Why should you read this blog? More to the point, why should I write it? From what I’ve seen of the blogosphere, more people should ask those questions and demand hard answers of themselves and others – which is one of the negative reasons I’m writing this blog. This will not be another collection of what-I-drank-last-night snippets, nor will it tell you the best wine to seduce/dump/make up with your current flame.
My positive reason is that this blog will be the wine column I’ve always wanted, a place where I can talk about the wines and winemakers who really interest me, as opposed to the wines and winemakers that an editor thinks will sell more copies of the magazine or appeal to the already established preferences of its readers.
I’ve loved wine and been writing about it for decades now, and I’ve spent my adult life – the part that paid the bills, which wine writing rarely does — in education. I think the two primary purposes of any kind of writing are to entertain and to instruct (old-fashioned idea, isn’t it?) – and that means, in wine terms, letting your readers know about wines and regions and producers they may never have heard of as well as giving them more information about the ones they already like.
For real wine people, the recondite and the familiar are equal fun, so I plan to include columns on wines that are probably going to be ho-hum for connoisseurs, but may well be news for wine beginners. And I will certainly do some columns that will intrigue the deep-dyed winos but bore the pants off beginners. That’s life, and wine is nothing if not the stuff of life.
Some readers of this post may already know some of my wine writings; most, I suspect, will not, so a little up-front true confession is in order. I’m a geezer: I learned wine, from a starting point of total ignorance, back in the days before it was a common drink, back when wine was largely French, back when you just couldn’t find any wine outside of major metropolitan areas, back when it was thought a little odd, a bit of an affectation, to drink wine. So I’ve lived through and learned from the major shift in American attitudes toward wine and, even more important, I’ve witnessed the most fundamental changes in winemaking since some smart Greek discovered you get better grapes if you make the vine grow up a post, about 3000 years ago.
I’ve been lucky enough to taste a lot of wines (many I couldn’t, and still can’t, afford to buy — alas). And I continue tasting a lot: every year brings a new vintage all around the world, and that means a lot of wine to learn anew every year. It helps to have a long perspective for that, so that each new wine isn’t a total novelty. In recent years, I’ve been a member of tasting panels for important wine publications. I’m usually the oldest person present, by several centuries, and most of my fellow tasters work as sommelier(e)s and wine managers for often-quite-prestigious restaurants. They are usually in their thirties, with a few in their twenties and fewer in their forties. The experience has made me very wary about ordering wine in restaurants, and in fact ranks among the things that moved me to start this blog.
Here’s an example, from a few years back. The group was blind-tasting Barolo, and the wine we were just presented with was a lovely pale strawberry color, with a light, fruity, almost-strawberry aroma. In the mouth, it lived up to the expectations that sight and smell created: light-bodied, fresh, mildly berry-ish – quite delightful and refreshing. A wonderful wine, if it had been a Grignolino or Freisa or even a Beaujolais – but it was supposed to be Barolo, which is a whole different animal. To my surprise, the young sommelier(e)s loved it, extravagantly, and talked about nothing but its fruit. When I pointed out that it failed to live up to the basic standards of its breed – that it was, in effect, a Pekinese passing itself off as a Great Dane – they looked at me with incomprehension, as if I was speaking a foreign language. So, I said to myself, maybe I shouldn’t order Barolo in a restaurant.
Much more recently, I had a parallel experience. This time the wine in question turned out to be (we found out afterwards) a very expensive, single-vineyard bottling from a very prestigious producer. But in the blind tasting, what came through wasn’t the grape variety or the vineyard, but the hand of the winemaker: this was a wine that had been given the full, high-tech cellar treatment, and as a consequence tasted neither of fruit nor soil but of toasted oak and oak sweetness. It was very sleek, very modern, very international-consumer-friendly, but, given the producer’s willingness to pay for all that expensive oak and cellar equipment, it could have been made anywhere, from any grapes – in effect, top-dollar Coca Cola, and not a wine I would spend a dime on.
Again, the young sommelier(e)s loved it and praised what they called fruit sweetness that was in fact oak sweetness This time, when I spoke of the standards of the breed, they looked embarrassed and didn’t meet my eyes, as if I had just wet myself in public. Afterwards, when they found out the suggested retail price of the wine (over $200), some insisted even more emphatically that it had to be a good wine. This time I said to myself, maybe I shouldn’t drink wine in restaurants at all.
In wine, the axiom should probably be, don’t trust anyone under sixty.