The readers of The Washington Post must have been shocked recently to read a headline proclaiming that “New Hampshire is the best state in America for wine drinkers,” and to discover in the article that thanks to price, availability, lenient regulations, and no taxes levied on it, “Granite Staters down 19.6 liters of wine per capita each year, the highest consumption rate of any state and second only to the District” of Columbia. Poor California, the land of so many fine wines, consumes a mere 14 liters per capita. This information must’ve disheartened wine connoisseurs, sommeliers in fine restaurants, and wine-store owners everywhere, not to mention flyers about to board planes en route to expensive wine-tasting tours of vineyards in Burgundy or Tuscany, who suddenly found themselves wondering whether they ought to have gone to Keene or Laconia instead.
Despite several irate comments regarding the article from New Hampshire residents, pointing out correctly that most of that wine bought in New Hampshire is most likely consumed in bordering states and by vacationers from as far as Canada passing through who can’t resist our low prices, there’s no doubt in my mind that the consumption of wine has gone up in the forty-one years since I’ve settled in New Hampshire. Once the state allowed the selling of wines not just in its own liquor stores, but in supermarkets, small groceries, filling stations, and even in drug stores, it became clear that the locals too were drinking wine. My other piece of evidence comes from our town dump, where the empty wine bottles are separated into their own bins and into which I take a peek every week while dropping my own empties. What became obvious over the years is not just the increase in quantity, but the improved quality of the wines that are being drunk. Since I associate wine with good life and civilization, knowing that everyone from the old Greek and Romans to our Founding Fathers drank it too, Benjamin Franklin even claiming that wine is a proof that God loves us, I find this to be a most felicitous development.
In 1973, when I moved to New Hampshire, wines were available only in state liquor stores in selections so limited and of such mediocre quality that someone like me, coming from California and accustomed to an immense variety of wines available everywhere, had a reason to panic. To remedy the situation, I and a couple of friends who shared my love of wines used to make monthly trips to Boston and Cambridge to diversify and replenish our supply. We did this for years, until the state loosened the regulations and more wines became available locally. Nowadays, with the top state liquor stores being as well-stocked as the better stores in Boston and New York, our problem is of a different nature. Neither I, nor anyone else I know, can afford 30-40 percent of the wines being sold. Who buys them? We keep asking ourselves, and after mentioning doctors, lawyers, and wealthy summer residents, we still can’t imagine locals savoring wines that cost a couple of hundred dollars a bottle or even more.
When I first moved to the state, it was beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor that people offered to their guests. If wine was served with dinner, it was likely to be a better quality jug wine like Almaden, or a bottle of Chianti in a straw flask. Once Californian, Australian, and Chilean wines became widely available and women of all ages fell in love with chardonnay, all that changed. Over time people became not only more knowledgeable about the different kinds of grapes from which wines are made, but also fussier about how they liked their wines to taste. One could now be confident that what awaited dinner guests at someone’s house would be something at the minimum acceptable and often memorable, in a bottle that might come from some previously unfamiliar wine producing region like the Willamette Valley in Oregon or Rioja in Spain.
I remember a story about President Nixon habitually guzzling rare vintage Bordeaux during state dinners without sharing it with his guests, having it poured into his glass by a trusted servant from a bottle wrapped in a white napkin to conceal the label. A part of me understands his reluctance to share. As Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet.” But when it comes to wine I can’t follow our Lord’s advice. I would die of shame in my own eyes were I to open a long-treasured bottle of wine when there’s no one at home, decant it into a decanter, let it breathe for a while before pouring it into a glass, swirl it a bit and, raising it to the light, gaze at it lovingly, then take that first, never to be forgotten sip. Drink of the best stuff, is my advice, because you never know what tomorrow may bring, and do so in the company of friends.
I’m not the first one to notice that company makes wine more enjoyable and more memorable, while the wine inspires a better quality of conversation. Wine lovers don’t guzzle; they sip. Doing that not only makes the bottle last longer, but also gives the impression that time is passing more slowly. Years ago I read in a work of some Byzantine historian the claim that Greeks became philosophers once they started watering their wines. Before they did that their wines were so high in alcohol that one was good for nothing after drinking them, except to pick up a shield and a spear and look for someone to have a fight with. Then one day a miracle occurred. A little rain fell into the wine cups left outdoors by a party of friends and when they returned to resume their drinking and tasted the watered wine they were astonished by how pleasant it was to drink and how clear their heads were afterwards. The news of their discovery spread far and wide and in no time there was a philosopher in every village in Greece.
This being the end of August, the weather in New Hampshire has grown cold, bringing relief to red wine drinkers who fear the hot and muggy days that interfere with its taste and deprive them of their pleasure. Yes, darkness comes earlier this time of the year, there is a feeling of melancholy in the air, the birds have fallen quiet with their own worries about the future — or as I imagine, so they can listen to corks popping all over New Hampshire at this hour, and after a lapse of time, to the sound of thick red wine, the kind that takes away the chill, being poured into someone’s wine glass.