First Contact

Let’s pretend for a minute that some intelligent alien species has just made first contact with us Earthlings and landed smack dab in the middle of Napa. They’ve never heard of wine and are curious to learn all about it. Here’s what I would tell them.

Wine is a delicious beverage that is fermented from grapes. Once the ripe grapes are picked off of the grape vine (the plant it grows on) they are crushed, and then yeast (a living, single-celled organism) is added to the juice from its berries. The yeast eat the sugars in the juice and produce a couple of byproducts, namely alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is wine. If the yeast eat all the sugar, there will be none left in the wine and a dry wine will be produced (“dry” in the case of wine is the opposite of “sweet,” not the opposite of “wet”). If the yeast doesn’t eat all the sugar you will get anywhere from a slightly sweet to a very sweet wine, depending on the amount of residual sugar that is left.

Wine grapes are a special species of grape, grown pretty much for the sole purpose of being turned into wine. These are not the same grapes that you find in the produce section of the grocery store. Nor will you find them in the raisin aisle, in a jar of grape jelly, or even in a bottle of grape juice. They belong to the species vitis vinifera, which originated, it is believed, somewhere along the border of Asia and Europe thousands of years ago.

Wine grapes are further broken down into different varieties. Just as an apple can be a Macintosh, Cortland, Fuji, etc., wine grape varieties may be Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, or any of the other THOUSANDS of varieties used to make wine across the globe. Each variety has its own slightly different flavor, acid level, potential sugar (and therefore potential alcohol) level, and ratio of skin to juice, all of which contribute to the final style of wine produced from that grape. And if that isn’t enough, the PLACE that the grapes are grown as well as how the winemaker chooses to carry on the winemaking process also contribute to the final style of the wine.

Now if our intelligent extraterrestrial is feeling adventurous and chooses to taste some wine, and if she happens to have a good palate, she may notice that the wine doesn’t just taste like grape juice, but also has subtle hints of other wonderful things found here on Earth such as berries, smoke, bacon, and spice. “Are bacon and blackberry juice added to this wine to make it have these flavors?” she asks. Absolutely not! These aromas and flavors are created during the fermentation and aging process, and are the result of myriad chemical changes that occur as the juice is transformed into wine. It’s also one of the things that makes wine so mysterious-how a simple combination of juice and yeast can create such profound and elusive flavors.

Hopefully all this information would pique our alien visitor’s interest in wine, not scare her away with the complexity of it. If that’s the case for you, stay tuned for future blogs, or send me your burning wine questions, and I’ll get the ball rolling for you!