My Life As a Small Time Wine Criminal

I’d like to confess to a truly wine geek fantasy: I want to know what all the great varietals taste like. As grapes. Yep. I want to eat the major varieties raw. There’s something about tasting the grape before the wine that fascinates me. I don’t know why, but it’s there. So over the years I’ve encountered the jovian Muscat grapes in my supermarket, as well as the trendy Champagne grapes. But other than that, I’m embarrassed to say, I haven’t made much progress on my fantasy. Which is silly, really, because I certainly know enough winemakers to have done this a while ago. Heck, I live 40 minutes from the nearest major appellation. But I’ve been lazy or embarrassed or just too busy.

But today I was driving home from a tasting event in Napa, and something in me snapped. Maybe it was the atmosphere. The sun was slanting low and golden on the vineyards, which themselves had started to turn gold and amber and flame as the days shorten. Many had been picked already, but there were still many that had lush full bunches of fruit dangling below the colorful leaves. I watched them go by in my peripheral vision for a while as I cruised down Oakville Crossing, and then, suddenly in a fit of impetuousness, I swerved my car off the road, hopped out, and strode out into the nearest row, whereupon I reached down, plucked off a few (4 to be exact) plump ripe Cabernet grapes and popped them into my mouth.

Yep. Trespassing AND Theft. There’s got to be a circle of hell for wine drinkers who steal fruit. Even if they can make a lame excuse later that it was all for journalistic purposes. Ahem.

I’ve learned enough about winemaking and wines to have an intellectual understanding of what wine grapes are like, but I have to say I wasn’t really prepared for the experience of eating some ripe Cabernet. Which is to say — it didn’t taste the way I expected. I knew that in general wine grapes don’t taste like the wine, but damned if I didn’t sort of expect it to. I also know that almost all red grapes are white on the inside, but I was still taken aback. I mean, I was standing there, looking at ripe cabernet and no matter how much intellectually I understood that it wouldn’t, I sort of imagined these plump little berries would burst with deep red, vaguely cabernet-like goodness in my mouth.

Needless to say, that wasn’t the case.

There’s not much to a ripe Cabernet grape when you get right down to it. They’re small (about half an inch in diameter) and even though they’re firm and plump, they don’t have much inside them. A couple of seeds, which must take up 20 to 25% of the internal space in the berry, some firm, juicy, clear insides, and a very thick velvety skin. When I put one in my mouth and chewed, my teeth first met the resistance of this skin, and then the berry popped in my mouth, although rather than exploding with juice, it sort of deflated, with the skin mostly intact. As I chewed, the flavors were a nice mix of the watery, grapey sweetness that you get from any good grapes (though not nearly as sweet as your normal table grape), mixed with a tangy, yes, even aromatic, flavor of the skin, which was definitely not like any grape I’ve had before.

I chewed right through the seeds as well, which imparted a slightly woody quality to the whole mouthful, but not in an unpleasant way. I could definitely eat a whole bunch of these sitting in the afternoon sun, I thought to myself. But then I remembered where I was. Opus One might forgive me for a couple of grapes, but a whole cluster might be pushing it. So with sticky hands, a slightly guilty conscience, and a big-ass grin on my face, I jumped in the car and headed on down the road.

That takes care of Cabernet. Now on to the rest !