Knowing Nothing About Wine: For the true wine connoisseur, ignorance is bliss.
John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne, San Francisco Examiner Magazine October 2000
I’ve been drinking wine, off and on, for decades now, but until recently the relationship was a difficult one – a few pleasurable moments floating like flotsam in a dark sea of disappointment. For the longest time, I thought the problem lay in the wine itself. But I have gradually come to realize that, instead, it lies within me and that what kept me from coming to terms with it can only be called an especially tenacious ignorance.
Perhaps the ideal way to get to know wine is as a child in a household where drinking it is an everyday – by which I mean entirely ordinary – event. If your parents take an unselfconscious sensual delight in drinking it, you naturally imbibe – along with an occasional taste – the assumption that this pleasure is there to be pursued, when you are old enough to do so, to whatever degree you choose.
In my own family, wine was almost never present at our table. My parents weren’t hostile to wine, but having it as an everyday dinner companion was a foreign notion. Instead, wine signaled an event: company dinners (to which we children were not invited) and family occasions, like Thanksgiving or Easter dinner, where its presence was an aspect of ritual and so possessed no intrinsic interest – no more than did the tiny sip I took when receiving Holy Communion.
Instead, my introduction to wine came from reading books, specifically, as my taste was in my early teens, historical novels. In their pages, I learned that beer and ale were the beverages of peasants, wine, the drink of warriors and kings. It was purplish stuff, thick as blood, perfumed and fruity, to be drunk between duels or before bedding buxom chambermaids.
When, a little later, I learned that the best, the highest, sort of wine was not sweet but "dry," that was a word I associated with Canada Dry ginger ale, my favorite soda. Good wine, then, was something more piquant than cloyingly sweet, enlivened, if you were lucky, with a bit of fizz. If someone had given me a taste of Riunite Lambrusco, I would have thought I understood everything. I would also have been in heaven.
However, I did not try that particular wine until it was far too late for such innocent calf love. Rather, the summer before my freshman year in college, Nan – my grandmother – conceived the notion to mark this transition to manhood, or, as she probably thought or it, my first step toward becoming a gentleman, by inaugurating my wine cellar. To this end, every month of that summer and into the following autumn, when she telephoned an order in to S.S. Pierce, a fancy Boston grocer, she concluded by asking the clerk to select a half bottle of French wine that she could send on to me.
Nan herself took only an infrequent glass of port, and her impression of wine connoisseurship, although slightly more formed than mine, was equally romantic. It was her fantasy that I would cellar these bottles in my dorm closet, where, like me, they would gradually mature until I had reached the legal drinking age. Then I would invite in a friend or two, reach under my dirty sweatshirts, and produce a bottle of, say, Baron Philippe de Rothschild Mouton Cadet, vintage 1957, with a seignorial flourish.
As with most of Nana’s ambitions for me, I thwarted and I faithfully polished off each bottle the moment it arrived. We enjoyed the buss and thought ourselves a couple of swells. But – although I didn’t admit this even to myself – I was truly mystified as to where the pleasure lay. It was nicely alcoholic, but it was also sour and harsh and thin. This must, I thought, be like drinking black coffee or taking your bourbon neat: it required an initiation period. And if college wasn’t the place to undergo that, what was?
Looking back after thirty years, I kept trotting off to theater to see Brecht and Ionesco, to the concert hall to hear Charles Ives and Milton Gabitt, to the cinema to take in Antonioni and Godard. My meager record collection fattened on the likes of Thelonius Monk and Brahms quintets; my dormitory wall sported a print of a Monet railway station. The cure for this disease, it turned out, was a college diploma – as soon as one was shoved into my hands, the fever started to abate. A year or so later, all that remained to mark its passing were a few barely perceptible scars.
However, while it raged, I discovered that I liked making judicious distinctions. Not only did they prove a means of understanding why I preferred some things (Fellini, the Rolling Stones, Brie) over others (Bergman, the Who, Gruyere), but they also offered me a way of pursuing what I did enjoy to depths of pleasure heretofore unknown. For instance, I arrived at college a pipe smoker; I left it a pipe bore. I became fussy about the grain of my briars, I nurtured a meerschaum, and, above all, I took a passionate interest in pipe tobacco, talking from personal experience about such esoterica as Old London Pebble Cut, Three Nuns Spun Discs, and Conor Rubbed-out Leaf.
