New Year’s Eve has long been my favorite holiday of the year, and a big reason for that is that the turn of the year is a great marker for reflection and changes of course--a process that extends through the whole month of January for me. Now, I would not presume to tell you how you should change your own life course, though perhaps you’d be open to a handful of suggestions for reflection regarding your approach to wine.
1) Chase rising stars, not established ones. The world of wine has become much more competitive than when I started writing about it professionally 20 years ago. Everyone who knows at least a little about global production will easily concede that point. However, not everyone seems as attentive as they might be to the fact that consumption has recently become more competitive as well.
A general broadening of wine appreciation and a particular spike in high-end buying in nations like China and India has produced inflationary effects on Big Ticket wines that are marvelous for those selling them and malevolent for those who are buying. Whether you are a novice seeking a first taste of a “First Growth” Bordeaux or an established collector trying to keep a “vertical” collection going, the time has come to get on the right side of the rise in competitiveness. Only time will tell whether buying wines from the Domaine de la Romanee Conti will pan out in a decade in investment terms, but it is already clear that such a purchase is indefensible in tasting terms.
Those who are willing to read and learn about rising producers (from all over the globe) will get much, much more for their wine-buying dollar in 2012 than those who buy on reputation. This has always been true to some extent, but it has never been so true as right now.
2) Don’t get carried away with wine paraphernalia. This point brings me close to pet peeve territory, so I’ll try not to rant. However, I’ve always thought it is weird that there’s a virtual sub-industry supplying wine “stuff” (ranging from bad neckties to magical maturation gizmos to tables made out of vine trunks) when the leading criticisms of wine in the broader culture is that it is expensive and overly complex.
Wine is certainly complex, and it can make for an expensive love affair, so keeping things as simple as possible makes sense, and spending one’s money on wine rather than wine junk makes sense too. The fact is, you do not need a wine cellar to enjoy wine, even at a pretty high level. Nor do you need fancy decanters, as old milk bottles work very nicely. Nor do you need aeration contraptions, as a 99¢ stainless funnel works perfectly for double-decanting between that milk bottle and the bottle you bought with the wine.
Of course, if you enjoy buying wine peripherals, you should go for it. Still, at the point when you think it might be a good idea to demonstrate your love of wine to the world by buying a $35 pair of Chardonnay Flip-Flops (which actually exist), it might be time for some personal stock-taking. And January is just the right time for that, you know.
3) …except for a few good glasses. Despite my minimalism when it comes to wine accoutrements, it really makes sense for everyone with any serious interest in wine to invest in a few fairly high-quality glasses. If you’ve been drinking good wine out of not-so-good glasses, this is the year for you to buy stemware that will do justice to your wines.
A glass that is sufficiently large and well shaped will enhance your wines’ aromas, and some good designs will do this in a very versatile way so that you don’t need to buy a whole slew of different glasses. Moreover, a thin glass without a rolled lip will deliver the wine to your palate in a notably more pleasing way than a thick restaurant-style glass, which is really built for durability and not for wine appreciation. A well balanced glass feels much better in one’s hand than an imbalanced one, and though I grant that we’re talking about a pretty subtle pleasure here, good glasses really are a pleasure to handle for anyone who takes pleasure in wine. Finally, there are fairly thin glasses that are durable enough to have a fighting chance if tipped over on a countertop, so reasonably careful consumers can enjoy them for a fairly long time before needing to replace them. (Washing them in the morning is a prudent way to prolong their lifespan, by the way.)
High quality glasses need not be expensive. A terrific choice for cost-conscious consumers is the Spiegelau “Vino Grande” Red Wine/Water Goblet, which can be purchased online for under $10 per stem with free shipping on a set of six glasses. I use this glass almost every day for critical tasting of both red and white wines, and it is actually a little better for whites than reds--despite its name. The great thing about this product is that it works so well for both whites and reds that you really only need this one glass, which is great for convenience and simplicity as well as economy. The only apparent aspect differentiating it from a much more expensive glass is a barely-perceptible seam running down the stem, but this is a non-issue for anyone who isn’t ultra-picky.
At higher prices, the Riedel Vinum series glasses are very good and are widely available. The Chardonnay and Bordeaux glasses in that line make a fine pair, and these two will fulfill your needs for almost any wine, so don’t let anybody tell you that you just must have the Syrah/Shiraz glass (or anything else in the product line except maybe a sparkling glass) if you’re to do justice to those wines. At roughly this same price level, the Eisch “Sensis” glasses are even better in my opinion, and the best combo is the Chardonnay glass plus the Red Wine Glass--as opposed to the Bordeaux or Burgundy models.
If you really want to try a high-end glass to see if you’ve been missing much with the glasses you’ve got, some excellent choices would be the glasses in Riedel’s “Sommelier” series or Eisch’s “Superior” or “Jeunesse” lines. These are all mouth-blown, and among the thinnest and most exquisitely shaped and balanced glasses available. But be careful, because these can be dangerous in two senses: They are very easy to break, and also very easy to love; there’s a real chance that you’ll never be the same afterward, like someone who has a peak experience driving a Porsche on the Autobahn but then hates his own car for the rest of his life.
