Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Wine Refractions

When I was out West in August and September of this year, I spent a week with close friends in Paso Robles, in central California. This is a wonderful, up-and-coming wine district that has now achieved its own appellation. My friends live east of downtown, in the heart of the wine district itself; driving off the highway to their home, one must pass by acre after acre of grape vines. I brought home 12 bottles of wine from four different vineyards, after two days of tasting tours. I gave away about half the wine I brought home, to friends who are fellow wine appreciators.

I won't lay claim to being any kind of wine expert, mostly to dodge barbs from genuine Wine Snobs. I'm an enjoyer of good wine, not a snob about it. I doubt that my palette is so refined as to be able to tell the difference between a 50 dollar wine and a 500 dollar wine; although I can certainly appreciate the pleasure of a 50 dollar wine in comparison to a less than 10 dollar wine. But there are also many delightful less-than-10-dollar wines; wine snobbery is partly based on the snobbery of class and expense. People imagine rare and expensive wines must be better wines, and so they are. Perception can mean a great deal, and it's not as objective as many experts would have us believe. I have to say, though, the wines from Paso Robles are my favorite California wines right now. They're much better than anything coming out of Napa Valley, in my opinion. Of course this will be heresy to some. But even though some of the vineyards in Paso are owned by Napa companies, the Paso vineyards are being used to experiment, to try new ideas, new blends, new methods, and different grape varietals, and this is yielding excellent results.

When I got my bottles home—they did all survive the remaining three and more weeks of the journey—before I passed them on, I set them all up on my dining room table and took photos of the bottles in the bright fall afternoon light. I was fascinated by the colors of the wines refracting the afternoon light, and the glow and tone given to each bottle by both its glass and its contents. Wine bottle glass is its own beautiful science and artform; although hardly anybody looks at the wine bottles. What photographer could resist the delight of the interplay of light, glass, and the fruit of the grape? It's the small things in life that sometimes excite us most.

One of my best friends and I, when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, frequently enjoyed browsing the wine aisles, just looking at the labels, to appreciate their graphic design, illustration, and typographic fun. Some younger vineyards have some delightfully funky labels and illustrations. The creativity of these vineyards is not limited to their product, but shows up in the intelligence and craft of their marketing. This puts their design aesthetic far out ahead of most similar advertising, which is usually about dull repetition rather than life-enhancing splendor. Try it some time: just browse the aisles, looking at the labels. Even if you don't like wine, I predict you'll find something to love, graphically and typographically, whether contemporary, quirky, or classic.

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