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Dionysus vs. Diogenes ... keeping emotions separate from facts ...

Any healthy, mature human can enjoy the sensual and psychic pleasures of moderate wine drinking. It requires no knowledge or skills other than bringing a glass to the lips and swallowing. The overall sensory experience of wine can be transformed, however, from a simple pleasure to a profound one, with just a bit of knowledge about how humans experience "taste" and a basic understanding of the reasons wine can have so many flavor variations.

When I began to taste wines and noticed there are vast ranges of different flavors that vary from brand to brand, type to type, year to year, and region to region, I wanted to know WHY?

I bought two books about wine, a hardcover and a paperback. Some of the information contained in these two texts conflicted and the authors seemed to contradict one another; I realized they were intermingling their personal impressions with the facts. For my investigation, I wanted the "Sgt. Joe Friday" wine book: "All we want are the facts, Ma'am." I'll come to my own conclusions and separate the victims from the suspects by the evidence, rather than the circumstances, thank you.

Thousands of books and articles exist about wine. Some are excellent, some are not. Wine is made through a combination of nature, science, and art. There seems to be a tendency in wine writers to become emotionally involved and let personal impressions of the art get commingled with the facts of nature and science. Writers often tend to overly-romanticize when wine is their subject. Unconsciously, the writer pits his internal Dionysus, the mythical god of wine and revelry, against his internal Diogenes, the seeker of truth.

Most "common wine knowledge" includes lots of myth and dogma, passed along (even by "experts" and "authorities") with neither explanation nor skepticism. This is somewhat understandable, since the history of wine appreciation precludes the scientific study of wine by millennia. Commercial and capital interests generally do little to help correct the misunderstandings; they know it is easier to sell the "sizzle" than the steak. It can also be said that "tradition dies hard," and tradition can be exceptionally resilient in the wine world.

And then there's the internet... tailor-made for the ADHD-afflicted, including writers and readers. The study of wine in its many styles and flavors is NOT simple; it involves many, many variables, deviations, and exceptions, and few, if any, cut-and-dry, all-inclusive rules. But the web is full of quick-and-dirty answers, where research and fact-checking often seem artifacts of the 21st Century... a place where the hucksters and hawkers have staged a coup and overthrown the scholars and librarians. Anyone can and does print anything they will, with no explanation or foundation, half-baked half-truths for half-wits... anything to make a sale or get a public audience. It's enough to make a serious journalist want to soak his cynicism in alcohol!

This combination of romantic impression, myth, tradition, commercialization, and over-simplification results in many writings about wine that are misleading and confusing to the reader, especially the novice. The articles on this site are an attempt to supply that very basic information on the subject of wine, trying to be as concise, straightforward, and to-the-point as the subject matter allows. In this WINE 101 section, I try to be emotionally detached and leave my opinions out, allowing you to form your own. The CONSUMERISM section is somewhat less emotionally detached and the AFTERTASTE articles are purely advice and opinion.

Do not expect to acquire instant wine expertise — not from reading all the articles on this site or from any other online or in-print text on wine. The basics to enjoyment are not difficult, but the learning curve to wine expertise is also not as steep and difficult, as it is long, complex and never-ending. And, although the destination is a moving target, the journey is full of social interaction with interesting and enjoyable people, visits to beautiful locales, and many sensory pleasures along the way.

It is also important to keep in mind that research is on-going. What is known of the nature and science of wine has changed a great deal, especially since the mid-1980s, and it should continue to do so at an ever-increasing pace. Also, in case we fall behind, or you have a question or an alternate take on the information presented here, we also have a form for your Questions (or comments). You may first want to look at some typical Wine Q & A.

For more detail involving various aspects of wine, there are some excellent texts as I mentioned earlier. My "Desert Island" wine book would have to be The Oxford Companion to Wine, impeccably edited by Jancis Robinson. This encyclopedia-style reference has contributions from the best authors, experts and scientists. Alternative choices are the venerable The World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson, or Benjamin Lewin's excellent and scholarly Wine Myths and Reality.

Any mentions of brands or specific types of wine in this Wine 101 section are only in the context of historical significance and not to be taken as endorsements or recommendations. (Not that there's anything wrong with that....! For specific wine evaluations, visit some of links to Tasting Notes & Wine Reviews, listed in our Aftertaste section.

Expertise in any subject is earned through a combination of study and practice. While mastering wine appreciation is no exception, it certainly doesn't seem much like work; so, if you expect to become a wine expert, keep on studyin' and keep on tastin'. My own journey for wine knowledge began over forty years, many books, and very many bottles ago and the end is (thankfully) not yet in sight. Cheers!

Jim LaMar


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Created September 11, 2002; Updated August 6, 2014
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