I have been fortunate to be able to travel to many of the world's wine-producing areas. Such travel provides an essential education. I can stand in my kitchen and taste dozens of wines, but it's hard to get the complete picture without visiting the place to see the terrain, feel the weather, meet the vintners and sample the cuisine.
In France's Languedoc region, for example, the nearly constant wind carries the scent of garrigue, the umbrella term for the ubiquitous scrubby bushes of wild thyme, gorse, laurel, fennel and other aromatic plants that seem to perfume many of the wines. In Priorat, in Spain's Catalonia region, the vines struggle to provide a crop on impossibly steep slopes that contain large amounts of a blackish slate called llicorella, which results in wines of great power and intensity. The riesling wines of Germany's Mosel Valley derive their crystalline minerality from a different kind of slate that litters the steep slopes rising above the river.
You can read about these characteristics -- believe me, I have -- but to truly appreciate it you have to sniff the air, stand astride the steep slopes and kick some dirt.
Still, even without an international flight, wine can provide an adventure in a glass. When you try wine from a new place or one that's made from an unfamiliar grape, you are taking a journey of sorts. That certainly has been the case for me.
I've never been to Austria, for example, but when I taste a vivid, slightly peppery gruner veltliner, I can imagine the hillside vineyards of the Wachau region, along the Danube River. A bottle of gloriously sweet Tokaji Aszu conjures visions of Hungarian vineyards with clusters of furmint grapes that have been attacked by botrytis, the noble rot that shrivels the grapes and concentrates the sugars.
You can enhance this vicarious vacation by drinking the wine with food that is a traditional match. Maybe your budget doesn't allow a pricey pairing, like Barolo and white truffles from Italy's Piedmont region, but how about a plate of prosciutto di San Daniele, from a town in Italy's Friuli region, with a fruity, crisp Collio bianco or ribolla gialla? A full-bodied pinot noir from Central Otago in New Zealand to wash down a medium-rare lamb chop? You can even go with something as basic as a plate of pasta or piece of bruschetta with a nice glass of Chianti Classico and imagine yourself on a piazza in the center of Florence.
Of course, Bay Area wine lovers don't have to travel to far-flung places to experience what the French call terroir, that interaction between the site where the grapes are grown and the eventual wine. Just hop in the car.
If you visit wineries in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County, for example, you'll feel the winds that rush into the Salinas Valley from chilly Monterey Bay, cooling the vines. Take a trip up to the Spring Mountain District, where the sloping vineyards are cooler but get more morning sun than those in the Napa Valley below. Drive to Oakley and find one of the area's old vineyards, with gnarled vines that produce intense fruit while struggling in "soil" that's really not much more than sand.
There's a lot of talk in the food world these days about how understanding where your food comes from creates a sense of connection. Kids who are exposed to gardens, for example, are more likely to try vegetables because they've seen them grow. Knowing where your wine comes from creates a connection, too.
You don't need to overthink it. Wine is, after all, just a beverage, albeit a pleasurable one. But it can also transport you to exciting and unfamiliar places. Whether you take the actual journey or experience it from your dinner table or sofa is up to you.
That brings me to a (slightly tardy) New Year's resolution: Create some adventure in your wine choices. Try something new. And enjoy where it takes you.
Contact Laurie Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org.