Matthew Curtis discusses wine people, beer people, and the pleasure that can be found in liminal spaces
Wednesday 10 November 2021
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I’ve often, mistakenly, found the world of wine to be somewhat inaccessible. As a beer drinker and writer, I know that I love wine, and have done for almost as long as I’ve loved beer, but I’m a “jeans and trainers” kind of guy. I own one suit, and it gets an outing as infrequently as possible, reserved only for the rare wedding or funeral. In this context, wine spaces in the traditional sense more often than not seemed too formal; too rich for my blood. And so for a long time I deprived myself of them.
This is almost definitely one of the reasons why I found the world of craft beer so easy to settle into. Here was something interesting and delicious being made and served by people who look like me, before I consumed it sat at a rickety trellis table beneath a railway arch surrounded by people who also look like me: white men in their mid-to-late 30s with a similar aversion to formal attire. I am acutely aware that this in itself is as problematic as why I once found wine to be so inaccessible – privilege has played a huge role in shaping today’s drinks culture, after all – but I feel it’s a good example of why I invested my time and energy into learning more about the grain, rather than the grape.
Something I’ve always struggled with are attempts to conflate the cultures of wine and beer, as though they’re somehow similar to one another. Take beer and food matching for example: I’d agree that a great many beers go well with a variety of dishes, but I’m yet to be convinced that anything will go better with a medium-rare ribeye than a delicious glass of Syrah, or Cabernet Franc. Similarly, if I’m at a restaurant serving an indulgent nine-course tasting menu, I’m absolutely going to go with the pairing options a sommelier has painstakingly chosen. While pubs will always be my temples of beer, restaurants are the cathedrals where I indulge in the glory of wine.
Something I’ve always struggled with are attempts to conflate the cultures of wine and beer
Neither am I fond of articles with titles like “Five Wines for Beer Lovers” which tell you things like: “if you love Belgian Saison, then you will also enjoy a glass of Riesling.” Yes there are Saisons that undoubtedly share characteristics with this glorious grape, like Saison Dupont, for example. But they should be celebrated and enjoyed on their own merit. They’re better this way.
I’ve found that attempting to demonstrate how much beer and wine have in common in terms of how they taste, or what they pair with, actually has the opposite effect, making the world of wine even harder to crack. It’s true that beer and wine share a great many similarities, but I strongly believe both serve the drinker better when celebrated on their own merit. What I believe we need to normalise is that it’s ok to enjoy a little bit of column B with your column A; each are good for their own reasons, rather than simply tolerable because they’re somehow similar. I began to enjoy wine a great deal more when I stopped trying to compare every glass I drank to beer.
I strongly believe both beer and wine serve the drinker better when celebrated on their own merit
Before I could truly enjoy wine like I do beer, I had to get over myself a little. Wine is not all white tablecloths and formal attire. Like a great many wine lovers, the barriers that prevented me experiencing it as fully as I might began to break down when I visited a vineyard, and saw winemaking first hand. This was no French chateau or slope beside the Mosel, however, this was in Washington’s Walla Walla Valley, part of the American Pacific Northwest that is producing, for my money, some of the best wines on the planet right now.
Spring Valley Vineyard is a serious winery. Bottles like the scintillating Nina Lee Syrah –full of deep notes of black cherry, and tannins that shine like freshly buffed leather – go for upwards of $50 (£36) a bottle, often more. But when I arrived at the farm where they produce these exceptional wines, I found something I wasn’t expecting: familiarity. Here were a bunch of jeans-and-trainers folks like me, obsessed with extracting deliciousness from every harvest, and eager to geek out about fermentation. They even let me punch down some Pinot Noir and taste juice that had only been harvested and pressed three days ago; the tiniest prick of carbonation amid the sweetness indicating that fermentation was already underway.
I felt as comfortable here among the rows of stainless steel vessels and racks of oak barrels as I have done in any brewery. My glass was rarely empty as our guide eagerly poured us vintages that were finished and bottled, and those that were yet to be. This visit helped me understand that, while I appreciate that it’s important for wine and beer to stand apart on their own two feet, when it comes to things like process, and creating flavours for people to enjoy, here was a tangible similarity that, as a beer lover, I could hang my hat on.
This was the nudge I needed to seek out more wine experiences – not necessarily at other vineyards, but in bars and restaurants. Back in London, where I lived at the time, my newfound curiosity led me to spots like Noble Rot, Newcomer Wines, and one bar in particular, P Franco.
I was a little nervous when I first entered this bar/restaurant/off licence hybrid that sits on Lower Clapton Road opposite Hackney’s famous Round Chapel. The place was packed (which to be fair isn’t difficult, as the small room just about manages to hold 20 people at capacity). While there are seats by the windows at the front, the business end of P Franco is the table at its centre. Here, guests are seated together while servers whizz around like hummingbirds, dispensing the nectar instead of drinking it. At its end, the current resident chef is busy cooking small plates using only a modest pair of immersion hobs.
It’s hard to explain why I initially felt out of place here, but my gut anxieties kept telling me that this just wasn’t “my scene” for whatever reason I’d invented. Was it because they were pouring a different beverage or merely my own preconceived bias that was making me feel this way? In all likelihood it was an unhealthy dose of the latter, and I’m so glad I got over it.
What ensued was one of the most unforgettable nights of food and wine I’ve ever experienced. Well, I say that but I can’t fully remember what I ate or drank, other than I have this feeling of how incredible everything was, and that when afterwards I walked out into the cold East London night air, I immediately longed to return. Again, a similar feeling to the glow you get after a night in some of the best pubs, or brewery taprooms. Wine not being accessible was a myth that I invented for myself.
I am not what you would call a “wine person”, I am a beer guy who appreciates how delicious other drinks can be. But I no longer have a desire to preach the gospel of beer and convert people who prefer other beverages. It’s boring, honestly. And you don’t need to know what a qvevri is, or understand the function of carbonic maceration to have fun drinking wine. Just concentrate on enjoying both beer and wine when and however you feel like it, simply because they’re both delicious.
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