Wine: Myths and Mystery, a Top Ten List

Is there any other popular beverage steeped in so much myth and mystery as wine? Even Scotch would seem to be a distant second. There is no simpler alcoholic beverage to make if you break it down by basic process alone. Get yourself some grapes, squeeze said grapes, wait. Beer requires a lot more steps, and nearly all other adult beverages begin life as beer of some kind before being distilled. How is it that rotten grape juice gets to have so much more mystique?

While I have a few contributing theories or opinions, I don’t have a comprehensive answer to that question. However, I am glad that wine is still mysterious to me despite having drunk enough of it that my liver now sports a bas-relief with the face of Bacchus. I have seen many writers claim that they want to demystify wine for the masses. As a fresh-faced wino impressed by the power of his shiny new blog I may have made some similar statements. So I wish them good luck with that task, safe in the knowledge that they will probably fail just as spectacularly as I have.

Mystery is good. Mystery adds spice, a sense of adventure, and most importantly it keeps us interested. Because of mystery, wine is sexier than beer or Scotch or rum. Imagine a woman with dark smoldering eyes, candlelight reflecting in them as she peers over the rim of a glass filled with a rich ruby-red liquid that sparkles almost as much as her eyes. That is an alluring, sexy image. Now imagine the same woman bellied up to the bar, sucking down a Miller Lite. The imagery loses something. Mystery. Just as sex without some sense of mystery and wonder is just biological imperative-driven rutting, wine without mystery is just beer. Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against beer, or a good rut for that matter, but mystery keeps me coming back for more.

How is it that grape juice tastes like cherries, blackberries, tobacco, leather, pineapple, peaches, violets, and sometimes even cat piss or tar? What surprises has some alchemist in California, Chile, or France sealed up inside of the next bottle I open? What sort of magic will occur when I take a sip after a bite of food? Now that’s the kind of heavy shit that leads to obsession! So, I say again to everyone who wants to demystify wine, good luck with that.

I think that the problem is that what we mean when we say we want to demystify wine is that we want to remove the barriers that keep people from sharing in the wonders and mysteries we love. See, that doesn’t work so well, does it? Wrong word. We need a word that encompasses everything from “just try it” to education to kicking certain pompous snobs right square in the jimmy, but that word doesn’t exist. So let’s just keep doing the things we mean by misusing the word demystify, because sharing our love of wine is more important than semantics, yet we need to recognize that wine truly is mysterious.

That covers mystery, but what about myth? Myth is an easier subject to tackle in a straightforward manner. While truth can be an elusive thing, talk to any Fox News watcher if you doubt me, it can usually be dug up with a little effort. Since many myths contain varying levels of truth, they are often useful as long as we can ascertain the amount to keep and what to ignore. The first myth we’ll examine is a good example, albeit often discussed.

Myth #1: Red wine with meat, white with fish.

In my estimation, this qualifies as a useful myth. It comes in handy as a general rule of thumb. When in doubt, leaning on it will rarely lead you too far astray. A light, flaky piece of fish won’t end up getting its ass kicked by some bully from Napa, nor will a similarly delicate Muscadet end up bleeding in some back alley after encountering a piece of Texas beef. That’s useful. Then again, this admittedly useful myth, is still just that…a myth.

When we read about Icarus we gain the knowledge that flying too close to the sun, either metaphorically or literally, will cause us to crash and burn. However, if we read it and start gluing feathers to ourselves before flapping our arms and jumping off of rooftops then the myth is a lot less useful. I highly doubt any of our readers would do something like that, especially since the Fox News watchers probably left in a huff already, but I think you get my point.

If “red with meat, white with chicken and fish” becomes a firm belief instead of just a rule of thumb to fall back on in times of uncertainty, it becomes less useful too. Pinot Noir is equally good with roast chicken, grilled salmon or a pork chop, a piece of veal, and even some beef dishes. I have successfully paired some Chardonnays with thick hunks of bleeding sirloin. Oftentimes this myth can lead us astray simply because while the meat may be saying that a red or white is in order, it is covered with sauce that screams just the opposite.

Take some chances. If you think a light red might match up with your fish, give it a try. Got a big bold white? Try it with a juicy pork or veal chop. And you’ll be surprised at how well roasted chicken and duck goes with a wide spectrum of both red and white wines. Sometimes I’ll even pour one of each with a dish. Why the hell not? Because some myth said not to? I would never do that, and I have no idea how these feathers got stuck to my arm.

