There are no teeter-totters on the playgrounds of today. Teaching children the usefulness of a practical grasp on physics is no longer considered appropriate or necessary (or safe). But since I spent my last blog pretending to know anything about Economics, why not shill out a few thoughts on physics here. Kidding! Rather, let’s get even more ridiculous and talk about balance. Balance in the context of wine; Absurdity.
I’m going to make a general assumption that a wine drinking audience will know that a reference to balance in the context of wine is a reference to the structural makeup of the wine. The sweetness/dryness, tannin, alcohol, and acidity should all come together to form one cohesive swallow-able unit. So if the concept of balance is so simple, what’s all the fuss about? For more than a few years now the topic of balanced wine, with a focus on the Pinot Noir varietal in particular, has been hotly debated and there seems to be a line drawn in the playground sand at around 14% alcohol by volume. Somehow, alcohol comes to the forefront of the debate and other elements of “structure” have been somewhat left in the dust as if they aren’t a part of the one cohesive swallow-able unit we call wine. I will venture to guess that this piece of information (%ABV) is one of the most accessible to the general consumer as it is required to be included on the label by the government whereas other technical information is not so readily available so it would take deeper research to form a critique on the particular wine you may be tasting.
All of this aside, what I am meaning to get to is that you don’t need any tools or tech sheets beyond your own palate to decide if you are pleased or displeased by any wine in particular. Could this information be helpful in making purchasing decisions? Yes. Would a tech sheet be more helpful to a consumer than a tasting note? Maybe, that depends on the consumer. Is the advice/opinion of a professional helpful in comparison to the information on a tech sheet or a tasting note? Possibly, that depends on the integrity of the professional. All at once, everybody whip out your trusty hand-held device (I’m talking smartphones here guys…) and begin a mad search for an answer to the previous three questions. Google: best way to choose a wine. Fail. That just turned up a bunch of editorial trash ranging from Men’s Fitness magazine to Marie Claire and they’re discussing the pictures on the labels. Google: how to choose wine at a restaurant. No, now we have GQ talking about prices on restaurant lists and that’s a WHOLE different argument. Google: best wines 2015. You’ve got big box retailers and major publications selling wine to you now.
Ok, smartphones down (unless you’re reading moi on that tiny screen). Stop making wine into a boring, empty, white space devoid of passion. I’m bad at physics. I failed calculus. Don’t take me into this torturous world of numbers and graphs when I just want recess to come so I can play on the teeter-totter with my glass of Pinot.
I will tell you that as a professional wine buyer I am one of the guiltiest parties in analyzing and breaking down wine while I taste it – especially if I’m tasting for trade purposes vs. tasting for pleasure. (Every taste should be for pleasure you say here…right?) There are two sides to me as a taster. Side A: In a split second, before you even know that your taste was poured, I have determined if the wine is “sound”. By sound I mean passable as a quality wine. If this is not the case, I have no place for this wine on my list (or in my mouth). Side B: This is where it gets more complicated and I make an assessment for varietal typicity, regional typicity, price-value relationship, and then a whole slew of passion evoking qualities…is there a sense of place? is the wine unique? does anything stand out? how is the palate weight? how is the finish? does the palate echo the nose or does it surprise me? was the surprise pleasant? would I drink more of this? is it cumbersome or relentless or ethereal or special or is it just Wine? Basically you could say that my Side A could fit on a tech sheet, my Side B could write a tasting note, and a combination of both would give you the more complete experience of “ask a professional”.
Here is the breakdown, and possibly some answers to the above questions. Wine is not about a pursuit of balance. Wine is not about tech. Wine is not about correctness (being ME and saying THAT is really difficult if you know me on a personal level). Wine is about People. People are about Relationships. Relationships are about Trust. Who will you ride the teeter-totter with? The playground bully that jumps off to leave you helplessly crashing to the ground on the other side…a fun-loving friend who might just tease that they will drop you…a partner in play who really wants to have a good time on the ups and downs? Throughout life you are sure to experience each of those rides many times over, even if safer playgrounds try to protect you from that, and you will be better for it.
If you ever find yourself talking with a wine pro that chooses wines only with their Side A, you might find yourself being bullied into making wine choices based on charts, graphs, and %ABV. You might also find yourself crashing from time to time when the numbers fail you. If you want to elevate yourself beyond the sandbox full of passable “Good” wines that have correctness on their tech sheets, you need to drink wine on another level. I will leave you with the Marcassin bon vivant John Wetlaufer’s thoughts on this topic:
I’ll only note that balance (of what is rarely stated) seems more like a necessary condition of useful or O.K. wines than it does a sufficient condition for what the great French enologist and teacher Emile Peynaud calls a “grand vin”, a great wine: “…a work of art, complex with personality, rich in sapid and aromatic substances, defying description and therefore the more fascinating to taste.”
John goes on to say that he intends to make wines that push the limits, reset the bar, and induce wonderment rather than wines that are just boring (balanced).
People like John (and Helen) and an army of other fine wine growers and fine wine makers out there are pursuing their craft out of curiosity and drive and passion and a love of the adventure that wine is. If they were in need of safety or surety they would not choose this path. People who make wine in pursuit of a number are not considering the purpose of art itself – to strike up a conversation, start a debate, inspire controversy. I won’t say damning things about people who make wine that way, but always consider your source and consider the use they intend for their product. To be consumed? Or to be treasured?
More Reads for your Wine Journey:
Loving Wine Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry -Mitch Frank on the Wine Spectator Blog
Subjective Theory of ValueWine -more from Moi at the tiffandsauce Blog
The Wrath of Grapes – Bruce Schoenfeld for NY Times Magazine
IPOB Manifesto – Raj Parr and Jasmine Hirsch on their pursuit of Balance
Palate Talent -Yours Truly at the tiffandsauce Blog