Humans Are Like Wine Grapes, and Other Weird Self-Awareness

Humans are like wine, and their lifecycle mirrors that of wine grapes in striking ways. They are so similar, in fact, you would think they were siblings. And the self-awareness we can learn from studying our favorite wines is not only instructive, but a ton of fun.

It was a chilly Saturday morning in April, and my classmates and I arrived before the winery opened for public tastings.

We congregated outside a silver double-wide garage, and like a performer raising the curtain in a theater, Eric Fry lifted up the garage door from the inside. Fermentation tanks lined the walls as Eric comfortably supported himself against one of them. I remember thinking he looked like Santa Claus in his workshop. He was tall, at least six feet, with a red shirt under faded denim overalls and a full grey beard.

Eric was the master winemaker at Lenz Winery on the north fork of Long Island, New York. A microbiologist by trade, he began his life of wine at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa, California before doing a number of things across the world that eventually brought him to Lenz as its master winemaker.

He was brilliant, if not rough around the edges with his language. “Wine grapes are just like people,” he began. “You decide to plant them never knowing how they are going to turn out, if they are going to grow up to be successful or just assholes.”

Our attention was his, and he molded it with a humorous and razor-sharp education we were not to see inside of our classroom.

And I haven’t stopped agreeing with his comparison ever since.

How Humans Are Like Wine Grapes

Humans over their lifetime mirror the development of wine grapes over their own lifetime in striking ways. Their lifecycles are so similar, in fact, you would think they were siblings.


Romanticisms abound in the stories we tell about both humans and wine.

The mystery we impart on great wine. The beauty of a vineyard seen from a distance or above its many perfectly aligned rows.

The unwavering moral compass we assign to our human heroes. The come-from-behind dramas we love to watch and even more want to see in our friends and ourselves.

However, while there may be romanticism in the movies and in literature about interpersonal relationships, heroes and chivalry, and the purity of our favorite characters, the reality is that humans have more about them that is not very romantic than is. 

Wine making is no different. Despite popular romanticism about the process, it is also much less romantic than you would think. It’s gruelingly difficult work. Just like raising a human and being one.

To make the lifecycle of each even more difficult, there are literally countless varieties of both humans and wine grapes. And even when you think you have found similar examples of either, both can behave quite differently given the same situation at the same time.

Siblings raised in the same household turn out to be adults of varied character, no different than wine grapes of a single variety planted just a few yards apart produce wines of varied qualities and flavors.

Evaluating Wine Is Nearly the Same as Evaluating People

There is always a perfect moment to harvest grapes. That moment varies from place to place, from year to year, from grape variety to grape variety, and is only identified by the experience of the wine maker. If the moment is missed, the resulting wine will be far from exceptional.

There are moments in the lives of humans that are no different. Miss the moment, and an entire future can be rewritten. The life experience of the individual shapes whether the moment is captured, or forever regretted.

We define a human being by their moments, the ones that are seized at exactly the right time and place, and the ones that are tragically missed.

We define a wine in the same way. Whether a Sauternes is magically racy in its acidity with complex flavors that change and mature with every sip is entirely dependent upon the exact moment the grapes were picked–too early and the wine is flat; too late and the wine will lack all structure.

And these moments and our evaluation of them are influenced as much by nature as by nurture.

How Does Nature Influence Lifecycle

When the rains come, for example, the wine grape may thrive or perish. When sorrows threaten the emotional attitude of any of us, we either melt under their rains or learn to build lifeboats we didn’t know how to build before.

And become stronger as a result.

Wine grapes are highly sensitive to temperature. Riesling (white) and Pinot Noir (red) thrive in cooler climates, while Greco di Tufo (white) Zinfandel (red) love the heat.

If you attempt to grow Riesling in a hot climate, or Zinfandel in a cool climate, you will likely be disappointed by the results. It is simply not in the their nature to succeed where nature has not designed them to prosper.

This is usually referred to as the grape’s terroir.

A Wine Grape is a Product of its Terroir

The term terroir is one of the first vocabulary words you learn in wine school, because a wine grape is a product of its terroir. The word isn’t very straightforward to define, but it typically means anything that contributes to a sense of place to a wine, and that “anything” is vast.

What is a Sense of Place?

