Wine Words

Whatever Davenport or Nyetimber would have us believe, wine is intrinsically unEnglish. Historically comfortable supping small beer in hose down the Rose, or wassailing with mead in old Heorot, our palates are primed for the musk of hop and malt, the crisp juice of juniper and apple. Essentially barbarians, we; the grape is the civilised fruit of sunnier, savvier climes, with an alien, sanguinous Latin savour of guilt and gilt and guile. Elizabeth Knox's The Vintner's Luck is a gorgeous bit of vitifiction that proves the point. Dark, devilish and baroque, it captures the flavour of a ripe, purpling, nineteenth-century rural Gallic love that would be entirely unpalatable in the equivalent hale golden barley fields of Beeston.

Wine is equally intrinsically unAmerican. The New World's native foxy vines and phylloxeran pest makes it a miracle of pioneering optimism that a hybridised European viticulture thrives; even then, the strident sun and odorous oak tend to make hollering, head-splitting blends that rape amd pillage your maw. The cynic's story of Napa Valley is one of commerce, gluttony and saccharine Zinfandel - but on last week's pilgrimage to it's heartland, St Helena, I also heard tales of old US spirit at it's best - generous, industrious and brave.

At one end of the scale is a winery like Frog's Leap. A recently renovated colonial fantasy of New England style barns, organic herb gardens and orchards, it is all the more appealing when you learn that it was founded by a thieving seventies squatter. John Williams was a Cornell and Davis graduate who rocked into Rutherford on a Greyhound bus and bullshitted and grafted his way to the top with equal parts chutzpah and talent. Those biorhythmically planted vines interspersed with vetch, sweet peas, mustard and clover, originate from offcuts Williams nicked when he was a labourer at nearby Stag's Leap.

At the other extreme sits solo Sonoma winemaker George, who nonetheless represents the modern continuation of the Williams ethos. George makes the pure pinot noir he likes to drink. After number-crunching in New York and trading in LA, George came to the Russian River a few years ago to make wine for two months per annum and party for ten. He does all the work himself, hand-numbers his bottles, looks like a bum and smiles, very occasionally, like an angel.

This is what appeals to me about wine: its history and humanity. The tale of the terroir and the vintner's vision run through a grape like a ferrous fingerprint.

And of course there's the language, all sex and death ; the aroma and the mouthfeel, the tawny and the tannin, the sharp entry and the long, luscious finish. Most of all, it is a language of improvisation and invention, carelessly cherry-picked to express idiosyncratic experience, wrestled to translate sensation into sense.

And that, good master sot, is as English as you get.