Staring Into The Soul of a Wine

There comes a point in every enthusiast's obsession when he or she graduates from the mastery of technicalities to a deeper appreciation of the objects he desires. With this transition comes a longing for something more, something else, something different. The craving to identify perfection is replaced by a reaching for something beyond what can be measured.

Ask any veteran sports car junky what he lusts after most and he'll tell you that it's no longer about raw horsepower or acceleration specs. Those who can put their finger on it might tell you that it's the throaty howl of a high-strung exhaust or a design that fuses sexuality with engineering. But even those who can't articulate it will still tell you that it's something. Something else.

It's the same with every passion, be it cars, literature, art, or wine. The aficionados' pursuits may differ, but their longing is shared.  It's for a soul.

What, then, is a soul? It is a reflection; a reflection of the people and places and events that all shape a thing’s DNA. It’s the foundation of personality, the embodiment of character. Like the lines of a weathered face and the calluses of a workman's hands, a soul tells a story without speaking. A soul is substance.  Without a soul, just as it is with humans, all you have is a shell - a container for ingredients.

And so it goes with wine. The most experienced drinkers and vintners admit to looking beyond the established definitions of assessable quality for that something more, that soul.

Good wine - great wine, even - is no longer what keeps the candle alight. Tannins, sugar, volatile acidity, alcohol, yeasts – the list of measurable attributes is long but ultimately hollow, for even a product crafted with utmost precision can still lack soul. So our attention drifts, looking off the beaten path for wines which tell a story, which exude character, which move us.

On this quest we find ourselves gazing into glass after glass, searching, staring into the soul of wine. What we see is different every time, but what we seek is the same: evidence of the cycle of seasons, the cold nights, warm days, and the struggle of vine through gravely loam. The generations of people, the events that shape a society, the hard work, hard times, triumphs, and sorrows. We search for personality, not perfection - for flaws, not accuracy. We listen for the stories. We listen for the truth.

When we're lucky wine speaks to us and it resonates. And when that happens, there’s a stirring, a welling of satisfaction at a primal level. An earth-shaking, life-affirming, emotion-provoking swoon. The world around us quiets and a we reconnect to our own souls, to our own stories, people, and history. We smile and we give thanks and we surrender ourselves to be overcome. 

This is what it means for a wine to have a soul. This, too, explains our fascination, our obsession, and our anticipation at every cork’s pull.

Of the wines we've experienced this year, those that moved us with their soulfulness are the real standouts.  Andrew Murray's Rhone varietals and blends immediately come to mind - not for for their perfection, but for their honesty and authenticity.  His wines haunted us for weeks after we reviewed them and are among the most intriguing wines we've succumbed to this year. 

Others which sing with a gospel voice include Robert Mondavi's reserve bottlings of Chardonnay and Oakville Cabernet, Gallo's Frei Ranch Vineyard Cabernet, Goldeneye's Single Vineyard Pinots, and Shafer's One Point Five.
As we prepare to wrap up 2010 and summarize the Best of the Best, soul is the primary criteria we'll be using to whittle down the contenders.  Expect to see some of these players in the final lineup.