Sunshine, temperature and rainfall make up the macro-climate of a place. The vineyard itself contributes to the meso-climate. And the micro-climate inclusive of land elevation, slope, exposure to the natural elements, wind, bodies of water and their proximity to the vineyard, plant and animal life, and even the cultural traditions of the region and the wine grower themselves, rounds out the trifecta that we call a wine’s terroir.

And the terroir of one place can be vastly different from the terroir of another place just a few yards away. Consider the Pinot Noir grape in Burgundy, France.

The area is one of the most popular and storied wine regions in all the world. And one of the products of its history is the fragmentation of ownership of vineyards, where there are today thousands of tiny vineyards each with multiple owners (some just a few rows each).

The Pinot Noir grape could be found across two rows of vines separated by just inches, and yet the resulting wine can taste remarkably different. Growing up “on the same vine” doesn’t necessarily mean turning out to be the same as your neighbor, even for grapes.

Humans Are Also Products of Terroir

Humans are a product of their own terroir in the same ways a wine grape is a product of its terroir.

I grew up in New York, and Fernanda in Mexico. Our cultural terroirs have made us very different people.

And yet, I am also quite different from my best friend who grew up in the house next door to my own, despite our families sharing a street, a town, a city and state, a generation, an ethnicity, and even professions.

Think humans are not defined by their terroir? Just consider how much more fun and likable was Alex Rodrigues when he played short stop for the Mariners than when he played third base for the Yankees. That’s what I thought…terroir defines all things.

How Nurture Affects Our Development

Subtle differences in how humans and wine grapes are nurtured have sizable impacts on whether or not they enjoy their lives or produce an enjoyable bottles of wine, respectively.

As diverse as wine grapes and people are, each have certain qualities inherent in their genetic composition. Forcing either to be something other than who they were born to be usually if not always results in a highly distressed product.

A young child who wants to be a painter when they grow up, and is forced to be something else (say what the child’s parents want for the child, rather than what the child wants for herself or himself) will rarely result in the child growing up to be a happy, fulfilled and self-confident adult.

Or think about pushing an individual too far too fast, before they are ready. Remember Lindsay Lohan? When she was an adorable child actor who hadn’t yet discovered sex, drugs, and rock and roll? Or Macauly Culkin? Who would have thought leaving the eight-year old home alone and suffering a home invasion by psychopaths was going to be the easiest of the traumas he would suffer?

The same is true with wine grapes.

Two of the most popular red grape varieties in the world are Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir is a thin skinned red grape that creates elegant and delicate wines, while Cabernet Sauvignon is a thick skinned grape found in powerful and bold wines.

Their skin density contributes to when the grapes must be picked. Pinot Noir ripens early as a result of its thin skins, and therefore must be picked earlier in the growing season, while Cabernet Sauvignon ripens later, and must be picked among the last of the grape varieties each season.

Picking Cabernet Sauvignon early or Pinot Noir late would results in wines few people would want to drink. It is simply not the nature of Cabernet Sauvignon to have thin skins, to ripen early, and to be picked early. To force Cabernet to exist outside of its natural tendencies would be to crush the unique character that is a Cabernet.

Wine Grapes Suffer From Disease Too

Disease is present in both the lives of wine grapes and humans. Some disease is catastrophic, while other disease creates an opportunity for growth and self-awareness that elevates both species to heights they wouldn’t have found otherwise.

In wine grapes, phylloxera is a deadly disease, and was responsible for almost wiping wine off the map back in the late 1800s. However, Botrytis Cinerea is also a disease otherwise called “noble rot”, a fungus that is responsible for Sauternes and other absolutely delicious sweet wines that force flavors from the grapes unheard of without the fungus. 

Have we not heard of individuals who suffered some tragedy, and in the pain of it found a strength that allowed them to accomplish what they couldn’t have done otherwise? It’s a theme that Hollywood loves to repeat–just ask my stepson to talk to you about Batman.

And with that I return to Eric Fry at Lenz Winery.

Stupid When Young, More Productive as an Adult

Eric Fry, Master Winemaker of Lenz Winery on the Northfolk of Long Island

“They are idiots for the first few years,” Eric said, speaking of his grape vines, “not knowing who they are or what they are supposed to do. So you have to care for them greatly, pruning, keeping pests away.”

He continued explaining that, “after four or five or so years they can produce their first wine; maybe it’s good, maybe it’s shit, and so you adjust and adjust until you have something you are proud of.” He smiled a wry smile before adding, “raising my kids was no different.”

