Saturday, May 31, 2008

Home Is where Your Wine Is Sweetest

They tell me that wine is the new tobacco in North Carolina. Honestly, when I heard that, I was surprised they didn’t think of wine in North Carolina way, way, way longer than this… Coming from the rolling hills of the Romanian Moldova, I can tell you: grapes love hills and they love sunlight. Maybe not this much sun and humidity, but they can work with it. And boy, after today, can they so work with it!!

This Saturday, I volunteered, on behalf of the Greensboro Jaycees, to help wine makers at the recent NC Wine Festival in Winston-Salem. Funny: Winston, one of the former cigarette kingdoms, now hosting the wine festival: things are turning around indeed.

My job didn’t involve much, so I had plenty of people watching time. And let me tell you: I have not done this much people watching since I was in New Orleans. I am not kidding!

It was interesting to see such a colorful crowd:

- youngsters, barely legal to drink, punk rock locks and all;

- college freshmen sporting new tanning bed tans for the summer;

- geeks sporting colorless skin and pimples;

- sophisticated” wine connoisseurs on rants about the “nose” and the “legs”, the “bouquet” of every sip of wine they had – much to the dismay of the simple wine seller who just ferments the apples and the blackberries and the grapes, for God’s sake, and who adds with rolling eyes, under his breath: “why the hell do you wanna be so damn tight-ass pretentious about the damn thing; we’s simple folks, we just squish grapes”;

- plain, down to earth people who are just here for something to do on a Saturday;

- and, of course, to remind you you’re not in Napa nor in Tuscany, … rednecks, oh Lord, so many rednecks!! Those folks add the local color. For sure!

And no, I am not being judgmental, it’s what they were, and they would agree with me.

Where but in the South do you find a wine buyer, Harley tank top and all, visor and mullet haircut, sleeves of tattoos on his arms, huge, and I mean enormous bald eagle silver ring on the middle finger, saying when asked for the address: “15 Main Street, Remington, VA – Remington, just like the rifle” (make your own “flat i” pronunciation here)?!

Another customer was wearing a Rebel flag t-shirt, proudly, over his beer gut (should beer guts even be allowed at the wine festivals?), with the inscription: “If this flag offends you, you need a history lesson”. No comment on that one.

And let me tell you: I have never, in one day, in 4 hours, been called “hon” and “sweetheart” more in my entire life! I was everyone’s “hon” and “sweetheart”. They thanked me, and asked me for directions, and sweethearted me to death. I was sweethearted out at the end of the day!!

Other sightings worth mentioning are the many, many very pregnant women fighting the close to 90 degree and no breeze heat to taste wine. I was not able to carry myself around, in that heat; I didn’t want to add too much wine to make my legs even heavier, but they were troopers: baby in the tummy and happily tasting wine!

Then, another questionably appropriate finding: this guy, with a baseball hat that reads “The king of beers”… Hhmmm… Again: should that be allowed??

Now, a word about the wines, of course.

As you’d expect, there is so much work involved in making wine. But what shocked me today was the legalities involved in it all! What I found the most surprising is that the rules are not so strict because this industry produces goods for human consumption. No, the FDA and the USDA does not get involved much. They don’t care what we drink: have at it, and die, who cares!! The rules are strict, because the sale of alcohol is involved. Alcohol, remember? The big, bad, devilish evil that blurs your judgment and turns you into a monster. Is it the Bible belt? Or just Puritan America? Or a little bit of both? Again: for someone that grew up on wine, and whose dad made wine in the house, ever since I can remember, this is truly mind blowing to me. The alcohol restrictions, of course, have always been mind numbing to me in this country. And law people still don’t seem to understand that the more you forbid it, the sweeter the fruit.

The wine makers not only have to come up with these extensive researches, done by professional oenologists, that talk about the content of nitrogen they use, and the carbon dioxide in the wine, but they also, pay taxes on what they make on the wine according to the percentage of alcohol each bottle has. “You get people drunk faster, wham! bigger punishment for ya’! That’ll teach ya’!” And when you think Jesus Himself turned water into wine you really find no explanation.

The Native Vines (the first Native winery in the nation – owned by Lumbee Indians in Lexington, NC) wine maker and owner told me that some of her blackberry wine will want to ferment and be about 24% alcohol when it’s done, but she “has to stop it”, because that’s too high.

I was amazed at how much these apparently simple folks, mostly from rural areas, know about the science of wine making. They have to know, because they have to produce research for the lawmakers. If they don’t learn themselves, they’ll have to pay someone to put together the papers so they can stay in business. But in a small production, family-owned winery like Native Vines that means the mom, the wine maker, went to those classes. And she has to also produce all the paperwork necessary to stay open and support her family. It’s painstaking. They’re not “just grape squishers” after all.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the wineries I visited had not only one, but a variety of sweet wines. My European pallet is always in search for sweet wines, mostly Muscat and Ottonel, which I find very hard to come by around the States. I find that the wine drinker of this continent favors dryer wines, like Chardonnays and Cabs, maybe Merlots, rather than sweet, fruity wines. Well, I tasted wines from maybe 10-12 wineries today, and each one of them had at least 3-4 varieties, red and white of sweet wines. Some of them were fruit wines (strawberry, peach and blackberry, mostly), but most of them were grapes. I think this was my first wine tasting where I even saw “Muscat” on the label. That’s what plenty of sun will do to the grape: turn it ever so sweet. I am in the right part of the world, then - I thought.

Quirky wine tasters and all, bad music and bad haircuts, scorching heat and burnt skin, it was a great day, all in all.

I was happy to help, even in the least bit, and I was happy to find some of the sweetest wines I’ve tasted. Some of these wineries, I’ll revisit, I am sure, on my weekend trips. Most of them do not have distributors, as the industry in this state is still in its baby years. So the only way to buy their production is to knock on their doors and ask for it. But I am so glad and so grateful that they’re this close to home.

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