Sat 17 Oct 2009
When producers send their wine children out into the world, how do they anticipate that people who purchase the wines will drink them? Sipped as an aperitif? (“No, no,” sobs the winemaker, “it’s too good for that!”) Consumed with an inappropriate dish? (“No, no,” sobs the winemaker, “not the chili-mac!”) Splashed into a plastic cup at a tail-gate party? (“No, no,” sobs the winemaker, “at least use a water-glass!”)
Above all, what amount of time do they intend for us to spend with a bottle of wine?
If you have been at the wine-writing game for a while, you have doubtless attended trade tastings where dozens, if not hundreds, of writers, retailers, restaurant wine managers and such flit from table to table sampling dozens, if not hundreds, of wines and spending about two minutes, tops, with each one. Now that’s the way we pros assess wines! Truly, though, one skill that writers and other wine-tasters must acquire is the ability to make these lightning (and enlightening) judgments; star-power tends to make itself known immediately. Sometime in the Fall of 2003, I was in New York to attend a mammoth tasting of the 2000 vintage from Bordeaux, an event conducted in a circus-like atmosphere of competition that amounted to desperation. It was like running a gantlet where people not only hit you but spit red wine on you. Fun! And even amid the many great wines on display that hectic, arduous afternoon, when I took one sniff and one sip of Chateau Pavie, it felt as if the heavens had opened and the secrets of gravity were revealed. (I guess Einstein already did that, but you know what I mean.) That’s the stunning effect of perfection, instantly perceived.
But wouldn’t it have been better to have a whole bottle of Ch. Pavie 2000 at dinner — yeah, right — and taste it throughout an evolution of an hour or so?
This theme arose last night during an autumnal meal of braised pork shank (with porcini mushrooms and prosciutto), sauteed potatoes and green beans with apples. LL and I shared duties: I did the pork shanks, which turned out to be fairly labor-intensive for a weeknight, and she did the potatoes and beans. Whatever the work involved, the shanks turned out to be a terrific dish, and the dinner altogether was filling and warming on a chilly evening
I took the opportunity to open three cabernet-based wines from California. I have been working for weeks — it feels like months — on a post called “Old School California Cabernets,” about, well, I think it’s up to 30 now, current releases of cabernets from wineries founded in 1980 or before. That’s enough examples that I may have to break the post into two parts so it won’t be too long and unwieldy. Anyway, this trio, one from Napa Valley and two from Alexander Valley — prices ranged from about $45 to $65 — felt bruisingly unfathomable when first encountered, but since we sat at dinner for more than an hour and went back to each wine many times, we had a chance to see how they evolved as they loosened and unfolded in the glass.
One of the Alexander Valley examples I summarily dismissed as “too typical, too much oak, too toasty.” Half an hour to 45 minutes later, however, the wine, while retaining an almost crisp oak character and formidable tannin, had opened beautifully, showing ravishing floral and spicy aspects and intense, ripe black fruit, all wound in vivid acidity. I went back to the wines the next morning and in terms of tannin, they were still hard as nails.
I wonder, though, if consumers who bought these wines and sat down to dinner with them would react the same way, or would they say something like, “Wow, pretty darn tannic,” and go about the business of eating and drinking and then in a few minutes say, “O.K., that’s smoothing out nicely,” and just leave it at that. I mean, it’s my chosen task to be an explicator of wine, just as when I taught English in college it was my task to explicate, say, a poem by Robert Frost — and when you think about it, both woods and wine can be “lovely, dark and deep” — but most wine-drinkers, I think, don’t conceive of wine as a beverage to be explicated, just consumed and enjoyed.
Would their enjoyment be greater if they paid more attention? It’s difficult to say. I spent 20 years writing about art and reviewing exhibitions for the newspaper where I worked, and I feel certain that my experience at an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan is not the same as the experience of the thousands of people who traipse dutifully through the galleries. There are many levels of discernment and pleasure, in art or music or literature or wine. Knowledge and experience expand our range of discernment and pleasure, but such procedures are neither within the ken nor the desire of everyone.
Still, I would encourage my readers to spend more time with and expend a little more attention on the next bottle of wine they open. Give it a chance to open up and express its character and individuality, if it’s the sort of wine that manifests character and individuality. Not all wines do, nor is that their purpose. On the other hand, if you spend some time savoring a $12 cabernet and it turns out to have a surprising amount of nuance and dimension, then you have profited in pleasure and wisdom, and the wine has been allowed to do its job.