It was a brawny, sunburned little wine from a cooperative whose vineyards ring the medieval town of Copertino, deep in the heel of Italy’s boot, that was the subject of the first piece I ever wrote for the Globe. I was smitten by the wine’s savory, dry red fruit and raspy texture and said so. It struck me then that this was just the kind of wine I wanted to bring to the attention of readers. Re-tasted recently, it still pleased me. Apparently little had changed in the 15 intervening years — in the wine or in my taste.
How things change or stay the same has been on my mind lately, since this is my final column in this space (I’m stepping away to take a job in the industry). I would like to think that I remained open to new experiences and ideas over the years, but I have a strong suspicion I leave with more or less the same convictions that I came with. The world of wine has not stood still, though, and it seems appropriate to devote these last lines to reflecting on some of the changes I have observed and speculate on which seem ephemeral and which may be destined to endure.
Among the most significant (and, I suspect, durable) shifts in the last decade and a half has been the increase in the number and quality of speciality importers and wholesalers — a phenomenon that may go unnoticed by consumers to whom these links in the sales channel are largely invisible. In Massachusetts, the boomlet came in the form of a reaction against consolidation among the behemoths of the business. In 2006, I profiled three youthful specialty distribution companies: Vineyard Research, Genuine Wine Selections, and Charles River Wine Co. It’s gratifying to see that six years on, they are all still rolling and their ranks have been reinforced by others dedicated to giving strong representation to small-scale artisan winemakers, often from little known and underappreciated regions of the world. The degree to which they make our thirsty world a more interesting place cannot easily be overstated.
These boutique operators have also played an important role in catalyzing what I like to call the postmodern wine shop: one that combines the neighborliness of the corner package store with the sophistication of a university cultural studies department. These are mainly tiny enclaves where everything on the shelf has been personally selected and for which every staffer can provide telling details, including the precise exposition of the vineyard and when the winemaker’s wife is expecting the baby.
It is in these shops (such as Vintages in Belmont, The Wine Bottega in the North End, and Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville) where consumers meet wines in context and learn that there’s life beyond merlot, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc. Pinot d’aunis, trousseau, grignolino, anyone?
This notion that the most intriguing wines are those with the most extreme, cannot-be-duplicated-elsewhere qualities, made with minimal technical intervention, brings me to the much-talked-about subjects of terroir and so-called natural wine. The idea that some plots of ground are capable of conferring unique characteristics on a wine (terroir’s primary claim) strikes me as intuitively true and important.
But I’m instinctively skeptical of the notion that a scrupulously naturalist approach is the only legitimate way to make wine. Perhaps Nature could make wine unattended if she knew where to stop. She doesn’t, and the result is vinegar. Many naturalist wines are lovely but it concerns me that naturalism in art (and so possibly in wine) has shown a limited ability to maintain human interest — not to mention showing a disturbing tendency to sink into a tedious orthodoxy. Industrial wines are almost always boring, but at least they are never ideological.
Among developments I file under Probably a Good Thing: There are now more working sommeliers than at any time in history; high alcohol levels are encountering resistance; minerality has become almost as important as fruit; wine bars are on the make — expect to see a lot more; we are getting less neurotic about matching food and wine; there are no plans for a sequel to the film “Sideways.”
Among those deserving to be classified as It’s a Shame: Global warming, not some insect-borne vine disease, will one day make viticulture nonviable in California; oxydized white wines will have their moment in the sun, but sherry will never come back into fashion; my friend Bernie has drunk the last bottle of first-growth Bordeaux he bought for $4 in 1970; there are no plans for a sequel to the film “Casablanca.”
Many thanks to the editors who helped me along the way, and especially to the food editor, whose good judgment in all things journalistic ensured that I never said anything too silly.
Reader, I married her.
Wines that say au revoir
Here are a handful of favorite, affordable wines from over the years, in categories we turn to again and again. (The distributor’s name follows the price.)
Inexpensive house red and white
Valle Reale “Vigne Nuove” Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and “Vigne Nuove” Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. Around $12. (Winebow, 617-666-5939)
Francois Chindaine Montlouis sur Loire Brut Around $20. (Ideal Wine Spirits, 781-395-3300)
Renardat-Fache Cerdon du Bugey Around $23. (Carolina Wine Spirits, 781-278-2000)
Villa di Corlo “Primevo’’ Lambrusco di Sorbara Around $18. (Oz Wine Co., 978-686-5262)
Domaine Goisot Bourgogne Cotes d’Auxerre Blanc Around $20. (Vineyard Road, 617-861-7341)
Red that can take a chill
Clos Roche Blanche “Cuvée Gamay’’ Touraine Around $16. (Carolina).
Closerie des Alisiers “Les Dames Huguettes’’ Hautes Cotes de Nuits Around $18. (Ideal)
La Garagista Vergennes-Blanc Around $20. (Osteria Pane e Salute, 802-457-4882).
Would happily drink it every night
Lopez de Heredia Rioja Crianza ‘Cubillo” Around $28. (Genuine Wine Selections, 508-359-9463)
Cantina Sociale Cooperativa del Copertino Riserva Around $16. (United Liquors, 800-862-4585)
NEXT MONTH: In June in this space, Ellen Bhang will be tasting American rosés. Bhang focused on wine in the gastronomy graduate program at Boston University and reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe. To read more By the Glass columns, including last month’s on the wines of Rioja, go to www.bostonglobe.com/food.