One grape at a time

September 15, 2008

David M. Dillman, MD, a wine enthusiast and ophthalmologist, is driven by both to understand how things work, is fascinated by the details, and loves the challenge of keeping up with constant change.

Dr. Dillman focuses on surgery in his solo private practice in Danville, IL.

Uncorking a passion

The Dillmans returned to The Cloister in 1994 to attend a food and wine school. "It was a 'wine for dummies' approach," he said. "There was a lot to it. True experts came in-great people-and they made it simple, fun, understandable. We went for 6 or 7 years in a row!"

At home, Dr. Dillman read more and more about wine, expanding his horizons. He began buying and collecting bottles. "I took baby steps," he said.

Today, Dr. Dillman said he continues to study and taste. His collection numbers around 500 bottles, a small one in his estimation compared with the collections of those who truly have extensive collections.

The basics

When it comes to wine, "the first thing is to understand what you like," said Dr. Dillman. "The wine you like is the best wine for you. But the key is to be able to identify what it is in particular that you like or don't like about that wine. That's where the challenge and fun with wine begins. Then, apply that [approach] to other wines."

He explained that there are three categories of wine-soft/fruity, tart/acidic, and tannic/bitter. He said, "Every wine has some element of all three categories. Good wines have the proper balance."

The skin of the grapes is the factor that influences the wine's color. "If you used only the pulp of the grape, all wine would be white," Dr. Dillman explained. "But the skin, when used, adds the dark color, and the skins and the seeds add tannin." For example, the California zinfandel grape originally was intended to make a red wine. In the 1970s, however, when red wines sold poorly in the United States, California wine makers exposed the juice to the skins for a very short time to give it a soft pink color, and hence white zinfandel was born.

"There are almost 10,000 different grapes in the world that can be used to make wine," Dr. Dillman said. "Most Americans are familiar with fewer than 10 and have lots yet to try. I love to explore the grapes."

Dr. Dillman said he loves bold and tannic red wines, especially those from Italy. He said he also likes red zinfandel from California (which is not specifically produced in Italy, although the Italian grape, primitivito, is said to be very similar).

American wines are easier to understand than European wines, said Dr. Dillman. "In the United States, there are strict rules for winemakers. You can read the composition (what percentage of which grapes is used) and where the wine is from on the label of a good wine. European wines are different. Each region and sub-region is required to have certain percentages of certain grapes. You must apply your knowledge of geography when determining origin and composition of European wines.

"For example, in the United States, a bottle of pinot noir will clearly state it is pinot noir. In the United States, that means that at least 75% of the grapes are pinot noir. If you buy a bottle of red wine from any where in Burgundy, France, the label will never state what grape has been used in the wine. You simply have to know that, by European law, a red wine from Burgundy has to be 100% pinot noir. A white Burgundy has to be 100% chardonnay."

Wine and food

Dr. Dillman said he believes that all wine is made better with the correct food pairings. He said he practices the European tradition of using food to bring out the best in wine and always eats when he drinks wine.

"Choose your food first and consider how the dish is prepared," he said. "In a nice restaurant, always ask the sommelier to choose wine for you after you choose your entrees. Ask why he made the choice he did so you can understand the pairings. Generally, if you have a bold flavor, either in a meat, spice, or sauce, choose a bold wine. For a mild flavor, choose a mild wine."

Wine appreciation

Dr. Dillman said he recognizes that wine seems intimidating to many Americans. He said he blames the wine industry. "It's a little like early phaco," he said. "The unspoken message was that this is really difficult and you probably aren't good enough. Wine is not complicated, but there are a lot of simple concepts to it. Take time to understand it. Don't be intimidated."

Great wine does not need to be expensive or old, either, Dr. Dillman added, suggesting that a bottle priced at more than $20 should be for a special occasion. He also advised that most wines should be enjoyed within 5 years of when they were made. White wines mature quickly, but red wines go through cycles before maturity.

"I bought 24 bottles of a 1994 vintage port when they first became available in 1995," he said, explaining that the year was an especially good one for port. "The rule of thumb with a vintage port is that it should be cellared for 20 years before drinking. I drank one bottle when it was new and made notes. Then, I tasted one at 5 years and one at 10 years to see how it is maturing. I am looking forward to year 15."