We like to tell ourselves little lies about wine. It helps to order a world that, at least we’re convinced, is complicated and unwieldy and maybe a little scary.
One of those little lies is that there is a wine for all seasons—more specifically, that there are certain wines for certain seasons. It was well captured by a recent Someecards image, of the sort that clutter up Facebook and Twitter with thoughts about (more often than not) drinking. This one, with the usual line art of a woman clutching a glass, read: “It’s Daylight Savings Time! [sic] Remember to change your wine from Red to White.”
These e-cards fall somewhere between normcore and an outmoded “Mad Housewife” view of women and wine. And this one in particular stood out for perpetuating one of those nasty little fallacies: that wine is a product defined by time and weather, meant to change with the seasons.
It’s not that this argument doesn’t feel comfortable, or even obvious. It’s an extension of the way many of us like to talk about food. Different things grow at different times, and the conscientious eater is meant to ebb and flow with that seasonality, so that ramps in April and fresh apples in October become part of our biorhythms. We know when zucchini appears at the farmer’s market and, depending where you live, when fresh Dungeness crab shows up in the tank. More than that, we eat differently at different times of year, or we like to think we do. Beef stew seems a lot more appealing with a foot of snow on the ground than in the sticky days of August. And just the inverse for a Salade Niçoise or freshly grilled corn.
Eaters of even modest taste can agree that we’re better for knowing that, say, ripe tomatoes have a summer moment, and that styrofoam-y supermarket tomatoes are no substitute. (And yes, that choice remains a luxury for many people.)
So why not wine, too?
Wine is very much part of the table and by that logic, it’s food. Except that it’s not food, exactly. I prefer to think of it as food adjacent, in that its place is absolutely to be with food, to be an accompaniment and to deepen the pleasure of a meal. But wine is, by definition, a preserved product, meant to be enjoyed year-round. Not unlike a condiment. And, in the way that pickles and jam and kimchi are condiments, it is something we opt into as a way to improve our pleasure during a meal.
Thus, trying to impose a seasonal sensibility onto wine strikes me as both trying too hard and also, perhaps, as a cynical ploy disguised as news-you-can-use. (And I am a sinner on this front—many, many times over.) More than that, it comes with a vague sense of wine-shaming—of imposing rules when none are needed.
It’s spring! Spring whites. It’s December! Warming reds. These are convenient ways to organize the wine world, but they’re also an extension of the oft-repeated, and misinterpreted, notion that wine is food.
It’s not that I don’t understand where this trope comes from; it’s an inevitable reaction to the sad reality that, for most of America’s history, wine wasn’t a part of the table (that role went to hard liquor, if anything) and that it’s not inherently part of our culture. Generations of wine-positive people, from Robert Mondavi on down, have tried to reverse that—to give Americans a context for wine on the table. And it’s precisely because they’ve succeeded that we need to roll forward our rhetoric. The generation coming into wine today grew up, largely, in a culture that already embraced this message. There is no longer a pressing need for rules, for the unimpeachable wisdom of uncorking a sauvignon blanc to go with—wait for it—fresh herbs.
It’s equally important to acknowledge what American tables look like today. We eat in a polyglot way—and I don’t mean taco bowls devoured by very Caucasian presidential candidates. The modern American is increasingly as conversant with pho and bibimbap and mole as with pizza and hamburgers. Our food has always been immigrant food; it’s just that the diversity has expanded from the corners of Europe to all corners of the globe. (And, let’s be frank: It’s always been more diverse than just appropriated European food. Things like tamales have been part of American eating for a long time.)
When your food culture is as global as ours—untethered not only to local tradition but to one particular climate—seasonality has to mean something different. Bucketing wines into four seasons ends up feeling like a holdover from that very white, very European way of thinking about food. Not to mention the more obvious problem: Seasons might mean one thing if you live in New York or other northern parts of the country, but what about Miami or Phoenix or Los Angeles? What about San Francisco, a place oddly fixated on seasonality considering that it has only 1.3 seasons?
To be clear: I’m not arguing to abolish the pleasures of seasonality, or to choose unseasonably off-message wines to put wine nerds in their place. There is, absolutely, a joy to the gradual shift of seasons and flavors, and wine can and should be part of that. I am obsessed with the arrival of spring asparagus, and equally with all the grüner veltliner and dry muscat and sylvaner that goes with it. These combinations are old Teutonic traditions that are long-established, and also delicious, and I’m happy to have them.
But at the same time, I also love rou jia mo, those Shaanxi-style “burgers” filled with cumin-spiked lamb, pretty much any time of year. And I like them with spicy cabernet franc. There isn’t a traditional wine context for that—seasonal or otherwise—but I like to think it doesn’t much matter whether I’ve made all the right wine moves, or whether I’m being season-appropriate. I suspect I’m not alone here. The old-fashioned rules about wine and food, frankly, come from a time before broccoli dogs and aged nigiri and haute-Hawaiian served with Saumur blanc.
It’s more likely than not that today’s American table is filled with a range of plates—my celeriac Caesar salad sitting right next to short ribs, next to a pizza—all at once, versus the one-by-one progress of a fancy seasonal menu, kaiseki or otherwise. How do we even deal with wine for that, except for ordering whatever we like? (For the record, my answer to those above dishes: Bodegas Tradición amontillado sherry.)
There’s nothing wrong with guidance, but too often guidance becomes a straightjacket. Rules can be valuable, but not when they engender insecurity and undermine perhaps the most important theme in wine: to make comfortable choices. There’s a sort of pretense in saying “Drink what you like! The only rules are no rules!” But there’s also a pretense in setting out rules that provide limits where none are needed. And imposing seasonality on a product that is, by definition, not seasonal? That’s the very definition of wine-shaming.