Dollars and Scents

Shortcuts Through The Wine Maze

Of all the undying clichés about wine, perhaps the one I hear most often is, “There’s no correlation between price and quality.”

So begins this week’s from wine writer Eric Asimov. Over the course of his career, Asimov has done a fine job promoting wine by taking an open-minded, populist approach to wine education. A quick spin through the comments section of the article shows that Mr. Asimov has lots of work left to do. While more Americans are drinking wine than ever before, just as many people ignore or even avoid wine. Like Mr. Asimov, my main goal is to convince those who have never drank wine, or who have tried it but “didn’t get it”, that wine can be possessed of real beauty, and intrinsic value. I’ve spent the past fifteen years selling wine in restaurants and offer a few of my thoughts here in hopes they help convince you that wine can be exciting, beautiful, and transporting. The journey of a lifetime begins with that first really great bottle. Speaking of which…

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HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOUR OWN TASTE

What’s a great wine? Whatever tastes good to you. Here’s where much of the wine press/media/sommeliers/tastemakers are responsible for reinforcing a lot of the snobbery that already surrounds wine. They fail to recognize your basic right to not give a shit about wine. We wine geeks tend to get obsessive, it’s true, but as Asimov relates, as humans, we’re all of us used to exercising our own sense of taste — choosing this thing over that.

Asimov says:

As a society, we understand that spending on most consumer goods often depends on one’s priorities. Some people see audio equipment as simply a means to listen to music. Computer speakers or the earpieces that come with their phones are good enough. Others are fascinated by high fidelity and wish to luxuriate in the rich bass notes and perfectly modulated treble that come with expensive equipment. It’s mostly understood that these are personal choices, not windows into one’s soul.

I would only quibble here with his last line. I’d argue that whether or not you care about music at all says rather a lot about your soul. Is music essential to the human experience? Personally, I’d call it a big yes, but some people just don’t enjoy music, or they don’t have the time for it, or the budget. These folks are outliers, but they’re out there. As Asimov supposes, there are the audiophiles among us too, for whom no record store purchase or speaker system is too much. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. We have our favorite bands and albums, and while we might occasionally be called to defend our penchant for the Goo Goo Dolls or electronic zydeco music, most people realize that taste in music is intensely personal. There are music critics and others out there who engage with questions of artist’s motivation, performance quality, catalog within a larger narrative, etc. You can unquestionably learn a lot from those professionals. Most of us feel perfectly capable of making up our own mind whether or not we like an album, or artist, or song, by just listening to the thing. When it comes to wine, you should feel empowered to proceed in exactly the same way.

Of course you can learn important lessons from wine critics, wine writers, and sommeliers, or else I wouldn’t be writing this. It might seem a stretch to believe that wine can be a conveyor of emotion and meaning just as powerful as music, but you’ll never know for sure unless you start tasting more wine. There are objective truths about wine that can be tasted, but your subjective taste is always valid. Or more precisely, how you spend your time and money is up to you. Which brings us to the next point.

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MEANING IN WINE BEGINS WITH RESOURCE SCARCITY

None of us have infinite time. Or money. Or attention. If we all lived forever, and everything was free, there’d be no rush to understand this wine thing. No urgency. We could sit for ages with every bottle and every glass until our blood alcohol content was 100% and our very breath smelled of the vineyards, of grapes, and earth, and light, and life. But we all feel it. The ticking clock. The deadline. Time is running out.

Here’s where wine education gets tricky. Wine resists shortcuts. In the vineyard, or in the cellar, anywhere shortcuts are taken, the resulting wine is less complex, less balanced, and ultimately, less delicious. But as your wine guide, I know a few shortcuts that will supercharge your wine development. Ultimately, however much you choose to invest in this subject is up to you. I’ve found it to be a rewarding obsession, one that fits in nicely with all other areas of interest in my life. If you’ve got to go put the kids to bed or walk the dog, wine will always be waiting when you get back. We may all be jittery bags of neuroses with legs, but wine is patient. I’m sure you’ll get on just fine.

