The perfect Thanksgiving pairing (has everything and nothing to do with the wine)

My favorite Thanksgiving pairings are pinot noir with Burgundian leanings and sparkling brut rosé. (I’m not aiming for points on originality here). Since I’m a member of the drink-American-on-Thanksgiving club, the pinot noir is likely to lean Burgundy without actually being so in the form of an Oregon pinot noir that remembers that Oregon isn’t California. The sparkling is likely to be Schramsberg if I can get it and Ch. Ste. Michelle if I have to share. That being out of the way, my favorite Thanksgiving pairings have everything and nothing to do with what’s in the bottle.

Growing up, dinner came in two general forms. “Dinner” was eating. I was sometimes allowed to bring a book to the table (don’t judge), my parents talked about business or watched the evening news, and we didn’t have wine. “Nice dinner” was dining. We lit candles. We had wine. The conversations were longer, more thoughtful and, silly or serious, involved more stories. “Dinner” could be over in 45 minutes. “Nice dinners” sometimes took three hours. I blame the wine.

Thanksgiving (and Christmas) was the paragon “nice dinner:” just the three of us, the nice plates, and a meal that took most of the day and a spreadsheet to prepare — because what is Thanksgiving but an excuse for excessively social cooking for a family that doesn’t watch football and does own three mortar-and-pestle sets? And definitely wine. We sometimes thought about a movie afterwards, but as often as not we just talked and listened to music until everyone was warm and sleepy and full of pumpkin pie and single malt and ready for bed. Again, I blame the wine. And the single malt, but mostly the wine.

Thanksgiving and nice dinners have everything to do with science and science communication. I remember the evening when my father first explained color spaces (a fundamental element of color theory) to me. I was somewhere in the second half of my teens and I’m pretty sure the bottle on the table was a Dr. Frank merlot from New York’s Finger Lakes, because that was our house red at the time. We talked about F-stops or the zone system, how sub-woofers work, the finer points of gardening or birdwatching. Later, we talked about my research and I practiced science communication on my father, for whom “cell” was more likely to refer to a battery than a bacterium. Sometimes we were mundane and just rehashed old stories. We always talked about the wine at least a little.

I’m sure that I would have been interested in science and communication and maybe even in wine without those dinners. But “nice dinners,” and holidays especially, were the crystalline form of the stuff that taught me to be inquisitive, to value good conversation (and to hold up my end), and to understand why wine isn’t just about flavor and definitely doesn’t need to be about prestige. Good wine meant good conversation, and good conversation means everything.

I’m all in favor of thoughtful wine and food pairings that reveal exquisite and otherwise-unseen elements of each, or even simply pairings that taste good. But the absolute best pairing with Thanksgiving is just wine, whatever wine makes space for conversation, whether at a quiet table for three or a potluck affair for thirty. Because that, not an exquisite flavor experience, is the wine’s real job.

Why thinking of wine as food solves the natural wine debate

Wine is a food. A surprising number of people are surprised when I say this. It seems obvious: wine is nourishment. Nourishment with specific effects, yes, but all foods have some kind of effect on us, if some more profound than others.

Saying that wine is food isn’t the same as saying that wine is harmless. Nearly every food will cause you some sort of harm if eaten in inappropriate quantity, and any amount of some foods are bad for some people. Jack Sprat and his wife are really caricatures of all of us: some people are happiest and healthiest as vegetarians and some really live best with meat, some feel their best eating dairy-free and some can’t digest soy, some thrive on lots of carbs and some on more protein, some need to avoid salt and some don’t. Guidelines apply, sure, but setting down universal rules about what’s healthy for everyone just doesn’t work. Alcoholic beverages are food, dangerous for nearly everyone in large quantities (allowing that what qualifies as large varies from person to person), not tolerated by some, and healthy and useful for many.

Remembering that wine is food fundamentally solves the debate about whether or not wine must be “natural” in order to be valid. The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is still no, but with some elaboration.

The reality about food in our post-Wonder Bread, post-Michael Pollan, post-Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall world is that we* near-universally know that locally-grown, minimally-produced, food with clearly identifiable ingredients that came out of the ground, off a tree, or from a recognizable piece of a pastured or wild animal represent “real food” and the ideal of what we should be eating. On the other hand, anonymous food processed out of recognition in large factories, wrapped in plastic and trucked about the country feeds most people most days. This is not ideal, but it’s the situation we have. Wine is the same. Boutique, caringly-crafted, often minimally messed-with wines are the ideals much lauded by our leaders. Still, Gallo and Yellow Tail and their ilk are still responsible for most bottles (and boxes, and jugs) on most tables most of the time. This is also not ideal.

