentacled, self-sufficiency these days tends to be fragmentary at best, but that doesn’t lessen an addict’s satisfaction in short-circuiting the Great Machine, cheating the System, rolling his own, and coming up with something he needs and can use, general at small cost. No home regardless of its structural quirks will ever be more his than the one his hands have erected or restored to beauty and function; no meal will ever fill him more pleasantly full than that dinner in lavish June when every piece of food on the table, save perhaps a little olive oil and salt and such, comes off his own place.

As for drink on that same table, someone has written also that no wine will ever taste bad that you have made yourself, a statement with a nice ring to it that crops up in books and articles on home winemaking. Unfortunately it is a lot of Pollyanna nonsense. Unless the average beginning winemaker has extraordinary luck in the matter of his raw materials as well as in the details of his manipulations of them, and unless he has a very shallow awareness of just how good wine can be, his is going to turn out a certain amount of what even he can recognize as slop. He is going to turn out some potable wine too, whether sooner or later, and when he does he is going to give it the full benefit of a doubt because it is his own, as I do when I tell myself (and sometimes others, to my shame) that a particularly early batch of acid red, made by guess and by God from garden grapes of indifferent quality, is better than some wine I have had in Europe—without adding that in far nooks of Pyrenees and elsewhere, long ago in roaming days, I have been served some really awful, tooth-roughening stuff.

But, like doctors, we dabblers with wine have the privilege of burying our worst mistakes, as the live oaks around my house can bear witness, their roots having absorbed several libations of fluid judged unfit for human consumption after fermentation and aging. And eventually we grow warier, wiser, and a little better at our craft—or at least I assume from watching others that “we” do, my own experience having been limited and sporadic to date and my growth having reached only the wary, half-wise stage. The idea, of course, is to produce something that people can not only drink but like, and thus far I have turned out only a modest quantity that could be offered to visitors with a fair chance of achieving this. Most of it has been mead, which is honey wine, the stuff our distant Nordic forebears guzzled from bull’s horns and human skulls in warriors’ halls in winter, while banging on the table for more roast wild pig and telling philosophical tales of murder and pillage and rape along the Irish coast.

No guest of ours has been rendered violent from quaffing this mild beverage, made dry rather than sweet and without any heavy spicing. It is a good table drink, especially with light food. True, it isn’t really wine, but then neither are many of other concoctions that the fermentation fever leads us beginners into brewing out of peaches, blackberries, plums, potatoes, and other organic matter. Sugar plus enzymes yields alcohol plus carbon dioxide, goes the oft-cited equation, crudely put, and anything left over is flavor, which in skilled hands can be manipulated with sometimes surprising success, as when what started out as the juice of parsnips or rhubarb stalks, for instance, may end up tasting like a pretty good dry sherry.

Usually, though, what comes out is less epicurean, not that this matters hugely to the average home practitioner, in whom pride of creation most often outweighs such picayune matters as flavor, unless the flavor is truly vile. In its purest form, I suppose, this attitude was to be found on the Pacific islands during World War II among uniformed makers of jungle juice, which they fabricated out of canned fruit cocktail or dried prunes or whatever presented itself, and, waiving other criteria, evaluated purely on jolt. Elsewhere in later years, undoubtedly out of cultural prejudice, I have thought to see the same principle at work in such regional products as retsina and pulque. The applicable equation here seems to be person plus alcohol in whatever form but in sufficient quantity yields kick plus eventual headache, and so it has ever been. Crudely put.

And yet, infected with cosmopolitanism of our time and of whatever reading and travels lie behind us, we amateur fermenters do aspire to more civilized production—i.e., to real wine usually imbibed at least as much for the way it tastes as for what it does to the taster. Real wine is of course the transmuted juice of the grape, that magical, simple liquid wich the Greeks said was brought to them by a god, in whose honor they held great annual orgies, and which the otherwise rational French compare to sunshine itself. Imitating it through the use of other materials than grapes is very hard—and rather silly too, since making it doesn’t amount to much or doesn’t seem to, as anyone knows well who has watched a French or Spanish or Italian farmer laying in his year’s supply. In it simplest red-wine form, the process consists of gathering ripe, sweet grapes, mashing them with bare feet or otherwise, letting the whole mess bubble for some days in a tub before pressing the juice from the hulls and seeds

Tags: WINE

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