Wine & Food Advisory
from the Melting Pot of the Pacific
2003: Just like Tom Thumb's wines
© Randal Caparoso
I started out on Burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff. Not really. But that line from Bob Dylan always sounded great to me.
As it were, after over 25 years in the wine business, wines made from Pinot Noir – the red grape of Burgundy – remain my favorites. There are dozens of important wine grapes, but my choice isn't difficult. My most memorable meals involved intensely scented wines made from this grape. I guess you can say that if there's one thing I've learned about fine wine over the years, it's that for me bigger is not better. I prefer a light and delicate Pinot Noir over a big and muscular Cabernet Sauvignon.
Burgundy is a place in France. But when I penned my first story for The Honolulu Advertiser in 1981, the Burgundy familiar to most Americans was the cheap, easy, and at best inoffensive red colored stuff bottled in "jugs" by producers like Ernest & Julio Gallo, Paul Masson, Almaden, and the like. To the eternal horror of the French, California made Burgundy almost never contained a drop of actual Pinot Noir.
Chilled wine was especially hot at the start of the 1980s, but it was mostly bottled as jug Chablis and "Vin Rose." Like many things we buy (especially today), the packaging was probably more expensive to produce than the wine itself. Bigger was not better in those days either.
Today, however, wine in general is bigger and better than ever before. Wine snobs may hold their noses up at the mass production Chardonnays, White Zinfandels, Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots in the stores today, but just about every bit of it is a lot better tasting than the Burgundy, Chablis and Rose we drank 25 years ago. Heck, even today's wines-in-the-box are better. In fact, there is currently such an overproduction of great tasting wine that you can find perfectly delicious bottles for as low as $4, $5, $6 – practically the same prices as 25 years ago. Drink up, America.
But wine is still a big mystery for most of us Americans. For years, for instance, Europeans had us convinced that wine quality is so inextricably tied to the specific soils of vineyard sites located in (naturally) Europe, it was commonly thought that great wine can't possibly be made in places like the U.S., South America, or Australia. Now we know better: quality of soil is overrated, and great wine can be produced anywhere given decent growing conditions and basic wherewithal.
What I find amazing, after all these years, is how the old myths die hard even among the professionals or "experts" in the business. A good one is the cult of the "wine writer" – the thinking that just because someone tastes a lot of wine and happens to be able to put words together on a page, that person must know better than the ordinary consumer about wine quality. I've known, and tasted wine alongside, tons of such writers, and more than a few times have come away with the impression that that person couldn't tell a good (or bad) wine if it slapped him (or her) broadside across the face.
So whenever you read a read a review of a wine, keep this in mind: it's nothing more than a reflection of one person's taste (and a suspect one at that), which may or may not coincide with yours. Take reviews as suggestions or guides, but ultimately the only taste you can trust is your own.
What else have I learned from 25 years on the job, picking wine that hopefully people will like? The results of wine judgings (usually gold, silver, bronze or platinum medals) are nothing more than decisions, usually arrived after considerable compromise, made by panels of people whose tastes (again) may or may not coincide with yours. This is why the various wine judgings across the country vary so much. Given the exact same wines, the chances of any one group of experts choosing the same "winners" as another group is extremely low. In fact, I would say negligible.
Although nowadays I'm busy putting out wines (of some peculiarity because they appeal to me!) under my own name, most of my time has been spent either working in restaurants or dining in hundreds of them across the country. Here's one thing I've learned about sommeliers in general: they may know a lot about wine, but they know next to nothing about what you like. I know this because I've been served a lot of wine that came highly recommended, but which I've thought of as being either awful, overpriced, or both. There have been many exceptions, of course, but only when I've been specific about what I like, and (especially) what I'd like to pay. So the next time you dine in a restaurant that boasts a sommelier, by all means seek professional counsel. Just remember that sommeliers are like you - they have their own taste, and they can't really help you unless you give them an idea of yours.
I'm not exactly sure how he put it, but I think it was the late Andre Simon who said that we all have good taste, but not necessarily the same taste. Think of it as like music or art; or food, since wine is like a food. Not all of us like broccoli, just as not all of us like Dali or Dylan, Puccini or Pollock. We know what's supposed to be "good" for us, or what the experts tell us is good; but choosing one or the other is a personal prerogative.
Yet because wine is still such a mystery, we live in a world where not just consumers, but also many professionals in the retail, restaurant as well as wine production industry, are practically shackled by just a few influential writers of books and magazines, as if their tastes have more value than others'. This is why many average or even awful wines are being sold for hundreds of dollars; and many wonderful, but largely ignored, wines are being sold for a pittance. Take it from me: price has less to do with the quality of fine wine than factors such as scarcity and hype.
Nothing better exemplifies this ludicrous state of affairs than the preoccupation of writers' "scores" in the merchandising of fine wines. Do you decide to buy Dylan as opposed to, say, Eminem on the basis of some music reviewer's scores? Do you pick Puccini over Bizet and Verdi because he gets rates a "95" as opposed to a "92" or "90?" Hey, I love Dylan, but he recently won a Grammy for an album I find utterly boring. Simply put, the vast majority of us do not form our predilections by scores or awards when it comes to the arts or foods, so why do we impose this on ourselves when it comes to wine?
Beats me. But I know how you can beat this. When you taste wine, pay attention to the amount of pleasurable sensations – like good, good vibrations - you get. If you like it, buy it again, or go back to the store (or scour reading material) for wines that fall into a similar vein. You should always do the latter because variety is the spice of life. Besides, there's always something better out there; and the only real constant about personal taste is that it changes.
The bottom line is if you like light and smooth, it should be as light and smooth as possible. If you like big and rough, it should be as big and rough as possible. White, red, sweet, dry, tart, soft, cherries, berries, apples, peaches, pumpkin pie – no matter what taste sensations you like, don't ever let someone else convince you that you're wrong. There are enough things in our lives that we're forced to live with, but pleasures of the sense and intellect – which fine wine definitely fulfills – are things that we determine for ourselves.
As for me, I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough. Enjoy your wine ... enjoy your life!
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