Grapes don’t grow in ugly places. Rugged, to be sure, sometimes steep, barren and austere, rocky. But never ugly. A vineyard blasted out of a mountainside is a striking sight, and, if one is cynical, a symbol of human hubris. Any vineyard can be seen as man trying to tame nature, with neatly planted rows of vines pruned, hedged, sprayed into submission. Some vineyards, maybe most, are like that. The best wines, however, are grown where vigneron and nature work together under challenging conditions. Nature offers a complex expression of soil, earth, sun and fruit. The vigneron can coax these into our glass, if she respects nature’s limits.
These are the vineyards we like to visit, the producers we love to meet. A year ago, I penciled this week on my calendar to be in Germany, marinating myself in riesling. Austria and its grüner veltliner also beckoned, as did New York’s Finger Lakes and those pockets of wine country in the Midwestern United States that are as inviting as a storyteller waiting for someone to stop and listen.
The coronavirus pandemic has us locked down, and wineries around the world are pivoting online to maintain connections with customers who just two months ago still walked through the door. We need to scratch our travel itch in different ways.
Scrolling through photos of past trips on my smartphone got tiring fast. Apparently the air was hazy the last time I visited Portugal’s spectacular Douro Valley, but as I sipped Quinta do Crasto’s savory red, the images of the terraced vineyards and the winery perched on a hilltop overlooking the meandering river came vividly to my memory. Wine can transport us like that.
I also turned to old-fashioned books for solace and inspiration for future trips. Laura Catena’s new book, “Gold in the Vineyards: Illustrated Stories of the World’s Most Celebrated Vineyards,” was published by Catapulta in March, just in time for her book tour to be canceled. Catena gives an engaging, minimalist account of renowned wineries and vineyards, including, of course, her family’s Adrianna Vineyard in the Andes foothills of Mendoza in Argentina. Drawings and infographics provide as much information as text — the modern way to impart knowledge in the age of short attention spans and twitchy fingers. And yet, Catena catches the classic elements: ambition, hardship, even sex and violence when she describes the scandalous connection of Tuscany’s Antinori wine dynasty with the Medicis in 16th century Florence. Great fodder for your next dinner party.
Although I can’t go to France right now, I am there in spirit with “4 Seasons in Côte Chalonnaise,” a lovely coffee-table book with photographs by Jon Wyand and text by Emmanuel Mère, published last year by Bamboo Edition. The Chalonnaise is Burgundy’s “third cote,” overshadowed by the more prestigious Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuits, and is often a source of good value. Wyand’s photographs take us directly into the vineyards and cellars, the concerts and churches, the daily travails and celebrations of everyday people in a simpler, pre-pandemic world.
Necessity is also creating opportunities to learn about wine in the comfort of our self-isolation. This is a chance to see a new communication form evolving rapidly. Some of these online “classes” are rather rudimentary in terms of technology. I’ve been laughing along — and learning — while Winn Roberton, chief sommelier at Bourbon Steak in Washington, D.C., and an advanced sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers, tastes and talks wine on his YouTube channel. He calls it “Drinking Through a Mask,” and yes, it’s fun and casual as he explains how the pros blind-taste wine.
Importers, retailers and wine schools are also joining in. Broadbent Selections, an importer based in Richmond, has been holding live chats on its Facebook page with winemakers Marc Hochar of legendary Chateau Musar in Lebanon and Iduna Weinert of Bodegas Weinert in Argentina.
The Capital Wine School in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Wine School have rolled out a full schedule of online webinars and classes. These range from introductory classes for novices to intensive diploma courses for temporarily unemployed professionals eager to up their game. Online classes often include tasting, if you register early enough to purchase and get the wines delivered.
Someday we’ll all be able to travel again. We will visit winery tasting rooms, and winemakers will come to our cities for special dinners in restaurants. When that happens, maybe we’ll all say: “Haven’t we met before? Oh yeah, it was online.”
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