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Drinking Out Loud

The Wine God Is in the Details

Caring about the fine points—not the score points—makes us look crazy. But we're not
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer faces the wine truths.

Matt Kramer
Posted: October 3, 2017

Long ago, I came up with the name and notion of “nutritional lies.” What are those, you ask? They are the sort of gentle, well-intentioned lies that, typically, parents tell their children, such as “You can be anything you want to be, if you work hard enough.”

Obviously, all adults know that life isn't quite so fair. But it's a nutritional lie when told to children because the harder, more nuanced truths of life will come to them eventually. And it's better, more nutritional, if they believe otherwise during their formative years. After all, there's nothing nutritive in feeding them a diet only of life's harder realities. You can't grow properly on that.

What's this got to do with wine? Plenty, actually. All of us who know something about wine were once “wine children” ourselves. And, of course, we know plenty of people who, unexposed to or uneducated about wine, are in their formative stage.

So, here you are, in wine parental mode. What are you going to tell them? That to get the really good, life-changing, sense-filling stuff they're going to have to read a surprising amount of (opinionated, often conflicting) words about wine? That they're going to have to taste—and spit—an equally surprising amount of the subject at hand?

If you told your “wine children” friends this undeniable truth about truly knowing wine, it takes little imagination to predict their reaction: Forget it.

So what do you do? Nutritional wine lies, that's what. If you like it, it's good. Cabernet Sauvignon is always reliable. More expensive wines are usually better than less expensive ones. Don't fuss about the “right” glass. A closet is as good as a cellar for storing your wines.

The list of nutritional wine lies is long and ever-growing. (Feel free to add your own examples.) Are they a bad thing? Not at all; they’re nutritional.

But sooner or later, you've got to tell the truth. And that truth is as diamond-hard as it is simple: the wine god is in the details. Everything about really knowing wine—and buying the best examples—requires a persistent, even passionate, attention to details: vintage, producer, winemakers' styles, varietal differences, even the location of a producer's plot in a multi-owner vineyard.

You want to reliably buy high-performing Burgundies and not pay almost ferocious attention to details? Forget it. It ain't gonna happen. I mean, even if you get the high sign from Wine Spectator that one or another red or white Burgundy is a winner, you still have to hunt down that baby. And heaven help you if you forget or confuse the vintage. Or the specific vineyard (“It was Clos-something”). Or the exact name of the producer (if Volnay had its own phone book, half of the listings would be producers with the family name Clerget).

Really, it's no different with pretty much all of the world's great—or at least most interesting—wines. I mean, Oregon has more than 500 wineries. If each of them offers several named-vineyard Pinot Noirs—and what do you want to bet that the great majority of them do just that?—you're now looking not just at 500 wineries but actually thousands of wines. And that's just from sweet, modest, small-scale Oregon.

This is why all of us who love wine look so damned crazy to those around us who simply don't care as much.

But we're not crazy. Quite the opposite. We're wine adults. We know the hard realities of wine and we stoically, even passionately, accept them.

Those of us who are evangelical about wine—and that’s a goodly percentage of us, I believe—sooner or later come to recognize that we often, well, lie. Not only do we not want to discourage those new to wine (quite the opposite, of course), we want them to seek the beauty we know is just over the next hill if only they keep going.

But when, if ever, do we tell the truth? That the best wines take real work not just to discover, but to understand, to locate and to cellar. Because that's the nutritional truth.

But maybe this is something we really shouldn't ever say publicly? Are nutritional wine lies the better part of wine wisdom? Even after all these years of writing, drinking and evangelizing, I still haven't answered this question for myself. And you?

Richard Hotz
N.W. Suburban Chicago —  October 4, 2017 2:49pm ET
It occurred to me some time ago that a wine store's job is to sell wine which seems pretty obvious. What isn't so obvious is what that means. It means that when a wine makes the top 100 list another vintage of that same wine will be displayed prominently, perhaps with a "special price". I've even seen wine with the wrong review attributed to it. Once I got home with a case of wine which was not the reserve that I had asked for. Each of these are small mistakes but they are certainly not rare and I've never seen one that benefits the consumer.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  October 4, 2017 9:08pm ET
Matt,
Faced with this challenge I prefer to give newbies a sense of hope. I describe wine learning as an adventure, with disappointments and pleasant surprises, but one nonetheless worth pursuing. One can learn from any wine experience, good or bad. Let us not forget that people's tastes change with exposure. Wines that are delectable today become ordinary or tired a year from now and new wines come to fill their space in the favourites list.
How long have any of us stayed in love with a particular wine or even a particular wine maker? It is only after many years that we have confirmed favourites. In the mean while the adventure is certainly worth the time and effort.
Let us never forget that it's all about enjoyment and learning and any time the learning seems to be unattainable or too difficult, the enjoyment suffers.
Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  October 11, 2017 3:20pm ET
Wine Adults Houston really sounds condescending (and having read your columns for a really long time I know that's nowhere near your intent) but I completely agree with the message. We all evolve in our wine appreciation. This evolution mirrors and area of devotion. Pure baseball fans will always appreciate the player who does things that don't get reflected in the stats. Music fans will always recognize the difference between sophisticated and subtle pieces (whether in rock, jazz, country, classical or whatever) vs what seems to be the readily popular version.

It is rare when it can do both (RIP Walter Becker) and get away with it.

Thus my usual approach is to offer wines that can without comment and hope I have sufficiently corrupted people so they start noticing the difference.

Yes, I am one sneaky bastard. :-)

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