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SIZE MATTERS

The wines that I find most meaningful come from smaller wineries. Wine writer and importer Terry Theise puts it thusly:

If you want to experience wine with your whole self — not only your mind and senses — the wine has to be authentic. And what confers authenticity is a rootedness in family, soil, and culture as well as the connections among them. These are aided by intimacy of scale. And they form the core of a value system by which real wine can be appreciated and understood.

Here’s where the “wine industry” has hopelessly muddied the waters. And where most wine pros do a poor job of making their beliefs explicit. Not all wine is the same yet in our attempts to encourage interest in our already niche category, we seem to hold back on such vital value judgments so as not to scare off an already wine-hesitant public. McDonald’s makes and sells hamburgers. So do fine dining chefs like Daniel Boulud. To say that both parties comprise a larger “burger industry” and that there is no objective difference between them is ludicrous. Such is the current state of the wine industry, or at least, how it presents itself to the public. There are plenty of ecological reasons why I could take exception to your McDouble order, but by now, I can at least assume that you know what you’re getting. Yellowtail or Two Buck Chuck are the McDonald’s equivalent of wine.

Growing grapes is hard work. Most vineyards of medium scale use hired labor to help pick grapes come harvest time. Such labor, while too often underpaid, is still costly. At the smallest estates, say under 4 hectares or so, the proprietors can often get by doing all the work themselves, with the help of friends and neighbors. The largest estates must rely on large teams and mechanical harvesting equipment. The best tasting wines generally come from smaller estates, in part because those pickers often have a long term relationship with the land and the vineyards. They are more attuned to the needs of each row of vines, and are able to adapt to rapidly changing conditions on the ground, in the way that massive estates sprawled over thousands of hectares aren’t. This isn’t to say that great wine can’t come from larger estates. Many Rioja producers being a fine example of estates that still make delicious tasting wine, rooted in a long tradition, from large holdings. Still, if you focus your wine purchases on estates under 20 hectares in size (or better still, under 10) your odds of finding tasty and rewarding bottles will improve immeasurably.

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GREAT WINE DOESN’T HAVE TO BE EXPENSIVE, AND WINE DOESN’T HAVE TO BE EXPENSIVE TO BE GREAT

The world of wine is a ongoing lesson in behavioral economics. One such principle that I’ve witnessed time and again is the sunk cost fallacy. I used to work at a restaurant where a big name wine collector, who is heavily invested in some of the top restaurants in NYC, would come in to dine regularly. He’d always bring bottles from his cellar at home with him. These were often top wines from Champagne, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. These wines would retail for hundreds if not thousands of dollars per bottle. If you knew nothing about wine you’d fairly assume that these bottles represented the top of the wine mountain, Mt. Everest in a glass.

You’d be surprised. Time and again, I’d watch this man pour bottles for his guests, eager to share his treasures. At least half of the time, pure disappointment followed. I’d watch him take the first sip, as he watched his guests do the same. The emotions that would then steal over his face were like the stages of grief, compressed to a thirty second interval. I’d swear I could read his mind in those moments. Shit! This can’t be happening again! I did everything right. I bought all the big names, the best producers, the best vineyards. Why is this wine so pedestrian? Then the excuses would get trotted out — the last bottle I had of this was so much better. Premox again. Wait until you try the Raveneau. I’ll bring that next time. What was just a dinner party became a funeral, and it was the wine that had died too soon. You’d think that drinking thousands of dollars of the world’s “greatest” wines would guarantee happiness. Not so. I watched him do it at least twice a month for a year. His failure rate was high.

There are only two types of people in the wine world. Those who can know everything about a wine, its provenance, its history, its terroir, and still render an objective assessment of the quality of the wine — and those who can’t. I feel for the gentleman in question, I do, but he wouldn’t be in the position he is if he had learned to follow his own tastes. It might seem silly to pity a man who can afford the priciest bottles in the world, but pity him we shall, for he’s needlessly overpaid. Many times over.

