Steve DeLong’s hilarious article "Pimp My Wine" expresses with good cheer the angst felt by the disillusioned wine buff who’s discovered that the fantasy that “wine makes itself” isn’t really true -- that in fact winemakers are as diligently at work as any other chef at refining and presenting the tastiest product possible to place into today’s hotly competitive marketplace. It’s odd from a winemaker’s perspective that we’re supposed to be artesanal, but we’re not supposed to do anything. I mean, nobody gives a four star chef grief for using tools and spices.
But there are rules of taste. The flavors of oak, the fruit enhancement of special yeasts, and the other elements of the "pimping" litany in Steve's list -- all need to incorporate well. Steve’s unsuccessful kitchen experiments to “pimp” a wine himself took me back to the early ‘90’s when the Benziger family had me working on non-alcoholic wine as a legacy to Bruno’s interest in offering an alternative for the alcohol-averse.
It was my first exposure to reverse osmosis (Bruno had impulsively purchased one to kick start the project, and I had been reluctantly chained to it) and I was at first horrified. For me, alcohol-free wine is like sex without orgasm – no thanks! But the pay was good and the project was intriguing, so I spent two years trying to make a product which conveyed the same viscerality as normal wine. And failed miserably.
De-alcoholized base wine doesn’t taste very good by itself, but the rules for non-alcoholic beverages are open season on added flavorings, which are available at various flavor companies in purified form. I had thousands of flavors at my disposal (47 pineapple flavors alone) and like Steve, spent many long hours playing Aroma Wheel of Fortune. It was actually quite simple to make a White Zinfandel that tasted better than the alcoholic version – just add sugar, raspberry flavor and bubbles.
What I could not pull off was a soulful red wine. My bottom line was exactly Steve’s – it doesn’t work. Those added flavors stick out like spiked hair. Figuring out why it doesn’t work eventually lead me to a better sense of what wine really is. At the core of my current mental construct is the notion of aromatic integration through refined structure.
The structure of bearnaise sauce works to integrate flavors so you don’t taste the tarragon, mint and onion as separate elements, but instead they speak in a single voice. The soul is simple, and responds best to a coherent message, whether it’s an orchestra playing in sync or a well-made lobster bisque.
If I had then the structuring tools which Patrick Ducournau gave me later, I think I could have succeeded for the Benzigers. But pimped up or not, wine without alcohol still ain’t my style. Still, if not for that bizarre experience, I don’t see how I’d ever have gotten on the path towards exploring wine’s true nature.