How to Drink Wine Like a Pro
with a subtitle: ‘….unless that pro is a jerk or snob.’
1) Reject snobbery.
There was a time when snobs ruled the world of wine. Sommeliers were as rare as meteors, and maybe they took their jobs a little too seriously, or perhaps they fundamentally mis-read the European wine culture they were trying to imitate. Or maybe they read enough New Yorker cartoons about wine service that the lampooned attitude of snobbery leaked into reality. (It should be noted here, for no other reason besides me showing off my liberal arts math skills, that achieving Master Sommelier is about 5 times more rare than having been in outer space.)
Regardless of the past, modern US wine culture is taking a very strong stance against high-and-mighty attitudes from wine professionals. I see a strong parallel between medieval attitudes toward the priesthood. A 14th Century catholic priest would have little worry about anyone challenging their authority, and they were generally free to exploit their own ecumenical, spiritual and political power. Martin Luther changed the priesthood and eventually all of Christendom. Wine culture has been stewarded into popularity by critics such as Robert Parker, Matt Kramer, Steve Heimoff and James Laube. In the 20th Century, or at least at the end of it, they continued to enjoy the power of a medieval priest. We didn’t understand the concept of keeping our relationship with wine personal and rejecting authority in an attempt to find our own way in wine.
If the printing press, Luther and the Enlightenment/Renaissance/scientific revolution pushed a rapid evolution of religion in Europe, the internet had a similar and more rapid impact on personalizing wine. We now have dozens or famous writers on the web writing daily on wine, and hundreds of solid blogs being published daily (would I be a snob if I said there were thousands of substandard wine blogs published on any given day?), so we have a depth of knowledge and passion being shared at an unprecedented rate between experts and those that are thirsty for words and wine.
Rejecting wine snobbery requires a few simple elements:
Be open to all varietals, world wine regions and wine styles. (Yes, you may have to taste an orange wine from Croatia, and you will likely love it.)
Be proud of your own taste preferences. If you don’t like Champagne, that’s OK! (Although you are a little weird, I must admit…)
You watch wine trends like Nick Carraway watches Jay Gatsby: with detached interest that never impacts your ability to see the whole picture from a slightly neutral point-of-view.
You read and educate yourself to the point where you can simply choose a wine of any wine list with competency.
You play with wine like a great poet plays with words. Pay attention to the way flavors play with one another, but don’t feel like your job is to make meaning. Your job is to feel deeply and to take every wine as a vessel of flavor, place and time.
Push yourself out of the norm, or where the kingmaker critics tell you to go. Try a Gruner Veltliner by the glass, take a weekend to study Sherry or Madeira. Give up Pinot Noir for a month…wait, I mean give up all Pinot Noir except Santa Barbara County pinots for a month…
2) You know a good or bad wine when you smell/taste it.
Be brave. Trust your nose and don’t let anyone tell you what’s delicious or balanced. ‘In Pursuit of Balance’ should always be a personal voyage of discovery and decision, never an institutional decision thrust upon you.
3) It is far more important who you drink with than what you’re drinking.
Pretty simple stuff. A good example of this is back in 2002 when I spent a very long 2 hours tasting through the cellars of a famous collector in Glendale, CA who challenged me to bring the best examples of bottle-aged Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir to his home for a smack-down. He opened Romanee-Conti, Echezeaux, Chambertin and Nuits. St. George Grand Crus, had already made up his mind on the wines I brought (they were awesome and he wouldn’t budge on his belief that Burgundy couldn’t be challenged). The collector kept opening old bottles, and as a certified wine geek with a limited Burgundy budget, even I was struck by the fact that I caught myself checking my watch every few minutes. I wasn’t enjoying myself or the collector’s company, even though we were trucking through thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars worth of rare wine. I left his home and met my best friend from high school at Senor Taco in South Pasadena, where we ate fish tacos and drank a carafe (yes, a carafe) of Mountain Chablis from a box. The laughter was easy, the wine was fruity and clean, and we stayed at table at least an extra hour talking about the crazy days of youth and how fun indiscretions could be when viewed from the safe perch of a successful adulthood. Was the box wine as good as a 1985 La Tache? Of course not, but the context of the wine made the experience of drinking the cheap boxed wine better. I wasn’t so jaded that I didn’t learn from the wines I tasted with the collector, but without an emotional connection and an hour at table, the experience was somewhat of a failure.