Myth #2: The color of a wine is an indicator of how it will taste

One of the first things that a neophyte wine connoisseur is taught are the steps used to evaluate a wine. The very first step is to look at it. Judge the color, they are told. There are things that can be gleaned by looking at the color that could relate to taste. Primarily the age of the wine. Both red and white wines move towards a brown color as they age. Looking at the edges of the wine in the glass can provide a clue as to age. If it is clean and clear looking, no matter the color of the wine, it is probably a young wine. If it is yellow or brown it probably has a bit of age on it. Or it could indicate that it was improperly stored and has gone bad. In either case, what you are seeing is the effect of oxidation of some sort.

Sometimes it is also possible to take a guess at how extracted a red wine is, which might be a clue about the taste. Other than that, this first step is merely to figure out what color it is, and nothing more. Even if the color hints at what grape is in your glass, how old it is, and even how long it was left on the skins, there is nothing definitive in the coloration that will tell how it tastes. Nothing.

As Adam and Jamie would say, “This myth is busted!”

Myth #3: The longer the legs, the better the wine

Legs mean one thing, and one thing only; your wine has alcohol in it. It does not indicate quality in any way. While a decent amount of alcohol is one of the elements that is used to determine if a wine is cellar worthy, in and of itself it does not mean much. Some high alcohol wines are fantastic, some are just hot. However, if you want to impress your friends guess the alcohol level in a big red with long-lasting legs at 14.5% and sit back as you become the group’s new wine guru.

Myth #4: Every style of wine requires its own type of glass

Reidel loves this myth. For all I know they may have invented it. Truth is, this one crosses the line from being a myth into utter bullshit-ness. Blather about the perfect angle of attack based upon where the wine hits your tongue is nothing but marketing nonsense. Amy and I both love Reidel glasses, but we have some for red and some for white, and even that is overkill. Truth be told, we use Andrea Robinson’s line of glasses more than any other and find there to be no difference in the taste of wine over Reidel crystal. She has the right idea, in my opinion. One glass for red, one for white, and toss those bad boys in the dishwasher afterwards! Now, if you enjoy collecting fine stemware, Reidel makes some fantastic glasses. I fall in love with every set I see. They are beautiful. Just don’t buy them because of the myth. You don’t need a Pinot glass and a Cab glass and a Syrah glass, unless of course, you need a Pinot glass and a Cab glass and a Syrah glass. Just don’t expect them to make a difference in how the wine tastes.

Myth #5: Old wine turns into vinegar

Tough one. If it is exposed to air for some time it can become infected with mycoderma aceti bacilli, which will technically make it a vinegar. However, just because it is old and turned sour doesn’t necessarily mean that the required bacteria is present, and in either case you are merely left with a generally unusable bunch of sour wine. I wouldn’t call if vinegar as we know it, and I certainly wouldn’t cook with it. Who you gonna believe? Me or science?

Myth #6: Opening a bottle of wine and letting it sit will let it “open up”

One of the perks of being wine writers in Houston is that we often get to break bread, bread that is nearly always washed down with fantastic wine, with Denman Moody. My first encounter with the legendary Texan was at a conference where he spoke, as he is wont to do, on a wide variety of topics; one of which was letting wine “breathe.” Since he recently accepted our offer to have him contribute his thoughts on the matter to this space, I won’t divulge too much of what he said that day, suffice it to say that opening a bottle of wine to let it breathe may be a good way to get a bug in your wine, but it is entirely ineffective for letting it aerate. The only benefit to doing so is if sulfur or some other noxious fumes have built up in the neck, they will dissipate. Blowing down the neck would do the same thing, unless, of course, you have sulfur breath, in which case you have much bigger problems than tight wine. If you feel a wine needs to “breathe” there are a number of ways to let it do so. Decanting, especially if done in a less than gentle manner, will get a little air into the wine and the wider mouth will at least allow more surface-to-air contact than the narrow mouth of the bottle will. There are countless products on the market that aerate wine, and depending on how you define success, they work well. I have tested quite a few and can taste the difference after use, I’m just not sure that the difference is always an improvement. I much prefer to let my wine “open up” in the glass. It adds to the mystery.

Myth #7: Corks are for sniffing

Don’t do this, OK? If you are one of those people who are capable of detecting TCA (trichloroanisole) or TBA (tribromoanisole) in small amounts, then it is possible you might pick it up off of the cork. I am pretty sensitive to the smell those little nasties produce myself, and will usually go back and sniff the cork afterwards to see if I can smell it there. Sometimes I can, but often I can’t. Sniffing the cork, especially in a restaurant, will generally just identify you as a poser or a rube, and some less-than-scrupulous members of the wait staff may use it as an excuse to take advantage of you. Suddenly there just isn’t enough wine to make it around the table, can they bring you another bottle? No one wants that, so here is what you do. When they open the bottle and offer you the cork it should be easy to see if it is wet, indicating that it was properly stored. Just nod and then ignore it. The server will, if properly trained, then set it down on the table next to you. Continue to ignore it. If for some reason the server does not display the wet end, accept the cork, glance disdainfully at them, then the cork to see that it has a wet end, and ignore it after setting it down. Don’t be a cork sniffer!

