From the title of Charles Bamforth’s book, Grape vs. Grain, I thought, finally, there would be a decisive ruling on which was superior, wine or beer. Maybe not in the Heavyweight Champion of the World sense but at the very least he would proffer a Bush v. Gore type of verdict. Sure people will still argue about the legitimacy of the decision, but there would a conclusive ruling nevertheless.
My bias leans towards beer; wine has always remained a bit of a mystery to me. Beer is easy, heuristic; wine has always seemed like taking an SAT I am ill-prepared for, where I inevitably fail both the analytical (Zinfandel, Merlot or Cabernet? Provenance of Australian, French or Napa fields?) and the verbal section (buttery, vanilla, barnyard).
On travels to Spain and Italy, wine did not seem as complicated – house red wine is drawn from casks in the back of bars, but at home in Oregon, smack in the middle Pinotland - wine is a club to which I don’t know the secret handshake. Over the years, I have turned to some pretty big books to help me decipher the regions, varieties and vintages of wine. For all the encyclopedic entries and explanations I have read, it has been relatively skinny Grape vs. Grain, half of which is dedicated to brewing, that has helped me understand the world of wine a little more.
Perhaps because it was written by a beer guy, Charles Bamforth, the Chair of the Food Science Department and the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at University of California, Davis. Professor Bamforth was kind enough to spend some time on the phone talking to Saucyman (the blog) about wine, beer and his book. I started by asking for an, unequivocal answer - which is better, wine or beer, Professor Bamforth staked out the middle ground saying “They are both fine beverages”.
Not a surprising answer given the balanced and thoughtful nature of his book. Rather than take sides, Bamforth evens out the playing field throughout Grape vs. Grain, making wine more approachable and extolling the virtues of beer and brewing.
Unable to pin him down on which is better, I asked Professor Bamforth why beer is more socially acceptable than wine in the US, “Historically beer was the drink of the settlers…a drink of moderation, still is…Wine is perceived as being elitist, it seems to have to have got itself onto a pedestal” Adding this haughtiness comes from a different source than its producers, “I am not so sure that it is the wine makers as it is the people who are hanging on, the camp-followers, like wine writers who quite frankly use some pretty silly terminology”.
Bamforth continues, “There is a mystique built up around [wine], where the reality is that beer is far more complicated scientifically and use far more complex, sophisticated technology, leading to a product of consistent excellence. There are a 1,000 different species in wine emerging from grapes and yeasts but a lot more, probably twice as much in beer, coming from the malt and hops and the water as well.”
While wine has been happy taking a more naturalistic course leading to yearly changes and vintages: A bottle of wine is one of the few products bought in a store where the quality and flavor varies from bottle to bottle. Bamforth points out “The fine tuning of the process is far more sophisticated in brewing."
In their quest to improve and make a consistent product, brewers have been willing to embrace and invent technology. Bamforth explains “Many of the early scientific discoveries were made in and around the brewing industry…Things as fundamental as PH came out of Carlsberg. [Brewing aided the field of] Statistics. The student-teacher relationship came out of Guinness Brewing Company in Ireland and so much more besides. Brewing has given some big scientific discoveries to the world.”
Bamforth balances out his brewing lore by stating “The wine industry is not primitive by any means”. Explaining there is tremendous work going on in viticulture. Although my questions stayed mostly in brewing spectrum, in his book Bamforth does far more justice to wine and wine making, covering the drink’s history, quality and flavor in a style that is both simultaneously easy and knowledgeable.
Even though Grape vs. Grain did not crown an undisputed winner in the Battle Royale of beverages, the volume is informative, detailed, knowledgeable and readable - somehow the book is avuncular. A good read, a good gift for the wine and beer lover in your life. And with Mother’s Day around the corner what better gift is there than the gift of knowledge? Seriously, your siblings are getting her flowers, give mom a book with a chapter detailing the health benefits of moderate drinking.
Saucyman returns with new post on Thursday morning about the true (but not so Hollywood) story of mascarpone cheese.