Consequently, when at last I did reach legal drinking age, I began making weekly pilgrimages to the town package store (the wine shipments from my grandmother had long ago dried up), expecting that the same transformation of taste that had happened at the local smoke shop would also happen here. The store devoted an entire wall to French, German and Italian wines (serious California wines were then all but unknown). I would wander up and down the aisle until some bottle shape or label seemed to intimate that its contents were the right stuff. After staring at this bottle for a moment or two, in a state of exquisite hesitation, I would seize it up, assume an expression of casual assurance, and bear it to the cash register.
So it went. My purchases remained completely random, since none of these bottles ever made me want to go back and buy its brother. If I left college feeling some sort of connection to serious art, literature, and cinema, I departed on no such familiar terms with wine. And so, for several years afterwards, I lost all interest in it.
Then, sometime in the mid-seventies, I got interested in cooking – and, even more, in reading about cooking. Several of the writers I was most drawn to – Elizabeth David, Robert Courtine, Richard Oinev – made drinking good wine seem such a necessary part of the pleasure of eating that I felt encouraged – well, really, obligated – to try again.
This time, though, I was determined to do it right. I sought out the best discount wine stores in the city. I subscribed to a wine newsletter. Finally, I bought a tiny loose-leaf binder into which I could enter lists of wines to search for and record my tasting notes after I had found and drunk them. It soon contained page after minuscule page of typed wine lists, definitions of wine terms, and, of course, those tasting notes. In fact, I put so much work into creating it that for many years afterward, despite its total uselessness, I was unable to throw it away.
However, I must finally have done so, since it is now not to be found. I wanted to quote from it here, not to mock but simply to evoke the pathos of the would-be-enthusiast. I plugged away at it for four years, until, at last, I did taste a wine that I wanted to rush out and buy again. It was a Chappellet Chardonnay, and it had a completely unexpected effect on my wine drinking – besides revealing to me what utter dross all those reams of previous jotting were.
Before that bottle of Chardonnay, I thought my ignorance about wine was a matter of my uneducated palate – of not knowing what to look for and not knowing what to taste for even if the right bottle happened along. But I had no problem at all experiencing the pleasure of this wine; indeed, I was shaken by its accessibility. There was no mystery here, no secret code that only the initiate could decipher. Its delicious complexity was not that of a daunting enigma but of the personality of some newfound best friend.
The thing was, that Chardonnay was also the most expensive bottle of wine I had ever bought – an act of audacity I knew I would not easily be able to repeat. I realized, all in a flash, what the stakes of this game really were, and that if I continued to play it in this manner I might very likely not encounter a bottle like this for another four years. In the span of an hour, I went through all the stages of an unrequited love affair: astonishment, rapture, bitter disillusionment, despair.
The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once observed that, despite our persistent belief to the contrary, our ignorance is rarely a blank slate waiting to be written upon. Instead, it has be assured grip of deeply felt, fully formed (if unarticulated) assumption that – no matter how hard we try to shake them – prove dismayingly durable, even regarding the simplest things.
So, for instance, while I "know" that the earth circles the sun, my perceptions remain faithful to the naive egocentricity of my childhood, which located me in a universe where the earth is the center of all attention, the sun a great beaming parent, and the moon a lovely but coolly indifferent one. One of the sobering lessons of maturity is that our school-taught learning has given us as much power over such ignorance as the lady from Niger had over the tiger upon whose back she had decided to ride.
To expect to drink decent wine regularly, you must have good memory, more than a little canniness, a willingness to spend lots of money, and even then, a bit of luck. In other words, what getting your hands on good wine is about, more than vintage or terroir to type of grape or proper cellaring or anything else, is knowing your self. This is because the making of wine – unlike the brewing of beer – is an art, which is to say, an extraordinarily chancy business. Even quite talented vintners, more often than no, find themselves with a wine greatly inferior to the one they produced the year before. When this happens, they don't pour the contents of the huge oak barrels (or stainless steel tanks) down the drain. They bottle it and hope the reputation of last year's vintage will sell this one, too. The wine merchant racks the new bottles in the same slots that held the ones from the year before and leaves the old review pasted above them. Caveat emptor.
Consequently, if you are interested in beer, you can take a hundred dollars and try about a hundred different brews. At the end of that romp, you will not only have discovered quite a few that you like, you can expect them to be waiting there for you to enjoy again and again. Spend the same hundred dollars on wine – no, ten times that amount – and nothing like this will happen. A thousand dollars will certainly buy a hundred bottles of wine; but you will come away from tasting them feeling more confused, more lost, than before. Money can get you through the door of this club, but it won't make you a member.