Myth #8: Wine gets better as it ages

Like so many misconceptions about subjects as varied as music to politics, this one requires a bit of nuance to discuss because it is neither completely true nor untrue. Some wine ages well, some doesn’t. Some people like aged wine, some do not. There are even regions where the locals prefer their wine aged, and the rest of the world wants it fresh. Stripped of all the nuance, generally speaking, almost all wine is meant to be drunk fresh, or very nearly so. Most white wines are best within a year of release, and while many reds can go 5 or 6 years and remain tasty, they are best fresh too. That does not mean that there aren’t a lot of wines with longevity, even some whites. What it does mean is that most of the wine purchased all around the world is to be enjoyed now. One thing that we can say definitively about aging is that it will not make a bad wine better. The same goes for a wildly unbalanced wine. Aging requires an excellent balance of powerful elements that time mellows and makes more harmonious. In the case of reds, those elements are fruit, tannin and (sufficient) alcohol. If a young wine has them all it will probably taste very good, but the tannins may be almost oppressive. Age softens those tannins, the fruit often becomes less bright and fresh, but richer, and the alcohol preserves it all and helps provide mouth feel. But that is only for special wines. Most wine is neither collectible or age-worthy. Drink it!

Myth #9: Holding the glass by the stem and swirling is snobby or elitist

Wine drinkers do a lot of stupid crap, and even more stupid-looking crap. We don’t usually mean to, we just can’t help ourselves. Yeah, I’ve swirled a full cup of coffee and splashed the hot stuff all over myself. I’ve also stuffed my nose too far into an overfilled glass and snorted it like a wino version of Tony Montana. Usually in very embarrassing fashion too. But when we swirl our glasses, it is for a reason. Swirling releases compounds into the bowl of the glass that provide the aromas our noses require to help us truly taste the wine. Yeah, we develop habits and end up swirling everything we drink and it looks silly when the coffee flies, but swirling isn’t some pretentious habit developed to alert observers that we are serious wine drinkers, it really makes a difference in how the wine tastes. How about only holding the glass by the stem? If your goal is to evaluate wine it is a good idea to avoid fingerprints on the glass so that you can see the contents better. Or if you feel that the wine is the perfect temperature and you want to avoid heating it up with your hands then use the stem. Other than that, hold it any damn way you please. If anyone corrects you, tell them I said it was okay.

Myth #10: Joe Roberts is the 1WineDude

In an AWB exclusive, we have uncovered shocking photographic evidence that Joe Roberts may not be who he claims to be. Is the guy we all know and love as 1WineDude actually 1WaterDude? Our fully vetted and exhaustive research would certainly support such a claim. Take a look at our first photo, but be warned, this is shocking stuff, folks, and each one is more disturbing than the last.

Joe Roberts drinks water!
Members of the Joe Roberts gang live blogging from the Water Blogger Conference held yearly in an undisclosed fortified and apparently hydrated location.

That was hard to look at, wasn’t it? Shocking! Stunning! Horrifying! If that were the only piece of evidence we had, it would probably be enough, but we have much, much more. We understand that many readers will have seen enough and not wish to expose themselves to more of these gut-wrenching images, but if you have the stomach for it, here is another one.

Joe Roberts drinks more water
The malevolent sneer of 1WineDude (or should we say 1WaterDude, Mr. Roberts?) combined with the look of abject horror on this young woman's face speak volumes

We don’t know about you, but we are feeling quite sick about now. You think you know someone, and then find out that they are a completely different person than who they led you to believe. You are very strongly advised to skip the next photo. If you found the first two images to be shocking, be aware that they are nothing compared to what you are about to see. Proceed at your own risk.

Joe Roberts hides his water behind a child
Parents, this is a perfect example of why you should always keep a very close watch on your children.

This photo shows what happened when the subject of our investigative efforts became aware that we were on to his charade. In an attempt to thwart our highly scrupulous and completely ethical journalistic efforts at exposing him, Mr. Roberts palmed a small child by the head, as if she were a basketball, in the hopes of using her to hide the truth of his water lust. At this point we ended our investigation due to public safety concerns. Had we known what a desperate man we were dealing with, we may not have had the courage to begin such an exhausting and dangerous undertaking. However, since we did, our crack editorial staff here at AWB decided that you had the right to know all of the scandalous details.

And there you have it, our Top Ten List of Wine Myths. We hope that you enjoyed them as much as enjoyed bringing them to you.

Update: By all accounts the young girl pictured above was returned to her parents and doctors say she will probably make a nearly full recovery once she has had many, many years of therapy. It’s good to know that this story has such a happy ending.

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