Strong statement…I know. But it’s true. I hate wine.
I have sincerely tried to love wine. Failing that, I have simply tried to like wine. But despite all of my valiant, tireless efforts…I hate wine.
I respect wine. I respect it greatly. I understand that it is a wonderfully complex, revered, glorious beverage that has been as important in the annals of human history as my drink of choice, beer. From the Ancient Greeks to modern oenophiles, wine worship is part and parcel with human civilization. I get it…I really do. But that doesn’t change the fact that I simply, unequivocally, inarguably…hate wine.
It’s not the nerdy, passionate obsession that bothers me. Any regular readers of this site would recognize that for me to question someone’s obsession over a particular beverage would be hypocrisy of the highest degree. And it’s not the seemingly impenetrable nature of “wine culture”…with its spit buckets and breathless, descriptive lingo. Beer culture can be just as impenetrable to newbies…and while we don’t have spit buckets, our lingo is just as dense and complicated. Nor is it the way wine lovers look down on beer drinkers. That may have been true in the past, but I think most wine drinkers accept the fact that beer is as complex, varied, and challenging as wine these days. And, of course, many if not most Aleheads are also wine appreciaters (if not outright wine lovers) as well.
So why do I hate wine? It’s pretty simple…it’s the fundamental flavor. In the past, I have described it as “warmed-over stomach acid” when friends try to foist a glass on me. And while that description is a little over the top, that’s what my mind always tells me I’m consuming when I sip a glass of fermented grape juice. Before you start suggesting wines that you “know” I’ll love, I should warn you that I have tried them all. I was serious when I said that I have sincerely tried to love wine. When I worked at Doc’s package store in Boston, my co-worker was a true oenophile who made it his mission to educate me. I sampled everything. Pinot and Cab…Shiraz and Bordeaux…Riesling and Chianti. I sampled wine from every corner of the globe and at seemingly every price point (within reason). I sampled dessert wines, fortified wines, and champagne. In the end…my tastebuds betrayed me. Even today, when a fellow dinner patron raves about the wine they’re drinking, I’ll try a sip…and my lifelong distaste will flare up again. No matter how hard I try…I hate wine.
But recently, I have learned to appreciate…truly, deeply appreciate…one aspect of wine: It’s amazing impact on the beer industry.
Aging beer in used wine barrels has incredible effects. Read my post about my adventures at the Russian River Brewing Company and you’ll notice beers aged in Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot barrels. There’s something about the complex, fruity, sour facets of wine which meshes beautifully with beer. I may not appreciate a glass of wine…but I certainly appreciate the positive virtues a hint of wine can bestow on a brew. The irony is that I LOVE sour beers. Beers that mimic wines are amongst my favorite brews on Earth…but for some reason I can’t bring myself to like the beverage they’re mimicking.
So I enjoy beers that kind of taste like wine. And I enjoy beers that are aged in wine barrels and take on some characteristics of the beverage. But those beers are still all-grain constructs. They may take on some facets of wine, but they’re 100% beer. What happens when wine-making truly insinuates itself into the craft beer world? Will Brother Barley’s wine-hatred subside? Or will he run to the hills in fear and loathing? To find out, I delved into two ales that blur the lines between wine and beer.
The Allagash Victor is part of the brewery’s “Tribute” series. The beer in question is a tribute to the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center in Portland, ME and $1 goes to the organization for every bottle of Victor sold. My love for Allagash has been noted many times on these pages, but the Victor is the kind of beer that could potentially test my resolve. It’s brewed with over 100 pounds of red chancellor grapes and is fermented with a wine yeast instead of traditional beer strains. Allagash’s website clearly states that the beer’s focus is on the “subtle, wine-like character of the grapes”. I poured the hazy, orange-colored beer from a bomber into two Sam Adams perfect pint glasses and watched the massive, decadent white head slowly pop and fizz down to luxuriant lacing. I braced myself, sniffed the nose, took a long draught, and prepared myself to grimace as the flavors of wine…my nemesis…infiltrated my beer. The verdict?
I loved it. I truly, honestly loved it. I thought the wine flavors, though subtle and understated, absolutely added to the complexity and enjoyment of the beer. The nose was traditional Belgian…something that Allagash does better than almost any American brewer…but with a definite, sour, vinous tartness. The aroma was a brilliant blend of yeast funk, candi sugar sweetness, dark stone fruits, and wine, wine, wine. The taste was even more compelling. The fruit and sugar sweetness hit you immediately, but quickly fade into that sour, wine flavor in the middle. The finish is as dry and compelling as any high-end red Bordeaux. That dryness defines the mouthfeel, but it’s never astringent or mouth-puckering…it’s medium-bodied with beautiful effervescence. For a 9% ABV brew, it’s highly drinkable and the bomber was gone almost as soon as it was poured.