4) Buy now.
There has never been a better time to buy wine than right now. In the 7000-8000 years since Europeans started putting finished wines in fired pottery vessels and trading/selling them, today is the day to start your collection. The high end of the market has been tainted with speculators, point-whores and ridiculous pricing. I’m not talking about those wines. But the quality of wines from $5-$50 has never been equaled–ask any wine judge how their job has changed in the last 20 years and if they are being honest, they will admit to a fundamental shift in wine quality and value. A few bumper crops in 2013 and 2014 in California and elsewhere got the value train rumbling. Expect to see a 10%-15% rise in wine prices over the next 24 months as the glut gives way to an expected worldwide shortfall in wine supply that will definitely get the prices rolling higher. Find yourself a safe place to store some wine and buy in—BIG! A few suggestions for value: anything from the Loire, Lodi/Clarksburg, California, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Alsace, Germany, Austria, Spain, South America and Australia.
5) Stop talking about wine unless you’re learning or practicing.
Think of the greatest wine cultures in the world. In my head, that’s Italy and France. In my visits to those countries over the last three decades, I have yet to see a table during lunch or dinner without a wine bottle, nor have I seen anyone at table spending much time talking about the wine, unless perhaps if they are hosting some Americans. In other words, we have fundamentally misread Euro wine culture in this country. We legitimize domestic wine with an Franco/Italian accent at every opportunity in this country. If we are going to feel like a red-headed stepchild behind the winos of Europe, we can at least take a page out of their cultural playbook and allow great wine to start a conversation about everything except itself. Wine is not self important or narcissistic. :Leave that for your one friend that always shows up at wine tastings.
6) At the bar, order a Fernet Branca or a Negroni to end the work day or as a nightcap.
This is sort of a joke, but not really. For some reason wine professionals throughout this country tend towards one of two drinks at the end of the day. Fernet Branca is my personal jam–it’s the only 80+ proof liquor I know of that makes me feel better in the morning after flirting with it in the wee hours. Fernet is a flavored grape-spirits appertif/digestive that has been described aromatically as “Black licorice-flavored listerine.” I tend to hate black licorice flavors in my alcohol, the Middle-Eastern liquor called ‘Arak’ being the worst I’ve tasted–but Fernet Branca (my preferred Fernet bottle) has a bitter, herb-laced aromatic and bitter dryness that makes it one of my favorite drinks of all time. When Oscar Wilde said, “All things in moderation, including moderation” he might have been speaking of Fernet’s utility. Normally after a night of excessive eating and drinking a ‘night-cap’ will only worsen your morning (or 4 am) punishment. But whether it’s normal, or I’m just weird, Fernet always makes me feel better. It’s the official health-tonic for the lover of alcohol. I have no idea how myrhh, rhubarb, chamomile, aloe and saffron in an ethanol delivery vehicle can cure an occasional indulgence, but it does!
The Negroni has been attributed to Count Camillo Negroni, who, in the early 20th Century, wanted a stronger drink than his favored ‘Americano’, and asked his bartender, Fosco Scarselli,to replace the soda in his vermouth and Campari with gin. It was there at the Caffe’ Roberto Cavalli in Florence that the Negroni was born. It is a crisp and refreshing drink that seems to appeal to serious wine palates.
That’s it for this blog! Don’t forget to sign up with your email on www.jwilkes.com to be put into a contest to get a private tasting for 6 people in my Private Office/Salon!