The conundrum: while real food — including wine, and meaning ingredient-focused, sustainably grown, minimally processed, and preferably local — is ideal, it’s usually more expensive and sometimes unavailable. Especially in economically impoverished urban areas (and even very rural ones sometimes, perversely), wholesome fresh food sometimes is simply unavailable. Some people don’t have the know-how or time to prepare fresh food well. Even if just about everyone knows that eating mostly out of packages is bad, many still do so for a variety of reasons that may or may not be their “fault.” My husband once said that if the United States wanted to create an effective and complete anti-hunger program, the government should contract McDonalds to administer it. Neither of us voluntarily chooses to eat fast food. But you can’t deny McDonald’s expertise in delivering enormous quantities of consistently edible food to essentially every corner of the nation. When it comes to hunger, food is better than no food, even if the food is a mass-produced hamburger. Even though wine isn’t a basic necessity, mass production of what the natural folk would call fake wine makes wine accessible to people who would otherwise not be able to afford or access it at all. And much as I spurn the capitalist-driven food production system, I have to give credit where it’s due. We have industrialization to thank for safer food supplies and clean, well-made (as in not overtly faulty) wine. Understanding the benefits science and technology can bring, our task now is to undo the additive-filled and soulless damage we did to what nourishes us in figuring all of that out.

We can and should put community gardens into empty city lots, teach children how to grow their own radishes and encourage them to tear up the grass in the yard to do it, support fresh food markets in food deserts, make food production and cooking classes part of the school curriculum, and design economic policies to support local and organic food production. How to do this stuff is complicated. People specialize in economics and food policy. I’m not one of them. I’m not going to pretend that I know how to make these changes happen. I don’t believe that we need GMOs and factory food to provide enough food to feed the world, but I recognize that as a belief based on gut feeling and emotion and philosophy because I haven’t worked through all of the data. I’m consistent, though, in believing that the entire world could and should have access to real, honest, well-crafted wine if we changed the infrastructure surrounding how wine is produced and distributed. And we should.

So, the obvious conclusion. Appreciate mass-produced wine for providing volume and access while actively working toward making real wine — defined the same way we define real food — available to as many people as possible. Those of us with the money and education to buy real wine should, something we pretty much do already for cultural reasons, but perhaps without seeing the connection to the local and real food movements. Realizing this connection is important: it brings into focus the privilege inherent in preferring real wine and, in tandem, should help motivate us to work for change in both spheres. Think of real wine as part of real food, prefer both if you have the resources to do so, and think about what you can do to support its production and improve access. The Michael Pollans and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalls of wine have yet to step up in terms of consumer education at least in the United States, hardly surprising considering our short history and present state of wine education, but something toward which to look forward nevertheless.

Now, what we define as “natural wine,” as in where we set the line between wine that’s allowed to carry that distinction or to show up at The Real Wine Fair — that’s a different question, and a semantic and philosophic more than a practical one. So is what we call “authentic wine,” and the issue of drinking local versus global is an entirely different discussion. More on those another day.

Incidentally, if we’re post Michael Pollan, I’d say that fermentation revivalist Sandor Ellix Katz (upon whom I’m inclined to wax poetic) is the prophet of our future food revival. Does that mean that I love quirky “natural” wines? You bet.


*I may be defining “we” rather narrowly as reasonably well-educated Westerners, but I doubt it. I haven’t surveyed people shopping for packaged foodstuffs with food stamps, but I know that my friends who fall into that category know what healthy food looks like and aren’t choosing it for a variety of reasons. Less well-educated folk may not know who Michael Pollan is, but the collective media we has achieved pretty high penetration if not on his message, than on the message of fruit and veg and whole grains good, processed foods and added sugar and salt and fats bad.

Waiheke Island and why I’ll probably never be an entrepreneur

Before I arrived in Auckland on Saturday evening, I’d planned to spend Sunday at the art museum and wandering around town. I was there for a two-day “PhD Research Innovation and Commercialization Course” hosted by the University of Auckland Business School on Monday and Tuesday and flying in on Saturday proved the least expensive and most reasonable option. Having never been to Auckland before, I figured that I’d enjoy the extra day in the city to explore. I was wrong. Walking from the bus stop to my hostel was more than enough of crowds, air pollution, and garish shops. Fortunately, I was also wrong about how easy it was to get out to Waiheke Island, as I discovered upon realizing that the ferry terminal was a five-minute walk from the hostel with ferries leaving nearly every hour. So, on Sunday I discovered that my favorite view of the city is from a boat headed away from it.

