My dad was a children's dentist, floss in hand for just shy of 50 years. He often would take me to his office on Saturdays, his down time, when he could tidy up after the week's work but also practice new techniques — on me.
One time, while he was adjusting a dental dam on my sole wisdom tooth and had me an obligate listener, he said "Billy, my job is to put myself out of business." That was an interesting statement on the face of it.
"If I can teach these kids how to take care of their dental hygiene," he said, in the manner in which fathers say things, "then they won't need to come to me."
What I learned then from my father is that my job as a writer, teacher and critic on wine is to do just the same, to put myself out of business. If I do my job, people learn to choose their wines without my help. (Like my father, however, I forever am hopeful for feeder generations — and grateful when they show. While we may be interested in graduations, they're interested in growth.)
However, in our time and given our culture, especially about wine, people expect the experts to tell them what's worth their money, where to find it and — above all — what the experience will be once they get there.
There's good in that, if it is guidance; but it's harmful as fiat. The best help is the kind that lets go.
Soon commences the annual Great American Trough, during which, from Thanksgiving Day dinner through New Year's Eve Bacchanalia, we shall feed each other all manner of food and beverage. Many seek help choosing it.
But about wine, I suggest that you already know what you want, even what you need. You do because you know how to eat.
Wine is a food, just like iced tea is a food, and cheese and risotto and milk are foods, and you already know those foods and what you like (or dislike) about them. A little lemon or a lot of lemon in the iced tea; same with sugar; 2 percent or whole milk; risotto runny or not; goat's milk or washed rind cheese.
With wines, it is the same. A little or a lot of acidity; a bit of sweet or no; light- or medium- or full-bodied; full-on or quiet flavors; tannins that are leathery or suedelike or as soft as a kitten's ear.
We know what we like and how we like it. Experience, experimentation, education, they got us there. Sometimes context matters; sometimes pairing things does.
Sometimes we just settle for a taste or choose to like it despite ourselves. Sometimes tradition trumps taste. (This explains frozen green beans cooked with cream of mushroom soup.)
Especially in our country and with many wines made in it, wine often presents itself as a stand-alone food. People in other countries, by and large, don't drink wine as a cocktail. But we do, mostly because we can. We're proud to make those kinds of wines.
Those textured, buttery, boozy white wines and chocolatey, plush reds that we have by the glass, all by themselves, those are, in one twist on the term, true "food wines."
But other sorts of wines exist, made both in our country and in many others, constructed with other aesthetic criteria in mind, that people prefer to enjoy alongside or with other foods. Their attributes differ from the stand-alone wines (lower alcohol, higher acidity, modest flavor profile) because these sorts of wines are more a condiment than a whole food.
So, during this time of year, when so many wines come up along so many foods -- and so many people seek so much direction about the matter -- take your own counsel, attend to your own likes and dislikes about what you eat and why you eat it. Talk to yourself and be happy with the conversation.
I want to recommend three wines -- a white, a dry pink and a red -- because they're fine examples of wines as condiment. And hewing to the reason for the impending fest, they're all American.
2012 Matthiasson White Blend, Napa Valley, California: A mix of sauvignon blanc, semillon and some of California's only ribolla gialla and friulano, this is lean and linear, white-fruit-flavored and minerally scented, low in alcohol (12.7 percent) and high in acidity. It isn't inexpensive and there's not a lot of it around, but it's perfect for the table. $35-$40
2013 La Pitchoune Winery Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California: In southern France, "pitchoune" means "little one"; the word speaks to this winery's small, hands-on production. The wine is barely pink (but prettily hued nonetheless) and sports scents of lime, watermelon and strawberry, but it is its cleanness, focus and refreshing finish that matter most to food. $30
NV10 Cain Cuvee, Napa Valley, California: A blend of two vintages (about 50/50 2009/2010) and four Bordeaux grape varieties for a very untraditional turn on Napa red. "It's kind of like the cranberry at Thanksgiving," says winemaker Christopher Howell, "it lights up the food, doesn't fight the food; it's refreshing and mouthwatering." Indeed it is: silky soft, beautifully perfumed, juicy and delicious. $30
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years. email@example.com