As it happened, this was a time when I was living on a very limited income, and my interest in cooking was fueled in part by a burgeoning ability to search the supermarket for inexpensive vegetables and cuts of meat that a little culinary expertise could turn into delicious meats. I brought this same mentality with me when I set out to buy wine. I was certain – a certainty reinforced by the wine books I was reading – that there were excellent "undiscovered" wines that could be had for a song. And, in truth, there are such wines; it's just that the odds are astronomically against you that any of them are in the markdown bin at your local wine shore. Here, as with buying lottery tickets, dogged persistence is not a virtue but a vice; it is the identifying mark of a loser.
This was the revelation brought about by that bottle of Chappellet Chardonnay. It so discouraged me that I gave up drinking wine for yet another decade – until, in fact, Matt and I began living together.
I wanted to be able to go into a wine store and buy a bottle of good wine on my own recognizance – and it angered my that this was nearly impossible. I was being silly, but I wasn't only being silly. There are many more bad books published every year than good books, and lots of those bad books come with glowing testimonials, ecstatic jacket copy, compelling reviews. But in the bookstore you can open those books and sample enough of the wares to make up your own mind. This has saved me from purchasing countless bad books, and also many good books that, while deserving everything that was said about them, were not to my taste. If I am unable to actually handle the book – say, when I'm ordering a title from a catalog or on-line – I often end up not reading it. Or, worse, I compel myself to read it because I've spent good money on it – in other words, just what happens when I buy wine I haven't tasted.
In such situations I, like many another, become vulnerable not only to the blandishments of those wishing to sell me these things but also to the force of my own ignorance. When Matt and I set out to buy wine together, it soon became clear that I would have to deal with the near-desperate impulsiveness that had previously defined my wine buying by confronting those aspects of myself which, despite my best efforts, kept leading me astray.
Money. I have always found it very hard to accept the price of any but the bottles in the bottom rank, which was another reason why my buying excursions usually went awry. This is, I think, the result of my Yankee upbringing: part instinctive parsimony, part the belief that before you spend money you should know – and know that you want –what you are paying for. I don't think that this is necessarily admirable – there are many things in this world that can be appreciated at their fullest only by paying more than the experience is actually worth. But it is such a dominant part of my emotional makeup that instead of pushing on past it, I found it easier to fantasize being a kind of Sam Spade, scouring the mean streets of bargain-bin wines for the vinous equivalent of the Maltese Falcon.
Memory. This is even more important to the search for good wine than the willingness to spend money. Of course, an excellent sensual memory – the ability to recall and compare the taste of the last bottle (and the one before that) if Cabernet Sauvignon with the bottle you are drinking now – is an absolute prerequisite of connoisseurship. But in this instance I mean merely this capacity to call up particular bits of data on demand. Successful wine-buying forays require a memory at least agile enough to cross-reference vineyards, vintage years, and grape varieties, and to keep in mind specific recommendations – the bottle of …what was it?…Domaine Deleteng 1995 Montlouis Sec les Batisses? I don't possess this kind of memory, names of any sort fly out of my brain as fast as they fly in. Since I also usually lack the stamina to compensate for this condition by writing everything down and making sure it is easily at hand when needed, I tend to arrive at the wine store with canniness as the sole arrow in my otherwise depressingly empty quiver.
Canniness. This quality, though, if possessed in sufficient measure, can do a lot to make up for a paucity of money and memory. Canniness is looking down under the display bottle into the wine racks themselves to see what is being snapped up fast; it is double-checking that the blurb from The Wine Spectator or Robert Parker that the wine merchant has pasted up is the exact match – winery, vineyard, vintage year – with the bottles stuck in the clots beneath it. It happens that I am endowed with a certain amount of such shrewdness – but, then, so are most wine-store proprietors.
As it turned out, such of these talents as Matt and I possessed were complementary – if I outdid her in canniness, she surpassed me in the matters of memory and preparedness. Going to wine stores in her company, I found that I was at last able to edge away from the old Sam Spade routine – first by making a concerted effort to discover the lowest median price (somewhere between ten and fifteen dollars) at which well-crafted California or other West Coast red wines (our usual preference) with true varietal character could be purchased, and then by assuming the much harder task of learning to feel comfortable spending that much on a single bottle. (Even so, as soon as the price approaches twenty dollars, something in me freezes. I may yet work up the nerve to spend, say, seventy-three dollars for a 1992 Ridge Montebello Cabernet, but it will be the exception that proves, not breaks, the rule.)
