Go your own way . . .
By Ross Workman
There is so much written about wine in the periodicals, and now that the blogosphere is accessible for everybody with a laptop, we are overwhelmed by a sea of conflicting opinions telling us what is right and wrong and how to think about and enjoy wine. For example, I was amazed to learn recently from two impeccable wine pundits that one could never truly understand a wine unless he traveled to the place whence it came and imbibed the atmosphere and culture of the place. Apparently terroir is a broader and deeper concept than we had understood it to be; it affects the drinker as well as the wine. And we mere mortals thought it was what was in the bottle that mattered. And talk about smashing idols, we are also told that the uber wine maven E. Robert Parker himself had written about Spanish wines for years before ever having set foot there! Show me your bullfight tickets before I will read your tempranillo review, or you are just an imposter, according to this newly revealed truth.
I have spent a lot of time with wine drinkers, many of them serious, some obsessed, in Napa Valley tasting rooms, soirees and dining rooms where wine-talk predominates. And I have concluded that, as a law school professor told me long ago, “We all just have to go to hell our own way.” There is just too much variability amongst us mortals for many proffered “truths” about wine to be universally applicable. Some examples might illustrate.
Young wine or old wine? I know two winery proprietors who both love cabernet sauvignon (the California version), but differ completely about when it tastes best to them. One prefers the wines within a year or two after release. The other finds them much better with 8 or 10 years of age, and sometime magical with 15+ years. Both are lifelong winery professionals who fully understand the different charms of a young fresh, vivid cab versus a mature evolved one. They just have different personal preferences. Neither one is wrong; each follows his own lights. It’s like one guy prefers his eggs over easy and the other one scrambled. There is no objective right or wrong here. You go to hell your own way.
Red vs. white. I have recently poured wine for two mature, sophisticated wine drinkers, one of whom said he could only abide red wines and never touched whites. The other exclusively drank whites. Those struck me as pretty limiting stances, but I could not tell either one he was wrong. If I myself had to choose only one type of wine, it would probably be sparkling. Fortunately the choices are myriad.
High alcohol levels. A dinner guest recently told me she didn’t drink high alcohol wines because she didn’t like the taste of alcohol. Since alcohol doesn’t have much taste for me, I asked her what it tastes like. She couldn’t say, but she had been persuaded (probably by an “expert”) that what she didn’t like about a particular wine was the “high” alcohol level. I poured her an un-oaked chardonnay with 14.5% alcohol and a fully ripe, fruit-driven style. She loved it.
Food and wine pairing. What wines “go” with what foods is an absolute minefield of pontification and pseudo-expertise. The myriad possible combinations of food flavors and textures matched with innumerable possibilities of varied wine types and styles produces an infinity of conceivable pairings. Surprisingly, there are “experts” who will pick among these hundreds of possible choices and tell you which ones are “right and wrong.” The forgotten factor in this exercise is your personal preferences and taste memory bank. Your mother fed you different stuff than mine fed me, so we come to the party with different memories and pre-dispositions. Throughout our lives we have accumulated long lists of what tastes good and bad to us. The chances are that your list and mine don’t match exactly. What tastes good to you is all that matters. With your grilled salmon you can drink sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot gris, reisling, gewurtztraminer, pinot noir, syrah, sparkling, zinfandel, or something else, for example. I’ve tried them all and the only one I consistently didn’t like was the chardonnay, but that’s me. Call me a tasteless, undiscriminating Philistine, if you will. But I might call you an elitist out to impose your own preferences on other people.
Chocolate and wine. The proof that wine-food pairing advice is based on subjective personal preference and not on absolute truths comes with the mixing of bold red wines and chocolate. I know equally experienced wine drinkers who say with equal vehemence that the pairing is an abomination or that it is one of the divine gifts given to oenophiles. The middle ground says that the wine can make the chocolate taste better, but the chocolate cannot make the wine taste better. Perhaps. But these mutually exclusive, strongly held opinions cannot all be right for everybody’s palate. We’re all just going to have to go to hell our own way.
Wine isn’t always necessarily the answer. I have a friend who for the last 45 years has made a very good living with tastes. His pre-eminent consulting practice successfully invents food products for a wide variety of clients, so he has an encyclopedic understanding of what combinations of tastes and textures people will opt for. With considerable detail, he can explain just how wine works as a beverage accompanying a broad array of foods. He can afford to drink anything he might want, but his invariable meal beverage of choice is India Pale Ale, a particularly bitter, heavily hopped ale that British colonialists enjoyed in India. It is an unconventional subjective choice, but it is a fully informed one and it works for him. I cannot tell him he is objectively wrong.
Ripe or austere wine styles? Probably the biggest hoorah in the blogosphere at the moment revolves around the difference between the more fully ripened styles of New World (read California) wines versus the more restrained style of Old World (read European) wines. Without a doubt, they are different. And it is similarly certain that the styles differ in large part based on the climates in which the grapes are grown. Napa’s latitude is about the same as Sicily; Bordeaux is about the same as Vancouver. Guess which one picks their grapes riper? Duh!
You can find a great deal of “expert” opinionating on why the Old World style makes better wine. Or you can look at the market and see what people buy. Even the self-appointed tastemakers who condemn New World style wines as being overly-alcoholic and not up to the refined standard of classic Old World wines cannot change the fact that in the last decades the New World style has been eating the lunch of the Old World wines out there where consumers vote with their own dollars and buy the wines that taste better to them.
What’s going on here is the total subjectivity of wine. I used to work for an old-timer who said the luckiest guy is the one whose absolute favorite wine, which he’d rather drink than anything else, is something he buys for less than $10 a bottle. He preferred zin, himself. In a world of 100 point scale ratings, Masters of Wine, sommeliers with an attitude and know-it-all blogger-pundits, here’s a pretty good rule to live by: If it doesn’t please you, don’t drink it. If it violates conventional pairing wisdom, but you like it anyway, go for it. Unless the “expert” is picking up the tab, drink what tastes good to you. We live and drink in a global wine market, so whatever people like is pretty easy to find. Economics tells us free markets work. Cast off your shackles and enjoy the freedom to please yourself. I do.