How do you remove the snobbery and elitism that underlies the wine world? A liberal application of wine itself. “A Spring Dinner to Benefit Meals on Wheels,” the invitation said. For 30 years, Meals on Wheels has been bringing food and companionship to people who cannot otherwise get them, and now it was their turn to do so for their volunteers (and a stowaway wine journalist) with one great meal to celebrate hundreds of life-sustaining ones.
The party was held two weeks ago at the Colonial-era Silver Thatch Inn and featured wines from local wineries Cardinal Point and First Colony. “Oh god, not Virginia wines,” was my first thought, because despite my great love of local vino, at heart I’m a French and Italian wine snob. It was going to be an evening of old people talking about charity work, accented by wines I’ve drunk many times before. I braced myself for a boring night.
There is a schism in the wine world between those who feel wine should be judged solely by what’s in the glass, and those who feel that wine is, at its heart, meant to be part of a meal. This is an argument you hear routinely between, for example, lovers of Australian Shiraz, a wine that’s hard to distinguish from rum and Coke, and fans of more subtle wines like Loire Valley Cabernet Francs, where the fruit is buried in layers of chalk and stone. Online message boards routinely feature discussions on this subject, especially as it relates to wine ratings, as most wine critics contend that in order to accurately arrive at a numerical score, they must taste in what they regard as a professional environment; presumably a sterile room with a sink, a wine glass and a row of bottles. Sip, spit, evaluate. All that matters is what’s in the glass; everything else is a distraction.
Well, it was not a boring night, and when I reached the car at the end of the evening, I realized that my prejudices had been entirely, and delightfully, shattered. The welcoming glass of 2006 Viognier from Cardinal Point was excellent—un-oaked and without the syrupiness that often mars other Viogniers. Mike Woolard, who owns the Virginia-only distributing company, Commonwealth Wines, oversaw the wine and food combinations to perfection. Two examples: Cardinal Point’s Meursault-like Barrel Select Chardonnay with a crawfish cake on a bed of new potato straw, and their Cabernet Franc Reserve, which, surprisingly, paired better with the accompanying spring pea risotto and forest mushrooms than with the nevertheless excellent flank steak.
On their own, none of the wines—save perhaps the Viognier—would have impressed me, but as part of a harmonious whole, they were glorious. That whole extended to my tablemates, who turned out to be lively and intelligent, with conversation ranging from organic farming to Democratic politics. Yes, they were my elders, but we found plenty in common, including the local wine scene. One, for instance, was a retired neurologist who now runs an eight-acre vineyard and whose daughter-in-law is a local winemaker. You never know where wine will take you, and in our town you never know where you’ll find good wine and wine people.
Wine never truly blossoms in a vacuum. Just as decanting a wine can wake it up and bring to light what was lurking in the bottle, pouring a bottle into a social setting, even if the society is just you and a favorite book, is the only way to really know the value of what’s inside. Forget the sterile room and the sink, and most especially forget the numbers. What’s in the glass is usually only as good as what surrounds it.