Welcome to Thanksgiving week, during which we Americans make the world’s fastest cultural pivot, turning from a familial gathering to reflect upon our blessings to scratching out one another’s eyes to get the last flat screen TV on Black Friday.
You may love the holiday shopping scene, in which case I tip my hat to you, since you’ll be enjoying yourself for the next six weeks while I’m suffering from total revulsion at the never-ending display of crass commercialism.
Revulsion hit me particularly early this year. I'm not sure what finally drove me over the edge, but I think it was the encounter with an inflated, singing Santa Claus in my local drug store. There he was, in the first week of November, croaking "Jingle Bells." Right between the hemorrhoid treatments and the adult incontinence diapers. Sheesh.
Maybe you are better at steeling yourself against this sort of thing than I am. But even if you can keep your cool amidst the acquisitive frenzy and the incessant advertising, you'll still deplete all of your discretionary income buying gifts for friends and family. We can't rightly blame them for Hemorrhoid Santa, so refusing to buy gifts isn't an appropriate way to take a stand.
One way or another, you are likely to embark soon on an austerity program as we sink into the depths of the holiday buying season. Either you'll be sick of buying things or financially incapable of continuing to do so. Both of these scenarios imperil your enjoyment of wine, so today's question would be: Is it possible to spend less but still enhance the pleasure derived from wine? My answer is emphatically affirmative, and I’ve got half a dozen suggestions that can help you do exactly that. Most of these are geared toward relative newcomers to wine, but seasoned wine lovers will also find some ideas worth considering:
1) Pay more consistent attention to serving temperature. Most Americans are guilty of serving their whites too cold and their reds too warm, and by developing good serving habits you can make your wine taste a lot better without spending a dime. Wines pulled directly from refrigerators--much less ice buckets--are typically so cold that aromas are suppressed and flavors flattened. Similarly, the old rule of thumb about serving reds at room temperature has led millions of people to mishandle their wine. The rule made sense when coined by some guy in the 18th century, but only because he lived in an English manor house without central heat. Reds lack focus and seem overly alcoholic at 72 degrees, and are much better at 62. So, stick your reds into the fridge for 20 minutes and pull your whites out of if for 20 minutes before cracking into them.
2) Spend your money on wine, not wine-related stuff. If you've recently fallen in love with wine, your contact information will be sold to retailers like IWA or The Wine Enthusiast, and they'll soon be mailing you catalogues filled with all sorts of equipment and paraphernalia. Do not buy this trash. Remember that love is blind, and that your affair with the grape may be clouding your judgment. You do not need a Mouton beach towel. We all adore Dom Perignon, but that is no reason to emblazon it on our neckties. And when your friends see that you've purchased a table with legs fashioned from vine trunks, they'll think you are a jackass. And they'll be right. Stay focused and stick to the juice.
3) If you are a newbie, don't get suckered into building a cellar or buying an expensive wine refrigerator. You do not need these things in the initial phases of your love affair with wine, and their indispensability is an arguable point at any juncture. Novices should devote their resources to building an inventory of tasting experiences rather than diverting funds to build or buy something for ageing wines that cannot be tasted for a decade. If your residence would enable you to keep wines at reasonably constant temperatures at or below about 75 degrees, you'll be fine. Most reds will develop nicely if kept at such temperatures for a few years, and though they'll develop more rapidly than they would at 55 degrees, that is no disadvantage for a novice. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of white wines only decline with time no matter how they are stored.
A few wine types cannot be properly appreciated unless aged, but it makes a lot more sense to pay to attend tastings or to buy a few aged bottles of Barolo or vintage Port than to invest in a cellar so that you can find out what vintage Port tastes like in 2026. If you are still mad about wine in five years, and if you find that you like the taste of aged wine (which is not a foregone conclusion), build a cellar at that point.
4) Buy a couple of decent wine glasses. This may look like an exception to my second suggestion, but it is not. The only piece of equipment that really makes any difference in wine appreciation is a glass. A well-shaped, thin-lipped glass will really enhance your experience of any wine. By contrast, a wine opened with a $2 corkscrew will taste no better if you open it with some huge, expensive contraption. You should also know that your spouse will swat you with a rolled newspaper if you clamp that contraption onto her countertop. (I would have stayed gender-neutral and written "his or her" countertop, but we all know that buying a huge machine for extracting corks is something that only a guy would do.)
Buying some good glasses is important, but don't go crazy. You do not need $20 glasses (much less Riedel Sommelier Series ones costing $70). Nor do you need to buy different glasses for five or six different grape varieties. Spiegelau makes lovely glasses that perform very, very well, and you'll find them available on the web for less than $7.25 per stem when purchased in cases of 6. The Vino Grande series Red Wine Glass is supremely versatile--so much so that I actually like it a little better for whites than reds. For most consumers, anything else is overkill and an inadvisable diversion of funds, at least at the outset of your love affair with wine.
5) Don't freak out when you hear about a great vintage. When I was first bitten by the bug as am impoverished grad student, the marvelous 1982 red Bordeaux were declining in availability, and I confess that I spent some sleepless nights gnashing my teeth over the fact that buying them in quantity was impossible without resorting to underhanded means of avoiding spousal detection. Do I now wish that I had more of them? Sure. Am I sorry that I didn't find weasel ways to purchase them surreptitiously? No. Great wine is supremely important to me, but it isn't worth warping your priorities--much less yourself.
You should take advantage of great vintages to the degree that you can, but don't let them take advantage of you. I know people who bought 2000 Bordeaux (excellent but extremely expensive) for way more than they should have spent. They'd have gotten much more pleasure for their money if they had held onto enough cash to buy 2001s from Spain or 2002s from Burgundy. Similarly, while it is true that 2009 was an amazing year for both Bordeaux and Burgundy, 2010 was terrific too, so don’t pay an arm and a leg to chase down the remaining 2009s. If you keep your head, you'll do much better with your wine budget, since great vintages have a way of happening someplace every year.
6) Remember that the oenophilia is about appreciation, not acquisition. I honestly believe that the key to loving wine without going astray is to avoid the vice of acquisitiveness. Have you ever been cornered by some guy (again, always a guy) who insists on telling you about how he bought every First Growth from 1961 for $5...and how they are now worth a gazillion dollars...but he never tasted them because he turned around and sold them to buy the 1975s that never really shed their tannins...but he managed to unload them on some chump from Kentucky which enabled him to buy futures on the 1982s when they were first offered--at which point you lose consciousness and keel over face first into your dinner?
You do not want to end up like that guy. The people whom I know whose attachment to wine seems healthiest are those who never lose the joy of discovery that marks everyone's earliest encounters with the juice. They continue to explore new frontiers, tasting recent arrivals from New Zealand or Uruguay while keeping an eye on new stars on the rise in France or Italy. Although they continue to appreciate the classics from Bordeaux and Burgundy, they don't get into a rut of just tasting one type of wine. By hitting hot new producers and regions while they are still in the boost phase, they save a lot of money and taste great wine while staying ahead of the demand curve. They tend to describe themselves as wine lovers rather than collectors, and they are a lot of fun to speak with because, rather than engaging in tedious one-upsmanship, they can always give you a tip on something new and delicious.