Wine As A Window Into Culture

Wine as a Window into Culture

Perhaps it's a better door than a window: a great pathway to a more profound understanding of faraway places.

For some people, travel means going from the airport to the resort and spending their entire stay within those golden acres. They won't have any unplanned encounters with the culture, nor will they speak with a citizen of that country except to clarify the dinner specials, arrange a golf game or ask for some towels. I love seclusion, luxury and ease as much as anyone, but that's not my definition of travel.

Not all vacations need to include winery visits, but if my destination is in or near a winemaking region, I will try to work in a few tasting room experiences. First and foremost, it's for the simple enjoyment of wine, at whatever level of quality. I also enjoy the company of the people on both sides of the counter. While you're swirling and savoring a snapshot of their terroir and winemaking skills, you're picking up recommendations for restaurants, activities and sites not found in the brochures.

Wine is a window into the culture of a region. Or, if you prefer, it's a doorway, allowing you a deeper, more profound understanding. Sicily, for example. This month, Roger Voss and Monica Larner report on the changes going on Sicily's wine industry. Winemakers are returning their attention to their most promising indigenous grapes, Nero d'Avola and Inzolia. Bulk wine producers, spurred by competition from new boutique wineries, are improving quality. There is much change there, but the food on the Sicilian table remains stubbornly, gloriously, itself: an exciting mix of Italian and Arab influences, with a heavy accent on seafood, as you would expect from an island.

Larner, who took many of the photographs for the story, had just the kind of experience I'm talking about in setting up the photo that became our cover. She was taking shelter from a rainstorm in Donalegge al Castellazzo, a tiny community consisting of a cluster of rural homes about an hour's drive from Palermo, "when the clouds parted and the recently restored facade of this 15th-century farmhouse was drenched in sunlight. That special Sicilian light was irresistible." She began talking with the owners of the house, and suddenly half a dozen villagers were scrambling about for the horse-drawn cart, vegetables, sausages, bread and an exceptionally large piece of salt they had collected from a salt mine some 20 kilometers away (this is not sea salt, rather it is salgemma, or salt from a cave). After the last photo was taken, everyone sat down to a lunch, "during which we ate and drank many of the props you see in the picture."

Another facet of following the world through wine is that, once you think you know the wines of one area, another, unexpected region comes to full flower. Some people will pay annual visits to Burgundy or Tuscany and never wish for more. Others of us, once we become acquainted with those exciting destinations, look to the next horizon. And, magically, with wine as the focus, there it is. Think of the exciting regions that are emerging on the world stage that were marginal players five, ten years ago; Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Washington and Oregon. You know Napa and Sonoma? Try visiting Santa Ynez. Familiar with Australia's Hunter Valley? Try Margaret River.

In this issue, Steve Heimoff presents a word portrait of the Santa Ynez Valley, the gorgeous wine region north of Santa Barbara on the south central coast. Because of the east-west orientation of the valley, climatic variations make it possible for winemakers to have success with Pinot Noir at one end of the valley, and work wonders with Syrah at the other end. And a visit to Santa Ynez compels a stay in posh Santa Barbara, playground of the rich and famous. Great restaurants abound in the area of course, and between meals you can always shop, go to museums or attend the theater.

And if your wanderlust is lusty enough to take you to the ends of the earth, consider a visit to Margaret River in Western Australia. Their wine tradition dates only back to the early 1970s—an infant in the wine world—but already winemakers there are crafting formidable Cabernet Sauvignons and elegant Chardonnays. Julia Clarey's article on the wines, the winemakers and the other exciting attractions might lure you halfway around the world.

As this issue makes clear, it's the serendipity of travel, the joyous certainty that one thing always leads to another, that adds spice to life.


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