July 05, 2013
A bunch of my friends think of me as a wine snob. I can understand that to some extent, I like good wine. But a snob I am not, at least not in the way my friends think I am.
Wine has a long history that has changed drastically in the 20th century, and it all started with an insect. At the end of the 19th century, phyloxxera ravaged most vineyards around the world, and almost all wines had to graft new plants that could deal with phyloxxera. Some people believe that pre-phyloxxera wines had a different, richer character. A few very small vineyards in Europe escaped phylloxera altogether, and their wines today command huge prices.
After phyloxxera, for more complex reasons, vintages became more and more important to track as well. Christie’s was the first auction house that started trading in wine heavily, and they tracked their vintages as an additional way to track prices. They would find caches of older wines or particularly prized vintages and sell the collections in London. Michael Broadbent (who, incidentally, is my own favorite wine writer) would publish tasting notes on the collection, with a guide of 1 through 5 stars. This was the first time that auction prices for wines started to rise to more stratospheric levels. Certainly, Chateau Latour was expensive before this happened - as it should be as a First Growth Bordeaux - but the notoriety and fame of these vineyards skyrocketed.
But the biggest change happened in the late 1970s, when a Maryland lawyer named Robert Parker started publishing his own tasting notes in The Wine Advocate. The big change? He rated his wines on a 100-point scale. That small, innocuous addition has changed the entire wine industry. Enter almost any wine store today and you’ll see featured 90 and 91 point wines for cheap. Finding a 95 point wine for under $50 is pretty much impossible, and most are far more than that. The difference between an 89 and 90 point review can mean huge differences in sales and profits for a winery.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that the system is bunk. Parker himself says:
Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine’s style and personality, its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate.
That doesn’t stop him from assigning a number value though. It allows people to make a lazy decision when they walk the seemingly endless aisles of verbose and complicated wine choices.
It’s worse than that though. On any given day, how will a wine expert rate a particular bottle? Would it be the same tomorrow? Would all the other bottles from that vintage be the same? Would the same expert rate the bottle the same way on a second taste?
Tests have been done on this subject, and the evidence is not good. Tasters will pay attention to price, the type and elegance of the bottle, and color to make poor assumptions. The Brochet tests are particularly damning. When served identical wines in different bottles, experts picked the bigger, fancier bottle. When served two glasses of identical white wine, one glass with red food coloring, the tasters noted wild differences between the two glasses.
And these are experts. How do they expect the laity to fare when browsing hundreds of selections looking for a bottle of red for a nice dinner at home? The 100 point system, whatever else it is, must be seen as particularly convenient.
In fact, after thinking things through, this type of system is perhaps a good thing for the first kind of wine: everyday wine. The primary property of an everyday wine is that it is delicious. An everyday wine is a robust, well-made wine with interesting character. Type, varietal, geography, brand, etc. don’t matter at all, except perhaps for your particular tastes; if you enjoy a nice deep red vs. a lighter white.
But let me back up first, as I fear I’ve made a bit of a jump here. Why doesn’t any of this matter? Mostly because all of these specifics that have become built up and made into wine snobbery are not actually all that relevant. See, the purpose of a good wine is to facilitate a good time, whether that good time is a celebration, a wonderful dinner with friends, a conversation by the fire, or the signing of an important document like the Declaration of Independence (the Founders toasted the Declaration with bottles of Madeira). Wine is important to any and all of these occasions. Wine can enhance these occasions and make them even better.
And so wine should be delicious. Everything else - the specifics of how a wine is delicious, the culture of it - those can all add to the experience, but they don’t matter if the wine is not delicious. For some people, wine is so delicious that an occasion can be made simply out of opening a bottle. But that’s not everybody.
When everyday wine is delicious, it becomes a great part of whatever good time you are having. Nearly any wine that sits in a store with a score is good enough for this category. So the scoring system actually does some good, in that it allows you to easily avoid having wine that is not delicious. But that’s it.
Now that we have a working definition for the purpose of wine, it extends naturally to the second kind of wine: The Special Occasion.
This one gets a bit more interesting, mostly because I think it’s less predictable than most people expect. Typically, we think of a Special Occasion wine as the one we get for Thanksgiving. While we hope that’s true, I think a wine can take us by surprise more often than we expect. Special Occasion wines, for me, usually end up being beautiful summer evening dinners with my wife, or impromptu conversations with good friends.
It’s important to note that there are Special Occasions and Special Occasion wines. We’d like them to always line up, but they don’t. Some wines can make lazy Wednesdays into Special Occasions. Or, if you’re lucky enough to have that wine for Christmas dinner, they can enhance an evening and make it one to remember for years. Other wines will remain simply delicious no matter how hopeful you are, and never transcend into this second kind of wine.
That’s what this is really about anyway: transcendence. Wine is an ethereal, fleeting, joyful part of life. We never know exactly how or when it will happen, or even if it will happen, but when a bottle makes that transition, it’s almost holy. There’s a reason Christianity around the world memorializes the Last Supper with bread and wine.
The pinnacle of this experience can be magical. I have been fortunate enough to have a few of these experiences. They are rare. The one I always think of is a bottle of 1976 Lopez de Heredia Rioja sitting on the wood floor of my friend Andrew’s empty new house a few weeks before his marriage. Pat, Andrew, and I sat there for 2 or 3 hours with that one bottle, and time stood still.
Another was a bottle of Orin Swift’s Mercury Head, shared with my wife in our new house with our new sleeping daughter upstairs. Another was a 3 oz. pour of 1912 Madeira with my friend Katie around Christmas. There are a couple others with my parents and friends where I don’t even remember the specific wine. But it was amazing.
I said before that Michael Broadbent is my favorite wine writer. His attitude towards wine captures this magic. He recognizes there is an ethereal component to wine that is not in any way rational. In his compiled tasting notes, Vintage Wine, he uses a 5 star system, but there’s a few very special notes in his book where he gives a wine 6 stars. In one 6 star review of an old Tokaji, he says, “..my wife and I sat up in bed, glasses in hand, on 31 December 1972, to see in the New Year.” At least as important as the wine was the company, the occasion, and the experience.
Even Robert Parker agrees:
I really think probably the only difference between a 96-, 97-, 98-, 99-, and 100-point wine is really the emotion of the moment.” —Parker
Magical Bottles don’t have to be expensive. They don’t have to be special. Buying a special or expensive bottle of wine is a way by which to increase the probability that you will have a Special Occasion or a little piece of magic. But it’s not a guarantee. On any given day, a $12 bottle might do it where a $200 bottle won’t.
An interesting corollary to this perspective on wine is that price is frequently signaling for something else. Sometimes it’s income level or expectation. But preferably it maps to your desire for a particularly special occasion.
For me, this means that most wines I buy are in the $6-15 range. There are tons of delicious wines that can be had in this price range, including reds. Shy away from the popular Pinots and Cabs where the market has inflated the prices. One of my favorites right now is a Sicilian red that I get for $6/bottle by the case.
Start creeping up towards $20-40 and you will find many Special Occasion wines. Any price over $50, you’re typically either buying branding, location, or history. This may be perfectly legitimate, but it’s something to remember.
I’ve got a few go-to bottles now that I get frequently, hoping they will stand up to the test of a Special Occasion. I love Orin Swift and Sea Smoke Pinots. Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Caymus Conundrum are consistently wonderful.
These and many others are delicious. They can be great for a Special Occasion. Not always, but when they are, it’s grand. And if not, the wine will still be delicious.
And every once in awhile, the stars align, the mood is perfect, the company thrilling, the conversation compelling, and the wine can be magic.