Authenticity In Wine And Why It Matters

Authenticity in Wine:  People, Dirt, Love.

Welcome back all you wine lovers and those that search for deeper wisdom in the glass.

I just returned from a long 2 week+ wine sales trip throughout the Southeast and the East Coast.  In 15 days I visited Denver, Arkansas, DC/VA/Maryland, New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette.  It was an amazing food trip, was successful from the sales side, but I did miss being away from home and my wife for so long.  But I ate alligator and snapping turtle–two new proteins for me (I feel better about eating things that would bite me back)!

As I travel throughout the country selling wine, I feel like I am uniquely qualified to speak to the emerging food and wine culture in this country.  I get to see (and eat at) some of the best restaurants in the country–and we are living in a golden age of culinary gentrification.  I’ve seen it in places like Little Rock, Lafayette and Las Vegas.  Point Reyes, Peoria and Pensacola.

Dining ‘Authentically’ is Becoming Easier and Easier Throughout the US.

And it’s not just fine dining.  It’s curated menus that showcase place–actual farms with people who actually care about food and nutrition.  I see it as a niche-but-important cultural shift of a small but vocal group of educated and connected people that (at least publically) demand better, healthier, and authentic sustenance.

Is this just a Sunday-brunch show of waxed-moustache and tattoo sleeve hipsters?   When no one is watching, and outside of their blog, do they secretly eat McDonalds and wallow in self-inflicted schadenfreude?  Or is this the beginning of a fundamental rejection of factory farming and food that makes us sick?  Obviously it’s both, and it’s meaningful for a small group of people.  And those people generally love wine.

Fine wine offers a promise:  You Will Taste the Place.

For an example of this culture’s emergence, I offer the example of the Barred Owl Butchery in Columbia, Missouri.  Certainly not a cultural backwater with Mizzou in the center–but the Barred Owl is outside of town in a building that could as easily have been a road house–but inside they make magic.  Not only does the bar make all of their own bitters, pickles, cocktails, etc., they have an in house charcuterie/salumi production kitchen and age all of their own iterations of salted, aged pig.  The wine list is geeky when you need it to be with some blue chip staples to keep the locals happy, by the glass options are well-tended and affordable, and the menu is enlightened comfort food with a strong, fresh focus.  I’ve had delicious Bahn Mi, Matzo-ball soup and one of the best hot dogs I’ve ever had there.

Ben Parks, Chef at Barred Owl.  He Gets It.

The difference, of course, is the people.  From ownership to management to kitchen to waitstaff, there has to be a belief in the restaurant’s vision–and places that are committed to serving me good food are elevated to the heroic in my world.  In an often cold and chaotic world, hospitality is the thread that keeps us woven together around joy and plates of yumminess.

OK–so there’s good restaurants everywhere.  Am I just noticing this?  Maybe.  the more we travel the more we see, and certainly good, healthy food isn’t new.  But I believe the need for authenticity has never been more acute in fine dining and wine as it is right now, as we look for ways to reconnect with our environment and those we love.  So wine is a big part of this ‘Table Phenomenon’.  I like to say that wine is an investment to keep the people we love at table an extra hour every day. So there’s the authentic food, and getting off our devices for some time every night to eat and drink and talk.  Authentic food.  Authentic conversation and table experience.  And then there’s the wine.

What makes a wine authentic, and does it matter in drinking it?  To 95%+ of folks that drink wine, provenance and place have little importance.  Most folks want a good tipple of red or white or rose’, and they want a good value.  Like commercially farmed meat or dairy, there may be some negative connotations attached to high-production winegrape farming:  higher reliance on chemical inputs, lower wages for workers, a sense that the winemaking is too large and ‘corporate’ to make an authentic product.  Small producers are ‘garagistes’, romantically poised over a barrel in a dark cellar with a thief and wine glass in hand.  Cranking out a million gallons in a tank farm makes robot wine.  Good, cheap swill that is not even worth talking about in foodie circles.

Authentic Often Means: ‘Small, Healthy and Artisanal’.    Should It?

Wine may be responsible for an emerging insistence that our food be clean, healthy and connected to family farms that ‘do the right thing’.  What product better illustrates a sense of farming, place and sustainability more than a great bottle of wine?  Was there ever a product that spoke of place historically (vintage) and agriculturally (soil/climate) before wine?  Did the success of wine from small producers and under-represented varietals show the culinary world they could get creative as well?  Did wine gift us an insistence for authenticity, or has it brought us back from the edge of corporate-injected culinary ennui?

Food needs wine and wine needs food.

As celebrity chefs such as Julia Child in the 1970’s are responsible for the popularity of fine wine in the US, so too has fine wine elevated American Cuisine.  International travel has become more affordable, so more and more Americans want dining experiences such as they had/have on the Continent.  Fancy dining has led to an industry of new restaurant concepts, and within that subset there is an emerging demographic that demands authenticity, or at least the perception of it.

For me, authentic wine:

Has less to do with the case count and more to do with the engagement of the winemaker in the vineyards, harvest and maturation of the wine.  I’ve had amazing, authentic wine from a Napa producer that was a 100,000 case production, and terrible wine from a biodynamic vineyard that was a single barrel.  Craft matters.
Shows beautifully with food.  The bottle wasn’t made to impress a critic with concentration, but instead shows verve and balance and beauty.  Or it can be ripe and concentrated, there are plenty of authentic wines that go down this route, I just don’t prefer them with food.
Was farmed by someone who cares.  They could manage 10 acres or 10,000.  A vineyard manager who is also a wine geek is a huge bonus, and perhaps more rare than it should be.
Can be any wine that is consumed gleefully with wonderful people and food.  Am I saying that even a conventionally grown and made wine (less than authentic in a vacuum), can be made authentic in context?  Yes, I am!  If the wine in the glass is delicious and balanced, I don’t even need to know what it is.

Time, love and delicious things make wine, and everything else in life, better.