An important note to close this point: I’ve recently discovered a terrific option for a high performance glass that isn’t a high priced glass, namely, Ravenscroft’s “Invisibles” line. The manufacturer sent me a sample a couple of years ago, and after trying it once and finding it disconcertingly light in my hand, I stuck it in a cabinet and forgot about it. However, I picked up the Bordeaux/Cabernet glass once again by chance six months ago, and now I find that it’s the only glass that I want when reviewing a bunch of fairly big red wines. The “Invisibles” name is very well chosen, as the glass is almost impossibly light and actually seems to “disappear” in the sense that the combined weight of the wine and the vessel is really no greater than the simple weight of the wine. Extremely thin and very well shaped, this glass uncanny it performance and price, and when seeing it online for as little as $10 per stem, I bought a set of four while writing this column.
4) Learn on the spot in 2012. If you’re someone who would read a specialized wine website--which you clearly are--then you’re someone who would really benefit from walking through a winery and vineyard with a winemaker or a viticulturalist. If you’ve never done this before, make this be the year.
Your appreciation of any wine will be enhanced immeasurably by seeing how its character was informed by the characters of those who conjured it from the earth and crafted it in the cellar.
Great wine is a personal statement, and there’s no way to fully appreciate this aspect of it without hearing a winemaker state his or her stylistic intentions. And though it is true that wine is a personal statement, it is also--uniquely--a beverage of place, deriving its nuances from the lay of the land, the savor of the soil, and the character of the climate.
Painters and photographers know that sunlight differs everywhere across the world. Grapevines know this too, and they translate it into subtlety where the sun is stingy and dramatic ripeness where the sun is searing. To see and taste in the same place is to understand this.
But wait, you say, no winemaker or viticulturalist is going to take time to talk with me. My only option as a consumer is to talk with whomever happens to be tending bar in a winery’s tasting room, right?
Wrong! If you make the effort to arrange an appointment for a personal walk through a wine estate, and if you are willing to take a few “no” answers before getting a “yes,” you will succeed. Nothing is clearer to me after writing about wine for 20 years than the fact that almost everyone working in wine production loves what they do--and loves to explain it to genuinely interested wine lovers, whether or not they’re part of the trade.
Indeed, if it weren’t the case that winemakers and viticulturalists were exceptionally generous with their time and ideas, I’d never have learned enough to start writing about wine in the first place. Today, I’ve made more than 1,000 site visits to wineries all over the world, and I still find it so informative that I continue visiting whenever I can--as I’ll be doing in Italy next month. I believe that each of my colleagues on Wine Review Online would back me up on this: If you really want to understand any wine--or wine in general--you really need to get your feet wet in a winery and dirty in a vineyard.
Although you don’t need to be a member of the trade to get walked through a winery, your odds of an affirmative answer to your requests will be aided immeasurably if your ask a trade member to make the request on your behalf. If you’re headed overseas, tell the consultant in your wine shop where you’re going and ask for help in making an appointment. He or she will likely know someone from a distributor or importer who can get the request to the producer. Make things easy for everyone (and avoid the need for lots of back-and-forth communication) by specifying a date and time in the request.
If you’ll be going to regions like Napa or Sonoma where wine tourism is a big deal, you’ll quite possibly be nudged to join a regularly scheduled tour with a bunch of others. That might be fine, but if you really want to be able to pick the brain of a winemaker in one of these regions, you’ll need to ask for something aside from the standard-issue tour. Get a group of four or six together if you want to better your odds. If you get turned down a few times, don’t give up…you will succeed, and it will be worth the effort.
5) Be generous with your wine. Perhaps you’ve heard somebody say that opening excellent wine for guests who aren’t big wine lovers is like casting pearls before swine. I’ve heard this many times over the years, and the more that I think about it, the more deeply do I believe it is wrong.
Granted, it isn’t always easy to take the irrevocable step of cracking into a special wine. And granted, it is a little easier to do this when the others who will be drinking it are experienced tasters who are likely to appreciate it fully.
But consider this, which would be the more fulfilling outcome: To share that wine with someone who appreciates it because he or she’s tasted lots of other special wines, or to spark a brand new wine romance for someone who has never experienced a taste of real excellence?
Of course, there will be times when you’ll pour the special wine for a novice who won’t get it. And thinking about this realistically, sparks will fail to fly more times than not. But wouldn’t the satisfaction derived from pouring an epiphany for someone make it worthwhile to keep trying? Besides, don’t you owe some portion of your own love of wine to generous souls who poured great wines for you--rather than dismissing you as a pig unworthy of their pearls?
If there’s such a thing as good wine karma, you’ll certainly be putting yourself in line for some of it by being generous in 2012.
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Questions? Comments? Other points to add to this list? Write to me at email@example.com