Thinking About Wine....


There's lots of wine in the world. In her recent guide to wine grapes, Jancis Robinson identified 1,368 different varieties. Multiply those by thousands of producers and you get more different wines than anyone can even fully grasp. In that regard, it helps a bit if you have an intellectual construct--a format--to organize your approach to thinking about and buying wine. Because, at the end of the day, it's about what you're going to buy and drink.

First, drink good wine. Sounds obvious, I know, but it bears discussion. There is a lot of good wine in the world, but there is also a LOT of bad wine. You can find good wine in the affordable category but it takes some thought and effort. And you can find bad wine in the luxury category. It's not the norm, but it's there and you need to guard against it.

I've found it helpful to organize my thinking--and my cellar--along these lines. I've identified three categories. There are what I call "Everyday Wines." These are the kind of wines that we'll pop open with dinner on an average Tuesday night. They're flavorful, well-made, food-friendly...and affordable. They won't have the depth and complexity of wines in higher categories. But just like some nights you want good background music, not a big production number, and some nights you want a good burger, not lobster, some nights you just want a nice, pleasant wine that doesn't clamor for attention. Examples I bought recently: some excellent chenin blanc from the Loire Valley that I got for $20. Some lovely Rioja crianza that was $25. Too much? How about an enjoyable beaujolais for $15? The point is, you'll want some everyday wines...to find good ones, approach them the same way you would choosing expensive wines. Do the research. Talk to knowledgeable people. And understand how much of your cellar you want to dedicate to them. For me, it's less than 10%. Even though we probably drink more of this than of the other categories, they're wines that don't normally improve with age, so I don't want too many of them just sitting around taking up space.

The second category is what I call "Saturday Night Wines." They aren't just for Saturday nights, but they are for times when you want an outstanding wine--a wine that may be a focal point or a partial focal point of the evening. You may not always plan the menu around them, but you'll give some thought to the pairing. You may drink one on a Tuesday night, but if you do there'll be a sense of "I deserve this!" And it really is a great way to spark up a crummy day. These wines are not inexpensive, but neither are they super-difficult to find. Top wine shops will have a number of them. A good Oregon pinot noir might be an example...or a good Napa cab. Many will improve with some age, so they warrant a higher percentage of your cellar.

And then there are "Special Occasion Wines." These are wines that really are special--that when you open, you're excited. I should point out that, despite the name, these wines are not only reserved for grand occasions. The movie Sideways had an important lesson. Miles, the main character, was asked why he'd never opened his 1961 Cheval Blanc. He said: "I guess there's never been an occasion special enough." The response: "You don't understand. Whenever you open a '61 Cheval Blanc, it is special." We should all actively seek opportunities to open special occasion wines. They're a celebration of life! But it should only be when you can and will give them the full attention they deserve. They tend to be expensive--but how expensive can vary widely.

I spend a fair amount of time reading and thinking about special occasion wines. And I broadly break them into three categories. The first are what we might call the Rolls-Royce wines (or that I might, uncharitably, call the "hey, look at me" wines). These babies are expensive! You know the names. Everyone knows the names--that's kind of the point. Chateau Petrus...Chateau Lafite Rothschild...Screaming Eagle and Harlan...Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. They aren't all that difficult to find. They won't be common in wine shops, but they'll be the features of most every major wine auction. At a Hart Davis Hart auction, you can pick up a case of each. Just bring a couple of hundred thousand dollars. And when you open one for your wine friends, everyone--from the novice to the expert--will say "Whoa! You've got that! Wow!" Which, again, is often the point.

If those are the Rolls-Royce wines, the next category might be the Porsches (or the wines of the experts). They're often expensive--but generally not so expensive that traffic stops when they pull up. The trick is, they're usually hard to find. Some have been called "unicorn wines" because seeing them is so rare. When you open one for your wine friends, the novices are likely to say "What's this?" But the wine lovers are likely to be absolutely giddy. A Ravenau from Chablis...a Thierry Allemand from Cornas...a Jacques Selosse from Champagne...a Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo or perhaps a Rhys Hillside pinot from California. An interesting anomaly helps prove the point. Restaurants assign a high markup to lower priced wines and more gentle markups to higher priced wines--they want to to encourage you to buy those higher priced wines because even with a lesser percent markup they'll yield a good profit. But not with these Porsche wines. If a restaurant has any, they get assigned a really high markup. Even the best restaurants will only be able to get a few bottles and they don't really want to sell them. They want to maintain them in their cellars to age and they want to keep the "cred" they get for having them on the wine list. As I said, the trick to these wines is finding them (other than at those inflated prices in top restaurants). Until recently, I'd have shrugged my shoulders. But in the next post, I'll highlight a recent discovery.

The third category is unique--it may or may not really be a sub-category of the one above, but it deserves its own discussion. We might call it "What the Cool Kids are Drinking." For example, one night a month in New York, a group of 15 or so of the top somms in the city meet after work and bring exciting new finds to share. Perhaps a chenin blanc from Sandlands (the personal project of Turley winemaker Tegan Passalacqua)...Coteaux Champenois (still white wine) from Jacques Lassaigne in Champagne...or chardonnay from Jean-François Ganevat in the Jura. What separates these wines is that you don't just need to know how to find them--you need to know about them in the first place. And it tends to be only the "Cool Kids"--serious somms and industry insiders and those that hang with them--who know. If you open a bottle of one of these for your friends, even the wine lovers may say "What the hell is this?" After they taste it, the novices may still be unconvinced--these are not mainstream wines--but the serious wine lovers will likely say "Ummm... this is really interesting!" I'm sure my examples are no longer current--if I know about them, the cool kids have moved on--but you get the point.

You only have so much money to spend on wine. And you only have so much space to store wine. It makes sense to organize your thinking to optimize both. I don't mean to suggest that the way I think about wine is the way you should--only that you should find an approach that makes sense for you. You want to look around your cellar--no matter how big or small--and have a hard time deciding what to choose because there are so many good choices, not because there's nothing there that really excites you.


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