The Value of Vino

I’ve been blogging with growing momentum over the last few months, and I have to admit, I’ve been really impressed with the quality of wine writing coming from the online community, specifically among WordPress writers. The amount of talent and knowledge and passion out there is mind-boggling. I want to contribute, so this post is my submission to the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge; this month’s topic is “value”.

The definition of value is one of extreme subjectivity whenever it is used in the English language. Our first reaction is to say: “Well, it’s about price-versus-quality,” but in reality it’s about price-versus-appreciability; and that’s where the bias comes in.

What we appreciate and how much we appreciate a given attribute of something is radically different from person to person. The easiest material examples are things like $1500 purses or $10 000 watches. Some people find value there and most others think it’s ridiculous. More broadly, we apply the term emotionally, spiritually or morally. We often declare, in response to someone else’s thoughts or actions, things like: “Obviously, our values are quite different.”

In wine, value is something we all (barring the super-rich) look for, whether you’re buying multiple litres in a plastic jug/bag or pawning small appliances to afford a single bottle of rare, old grape juice. What’s interesting is that when people use the term value in reference to wine, they may be indicating something entirely superficial or something dramatically profound, but no usage of the word is any more or less valid than any other. To bastardize a cliché: value is in the eye of the beholder.

We can all at least agree that wine can be appreciated for many different qualities by different people in different situations. Even the same people can appreciate different attributes of a given wine under specific circumstances. But let’s start with the basics: what are those qualities that are so prized?

Firstly, let’s evaluate wine as an intoxicant. No one will debate that if wine were stripped of its alcoholic content, worldwide interest would undoubtedly plummet. However, for everyone who has seen (or been) the person in the liquor store looking for the best price-to-plastered ratio (which at last check was some barrel-dredged no-name French brandy), people who consume wine may appreciate its intoxicating ability, but that in of itself does not hold particular value for them. In other words: there are faster, cheaper ways to get drunk if that’s you’re primary endgame.

Working our way through the superficial stuff: fermented grape juice is tasty. Wine is pretty: it might be bubbly or strikingly coloured. It smells good. Of all our senses, smell is most closely tied to memory, so even a casual drinker can be transported to a time or place where they enjoyed that particular glass. It can be sweet or bitter; thirst quenching in the sun and like a warm blanket in the cold. It’s varied, so everyone can find a wine they like. It often signals celebration: momentous occasions religious and secular are punctuated with it. Wine can keep you company if you’re lonely and never disagrees with you, but it can help you make friends if you let it.

And then there’s the deep stuff. The things about wine that make it unlike any other beverage in the world. The unsolved mysteries that keep us up at night; keep us reading and writing and traveling and sipping all along the way. Which brings me to University.

When I started University, I was an unmotivated, undeclared arts major who eked into a mediocre school. I liked all my first-year courses: history, human geography, sociology, psychology and political science. What I ended up pursuing was political science, because I found it to be the culmination of each of the other fields; a subject in which a greater understanding could only be achieved by the comprehension of each contributing factor. The apex of development of thousands of years of human legacy interlaced with a profound sense of the modern world. Okay, okay, so I was pretty naïve, and poli-sci was a bust. But I remember believing that at the time, and drawing my motivation to study from that faith.

The point is: these are the things I value in wine. When I discovered the tip of the iceberg of wine, I dove deep and found the history, geography, geology, climatology, astronomy, astrology, religion, faith, dedication, work, magic and luck that are each an inseparable component of every drop of fermented juice. When I take a sip of a special glass, I see the vineyards that begot the grapes, the hands of the people that mothered them and the painstakingly detailed trial-and-error process taking place over generations, climaxing into the best the vintage could offer, along with a promise to do better next year, God and Mother Nature willing.

So as you can imagine, I sometimes find value in considerably expensive wine, but only when I believe those elements are present. Artificial value holders like market demand, rarity and brand-recognition skew our ability to perceive what is actually in the glass. Though tasting such wines can provide an intellectual thrill, nothing can compete with holistic rapture that comes from a wine with a sense of place and time.

That’s not to say I begrudge the frugal buyer; I still congratulate him/her on the decision to drink something they will enjoy to whatever end they desire. Perhaps full disclosure will act as my conclusion: my blog writing companion this evening was an Insolia selected solely for the bright red “sale” tag offering a value-worthy €3.19 at the local IperCoop (the equivalent of Wal-Mart). You know what? It was fine. And there’s enough left over to start my pasta sauce. Which we’re going to eat on the terrace between the mountains and the sea where any bottle of wine we open, no matter what the cost, is guaranteed to be fantastic value.

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