I am swimming outside the flags. They hand me the wine list, a sumptuously bound, eighty-page document filled cover-to-cover with foreign words. A decision is to be made and, despite having grown up in an Islamic family, it’s difficult not to glean while under the influence of Hollywood that champagne is the epitome of luxury imbibing. I decipher the list for the champagne section and, having found it, am relieved to find a bottle under $200.
We were at Rockpool, then at the peak of its power, pre-hedge fund acquisition. Being a grill, steak was what we had come for and we ordered one of the many grass-fed options with a healthy marbling, another term I scarcely understood. I sat in relief once the ordering was over and finally flung back the champagne, one of the most exquisite drinks I had ever enjoyed. We finished the bottle of champagne. The waitress, sensing my struggle, asked if we would like to move onto something else, a subtle hint to move away from bubbles before our steaks reached the table. I did not read her cues and decided that the best decision was to order another bottle of the same, so that my first solo wine pairing experience came to be champagne with steak.
What fine dining is and wine’s role in it has changed since then. Now we can enjoy a dozen course degustation at Michelin-starred restaurants on streets that have commission housing a hundred metres down the road with staff wearing New Balances, drinking obscenely priced, amphora-aged wine from the northern slope of Mt. Etna, the whole bombastic affair scored by A Tribe Called Quest. A far cry from the old-school.
In some ways, this is progress in the right direction. In some other ways, it has bred a culture of misinformation and anti-pretension pretension. If I were to dine at a restaurant as described above and chose to drink a classic wine that had sulphur added or a label that did not have a cosmopolitan illustration that reflected the nonchalance of the winemaker, I am not confident that I will receive the same service as if I had chosen an Action Bronson certified ‘natty’ wine. This is a shame because it shows that we have deferred to that terrible, ingrained binary belief structure centred on mutual exclusivity; that somehow for one thing to be good, the inverse must be bad, or at least worse. This is, of course, untrue, but it has not stopped the belief from propagating itself to the extent that now the debate has become a dialogue around lifestyle. A dialogue around trend—not taste.
I am glad that wine has become less exclusive and more accessible, that more people value wine made with care by vignerons who take pride in what they do, rather than a conglomerate churning out millions of litres of lifeless, homogenised wine. There is, of course, a time and place for everything. Mass-produced and marketed products exist to satiate the masses and artisanal, high-cost, low-production products exist to facilitate moments where a sip of wine can transcend the quotidian mundanity of existence. Ultimately, that is what all of this is about, transcendence.
Under the tutelage of experienced gourmands, I have since had the pleasure of enjoying memorable dining experiences. I have learned that the best way to dine and drink is to be guided. In dining with friends that are chefs, sommeliers and restaurateurs, I have discovered that rather than imposing themselves upon the experience, they disappear in the moment. With dining, as with life, by exerting control we constrict our experience to preconception, misconception and bias. It is the same with wine. Having spent some time tasting with a friend who is studying for his Master Sommelier exam, his approach to understanding and describing wine differs from the usual droll, description-laden jargon known as wine-speak. He speaks of wine in the context of shape and sensation—how it feels. The only measure is pleasure. This approach shifted the way I speak about and explore wine. Most recently, despite reticence from some friends to drink ‘obscure’ wines,
an orange wine from Emilia-Romagna was shared on a warm afternoon. By changing the language around the wine, they were inclined to try it and—unsurprisingly to me, surprisingly to them—enjoyed themselves.
Good food and wine should not satisfy but move. I don’t mean to say that it should leave one breathless, gawking, dropping cutlery on the ground, but it should stir within a sense of life, of experience, accessible through, and exclusive to, that moment. I have had the pleasure of sharing wines that stopped me and my co-revellers mid-conversation. That is not merely a good wine, but a wine that captures or changes us. Next time you find yourself at a wine bar, submit with pleasure to the experience and place your faith in the hands of a passionate wine peddler, asking for nothing except a wine that will move you.