Can Wine Taste Like Love?
Molecular-level heart photographed in a biodynamic 2001 Quintessa wine
Courtesy of Sondra Barrett, Ph.D.
Can a wine taste of love?
At a recent seminar in California, Sondra Barrett, Ph.D., spoke to Masters of Wine hopefuls on photographing the guts of the fermented drink. As if this cadre of connoisseurs hadn't already been accused of joylessly stripping this liquid pleasure down to its bare essentials, Barrett, a onetime cancer researcher turned photographer and author, took it one step further by employing a microscope to capture wine's molecular structure.
Turns out her photos are a lot more compelling than any MW tasting note. From droplets on a slide, the magnified liquid revealed striking colors and shapes reminiscent of our macro world, from dragonflies to emeralds. The artistic images were surprisingly illustrative of wine’s perceptible taste attributes. Sharply acidic sauvignon blanc evoked a spiky sea urchin, while an aged merlot spread in a soft blob across the film. Barrett shared the story of a perpetually irate winemaker. She said his wines, jagged at the molecular level, reflected an angry energy.
This got me thinking about the degree of influence a particular wine’s maker and élevage (the environment in which it is raised) has over its expression of site (where the plant grows) and variety (the type of grape and clone). Nature versus nurture are woven, often indistinguishably, into the final blend.
A few years ago, a group of winemakers tried to parse out contributing factors. The South Australians collectively known as Natural Selection Theory (they’ve since disbanded into separate projects; one member sadly has passed away) buried minimally handled Hunter Valley semillon encased in cement fermentation eggs in different types of rocks they associated with an emotion, accompanied by soil-specific soundtracks. While highly conceptual, I’ve heard the resulting wines showed profoundly different character. Less controversially, Dana Estates in Napa counts itself among a growing number of wineries that provide tranquil environments for sleeping wines (cabernet sauvignon, in its case) by soothing them with classical music.
Which brings me back to love. If a wine can reflect anger or peace (myriad studies have tested the response of plants to human touch, tone, musical genres), could a wine made with love reflect it, too? What would it look or taste like?
I asked the opinion of one couple who fell in love with each other, fell in love with wine, and together now make a wine they love. And then I tasted that wine.
Lovebirds Rzeszewski and Betts, parents of Sucette
Courtsey of An Approach to Relaxation
Carla Rzeszewski, the former wine director at the Spotted Pig — and New York’s former reigning sherry queen — met Richard Betts, MS, at a wine festival over a glass...of sherry. “I was manning my booth, preaching the good word when Richard walked up. I knew he was a master sommelier. Usually I would have been intimidated about trying to 'teach' him anything, but I had a pretty good feeling sherry was the one region I had on him. He thanked me, told me that was one of the best wine lessons he'd ever had, and came back seven minutes later asking me if we could go through it again. Two sherry lessons and a few years later, and here we are.”
After Rzeszewski left Manhattan, she and Betts knew they wanted to work together. Betts, the former wine director at Little Nell, had already found success creating his own drinks brands, and Rzeszewski itched to jump into a different part of the industry. On a trip Down Under, they fell in love with the Aussie landscape and more deeply with each other. When the opportunity arose to get involved with a vineyard there, it seemed like the natural choice for their relationship and careers.
Sucette is the lovechild spawned of that ambition. The pair debuted the wine, co-produced with Christian Canute of Rusden Wines, in the fall of 2015: the first in the couple’s An Approach to Relaxation project. Into the bottle goes 100 percent grenache sourced from ninety-year-old vines eking out an existence in sandy Vine Vale soils in Barossa. The plants are basically “feral,” said Rzeszewski, only handled at pruning and harvest.
“Grenache is where it's at. It's the warm-climate analogy of pinot noir: It's sexy, supple, aromatic, pretty as hell, and delicious to drink," explained Rzeszewski of their chosen grape. As to the location, “Vine Vale is the special part of the Barossa where you have the deep sand that grenache loves as well as the local 'gully breezes' that keep the temperature in check,” she said, adding “the fact that this area is also home to some of the oldest living vines on earth is also pretty cool.”
As an anecdotal experiment to my drinkable-love hypothesis, I ordered a sample bottle of Sucette. I knew the couple’s story, both individually and as partners. I had traveled to Australia with Betts and Rzeszewski on that first auspicious trip; they’ve always been demonstrative of their feelings. I witnessed the transition from stomach-fluttering butterflies to ass-grabbing to deep respect and commitment and more ass-grabbing. Their wine seemed like the obvious choice for my test.
But first, I asked Rzeszewski and Betts what they thought. Can wine convey attraction, compassion, tenderness, devotion? They proffered an emphatic response. “Yes! We've actually thought about this a lot. You can feel when a chef cared enough to create a dish with love. It's the same for us. Wine is a product of nature that shines when given great care, and isn't that what love is? The desire to take special care of someone or something to the best of your ability. That energy absolutely comes through.”
I circled back to Barrett. Had she ever photographed a wine made by lovers? “Not specifically, but I have seen hearts. The first one was from a biodynamic winery, Quintessa, and since I knew a lot about biodynamics, I wondered whether the heart appeared because the vineyard was well loved and honored as sacred.” On another occasion, Barrett photographed samples for World of Fine Wine. Again, several images exposed cherry-hued hearts. Not until later did she find out that the red wines depicting the icon of humanity’s deepest sentiment were derived from biodynamic vineyards.
With that in mind, I popped open my bottle of Sucette 2014 (SRP $59), allowing it to breathe before dinner. I prepared a homemade pizza, with dough I’d cold-fermented in the fridge for 24 hours. I topped it with locally smoked mozzarella and sauce made from scratch. My partner and I sat down to dine, and I poured a splash of Sucette in each of our wide glasses. Sniffing its perfume, I took a sip, and I swear, I tasted hearts.
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