Why do they call it "white" wine, anyway?

You pour the glass of white wine, your second at ten in the morning, and wonder why it is called white when it is yellow. Even the grapes aren’t white; they are a pastel green with an even paler yellow flesh, or even red, purple, or sometimes black. An obvious deceit. You wonder about that as you swirl the liquid and watch it catch the light.

You began drinking in the morning after irregular night shifts in the Emergency Department, required from the beginning of a career in emergency medicine and misery for all but the dedicated night owl. Coming home from the hospital, exhausted, knowing you had only eight hours to sleep before your next shift, you would have a glass or two of wine to help you forget. Sometimes more, like the morning after you were assaulted by a grieving woman who had just lost her sister and three nieces and nephews in a drug-related house fire. That morning required most of the bottle. Your boss called four hours into your sleep to make certain you weren’t too upset to come to work that night; after all, that would be an imposition on someone else. He didn’t ask about the burned children you weren’t able to save; nor did he ask about your physical injuries. More wine could not repair the interrupted sleep.

You remember the exact day you first drank on a regular morning. Your ex-boyfriend had called to tell you his father and stepmother had been killed in a small plane crash on their way home to Virginia for Thanksgiving. For many years, you had been a part of this family. The father, a vibrant, active man, loved to drink and often teased you because you would hold off until after five in the afternoon, as if that was a magic number that made drinking acceptable. His death illuminated the futility of life; you opened a bottle, walked out in the early morning, and toasted his memory with a glass of wine the same yellow as the pale sun. Since then, you never drink in daylight without thinking of him—and, now, of your own father.

Yellow  /ˈjɛləʊ/ A. adj.1. a. Of the colour of gold, butter, the yolk of an egg, various flowers, and other objects; constituting one (the most luminous) of the primary colours, occurring in the spectrum between green and orange.
Oxford English Dictionary

You think about these things when you drink. The shade of yellow is essential in distinguishing the character of a wine. A website called Wine Folly tells me wine has a major color and a minor one, which give clues about both origin and flavor. This wine, a chardonnay, has a pale yellow-green hue. Wine Folly also informs me that wines with green hues to them are “more savory, with grassy green flavors like bell pepper, white pepper, green bean, and limes.” You can pretend to taste those flavors in the second glass.

Why has the term yellow been discarded by the purveyors of wine, when the wine’s color is so valued by the oenophile? And yellow—bright, sunshiny yellow—has so many positive connotations, as the Internet can tell you on sites like Empowered by Color.

Being the lightest hue of the spectrum, the color psychology of yellow is uplifting and illuminating, offering hope, happiness, cheerfulness, and fun.

A design firm in California, Bourn Creative, asserts:

Studies show that the meaning of the color yellow can be warmth, cheerfulness, increased mental activity, increased muscle energy. The color yellow helps activate the memory, encourage communication, enhance vision, build confidence, and stimulate the nervous system.

You write in the morning. Yellow wine, then, provides an ideal start to your day. It is the perfect drink for one who needs a boost of hope and cheerfulness along with increased mental activity. By the time the daily rejections arrive, you are almost able to ignore them.

You prefer a chardonnay. Today’s chardonnay is an oaked and buttery wine, golden in color. Wines that have more golden-copper yellow hues tend to have more fruity notes to them, such as apricot, peach, orange, and pineapple. A very pale chardonnay is unoaked and zesty in style, and your favorite wine is unoaked with a hint of grapefruit and peach. You finished that bottle yesterday.

That wine is made from grapes grown on a high plateau in southern Colorado. The green slopes of the vineyard flow like a cape over the dusty brown soil, down to McElmo Creek, from an adobe ranch perched high in the gorgeous red-rock McElmo Canyon. This is ancient land. When the vintner was excavating a field for new plantings, he uncovered an Ancestral Puebloan ruin and moved the entire project to another spot farther away on his property. You feel at home there, amid the ruins. Mesa Verde National Park is a few miles away. You remember a winter trip there with your father and the wild horses that sheltered in a grove of trees still holding on to yellow leaves.

Empowered by Color, which is run by an Australian color consultant named Judy Scott-Kemmis, also tells us this:

In the meaning of colors, yellow inspires original thought and inquisitiveness.

Yellow is creative from a mental aspect, the color of new ideas, helping us to find new ways of doing things. It is the practical thinker, not the dreamer.

Yellow is the best color to create enthusiasm for life and can awaken greater confidence and optimism.

The color yellow loves a challenge, particularly a mental challenge.

Maybe this is why you drink. You think yellow wine helps you write. You can look at things more critically, with less self-censorship. You can try new things, new voices and forms. Yellow wine gives you more confidence; you believe you can do anything.

So what is wrong with yellow?