He built upon that with knowledge most of us already knew, that for the next few decades those vines should continue to be productive, unless they succumb to a disease or to the weather. Excessive rain, late frosts or freezes, and hail storms are particularly dangerous to the durability and survivability of the grapes.

And then with what I surmised was his greatest pride, he shared that, “if you are really lucky, you get vines that will last into their sixties, seventies, eighties or longer; these are what we call old vines, and they can produce some brilliant wines that they could never hope to produce when they were younger.”

We were all getting the comparison. It made perfect sense to us. Wine grapes and the wine they produced were just like people and the lives they led. Stupid when young, until they begin producing something and learning from it, and then wiser and more consequentially productive as an adult. 

“And us old folks” Mr. Fry concluded his explanation, “are brilliant, though rarely thought so by the young ones who think they know it all.”

It’s hard to disagree with his assessment. And considering the wonderful wines he shepherded through the vineyard and store at Lenz, you’d be foolish to disagree with him.

The Wrong Relationships Teach You How To Recognize The Right One When It Arrives

About a week after visiting the Lenz Winery I experienced my favorite day in wine school at the Culinary Institute of New York where I was studying. It was Wine & Food Pairing day. The culinary students were tasked with preparing our daily lunches, and on this particular day they also fixed each of our class a tasting of seven different foods to pair with seven different wines.

We spent the morning pairing each of the wines with each of the foods, and noting how different each tasted with a different partner.

Each sip of wine with each bite of food created a unique experience, some delicious and others quite the opposite. To be in the right relationship made all the difference between going hungry and having a quintessential dining experience.

The 2012 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Isabelle from the Central Coast in California was perfect when paired with a slice of duck breast with roasted mushrooms. Both the wine and the bite of food were earthy, gamey, and delicate. However, the wine died a tragic death when tasted with the goat cheese, while the intensity and tartness of the goat cheese was sharply muted. 

Perfect for the goat cheese was the 2015 Cailbourdin Pouilly Fumé from the Loire Valley in France. Goat cheese is a point of pride for the Loire Valley, and one of the foundational rules for pairing is that what grows together goes together. 

The wine was acidic, minerally and citrusy, and expertly imparted itself onto the creaminess of the cheese. The Pouilly Fumé, unfortunately, when had with the seared ham and pineapple, crumbled both the wine and the ham. The ham was rich and the wine was not; the ham was sweet and salty, and the wine was not. 

But the ham shined when accompanied by the 2014 Leitz Rüdesheimer Klosterlay Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel in Germany. The subtle sweetness and notes of honey on the Riesling matched the same qualities in the ham, while a delicious contrast of acidity and citrus on the wine with the saltiness of the ham made the pairing a clear winner. 

It was difficult to not recall Eric Fry’s description earlier that week, and the striking similarities wine and humans shared. And the more I learned about grape growing and wine making, the more I saw lessons for humanity in the wine making process. 

To learn and understand the lifecycle of the wine grape is to learn and understand the lifecycle of us. The complex process of selecting, planting, growing, nurturing, and harvesting wine grapes, and then aging them before bottling them and ultimately releasing them to the world is akin to humans choosing to procreate, getting pregnant, and successfully delivering a child before raising the child to have the qualities we deem necessary and then nurturing into adulthood and their own world.

I always find it fascinating to discover lessons about how to live a better life from seemingly unrelated areas. And finding such parallels between the cultivation of wine and people makes for a lifetime of bottles shared with people you can grow and learn and love with.

The Right Relationship: Fried Chicken & Cava

We concluded our Guide to Food and Wine Pairing with a promise to share with you our favorite food and wine perfect pairings. Well, this week we deliver our first: Fried Chicken and Spanish Cava.

Food and wine represent the ultimate relationship. The relationship demonstrates the same qualities, perils, excitement and rewards of any great amorous affair. And like the great ones in history–think Paris and Helen, or Cleopatra and Mark Antony, or Dante and Beatrice–whenever the perfect pair meet, to one another they are “the glorious [one] of my mind…my beatitude, the destroyer of all vices and the [king and] queen of virtue, salvation.” 

Fried Chicken and Spanish Cava is a perfect pairing we have read about for years, tasted multiple times by eating or ordering out, but only for the first time this week prepared it ourselves. Check out the full recipe and wine notes for how you can not only create the same at home but do so with ease.

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Published on: June 26, 2022  -  Filed under: Life Lessons, Wine & Food  -  Tagged: , ,

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