Most important, Matt, with some initial resistance on my part, began to create a substitute for the one thing we most needed, even if we hadn't yet articulated it as such: our own wine negociant – which is to say, a source of friendly expertise that could be regularly tapped when we found that we had once again lost sight of the forest in the confusing morass of individual trees.
If you are fortunate enough to live in a place where wine making and drinking are integral parts of the culture, knowing the wine is something – even these days, I think – that happens as a matter of course. This is partly because there isn't all that much wine to taste – most people who live in one wine-growing region never even consider drinking the wine of another; it is partly because all the local wine is accessible for tasting. You find your favorite vigneron and return to him or her year after year to fill the trunk of the car. Or your local negociant – who knows your taste and your income arrives at your door with an armload of bottles so that the two of you can sample his latest acquisitions.
In our culture, there is no tradition of the local vineyard, of wine that is good because it is familiar and that can be drunk with anything because it is on as intimate terms with our cooking as it is with us. Instead, for most of us, wine has never been anything other than a merchandised product, one that comes, like most of what we buy, at once from everywhere and nowhere.
At first glance, it might seem that attending tastings at a local wine store would serve this purpose, but these turned out to be of very little use to us. If only you could go into the store and select six or seven bottles of Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon that interest you, and then ask the wine merchant to open each of them for you to sample, and perhaps in the bargain have him say, "Well, if you're drawn to these, there's another you should try," and go get that bottle, too.
Wine merchants might do this if customers like Matt and me bought our wine, as people did fifty years ago, by the multiple case. Today, however, we buy by the bottle, and on those rare occasions when we do buy a case, it is usually a mixed one, bought simply to get the 10 percent case discount. The wine merchant's task, then, when we come in to buy one bottle, is to see that we leave with three or four – and wine tastings, like store newsletters and the tasting notes pasted about the shop, are geared to that end.
The proprietor of a small and actually rather discriminating local wine store recently introduced a selection of inexpensive red wines by claiming that these were the pick of "literally thousands we've tasted during the past year." Given the profit margin on a five or six-dollar bottle of wine, the act of tasting thousands of such to find the eight most worth drinking suggests – does it not? –that the place must be run solely for the benefaction of fellow wine lovers. So, when the bottles we purchase seem to bear no relationship to his tasting notes – "rich, lushly flavored…the bouquet mingles blackberries and herbs… the flavors have a rustic, earthy slant and velvety texture" – well, whose palate must be at fault?
In truth, not necessarily ours. Like used-cars salesmen or real-estate agents, wine merchants cannot magically change what they have at hand to match their customers' desires, and so they must maneuver their customers into desiring – and purchasing – what they have. Why should they point us toward a wine that is so good that almost every other wine in the store will seem lackluster by comparison? Far better to encourage us to learn to like the moderately decent wines that fill their bins and about which they write such fulsome encomia.
Still, if our wine merchant was not going to be our Monsieur Boirebien, who was? On these shores, only on sort of person–the wine writer–gets to replicate the experience of what elsewhere is that of the ordinary wine consumer. He or she gets to taste wine freely – by which I mean not only without paying but as a self-directed process meant to promote the education of a particular palate. It is the wine writer alone who is in a position to provide the rest of us with considered, knowledgeable, and honest evaluations.
As I said, I resisted this conclusion. I hated the idea of appearing at the wine store with a copy of Best Wines! Gold Medal Winners from the leading Competitions Worldwide tucked under my arm. But Matt felt differently, and in her persistence had begun to select some very decent bottles. It was already obvious that ours would necessarily be not a real – but a virtual negociant – where else were we going to encounter him? Thus it was that we began to acquire the rudiments of a wine library.
As I dipped into these books, however, I soon discovered that a number of wine writers seem to have confused unlimited access to wine with some sort of inherent superiority over the rest of us. They've set themselves up as wine explainers in the way that – years ago – those with a college education, when such was a privilege limited to the wealthy few, used their "higher" education to become a now extinct breed of popular explainer (of opera, poetry, classical music, the Great Books of Western Civilization).
Take, for instance, Matt Kramer's highly recommended series of books on "making sense" of the wines of Burgundy, Bordeaux, California, et cetera. I'm sure these books do that, as well as provide pleasant reading for those searching for some sort of contact with the vineyards that produce their favorite wines. But how do we separate the fantasy of visiting these places from the fantasy of being Matt Kramer visiting these places?
More important, how much do we want to confuse wine itself with wine as the subject of a book? Wine exists to be drunk, not read about, and we should be careful not to bury this simple purpose beneath more than we ever need to know about grape varieties, the history of various wine producers, or the life of the vigneron.
