Nonsense. Romance is the essence of wine.
Great wine by its nature is mysterious, unpredictable and perhaps ultimately unknowable. We understand a lot about it, and yet so much is unresolved. How does a wine express a sense of place, subject to minute differences of terroir? How does it evolve and become complex with time? I embrace these and many other uncertainties, which requires me to give up the illusion of omniscient expertise that is so often conferred to wine writers. Consider the sorts of questions that may arrive in one day’s inbox:
1. “I just bought a case of 2010 Barolo. How long until they reach their peak?”
2. “I recently inherited a bottle of 1982 Château Figeac. When should I drink it?”
3. “Give me a $15 bottle that’s good with spicy food.”
I love to hear from readers, and to respond to them. But these are not questions that can be answered with full assurance. So I offer educated guesses.
1. “Wait 10 years, open a bottle and see what you think. That’s what I would do because I like Barolo with some age. I might wait 20 years, though I already see people drinking 2010s in restaurants.”
2. “You could open it tonight, next week, in a year or in five years. Nobody can predict what sort of shape one bottle will be in after 30-plus years, though theoretically an excellent St.-Émilion from a terrific vintage should be superb now.”
3. “What kind of spicy food? Maybe a good bottle of spätlese riesling, though it might be more than $15. Sherry? Hard cider?”
Almost every aspect of wine raises questions, which can only be answered with more questions or best guesses. When should I decant a wine? Is 2007 a good vintage? What sort of glass must I use for my chardonnay?
You do not hear questions like these about soft drinks, or beer. Good wine, more than any other beverage, puts us off balance because it refuses to behave entirely predictably. But with wine, just as in politics, uncertainty and complexity don’t play for a mass audience. So the wine trade deals with this in two primary ways.
First is an effort to eliminate the unpredictability in the wine itself. The wine industry has the technology and the know-how today to control almost every aspect of production. Start with the vineyard: Even though good chardonnay and pinot noir, for example, require a cool, marginal climate and particular soils to achieve the beautiful characteristics that have bewitched generations of wine drinkers, the quality and quantity of the wine will be different every year. So, trade a marginal, labor-intensive area like the Sonoma Coast for the easy, predictable Central Valley, and companies can make vast quantities of wine that will largely be the same year after year, and cheap to boot.
He quotes one of the proprietors, Koerner Rombauer III, as saying, “Our idea was: Why shouldn’t we make a wine that people love rather than making a wine we love and trying to sell it?”
This makes great business sense. You discover a style that people like and strive to recreate it consistently vintage after vintage. It’s not easy, and it takes great skills. Craft brewers, for example, marvel at how Budweiser achieves such uniformity in its beer at such a high volume.
But to my romantic mind, this is not what I am looking for in a wine. A great wine, to me, is alive to the nuances of the environment and the vintage. It may show consistency in that the grapes come from the same plot of earth each year, and are subject to a producer’s steady philosophy. But the wine itself will not be predictable. I find joy in a wine’s efforts to express itself and its place of origin. It’s like a live musical performance: Do you want a note-for-note rendition of a recorded piece? Or do you want to see where a band’s unfettered inspiration takes it, for better or worse? I know what I prefer.
The second way the wine trade deals with unpredictability is in the discussion that follows production. Wine authorities publish their scores and tasting notes, offering educated guesses about the profile and longevity of a wine under the guise of certainty. They tell you how to stock a good wine cellar, which wine to drink with any particular dish, 10 bottles to memorize so you are never embarrassed with a wine list, 10 phrases to master so you will always appear to be educated about wine. Books purport to “demystify” wine.
It’s all driven by a fear of making mistakes. But we should encourage mistakes; that’s how we learn. I’m with the wine importer Terry Theise, who, in his excellent book, “Reading Between the Wines,” called for “remystifying wine.”
By embracing wine’s mysteries, I don’t mean that we should not seek to understand it in all its aspects. The science of wine is fascinating and should not be ignored. No astrophysicist ever lost the sense of wonder that comes from staring at a starry night.
How do grapevines interact with the soil in which they’re planted? How does irrigation affect vines? Does it matter whether grape juice is fermented with indigenous yeast found on the grapes and in the winery? Or can commercial yeast be just as good? What are the choices that producers face in viticulture and winemaking, and what are the consequences of their decisions? How do we experience, physiologically and psychologically, as we drink it? The second edition of Jamie Goode’s book “The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass,” is an excellent companion to Mr. Theise’s book.