Waiheke Island is about 40 minutes by ferry from Auckland and home to something along the lines of 12 wineries, additional vineyards, and the inevitable mix of eccentric artists and rich people one finds on beautiful little islands. Being a completely spur-of-the-moment decision, I unfortunately didn’t have time to call in advance and arrange for proper winery visits. Also unfortunately, it was Mother’s Day and I was on foot. Not an ideal visit, and I’ll have to remedy its deficiencies with a better-planned future one (and one that includes visiting some of the island’s olive oil producers, I hope). But I did learn something interesting that, as it turned out, helped me think about what we were doing at the business school’s course.

Vines at Te Moto, Waiheke Island

Vines at Te Moto, Waiheke Island

I walked into Te Moto at the same time as a trio of Oregonian girls who’d just finished working harvest in Marlborough, and the tasting room host kindly offered to show the lot of us around their itty bitty production facility. As the girls cooed over the adorable little tanks, she explained that winemakers didn’t come to Waiheke unless they were interested in staying small and hands-on. An expanding business model just isn’t going to work on a 36 square mile island with astronomical land prices: at the most basic level, you can’t afford business here unless you can afford small, expensive, and precious. But you’re also not likely to plant roots (or rootstock) in this place unless you want a lifestyle that’s a little bit precious. Te Moto was founded in 1989 by the Dunleavy family, notable because patriarch Terry Dunleavy was the first CEO of the Wine Institute of New Zealand (one of two parent organizations to the present-day New Zealand Winegrowers), and though they’re clearly doing well, their crush pad-cum-open-air fermentation space is barely bigger than my office. And they’re doing something that’s the envy of many winemakers: holding on to their vintages until they think they’re ready to drink. The tasting room is currently pouring the 2006, 2007, and 2008. Even with their second label, Dunleavy, for more immediate cash flow, holding onto their flagship wine is an expensive proposition and an interesting choice.

A day later, I was sitting in the Owen G. Glenn building on the University of Auckland’s campus (a structure that could have been dropped into Starfleet Academy without anyone thinking twice about it) listening to a business professor tell me that my chances of becoming a successful entrepreneur increased with the size of the city I called home. Per capita, more start-ups are born in Sydney and Melbourne than in Auckland. Auckland fosters more than Wellington or Christchurch (the second- and third-largest cities in New Zealand, respectively), and Christchurch more than Dunedin, the seventh-largest city (and less than a tenth the size of Auckland) that I currently call home. The moral of the story was three-fold: first, aspiring innovators should live in densely-populated places; second, New Zealand innovation is hamstrung by its relative lack of large-scale urbanity; third, connections between people lead to innovation, and connections are easier in big cities. The prof was trying to convince us that making connections was easier in big cities than in smaller ones, simply because more “talent” was readily available, and that connectivity is important for business growth. Sure. But he ignored an important complicating factor: what kind of people choose to live in big cities versus small towns? Moreover, what kind of place would New Zealand be if we had six Aucklands and a Melbourne?


Te Moto’s tiny winery/restaurant/tasting room complex

I can’t but wonder if part of why big cities grow small businesses is because the kind of people energized rather than irritated by the bustle, people who value or will tolerate constant motion, people willing to give up quiet porches for dirty pavement, are the kind of people willing to trade freedom of information and generosity of spirit for fatter wallets. I work hard, but being the person I want to be and living a good life is more important to me that climbing ladders, closing deals, and building an investment portfolio. I wouldn’t have come to New Zealand — and I dare say neither would most of my American friends here — if more of the country looked like Auckland.

And so I think about Waiheke. Te Moto’s definition of success involves a couple of compact car-sized fermenters with no plans to expand. You’re not going to start a winery on Waiheke unless you have money, but you’re still making a deliberate choice in favor of a particular kind of lifestyle. And so the community develops a particular flavor because the place attracts people with similar values.

My experience with Kiwis, at least outside of Auckland, is that they take time to enjoy the outdoors, sit with friends to drink their coffee, and spend money on experiences more than on fancy houses. Most folk I know in Dunedin wouldn’t live in Auckland because it wouldn’t afford them the lifestyle they treasure. Start-ups and entrepreneurs can do great things, and Villa Maria and Kim Crawford and Cloudy Bay are tremendously important for the New Zealand wine industry. But as for me, I’ll be watching the bell birds splashing around in the bird bath on the porch of my quiet little cottage on the bay, hopefully sipping something from a winemaker who’s decided to find the space to do her own thing.