the new introduction to wine may not be wine

Monday, January 23, 2012

My father drank beer, every night, with dinner. Not some snooty micro-brew, just plain old supermarket beer, nicely chilled, in a silver cup that we’d put in the freezer about an hour before sitting down.

After dinner, as often as not, he’d mix up a pitcher of martinis. He made them almost straight gin – the vermouth was waved over the top of the pitcher – and he liked them with a twist of lemon rind, rather than olives or onions. His every day gin was Gordon’s; his special occasion gin was Tanqueray. Not Tanqueray 10 (which didn’t exist). Not any “craft” gins (which didn’t exist). Whatever the selection of gin may have been back then, it wasn’t much.

I never saw my father with a glass of wine. Never. He was quite content with his beer – the drink of his army days – and his martinis – the drink of his ad man career.

Today, I think, for a young man or woman, embarking on an exploration of the pleasures (and perils) of alcohol consumption, it might be quite different.

Yes, young folks, perhaps too young to drink legally, might start out with the cheapest possible beer. But most, once legal, will at least explore more interesting options. The majority of bars and restaurants in this country must have microbrews available, or so it seems. From there, the jump to bar culture seems almost inevitable.

Imagine you are 21 or 22. You are out on the town with your friends. You find a hip new watering hole and settle in for happy hour. The food is cheap and good. You might be thinking about beer, but then the bartender flashes you a friendly smile and hands you the cocktail list. Today’s cocktail list, compared with one my father might have seen, is roughly the difference between an old 78 rpm record and surround Dolby sound. It’s 3D rather than 16mm black and white.

Even if you choose a “classic” drink – let’s say a martini – it won’t resemble my father’s Gordon gin concoction. The array of exotic gins from around the world, even in state-controlled liquor stores such as we have here (for another four months, anyway) in Washington, is astonishing. Then you can add on the craft gins, from such newbies as Oola, whose gin is not only distinctive, but also delicious enough to simply sip it neat.

Maybe you want a vodka martini? Well, your “vodka” might be flavored with chocolate, bubble gum, verbena, or pigs foot – just about anything you can conceive of. Want a simple scotch? Forget Dewars – you have dozens of single malts from which to choose.

That’s just the classics. That bartender most likely makes a wonderful array of special cocktails with house-made bitters and infusions. I’ve seen bars that looked like the chemist’s shops of 19th century London, with vials and beakers of the most amazing liquids.

So where does wine fit in to this picture? I suspect it will return to being a niche drink. A large niche to be sure, but not the all-encompassing gotta-drink-it beverage we’ve grown accustomed to. Cheap wines will always be around, but the pricey, fancy, cult and collectible wines, once they’ve blown through the Asian markets, will face tough sledding. Fewer and fewer well-heeled drinkers will automatically choose wine, when they have been weaned on all manner of enticing cocktails and liqueurs. Will better choices for beer and booze eventually lead to a curiosity about wine? For some, maybe, but not for all. At least that’s what my crystal ball is telling me today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The big difference between wine and cocktails is FOOD. Cocktails may rule as a stand alone drink, but can't compete with wine as the appropriate beverage to accompany a great meal. I almost never order wine at a bar (unless it's a wine bar) and I rarely order a cocktail at a restaurant.

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