Wine as Religion

by Robert Millman

When I ran wine seminars with my partner Howard Kaplan he used to refer to certain wines—never expected but always awe inspiring- as “religious experiences”. We should forget that there is a god of wine—Bacchus, the Roman version of the Greek Dionysus. Intoxication was understood as a divine experience lifting the intoxicated to a higher plane of sensual existence. The role of religious order in the history of wine—Burgundy especially—is no mere historical accident. I once suggested to my wine collector friend Dr. Harry Snady that we assemble twenty wine writers and collectors assigning each a chapter to discuss the few “religious experience” wines they have been fortunate to taste. I am certain that quite a few readers of TerroirSense, from all over the world, have had a vinous religious experience at some point in their wine tasting lives. I hope to write an essay in which I discuss my three “Religious Experience Wines” hopefully to allow readers to participate vicariously in those experiences. Perhaps Editor-in-Chief Ian D’Agata will author his own retelling of his religious encounters with wine.

Nonetheless I would like to suggest that, in general, turning wine into something like a religion is bad both for wine and for wine drinkers. This was brought home to me recently when I attended a tasting of one of the first cult importers of wine into the United States. His name is Joe Dressner. Alas he passed away more than a decade ago. He had already established a unique position among wine importers. His wife has continued his important work and the affection, even adulation, the Dressner wine choices inspire has not abated to even a small degree. There is a yearly tasting of most of the Dressner portfolio and hundreds come to luxuriate in “his” wines. How did Dressner achieve his anti-hero fame which converted his business into all but a shrine to naturalism in wine? From the outset, Dressner decided to take on the Zeus of wine (Robert Parker) at a time when his reviews were regarded as gospel among wine collectors. (Do notice how many religious words I have used there.) Dressner sought out wines often from obscure areas in the Loire Valley, then northern Italy, which fell totally outside the Parker sensibility: wines of relatively low alcohol and high acidity. The Dressner wines were indeed in most instances the very antithesis of a “Parker wine”. It was a bold yet brilliant move on Dressner’s part. He rode the coat tails of anti-Parkerism to the sort of fame among young drinkers and sommeliers which few in the so-called natural wine movement of today have achieved. The Dressner wines became the object of cult approval and within just a few years he became a name to contend with: The religion of natural wine versus the religion of rich, ripe oaky red wines, or for comparison’s purposes, wines that were luxury liner-like compared with the sleek sailboat quality of the Dressner wines. I exaggerate of course: but maybe not by much. Dressner started something which grew into a “Movement” and not a mere alternative to the wines that most collectors seeked (and to a degree, still seek). Parker was demonized (another religious term) and Dressner sanctified (ditto). But is any of that really so good after all?

The point I want to make is that it is bad for everyone connected to wine to operate through these absolutist, quasi-religious convictions. Wine should not be pushed into ideological/religious frameworks. It makes wine become something more than it is and actually turns it into something less enjoyable. People end up buying and claiming they like wines which meet these non-vinous frameworks, and everything that falls outside of the borders of such categories becomes, perhaps, less good, less interesting, less worthwhile. The near mystical status of bio-dynamics is another example of importing religion into wine. Perhaps it is a fundamental truth of the human condition that we need to elevate some experiences to spiritual status that they otherwise do not seem to have on their own terms.  Yes, the bouquet of the 1953 Chateau Margaux seemed angelic the few times I was lucky enough to taste it. But Bacchus did not make or bless the wine. It was made by human beings from a lovely terroir in a wonderful location in Bordeaux. The good fortune of nature and near perfect Bordeaux growing season weather in that year—which occurs from time to time—allowed the proprietor and wine-making team at the Château to make a singularly beautiful wine in 1953. The preceding three and the next five vintages were not nearly so lucky or so good! And religion had little to do with any of that.

Robert Millman

Robert Millman’s wine career began in the early 1980s, when he began working from Morrell & Company, one of the USA’s top wine retailers. During that time, he co-founded Executive Wine Seminars (EWS) with Howard Kaplan, which over the years became one of NYC’s most highly regarded wine events companies. EWS organized and conducted over 1000 wine events during its prestigious thirty-three year history. High points included Robert Parker being a regular guest presenter at the tastings, and through 2011, the results of the tastings were published on the Wine Advocate website. Having reached an age where taking a step back from the wear and tear of life in the wine fast lane made sense, Millman currently enjoys being a taster and wine writer for Grapes the Wine Company, an excellent, leading e-retailer based in Westchester (NY). 

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  • “wines that were luxury liner-like compared with the sleek sailboat quality of the Dressner wines”
    J class sail boats wines vs mammoth of the sea, 500+ feet MY! (nautical cri de guerre)

  • Luxury liners are on the ocean but not of it. Sail boats are almost part of the water on which they ride. Both reflect human desires–for comfort and richness on the one hand, for excitiment even with a tough of danger on the other

Robert Millman