I was going to let 2016 end without a new post, but then I came across and excellent article at VinePair.com (LINK to Article).
The article by Keith Beavers, is entitled “The People Calling Expensive Wine a Rip-Off Are Lying to You.” It is a thoughtful look at a recent trend in the wine media world – the trend of attacking wine experts, the folks who are highly trained in all aspects of wine and who often recommend expensive wines to their readers. This would include people such as Robert Parker, Janis Robinson, and Eric Asimov.
Here is a sample from the article (I highly recommend that you read the entire article via the link above):
“The pleasure of “taking down” the wine industry is certainly understandable. There’s something devastating about knowing that other people are able to appreciate something that we can’t. It’s especially unsettling to know this about something we imbibe regularly, yet know we are not fully experiencing. There’s something mystical about wine – all those mouthfeels and blueberries and leather. What could be more delicious than to find out that those shamans, those mavens with their alienating knowledge, were nothing but charlatans, snake-oil peddlers whose knowledge was all a hoax?”
Now this blog is, if anything, a voice urging greater appreciation of wine without all the pretense. I have tried to simplify purchasing and enjoying wine, and generally removing the intimidation factor that many feel when confronted with a complex wine, a point system they do not understand, ridiculously mellifluous tasting notes, or a price tag in the hundreds of dollars.
But I have never said not to read the experts. I am self-taught in all things wine (meaning that I have never taken a wine course for certification; I have taken a few seminars) as is Keith Beavers, the author of the VinePair article. Like him, I learned, in part, by reading the experts. Unlike the experts, I am not doing regular tastings of dozens of Bordeaux or Burgundy wines. I have not tasted wines from dozens of other vintages to compare with what I am tasting now (although that is changing over time). So I count on the experts to be guides, although I am not a slave to their guidance.
A good point in the article is the difference between the typical European and American wine consumer:
“Then there’s the fact that there is just so much wine out there. It makes choosing and understanding each bottle that much more difficult. This is especially true here in the United States, because we are not a culture that grew up with wine. Wine in the U.S. is a relatively young culture, and though we want to understand wine, we’re very new at it.
“Compare us to Europe, where drinking wine is such an integral part of the lifestyle, a part of the attitude. In the rural wine regions of Europe, you don’t go to a wine store and choose a bottle from a selection of 10,000. You live in a specific region that grows one kind of grape best, and the wine that comes from that grape is what you drink, probably every night with dinner. The soil itself determines what wine people drink, and they grow up with a specific varietal like mother’s milk.”
Americans face a huge variety of regions, varietals, wine growing techniques, wine making styles, terroirs, additives, and more when deciding which wines to purchase. The advice of experts is one pathway to take toward greater understanding, but they are never a substitute for trying things yourself and discovering what you like and enjoying yourself along the way.
As to expensive versus inexpensive wines, there are reasons why some wines cost more. And there are reasons why many people prefer cheaper wines, even in taste tests with more expensive wines. Again from the article:
“. . . people with less experience drinking wine tend to enjoy cheaper wines. It’s not because wine is one big hoax. It’s rather because their first experiences with wine were probably with cheaper wines, and cheap wine is manipulated to taste the same every year. There’s no inconsistency, no terroir. It’s homogenized, for a very simple reason: We are a culture that likes sweet things. When you’re drinking a really cheap wine like Yellowtail or Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck, you’re drinking a wine that has added sugars and added coloring so it tastes the same every time you buy it. And it’s wine experts who teach us how to move past these wines, and how to enjoy the more expensive stuff.”
In my experience with expensive wines, which is somewhat limited I admit, once you get to about $50 per bottle, you can expect an excellent wine and will often get it. I have drunk and tasted wines that cost $250, $500, even $1000 or more. At those price points, if the wine is old, every bottle is unique, and the more refined your palate (LINK), the greater your experience. There is also a certain mystique in knowing that you are drinking say, a 1982 Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild, which I have had the pleasure of drinking. What is that mystique like? Think of driving a Rolls Royce versus a Nissan – both will get you there, but the experience of the Rolls will be different. In fact, just knowing it’s a Rolls makes a difference.
For me, wine appreciation has been a slow but certain road toward wines that are well-crafted and which have different characteristics from year-to-year. I drink or taste from at least 500 bottles per year (considering that a day of wine tasting can mean 20 or so different wines). Maybe 40% of those are wines I have had before – at least the label is the same, although the vintage may not be. I would say that the average price per bottle of the wines I drink has gone from $10-$12 a dozen years ago to $25-$28 now. Over that time, my tastes have changed, my palate has improved (intentionally), I have read and learned more about wine in general and have experienced a greater variety of wines.
So I recommend that you read Eric Asimov’s Wine Columns in the New York Times (LINK), especially his wine school columns. Get yourself a copy of Janis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (LINK) or borrow it from the library. Read Hugh Johnson’s A Life Uncorked (LINK) or A Pocket Guide to Wine (LINK). Or, go through the Amazon listings of wine books (LINK) and find something that appeals to you. Read Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast Magazines. And, this blog!
If you are a wine lover, or aspire to be, my suggestion would be to enter 2017 with the intention of deepening your knowledge and expanding your experience with wine. Your life will be richer for it.
Copyright 2016 – Jim Lockard