What’s Your Spirit Grape?

I’d never thought about it until a month ago.

A few friends and I adjourned to Terroir, the acclaimed New York City wine bar, after a BYOB dinner with subscribers at Tribeca Grill as part of our recent Matter of Taste event.

While we were hanging out drinking old Barolo, a young woman approached me and asked me the topic question: “What’s your spirit grape?”

Of course, we all have our favorites. The varieties we treasure above others, the wines we cellar or open for friends. In the wine milieu, our drinking habits are sometimes more or less constrained by specialization as well. I’ve got lots of Australian wines in my cellar, but that’s partly because I’ve been covering them long enough to accumulate some good ones, and I’ve learned what I like and what I don’t.

Nevertheless, in my buzzed state I found the question disconcerting, especially once she clarified by saying, “You know, the grape you identify with the most, the one grape you’d marry.”

That’s not necessarily the same thing, is it? Often, a spirit animal represents you or what you want to be. I imagine in my case—I’ve been called a square by more than one person—that I’m something of a Cabernet Sauvignon. Solid, predictable, a bit reserved. Softening a bit once you get to know me, or perhaps with age.

But at that moment, the part of Savannah’s explanation that caught my attention was the last bit. “The one grape you’d marry.”

One of wine’s appeals to me is its endless diversity. I waffled, eventually answering Pinot Noir for red and Riesling for white. I might have even slurred a word or two along the way. And while the rest of that night is a bit of a drunken blur, @savradd’s question (yes, we exchanged Instagram handles) stuck with me. 

They say you never forget your first love. 

For me, growing up in the Finger Lakes in the 1970s and ’80s, that was Riesling. She was a constant in my life, from the cheap Liebfraumilch in the refrigerator (even if she was only part Riesling) to the first few stolen tastes from Hermann Wiemer or Konstantin Frank. She had range, from delicate and sprightly, sweet and tart, to stern and dry, forbidding and austere. She varied with the day, the month, the place, capable of changing with my mood and desires, and mirroring whatever choices made along the way. At the same time, she always had amazing inner strength, a lithe, pliable spine of stony integrity derived from the place of her birth.

Yet for me, that wasn’t enough. At a certain point, she’d given me everything, laid bare her transparent soul, and still I wanted more.

Enter Pinot Noir.

She’d always been more myth than reality. I lived on her fringes, glimpsing her majesty from afar, which only added to the allure. I read tales of Burgundy that referenced her beauty, from delicate scents of tea and roses to smooth caresses of velvet and silk. Trips to France heightened my desire.

And then, for a brief, shining moment, she was actually there—approachable, touchable, real. In New World guises from around the globe, from Oregon, California, New Zealand and Australia. Fresh and vulnerable, but bringing with her the unpredictability of youth and the grape. I drank in her fragrance, reveled in her charm, and marveled at her mystery.

Our paths diverged, but I still see her sometimes, hear echoes of her voice in the other wines that I taste, and I think, “She’s the one.”

Whether from Viognier, Nebbiolo or Syrah, I’m haunted by the scents of flowers, which always bring her to mind. Hell, give me a good Bracchetto or Muscat and I can just sit there and smell it all night, lost in dreams of her.

I feel the softness of her touch in many of the wines I taste, in the plushness of young Grenache, the delicacy of Syrah from Côte Rôtie, or the silky lace of aged Nebbiolo. Like a lover who sneaks up behind you and places her hands over your eyes, it’s unmistakable.

Finally, I see transparent reflections of her everywhere I look. Shimmering in the differences between plots in Hermitage, the lieux dits of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the subregions of the Barossa or Hawke’s Bay. She’s everywhere, even when she’s not physically present.

In this sense, my spirit grape—my muse—is Pinot Noir. What’s yours?

Share what your spirit grape is—and why—on social media using #SpiritGrape and tagging @wine_advocate (Twitter/Instagram) or @WineAdvocate (Facebook) and we'll round up our favorite responses to share with you.

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