A woman was hosting a business dinner in a good Triangle restaurant with a strong and varied wine list. She arrived early to choose some wine for the table, a consideration to relieve everyone of the inevitable group hassle. Although she didn't recognize most of the wines, she knew she wanted a dry red under $50. She was very clear with her waitress that the wine be dry.
The waitress was attentive to her needs and brought her a Crozes-Hermitage. The woman had never heard of Crozes-Hermitage, and the waitress told her it was an appellation in France's Rhone Valley where the reds were made of 100 percent Syrah. That sounded good to her. It cost $46. That sounded good to her, too.
The waitress opened the wine and poured her a taste, and she didn't like it. She didn't like it at all, in fact. She told the waitress so, politely, worried that her tablemates, who hadn't yet arrived, would dislike it, too. She had been very concrete about what she wanted, but this was nearly its opposite. She was confused and disappointed.
The waitress was flummoxed, too. Crozes-Hermitage is unquestionably a very dry red wine—especially when young (which this one was), because younger reds tend to show their youthful tannins. Tannin is a naturally occuring polyphenol in grapes that leaves the tongue feeling scoured dry after a sip of red wine. Food would help soften those tannins, the waitress said, helpfully, which would also dissipate as the wine breathed. The dinner host, a bit diffident about her wine knowledge, reluctantly agreed to let the wine sit while she waited for her company.
What went wrong here? The booby trap is that word "dry."
"It's a simple word, but it encompasses so much," says April Schlanger, owner of Sip ... A Wine Store, in Cary. "Sometimes, what people are asking for is a textural thing. They often mean the opposite of what they say."
Schlanger, whose wine classes at Sip tackle the meaning of "dry" early on, points out that the term, strictly speaking, is not sensory but technical. It means the wine is fermented until it has virtually no residual sugar, and this describes nearly all red table wine. (If you're into the idea of truly sweet red, though, try Banyuls, a dessert wine from the South of France.) Yet we ask the word "dry" to do sensory work for us, using it as a catchall for any number of preferences—including a Sideways-received fear of Merlot (which is also dry).
The first issue is tannins, which occur naturally in the skins of grapes. Noel Sherr, proprietor of Cave Taureau in Durham, says, "We're associating astringency with something that's drying out the mouth." But many wine drinkers who ask for a dry wine and are given something tannic find it harsh or bitter. "Tannic" is not what they meant when they stated a preference for dryness.
Sherr adds that we connect "the notion of overly fruity wines" to sweetness, even though "fruity" is not at all the opposite of "dry"; this is one of the commonest misconceptions. In fact, wines with muted fruit flavors, like herbaceous, peppery Crozes-Hermitage, have a limited appeal to most drinkers, who tend to prefer fruity wines even if they ask for dry ones. Indeed, one reason for the great popularity of full-bodied California Cabernet Sauvignons is that they often pack both pronounced tannins and humongous fruit.
They also tend to have high alcohol content. When Schlanger asks customers questions about what they're looking for—which wine salespeople should do more often than they do—she frequently discovers that "what they really want is a higher-alcohol wine."
Our association of alcohol with dryness is not as curious as it may seem. Alcohol can cut against the fruit in a wine and its (perceived) sweetness, but the association is as much sociological as sensory. Alcohol distinguishes wine from grape juice. The more alcoholic, the more "grownup" the drink seems; part of the appeal of wine is its complexity, which is often what people think they're asking for when ordering "dry" wine.
Daniel Sartain, a veteran sommelier, wine buyer and waiter for several Triangle restaurants, thinks dry "might be the first wine word most people learn," without really being taught what it means. (He's surprised to find that many people mean "oaky chardonnay" when they request a dry white.) Sherr adds: "We hear that the great wines of the world are dry. It's a code word for high quality." And because we associate the term with ideas of seriousness and rectitude (even though alcohol will disarm you of both), it operates culturally: It's not the wine we're calling dry; it's ourselves.
Back at the table, the guests arrived a few minutes late. The waitress asked if they'd like to join the hostess in drinking the Crozes-Hermitage. They all said yes, and the table immediately fell to conversation. The subject of the wine itself never came up, but the bottle drained down. As they sipped and ordered food, everyone relaxed into the evening, loosening ties and tongues, and camaraderie settled over them. Their entrées were served, the wine was gone, and the waitress asked the woman if she'd like another bottle or if she'd prefer something else. We'll stick with the Crozes-Hermitage, she said.
This article appeared in print with the headline "How dry I am."