The Sipping Point

Kathy Fisher (in green), Cathy Kilcoyne (in pink) and Penny Price (in black) channel their inner Lucy at Oasis Vineyards in Hume, Va.
Kathy Fisher (in green), Cathy Kilcoyne (in pink) and Penny Price (in black) channel their inner Lucy at Oasis Vineyards in Hume, Va. (Mark Finkenstaedt Ftwp - Mark Finkenstaedt Ftwp)
By Ellen McCarthy
Friday, June 23, 2006

So, are you picking up on the undertones of tar and hoisin sauce in that 2003 Alain Jaume Châteauneuf-du-Pape Domaine Grand Veneur Les Origines yet?

Really? You are? Well, that's just fantastic. We're all very proud of you. Now, if you don't mind, Smarty McSmarts, we think it'd be best if you packed up your stemware and your spittoon and joined the other fancy-pants wine elitists in a dark room somewhere, so you can all sit around one-upping each other with inane adjectives and pretentious fake accents.

The rest of us are fully capable of enjoying our libations without your nattering, vocal dissertation droning in the background.

And enjoy it, we do.

More and more each year, actually, and more so than most. Washington, it turns out, is wine country: This town proudly boasts by far the highest per capita consumption of wine and champagne of any city in the nation, according to Adams Beverage Group, a market research firm. Sip on that, Napa.

Wine is on the rise throughout the United States and, according to a Gallup poll released last summer, is poised to eclipse beer as the beverage of choice among Americans who imbibe.

It's a trend that reflects the dropping prices of production, increasing awareness of the health benefits of moderate wine consumption and the industry's efforts to stress approachability in its marketing strategy -- hence the kangaroos and penguins and whatnot. But more than that, our thirst for wine runs parallel to our growing penchant for all things sophisticated and indulgent, but not likely to send us directly to the poorhouse. (Think Starbucks, Godiva, the monthly massage.)

"It becomes an affordable luxury," said Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University. "Wine is somewhat of an artful beverage, and as it becomes more accessible to different palates, at different price ranges, it can attract people who previously couldn't afford it and prior to that didn't have an appreciation for it."

And for an increasingly large number of people, wine is more than just a means to a buzz, er, end. It's a passion, a pastime, a social outlet.

The proliferation of wine culture, aided by the success of the 2004 indie flick "Sideways," has driven up sales and spawned new ways to experience the fermented grape. There are likely to be a half-dozen wine tastings in Washington on any given night of the week. Some in the corporate world even refer to wine tastings as the new golf, giving colleagues a way to spend time together in a relaxed, chatty atmosphere outside the office.

Now, we don't want to give our pinched-nosed friends too much credit, but there is something to be said for the depth of pleasure wine can afford its hobbyists. The pursuit of good wine is part culture, part science, part geography, all in a framework of merriment and indulgence.

It's also an endeavor that can be enjoyed for decades, your nose growing in refinement at whatever pace feels comfortable. Even the most pretentious wine prigs, after all, won't be found claiming they've maxed out the world's supply of information on their favorite drink.

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