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Secrets of the cask

WINE IS A mystery, and we are schizo about mysteries. We crave them on the one hand and work insanely hard to solve them on the other, ignoring the fact that by solving them we are destroying the very thing we value in them.

The more sternly a mystery resists our inquiry, naturally, the more aggressively inquiring we become – especially if we perceive the mystery might carry snob value. Wine is especially enticing on this point, being perhaps the most ancient of human beverages, produced in a wealth of blends from a wealth of subtly different yet subtly similar varietals in a wealth of soils, climates, and topographies, all of which appreciably affect the final result.

So we are baffled, intimidated, and irresistibly drawn, and those who would guide us are legion. I have a bookshelf groaning under the weight of volumes that talk about which wine to pick, et cetera. Do I need a copy of The Glory of Wine, by Gloria Brey Miller (Ibrod Press, $19.95)? Do you? The short answer is no, unless you are reassured by triteness and banality: "If people leave themselves open to discovery and surprise," writes our guide, "they can find out where their personal preferences lie."

At least she is not fanning the flames of snobbery. Neither is Food-culture, a Berkeley-based organization dedicated to educating the public about traditional, artisanal, and sustainable means of producing foodstuffs. On April 21, Food-culture is sponsoring its first wine seminar, "Wine 101: Developing a Palate Memory," at Ruby's Café in Emeryville. (For more information call the café at (510) 482-2009 or go to www.food-culture.com.)

The basic idea here is not entirely dissimilar to Miller's – understanding through familiarity – but with a greater emphasis on the whats and hows of wine production (the program will be lead by winemaker Travis Fretter) and so a deepened understanding that a bottle of wine is the unique culmination of a long endeavor and not simply a product sitting on a store shelf amid innumerable similar products.

That strikes me as a worthy undertaking, and at the same time I wonder if it's really necessary. A big part of the joy of wine is the crapshoot of choosing one: you like the label, the name rings a bell, the price is right. Triviality and arbitrariness are central to life, however much we try to convince ourselves otherwise, and even the most arbitrarily chosen wine these days is likely to be OK. We haven't yet unraveled all the mysteries of winemaking (let's hope we never do), but we've unraveled enough of them to make good wines commonplace, and affordable.

Paul Reidinger paulr@sfbg.com