My philosophy on this subject was honed during my 3 years working with a wine importer in the Twin Cities. While I had enjoyed wine for many years, it was there that my appreciation elevated to what it is today. I worked with people who loved wine in an entirely different way than I had thought of and taught me so much about its origins, its place in culture, and the ways and methods of which it is produced. I met wine makers from all over the world and what I learned was that wine is much more than what's in your glass.

So, what I'm about to write is nothing new to people who are passionate about wine. They will relate to everything I say here. But I'll try to put this into my own words and hopefully give some of you a new perspective on wine, it's place and its impact on culture.

One of the first things I noticed after working in the wine industry was that many wine people use the word 'correct' when describing a wine. Correct? I was just used to thinking that wine was good or bad. How is a wine correct? This is a very interesting question and a very important concept.

You may or may not have noticed that in many other regions of the world, especially Europe, wines are not named for the variety of the primary grape used in making them. Here in the U.S. we call our wines Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. But in Europe they call wines by region like Bordeaux, Sancerre, and Barolo, among many others. Is there a grape named Bordeaux? A grape named Sancerre or Barolo? Nope! These are the regions from which they come. Red Bordeaux is made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, while Sancerre is made from Sauvignon Blanc and Barolo from Nebbiolo. California uses some of these very same grapes but the wines are very different from the ones made in Bordeaux, Sancerre, and Barolo. Why?

There are a number reasons for this but one of the most important is that the grapes are grown and the wines are made in a different 'place'. The climate is different, the soil is different, the wind patterns are different, the rainfall and the temperature differences from day to night are different. The length of the growing season is different, and even the latitude and angle of the sun's rays make a difference. The French have a word for which there is no English equivalent. The word is 'terroir' (pronounced terr-WHAr). Terroir includes all of the qualities above and more and each is integral to the characteristics of the final product. Cultures develop from terroir. And as food and wine are both the result of terroir, culture can also be expressed through food and wine. To extrapolate, wine and food very much represent culture.

Irrigation changes terroir and therefore is not used in France and is usually not used in Italy when growing viniferous grapes for wine. (The exclusion of irrigation is traditionally called "dry farming".) Therefore, the terroir remains pure and is an expression of the natural climate changes that occur from day to day and year to year. Now it is up to the winemaker (a term I really don't like) to "get out of the way" and let the grapes express the terroir though wine. This does not mean that technology, science, or art is not used. It is. And technology has made European wine in the last 20 years better than it ever has been. But the wine remains a representation of the terroir of a given place and vintage.

Most New World, and expecially California winemakers, on the other hand, seem to like the concept of "building" a wine. Irrigation is almost always used and whereas oak barrels are primarily used in Europe just to elevate (age) the wine, they are sometimes used in California to flavor wines, even using oak in the form of chips or tea-bags. American oak has larger pores than French and most other European oak and therefore, can impart a more "oaky" flavor to the wine. New oak adds more oaky flavor to the wine than previously used oak and as a rule much more new oak is used in California than in Europe. Most European wineries will use the same oak barrels for many vintages. Thus, the term 3rd passage, 4th passage, etc. is used to state in how many previous vintages the barrels have been used. In Europe new oak barrels are used only in a small percentage of a given vintage of a specific wine. The concept here is that wine ages differently in wood than it does in stainless steel or cement because wood is a porous material. Therefore, there is a very slow exchange of oxygen from the outside environment that cannot be achieved using steel or cement. As a result of this exchange, the wine level in the barrel drops over time and thus the term 'topping the wine" is used to describe the process of adding a bit of wine to the barrel every so often to keep as little of the aging wine exposed to air as possible.

The pairing of food and wine is an art, and some would say a science. And again, this is where culture comes into play. Most of the time, using a bit of knowledge, you won't go wrong if you pair food and wine from the same culture or region of the world. So, which came first - the chicken or the egg? (OK. Dinosaurs were here long before chickens, so I'll go with the egg.) The same question can be asked of food and wine. Did people make their wines to pair with their food or create food dishes to pair with their wines? I can see an argument for both, but I would like to think it's the latter. As wine remains, to me, pure in concept with its representation of terroir, combinations of indigenous foodstuffs can be created to pair with a specific wine. Either way, many older cultures have developed around the wine and foodstuffs of their milieu.

So a wine is correct if it honestly represents the terroir or 'place' from which it comes. Most European grapes are indigenous to their regions and many wine geeks can tell a French Bordeaux from the aroma (nose) alone. Same with Barolo, red or white Burgundy, etc. I have colleagues that can tell if a wine is vinified using the ambient yeasts of the vineyard or was inoculated later with non-indigenous yeast. Every region on earth is a distinct terroir and experienced wine people can tell a specific terroir from the inherent qualities of the wine that it produces.

I find that amazing!