James Wise provides the 47th published entry into our wine writing competition.
Occupation: Solicitor, corporate law.
While I am an enthusiastic wine lover, I am an entirely amateur one. My interest in wine started at university, but really took off when my now wife and I moved into our own home. Not only did we have (some) space for storing, and hence collecting, wine, but we had grown up and come to learn the value of a well-spent quiet night in. Wine is so often discussed in terms of the food it pairs with, but I know of no better accompaniment for a nice wine than an evening in a comfortable home with a loved one.
Whenever I can, I like to write and from time to time I will try my hand at short stories. Writing these articles was such a joy; I only hope that they are half as much fun to read.
BEING HAPPY OR BEING RIGHT
I had the extreme good fortune to get engaged on a holiday that included a trip to Disney World. One memory from that trip is of me and my now wife walking around the Magic Kingdom, advertising our betrothal by wearing 'Happily Ever After' badges. At a pizza stall, a vendor noticed our badges and said, 'I want to ask you one question that will determine the fate of your marriage.'
All very serious, but we were in a good mood so played along. He looked me square in the eye – apparently this only applied to husbands-to-be – and said, 'Do you prefer to be happy or right?'
Disney staff not being renowned as dispensers of marital advice, I laughed and filed that one away for safe-keeping. Turns out, it's useful in marriage, and not entirely irrelevant to wine, either.
Let me explain.
Shortly before Christmas, I got pulled in to a wine conversation with a colleague. An occasional wine drinker in the process of being bitten by the bug, he had recently signed up to Naked Wines. It was a nice chat – adding some wine to the work day is always welcome. One part of it stuck with me, though: a statement he made to the effect that 'I like powerful wines, so I tend to go for the Pinot Noirs'.
That got me thinking, because it is not a statement that I would generally regard as 'right'. I won't say here that Pinot can never be powerful but I doubt very much that many sommeliers would steer a customer asking for powerful wine to the red burgundy pages. I also doubt very much that, if one kept returning to Pinot Noirs from the selected supermarket shelves (or online retailers), one would often, let alone consistently, get wines that readers of this article would describe as powerful.
I thought a lot about how both aspects of my colleague's statement can be true. Clearly, he likes drinking Pinot Noir, otherwise he wouldn't keep buying it. Pleasure is being delivered from those bottles. But is that because they are powerful to him? And, if so, why is that? How would he react, for example, if he were to try the old-vine Zinfandel I picked up on the aforementioned holiday, enticingly named Earthquake?
My hunch is that he thinks he likes powerful wines because he thinks that is what he should like, and that he has subconsciously worked back from the (established) fact that he enjoys Pinot Noir to the (assumed) fact that they are powerful. But, that explanation also feels slightly condescending – who am I to speak for his taste buds?
I have seen the other side of this, too. My wife – by no means a wine rookie and very good, I might add, at allowing me to be both right and happy – has only one failing. To her, Pinot Noir is 'too watery'. I think the criticism is unjustified, but it at least feels more 'right' than describing Pinot Noir as powerful.
My Father is no lover of wine, so says him and most of my family. But it is often not true. I know no more consistent drinker of sweet wines. It has become common, at Christmas, to buy Dad his own bottle of sticky wine to get him through the whole meal – perhaps not entirely unreasonable for a meal that can, itself, be quite sticky, but he is also the only person I have ever seen add mustard to spaghetti Bolognese and pair that with Monbazillac. Oft-quoted, by way of an explanation, including by Dad himself, is that he has a 'sweet tooth'. But I wonder if that is the full story; after all, this is a man whose favourite food is Twiglets.
All of this makes me ponder what might lie behind that famous refrain, 'I don't know much about wine, but I know what I like.' Do we, really? I agree that we know when we enjoy something, but how often do we actually get the why of it right? How often might views or assumptions about what we like formed long ago by processes unknown have an impact on our genuine assessment of the wines in front of us?
Now, I am not overly bothered about this where we are talking about casual wine drinkers, or those new to the hobby. My colleague will probably find out, as his wine knowledge develops, that Pinot Noir is commonly regarded as the opposite of powerful, and his assumption may well fade. Although, as an aside, I would be prepared to bet that he will always have a disposition towards that grape. My wife's view on watery-ness doesn't, in truth, stop her drinking or enjoying Pinot Noir, it just stops her loving it. I live in hope that a magic bottle could turn her around, and that hope, although perhaps distant, doesn't strike me as inherently unreasonable.
But, what about the more committed among us? What about those of us who identify as wine-lovers and whose protests might be just a little too bashful, a little too much, when described by a colleague or friend as an 'expert'? We want to enjoy our wine and be right about it, too. Our preconceptions may not be as stark, but who is to say that we don't all have some nonetheless? They would be more nuanced and subtle, but perhaps they would also be all the more dangerous for being so.
Where does that leave us? Well, we can erect some simple defences. When something really important is at play, taste blind, if you can. Watch out for warning signals, in particular categorical opinions (can a grape really always be anything?). Actively seek variety, test and re-test your palate on grapes and regions that you haven't yet learnt to love. If you want to get serious about wine, it is important to do these things.
