How to buy better bottles? Think of wine as food

When it comes to buying wine, all you have to do is remember three words: Wine is food.
When it comes to buying wine, all you have to do is remember three words: Wine is food.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

New York (NYTimes) - Many people seek an easy formula for choosing better wines.

I'm often asked if I can suggest a book, or a class, or a particular wine magazine. But trying to master the vast array of wine producers from almost all corners of the earth is a long, though fascinating, slog. I'm still trudging along that endless route myself.

Fortunately, there is a simpler solution that does not require poring over tomes that daunt you with complexity, or pamphlets that mislead you by promising easy expertise.

All you have to do is remember three words: Wine is food.

This may sound absurd to people whose idea of wine appreciation is swilling a little red in a bar while their friends are downing cocktails or beer. It will make no sense to those for whom a glass of wine is merely the reward for arriving home after a hard day's work, as others may enjoy a Scotch on the rocks or a martini.

But wine in the classic sense is not a cocktail replacement. It is an integral part of a meal, served at the table, with food. And for me, a simple way to understand wine, to elevate the quality of what you consume and the pleasure you take in it, is to treat wine as if it were another staple of the table, just as you would the produce, meat and bread that you shop for and eat.

In the last few decades, Americans have become far more conscious of the ingredients in their meals. Categories like organic foods, once the province of eccentric health nuts, are now mainstream and big business. Shopping is no longer a clear-cut matter of driving the car to the supermarket and loading up; it carries a host of ethical, political and aesthetic considerations.

Where and how is food grown and raised? How are animals treated? Flavour, a factor that was once relegated to the bottom of the food industry's list of priorities, is again front and centre. The distance that food must travel is critical to many, as is the role of science and industry.

All of these considerations are fundamental to the food revolution that has vastly improved both the quality of what we eat and the pleasure we take in it. Yet when it comes to wine, many who care deeply about their food are still drinking the equivalent of the square tomato.

This blind spot has kept many consumers from asking questions about how their wine is made, even though they may be hyperconscious of the origins of the food they eat.

What would happen if wine drinkers began to take an interest in the winemaking process?

Make no mistake: Just as surely as supermarket aisles in the United States are lined with processed foods, the products of painstaking research into flavour components, manufacturing techniques and customer desires, so are they filled with bottles of processed wine.

These wines are not the simple, pastoral expressions of an agricultural culture. They are assembly-line wines, farmed industrially with chemical sprays, churned out in factories with technology and machinery and additives, and tailored, just as processed foods are, to specifications derived from substantial audience research and the use of focus groups.

Most people don't care about the intricacies of what they consume, as long as it tastes good to them. They have other priorities.

But a significant minority does care about what they eat, enough so that farmers' markets, butchers and bakers, restaurants and whole supermarket chains are now dedicated to providing great ingredients that meet heightened aesthetic, medical, moral and ethical considerations.

Thinking about wine in the same way is a significant first step toward improving the quality of the wine you drink and the pleasure you take in it.

Under federal law, a wine cannot be called organic unless it is made from grapes that have been certified as organic, has been fermented with organic yeast and has no added sulfur dioxide, a preservative that is used in all but the most natural of wines.

Very few wines can be called organic, though many are made from organically grown grapes. That alone may offer no clues to the quality of the wine. Organic grapes, like industrially farmed grapes, can be processed in the winery with great artifice and little regard for producing a forthright product. What's more, many small farmers of great integrity work organically, or adhere to even stricter principles than the definition requires, but don't bother certifying their work because of the expense and bureaucracy involved. So labels are not always meaningful.

Even more important than labels like "organic" would be a greater sense of transparency in how grapes are grown and wine is made. Processed foods are required to list all the ingredients used during production. Why should wine be immune to such labeling requirements? Many food-buying decisions are made after scanning the ingredient labels of competing products. Shouldn't we want to know what's in our wine, too?

The wine industry has long argued that consumers would find ingredient labels confusing or incomprehensible. That may be true, but it's irrelevant. Who among us understands the ingredients that go into, say, a mass-market breakfast cereal? Millions of people could not care less and buy these products anyway.

But with comprehensive labeling, those who want to avoid artificial or suspect ingredients have the opportunity to do so. They should have the same opportunity with wine.

And you can bet that once people begin to ask questions about the ingredients and processes involved in making wine, the industry will begin to cater more to this growing group of educated consumers.

Thinking of wine as food will affect shopping decisions in another important way. Many people who may care enough to buy meat, fish, bread and produce from specialty purveyors or farmers' markets continue to buy their wine in supermarkets, big-box retailers or convenience stores. If you care about wine, that is a mistake.

You may happen on a good bottle, but chances are you will not. For that, you need a store run by passionate devotees who do much of the advance work for you. A good wine shop or online merchant with a point of view, like a great butcher or baker, will have performed a rigorous selection process before making its wares available to consumers. Knowing that you are in a good wine shop can sharpen your decision-making down to issues of taste and occasion rather than quality.

Treating wine as food clarifies the notion of what it is you have on the table. It simplifies wine and makes it more approachable. And it leads to the same conclusion: To drink better wine, you must ultimately find a better wine source.