OK, you might say…but that’s Allagash! I’m an admitted fanboy of the Portland brewery and I’m generally inclined to over-rate their offerings because of my unabashed love for their beer. But what if I tried a similar brew from an ale factory that I’ve disparaged in the past? How about a brew from the most maddening brewery in these United States? A brewery that produces some of the best and worst beers I’ve ever had? What about…Dogfish Head?
Dogfish Head’s Red & White is the kind of beer I’ve learned to avoid over the years. Like their Fort and Black & Blue, the Red & White sounds like one of Sam Calagione’s experiments that will make me shake my head in disgust and vow never to drink his beers again. My most recent debacle with the brewery was with their Theobroma…a beer that includes cocoa powder and ancho chiles and attempts to mimic the Aztec “drink of the Gods”. If the Aztec Gods drank that beer, I can understand why they let the entire Empire fall to a few hundred Spaniards. I’d be pissed too. That beer sucked.
But, as always, I can never keep my vow to blacklist Dogfish Head. Just like Michael Corleone, they keep pulling me back in. In San Francisco, I was coerced into buying a bottle of Dogfish Head’s Bitches Brew (named for Miles Davis’s seminal album)…and it was absolutely magnificent. Brewed with honey and Gesho root (a traditional ingredient that Ethiopians use to spice their mead), I thought it was one of the best beers ever made by the brewery. It reminded me that sometimes Sam Calagione does things that other brewers simply aren’t capable of. He’s a mad genius…and while the results can be horrendous…they can also be transcendent. After the amazingly good Bitches Brew, I decided that I was just going to suck it up and drink anything Dogfish Head made…for better or for worse. So when I saw a 750 of Red & White on a Florida package store shelf, I snagged the bottle and hoped for the best.
I was not disappointed. Like the Allagash Victor, the Red & White takes its inspiration from the world of wine. Pinot Noir juice is added to the mash and 11% of the resulting beer is aged in Pinot Noir barrels while the remaining 89% is aged on oak barrel staves.*
*That’s the kind of thing that drives me crazy about Dogfish Head. Why the 11%? Why such a random number? Do you think Calagione tried 10% and 12% before deciding that 11% is the perfect number? Or do you think that he just arbitrarily does shit and hopes that it works out. I lean towards the latter.
The Red & White pours a very cloudy, reddish-orange color with a big, pillowy head that has an almost pinkish hue.*
*Jerry: A pinkish hue?
George: Yes, a rosy glow.
Jerry: There’s a hue. She’s got great eyebrows, women kill to have her eyebrows.
George: Who cares about eyebrows?
Like the Victor, the Red & White takes its cues from Belgian beers. In this case, it’s brewed with coriander and orange peel…two ingredients traditionally used in Belgian Witbiers. The citrus zest and grass-like aroma of a Witbier is very present in the Red & White, but like the Victor, the nose is cut through by a subtle, understated vinous grape smell. It doesn’t work quite as well as it did with Allagash’s offering, but it’s still a nice, pleasant surprise.
The taste is very compelling…not Earth-shattering, but much more balanced than I expected from one of Dogfish Head’s experimental brews. The coriander and orange peel are very noticeable and the sour wine taste is nicely incorporated. The beer is a touch too sweet in the middle and the finish. It has a lot more candi sugar and fruit sweetness than the Allagash and it doesn’t have the Victor’s excellent, dry finish. It’s more like drinking an overly-sweet dessert wine than a good, dry red wine. The mouthfeel is much more syrupy and sticky than the Victor and doesn’t have quite the same level of carbonation. Because of that, the drinkability is a bit lower though I still polished off the 750 with no problem. Despite it’s flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed the brew and it showed me once again that even though it sometimes seems like Dogfish Head is just throwing darts at a board, they still hit a bullseye now and then.
3.5 Hops for the Allagash Victor and 3 Hops for the Dogfish Head Red & White. They were remarkably enjoyable beers that I will definitely revisit. But more important than that, they reminded me that wine absolutely has its place in the world…as long as that place is strictly limited to making my beer taste better.