“A gnostic history of wine color”

Note: This piece was originally published winter 2021 in Disgorgeous Zine Volume 2: Color. Find stockists and support the zine here.

Grapes aren’t red or white. They are green, or gold, pink or purple or black, speckled like a bird’s egg or dusty as though sifted with flour. Mostly they’re round but sometimes they’re finger-shaped, like tiny bananas. The juice you can squeeze from the flesh they enclose is usually clear. And for thousands of years, the wines we made from that juice steeped with those skins weren’t white or red either. They were the color of onion skins, or partridge eyes; they were amber or gold; they were salmon, they were copper. They were differently-colored grapes fermented together; they breathed air so long their color changed. There were rarities: there were wines so saturated with pigment they stayed the color of black olives even after you poured in water. (Jesus probably pulled his trick at Cana by diluting 15% alcohol saperavi.) There were wines that careful attention in cold cellars made crystalline, like glacier melt. 

But in the end, we made it all up. 

Wine color is technology. If you want to drink crystal-clear pinot grigio the year after harvest, pale straw with flecks of green in the ritualized language of our blind tasters, you’ll need it to come in a bottle sealed with an airtight closure and a supply chain that can protect it from light and heat. You’ll have needed cultivated yeast strains to make sure fermentation finishes before winter, hermetically sealed aging vessels to prevent oxidation (think plastic wrap over the apple you cut in half and left on the counter), and sterile filtration to bottle it quickly. Pinot grigio is a pink-skinned grape, so in order to get pale straw out of it you’re probably using a version of the pneumatic bladder press to squeeze them, invented in 1951. 

What’d you do before that? You didn’t make white wine, not the way that you think white wine is supposed to be. All wines were rosé, or all wines were orange. Neither of these things are true, exactly? But they’re also not more obviously false than the alternative. 

“Red winemaking” — long macerations of thick-skinned grapes racked into oak cask, clarified with egg whites and bottled, at first by merchant in the receiving harbor, more and more at the winery itself — was beverage tech of the long 19th century gone global, like lagering. 

Bordeaux already had money and infrastructure behind it: its rent-seeking harbor monopoly, its swamp-draining Dutch engineers, the affection of generations of cherry-cheeked British aristocrats who drank a version of it that was fortified and refermented to survive the Channel crossing. It invented red wine as a protocol and exported technical expertise and consultants all over the waiting world. Bordeaux transformed nebbiolo from a frothy pink beverage into the Barolo that, a hundred years later, we’d call “traditional.” Bordeaux invented Rioja with some Castilian marquis next to a train station in Haro. Bordeaux whispered into the ears of copper-mining millionaires in Santiago. Bordeaux, in the person of George de Latour (peep that nobiliary particle), put cabernet sauvignon into the dust of a valley floor north of San Francisco. 

Bordeaux rewrote the history of wine and burned the old gospels that spoke of grapes mingling in prayer. Bordeaux hid the fact that the first winemaker in Europe was Mary Magdalene (she made a single wine, cofermented from a single vineyard and aged on the skins in qvevri for nine months) and that pinot is a grape that can be three colors in one, like the Trinity. Bordeaux conspired to kill most of its green and gold grapevines overnight in the frost of 1956 and replanted them with purple monoculture. Bordeaux is probably not the reason that one of the stock phrases traded from diner to diner I have to listen to most often in service is, “I’m more of a red wine person,” but what if Bordeaux was the reason?

Across this staggering and benighted earth walk rich white men, or people doing a good impression of rich white men, who are convinced that wine has a right color, a serious color, a color that means that a wine is worth paying attention to, paying money for. They make a virtue of opacity. They bore people at parties. Their teeth are stained, the bottles in their cellars are heavy. They have forgotten their history. They do not know the true gospel, the secret gospel.

Unearth with your brother in the desert a sealed red clay jar that you smash open with a mattock and you will find, among the papyrus that your mother did not burn for fuel in the stove, written in nearly indecipherable script, the following fragments, beginning as abruptly as they end:

You can plant a vineyard as though it were an amphitheater full of people, every single vine a different person, every plant unique, and crush those grapes together under your feet. You can take a grape with pinkish skin and make a wine that is peach-colored, or amber, or fluorescent pink, or ruby red, and laugh openly in the face of the people who ask you where to put it on their wine list. You can steep the green and gold skins of your grapes in their own clear juice for an hour, or a day, or until fermentation ends, or until spring begins, or until you find the clay jar you lost in your cellar. You can set the barrel outside and watch it brown. You can hold the cap under the surface of the fermenting juice with the weight of water pooled on a tarp. You can push it down with your hands. Your wine can be pale, even if they are expected to be darker, and darker, even if they are expected to be pale. You do not have to strip out pigment with industrial polymers; no, indeed you should not do this, they are used in hair spray. I say to you, your priests can come from any country. They can be and choose any gender. They can preach the gospel to you in their own language, and any person here can take communion. Drink this, now, and know: there is no such thing as wine color. As light through a prism shows us the rainbow, wine contains all possible colors. This is what the child of god told me before they left, I, Thomas, who write these words. 

James Sligh is a Brooklyn-based sommelier and educator. He is more of a white wine person. @jimsligh

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