The world of wine is ever changing. Storied regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy are continually held up as the pinnacle of wine, even if the wines from those regions don’t always meet the lofty standards they’ve enjoyed over recent centuries. Global warming is one of only a wide range of factors that can explain how the flavor profile of those wines is changing. Biodiversity is another often overlooked factor. In places like Burgundy and Barolo, as the wines grew in reputation, so too did the price of the land those vineyards were rooted in. Many vineyards were then expanded to produce more wine, at the expense of neighboring trees, grassland, brush, shrubs, and all the other natural habitats for native flora and fauna. Nature abhors monocultures and grapevines are no exception.

The interconnected nature of vineyards is also at work here. In Burgundy, where walled vineyards are often shared by dozens if not hundreds of wineries, any one winery might have precious little recourse of what their neighbors do. If they’re spraying chemicals next door, the vines in the next plot over feel about as healthy as you would if you had a diesel-burning tanker truck idling outside your apartment window.

The factors that go into wine pricing are too numerous to list here. They can include, type of bottle used, type of closure, cost of owning/maintaining the land, the equipment, whether or not barrels are used for aging, and so on. But as our hapless wine collector has found out, too often to his detriment, more often than not, what you’re paying for in a bottle of wine is reputation. Of the vineyard, the producer, the region. If there are whole parts of the world where most of us have been priced out of buying all but the most entry-level wines, there still has never been a better time to be a wine drinker. Wine regions that have ancient vine material, but have enjoyed less acclaim in recent times, from Germany, to Italy, to Greece, amongst others are host to a range of wines that can be, objectively, just as good if not better than the more traditionally hallowed vineyards. Such bottles can often be found for $30 or less at retail.

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WITH AGE COMES WISDOM

A common approach in the world of wine, and in food and wine media, is to oversimplify. While the process of making wine rejects shortcuts, the process of learning it almost demands it. Oversimplification is a necessary evil, at least until one understands wine at a deep enough level to begin the process of embracing the complexity inherent therein. When we set out to learn about wine, when we consider how many countries the grapevine calls home, the history of the peoples there, the forces of the global market, and the natural forces at play… It’s all too much. Better to pick a few smaller areas and get to know those more intensely. In addition to focusing on smaller estates, or the regions I’ve mentioned above, I’ve one last wine shortcut to share.

Look for bottles that say “old vines,” or the equivalent in other languages, vielles vignes in French, vigne vecchie in Italian. Grapevines have a life span, roughly equivalent with modern humans. Some can live to be well over a hundred, yet like most of us, they often wither and die well short of that. When a new vine is planted, it takes at least four years for that plant to bear fruit. It is often closer to seven or eight years before the plant produces fruit that is worthy of turning into wine. Depending on the region, vines in excess of 35 or 40 years old might earn the designation “old vines.” Some areas in Germany are still planted with vines over one hundred years of age.

Why old vines? Over time, the root systems of the vines reach both deeper into the earth and more broadly out over a larger expanse of land. These allow the vine both access to nutrients, and thereby flavors, hidden deeper in the earth. Such expansive root systems also help older vines to better handle extreme weather conditions, from extreme heat, to drought. In terms of how this translates to flavor, the wines that come from older vines are often deeper, better balanced, more complex, and seem more of themselves. In the word salad of most wine labels, old vines is one of the best phrases to look for. It doesn’t guarantee a good bottle, but the odds will be in your favor here.

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GO FORTH AND BE THIRSTY

The world of wine is full of people acting like they know more than they do. Wine is a complex subject, but don’t feel like you need to know all of it. Would you feel like a failure in life if you don’t visit every country on the planet? Of course not. You shouldn’t feel compelled to view the world of wine the same way either. Just know that wine, real wine, is capable of communicating deep truths about the place that it comes from via flavor. Short of grabbing a cab to the airport, there’s no better way to explore the amazing planet we live on. Spend what you can afford. Never stop asking questions. Taste everything. The world is waiting at the bottom of your glass.

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Charles Prusik

Charles Prusik is a writer and a twenty-year veteran of the restaurant industry.