Yellow is also the color of caution. You try to be cautious about drinking yellow wine. As a physician, you know it can be dangerous. It can lead to addiction and, ultimately, cirrhosis of the liver. You do not want to turn that jaundiced shade of yellow.

Judy Scott-Kemmis observes:

If you are going through a lot of change in your life, you may find you can’t tolerate the color yellow very well—this will usually pass. It just means that you are having trouble coping with all the changes at the moment and yellow vibrates too fast for you, making you feel stressed.

Yellow  /ˈjɛləʊ/ A. adj. 2. b. Craven, cowardly. colloq. (orig. U.S.).

1856 in P. T. Barnum Struggles & Triumphs (1869) 400 We never thought your heart was yellow. 1918 J. M. GRIDER War Birds (1927) 264 One of our noblest he-men, a regular fire-eater to hear him tell it, has turned yellow at the front. 1932 E. WALLACE When Gangs came to London xv. 121 The yellow jury . . . acquitted ’em on a murder charge. 1950 J. AGEE in Botteghe Oscure VI. 392 Then something happened that made me know I was scared of them and I admitted to myself: I’m yellow.

A website called Color Matters takes a darker view:

Lurking in the background is the dark side of yellow: cowardice, betrayal, egoism, and madness. Furthermore, yellow is the color of caution and physical illness (jaundice, malaria, and pestilence). It’s not a coincidence that the sources of yellow pigments (and others) are toxic metals—cadmium, lead, and [chromium]—and urine.

Urine? You have seen gallons of urine as a doctor, none of which was ever the color of yellow wine. Oddly, when your fellow doctors refer to wine-colored urine, it is red. There is tea-colored urine, which appears when the patient is jaundiced, of course, but that is brown. Thankfully, your father is not yellow.

After the third glass, yellow wine reminds you that you are a coward. You are afraid you are too weak to provide the care your father needs. You are afraid of death, and more afraid of what will come after. You want to hide from this responsibility.

You feel betrayed. How dare he weaken and fade. He is your strength; you need him. You cannot imagine a day without him.

Medicine has betrayed you, too. You cannot fix what is wrong with him. There are no drugs, no operations, no miracles. All those years of training and practice—useless.

Judy Scott-Kemmis of Empowered by Color cautions:

Yellow has a tendency to make you more mentally analytical and critical—this includes being self-critical as well as critical of others.

People tell you that you are too hard on yourself; you expect too much during this difficult time. It doesn’t feel that way to you—you should be able to do it all. Your patience should be infinite; after all, you love this man. You stand at the doorway and search deep within yourself, looking for that smile, that forced cheerfulness, that positive yellow attitude. Can you find it today?

Yesterday, he was forgetful. He would not wait for your help, but then could not remember if he took his insulin. He thought 2 PM was 4 PM and did an extra tube feeding, throwing off the entire schedule. You wanted to chastise him; you were angry. Instead, you watched a few innings of baseball together until sleep overcame him.

The Internet’s supply of information is inexhaustible:

Yellow is non-emotional, coming from the head rather than the heart. Yellow depends on itself, preferring not to get emotionally involved.
—Empowered by Color

Yellow wine insulates you from emotion, separates you from your pain. This loss will be too much, you think, so you try not to think. It is easier to rely upon yellow.

In Japan, yellow often represents courage.
—Color Matters

Today, he cannot urinate; you will have to catheterize him. What is easy for the doctor is difficult for the daughter in you. You will check again to see if his urine is the same color as the glass of wine you will crave when you are finished.

It is time for a conversation, while he is lucid. You cannot avoid it any longer. Cowardice must yield to courage.

“You know you are very sick,” you say.

“When will I get better?”

“I don’t think you will. This might be the end of our road together.”

“I thought so. I’ve been trying to get ready. I’m sorry you have to go through this.”

Those condemned to die during the Inquisition wore yellow as a sign of treason.
—Color Matters

You are a traitor. Some days you wish for it to be over, for him to go peacefully away. You don’t think you can keep doing this much longer—the watching, the waiting—without going crazy. He falls in the night; you are down the stairs before you wake.

In Russia, a colloquial expression for an insane asylum used to be ‘yellow house.’
—Color Matters

How apt.

He asks for a cup of soup, the red of tomato. When he is finished, you take the mug. He tries to say something, reaches for you, then gasps. You lay him back down, give him some morphine, and wait until he is gone.

Now you understand the complexity of yellow—its binary nature, the reason why yellow wine is called white. The vintners think they can deceive us, but you know differently. In each glass of yellow wine, you want to see hope, cheerfulness, and health, but find loss, sorrow, and illness, too.

The fourth glass is always bitter acid.

About the Author

Maureen Hirthler

Maureen Hirthler is a physician and writer. She received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Missouri–Kansas City in 2015. Her essays have been published in several journals, and one received a Pushcart Prize nomination.

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