The same is true for books that purport to teach us the "basics" of wine. The mouth learns by tasting, not listening – drink enough truly good wine and you'll find you can connect the dots as easily as anyone. These books exist because good wine is so difficult for the beginner to get hold of, but they lack the necessary specificity to help find it. Better, then, to push such distractions aside and devote all our energy to the search for the elusive bottle.
Here, books like Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide and The Connoisseur's Guide to California Wine – which provide ratings of specific wines – can be of real help, since they offer succinct descriptions of the style that a particular wine maker strives to achieve (powerfully rich and intense, say, versus smooth and well balanced) and an objective judgment as to how well, year to year, this vision has been realized.
Disappointingly, though, the actual ratings turned out to be of surprisingly little use. By the time these books reach the bookstores, they are already out of date. What you find instead is the same wine but of a later vintage than the one in the book. Because your appetite is already whetted by the description of that wine, you buy this one instead – and find it not nearly as good. It is the rare wine maker who charges ten or so dollars for a wine that is dependably excellent, year after year – and then produces enough of it to reach your local wine store.
The problem of availability plagues the recommendations in wine magazines as well. Their ratings are current enough, but – because their imperative is to keep turning up undiscovered "finds" – their top ratings are often given to wines produced in hundreds, sometimes dozens (rather than thousands) of cases, which means that the chances of finding any are very slim indeed. In the end, these ratings do little more than provide a gloss to their real purpose, which - like any other lifestyle publication – is to encourage their readers to spend money…on wine, yes, but also on official wine-tasting glasses, thermostatically controlled wine-storage systems, ingeniously devised wine racks, posters of grape varieties tours of the California wine country. And this is as it should be, because most wine drinkers, even serious ones, prefer the sweetness of wine myth to the dryness of wine truth.
All this time Matt and I were slowly learning what I have come to believe is the single most important lesson about buying wine: there is nowhere near enough good wine to go around. It is a lesson that I have never seen spelled out in a beginner's guide; indeed, almost everything in the world of wine writing seems to conspire against our learning it at all.
This became almost painfully obvious to us when we came across a little wine publication uniquely tailored to our need: the Quarterly PocketList. Its editor, John L. Vankat, searches through the latest issues of selected wine publications (The Wine Advocate, Smart Wine, Wine Spectator, and so on), selecting only bottles in the stated price range that have received a rating of B+ or higher, arranges them by grape varietal, and prints them up in an easily consulted, thirty-six-page, pocket-sized publication – and he gets this out to his subscribers before those wines have vanished from the shelves.
At the time our first issue arrived, we were buying our wines at three places: two specialty shops and a giant supermarket. This last devoted one side of a whole aisle to it, more than two-thirds of which – several hundred bottles – were at least one cut above jug wine and many of which were several cuts above it. Even so, there were fewer than a dozen bottles in the entire aisle that our guide rated at B+ or better. Since these were spread among the varietals, there were few of each (sometimes just one) to choose from. Only four bottles in the whole aisle received an A-, and just one received an A: a 1993 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon. (Very few wines are rated A+ in the Quarterly PocketList, and we have yet to come across one.)
The more carefully selected collections at the specialty stores did a little better – we found some particularly good wines there, including a memorable Benziger 1994 Cabernet – but not that much better.
Over time, this has proven to be a depressing rule of thumb: no matter how large or carefully chosen a store's selection, you can count on one hand the wines of any particular varietal – Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir – priced at fifteen dollars or less that have been rated B+ or better.
To understand the full import of this, you also have to realize that we've found most wines rated B+ to be not – as that rating is supposed to indicate – "very good" but something more like "moderately pleasing" or "hey, not bad." The wines that actually taste very good have almost always received at least an A- rating, or, according to one estimate, about 1 percent of all available wines.
When you think about it, this makes complete sense. If good wine were commonly available, very few bottles would be priced over twenty dollars, and wine drinkers would be as unsnobby and democratic a lot as beer drinkers…as they mostly still are in places where good wine can be taken for granted. Underlying any serious interest in wine is a gnawing awareness of scarcity, which can transform a wine collector into a vinous miser…with a cellarful of bottles that have become too good, too valuable, to drink.
"You, too, can play the game – and buy a decent bottle of wine without having to choose the pretty label….."
"The Wine PocketList [is] a truly superb guide for wine stocking and selection on a reasonable budget."
"There is nowhere near enough good wine to go around. It is a lesson that I have never seen spelled out in a beginner's guide."