There is a lot of hard work there, though, and a part of me says that is inimical to why I drink – and why I love – wine. Ultimately, I drink for pleasure, and if you don't, too, then you should. Of course there are times when I want to be accurate, when the critical, or perhaps educational, aspect of wine drinking is paramount, and I work on those skills whenever I can. But sometimes I just want wine to make me happy, and when I do I'm not sure I mind that much if I'm also a little bit wrong in the process.
PLEASURE, LITTLE TREASURE
Much to the satisfaction of London's wine merchants, I have a job that occasionally pays out a bonus. I say the satisfaction is theirs rather than mine, because that bonus money barely touches my fingers before it ends up in their tills, exchanged for mature bottles of the kind of wine that it is just not an option for me to buy otherwise.
Now, each of us has that line in the sand, that price point at which we say, 'No, only in exceptional circumstances'. Partly, of course, that is a function of our income, but not entirely; it also reflects the other priorities in our life – I am continually forced to pass on the magic new putter that would certainly fix my golf game – for example. Your line may well be nowhere near mine. As a general rule of thumb, I would estimate a person's tipping point to be around ten times the maximum cost they would generally spend on a weekend bottle. Day-to-day, or weekend-to-weekend, I tend to operate in the £8 to £20 range. So, we're looking at circa £80 to £200, and we're talking special bottles not special cases.
To give you the context, examples over recent years include: 1996 Ch d'Yquem, 2008 Tignanello, 2003 Dom Pérignon, 1996 Les Forts de Latour, Krug NV, 2003 Cos d'Estournel.
Where I can, I will try to taste these wines in a way that gives me and my fellow taster(s) a chance to assess their true quality. For example, by tasting blind (tricky for me, but easy to arrange for co-drinkers), or drinking alongside cheaper comparators, or both. This can produce strange results, the most striking being 'd'Estournel Night', when, after a blind comparative tasting, my wife's preference went to a ubiquitously available Cabernet from a well-known Australian mega-producer. I will spare everybody's blushes by not naming the wine, but suffice to say it cost considerably less than the d'Estournel.
A more understandable, but still surprising, example occurred on 'd'Yquem Night', where a large group of us also tasted the 2006 Ch Climens. That was not a perfect test, of course, and you might well expect the outcome to be close. My point, for now, is just that there is a significant gap in the relative prices. As a group, we preferred the Climens. We might, at a stretch, have conceded that the d'Yquem was more 'interesting' and there wasn't much in it overall, but as pure delivery agent for sensual pleasure, the Climens – on that night at least – won.
On another night, the 2003 Dom Perignon lost out to a non-vintage Bollinger.
Now, there are myriad possible explanations for this: bottle variation, vintage, storage conditions, glassware, etc. I accept all of those, what I am really interested in is a common reaction I have observed, primarily, but not exclusively, among the less experienced wine drinkers, to not preferring the 'right' wine. That reaction typically goes something like this, 'Well, that's a bit sophisticated for me', or 'It's wasted on me, I'm no expert'. As a simple example, instead of being pleased by all the money she would save by preferring her Australian red, my wife was embarrassed not to have picked out the Cos d'Estournel.
Behind this way of thinking is, I believe, an undue deference to the more expensive wine and a misunderstanding of what wine drinking (and hence wine buying) is really about. Every bottle of wine, from the d'Yquem down, is made for one purpose: to deliver pleasure to a drinker. No more, no less. The true assessment of the value of the wine is how much pleasure it brings you when you drink it. Only you can experience that pleasure, only you can judge it and it is not possible for you to get that judgement wrong. There is no 'right' way to be satisfied by a wine; you like the wine that gives you the most pleasure and if you don't you are doing it wrong.
Incidentally, critical scores can help you identify which are likely to be your high-pleasure wines but no one should be beholden to them. My view of critical scores – rightly or wrongly – is that they should be used as an indicator of the 'quality' of a given wine in the sense of how it stacks up against a number of notionally objective criteria (including the balance of alcohol, sugar, acid, fruit and tannin; regional and varietal typicality, length of finish and so on). But there is no law that says that you have to get the most pleasure from wines that score highly in this way. Indeed, you're likely to be happier, and wealthier, if you don't. Quality is not necessarily pleasure, and it is okay to have different tastes from those of a critic. With that in mind, one commitment I made early in my wine education was always to read the tasting note before the score, if possible. I recently saw a highly scored burgundy described as having 'strong farmyard flavours'; that's all well and good, and it is certainly not inconsistent with a wine being of high quality, but I doubt those farmyard flavours are going to sing on my personal palate.
Price, of course, is an imperfect indicator of anything because of the extraneous factors it captures. Yours would be an atypical palate if it derived pleasure from the simple fact that a wine is scarce, for example. It would be a downright peculiar one if it could taste the value of marketing costs.
You might say that, on the logic of this article, there is no such thing as a great wine. That is not my position. Of the wines I listed earlier, many are great wines, in my opinion and the opinion of many others. I am merely saying that greatness, perhaps better identified as extreme quality, is not necessarily the same as pleasure (and, in passing, that price is not the same as any of them). Quality is a pseudo-objective standard, pleasure is a purely subjective and no one is insufficiently expert to judge their own pleasure.
There are many reasons to value wines of quality: for some palates, in particular ones that have been through formal wine training, quality will often equate directly to pleasure. For others, the intellectual satisfaction of tasting quality produces its own, separate pleasure. But ultimately we're all in this game for the same reason, and no one should ever be ashamed by the wines that give them pleasure, or those that don't.