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Drinking Out Loud

Are You a Wine Obsessive?

And if you are, does it really matter?

Matt Kramer
Posted: November 5, 2013

"You don't display obsession, you see, not true obsession. You learn to hide it. You recognize the expression of indifference or incomprehension that creeps into the eyes of the listener. You learn the art of self-deprecation, the art of crypsis, the art of blending, mouselike, into the background. But beneath your bland and neutral exterior, you create confections of fantasy."
Mendel's Dwarf, Simon Mawer

British novelist Simon Mawer put his finger on obsession perfectly: "You create confections of fantasy." Do you have obsessive tendencies? Is your wine-loving a little, well, kinkier than other, seemingly more normal sorts?

Let me put it another way: I've never met a Burgundy lover who wasn't at least a little bit obsessive. I'd even go so far as to include a good number of Pinot Noir fanciers in that same pick-pick-pick category.

I found myself thinking about this during the three-day wine spree more properly called the Wine Spectator Wine Experience, which completed its 33rd annual triumph late last month.

You'd think that by now it would be ho-hum. Not at all. Quite the opposite, really. You could barely make your way through the aisles on the two Grand Tasting nights, where wine lovers jostled to taste a pretty star-spangled array of wines. The seminars were standing-room only.

Were they all obsessives? I doubt it. I think that many of the participants—most even—were normal sorts who happen to love wine a lot. But I couldn't help but wonder about what might be called "the rest of us."

I freely admit that I have, ahem, tendencies. Hell, I wrote a whole book about Burgundy that included, I kid you not, page upon page of lists of the individual ownerships, taken to the fourth decimal place, of nearly all the grands and premiers crus of the Côte d'Or. That alone would be sufficient evidence to get me locked up for an observation period, if not considerably longer.

But there's much more to what might be called everyday wine obsession. For example, when you look at a wine list in a restaurant do you find yourself cross-referencing wines not merely by price or vintage (which I think everyone would agree is "normal") but by a self-defined notion of rarity, even eccentricity?

When I'm in New York I am a habitué of Gramercy Tavern. For me it's a perfect restaurant, winning the trifecta of food I enjoy, impeccable, welcoming service and a fabulous—and reasonably priced—wine list that is constantly invigorated by Gramercy Tavern's longtime wine director, Juliette Pope.

I like her list because, however briefly, it makes me feel I'm-not-alone normal. I mean, how nutty could I be when Gramercy Tavern offers the likes of a Teroldego from New York's Finger Lakes region?

But wine obsession goes way beyond a lust, a need even, for esoterica. It's when you can't get something out of your head. This is when you know you're obsessive.

Recently, I received an e-mail asking me—I'm not making this up—if I knew of any producer that makes a premier cru white Auxey-Duresses that's not vineyard-designated. Talk about obsessive. (The only example I could name is Domaine Alain et Vincent Creusefond.)

One of the giveaways to wine obsessives is that they take up causes. Typically it's an underdog thing, such as the glories of Amador County Zinfandel. Or South African Pinotage. Lately, we're seeing a sanatorium-size bunch of obsessives going on and on and on about the wonders of Sherry.

I know about this sort of thing. It's yet another form of obsession, the wine version of not being able to get a tune out of your head. The Germans call this an ohrwurm, or earworm. At least one academic, professor James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati, has achieved widespread attention for studying this I-can't-get-that-tune-out-of-my-head problem.

Professor Kellaris reports that, among other things, people who are constantly exposed to music suffer these obsessional "earworms" more frequently than others. Rather disturbingly, he notes that there also may be a connection to a person’s level of neurosis. Substitute "wine" for "music" and the picture comes right into focus.

So let me ask you: Are you a wine obsessive? Can't get that "wine tune" out of your head? Do you obsess about, say, corked wines? (Full disclosure: My wife insists that I've got "corked" on the brain. I say that I'm fully sane and that I just happen to be highly sensitive to TCA, the substance that creates the musty, wet cardboard odor commonly called corkiness.)

Do you find yourself rocking like Rain Man in your office chair repetitively thinking about Barolo and Barbaresco? Or about the differences among grower Champagnes? Or trying to remember how many bottles of Paso Robles Syrah you have in your cellar—and whether you should look for more?

Got a wine earworm? Let us know. You're among friends—and, very likely, fellow obsessives.

Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI USA —  November 5, 2013 12:45pm ET
Guilty on the Paso Robles syrah syndrome count. I have given up on thinking that I have any control over my predilection.
Michael J Moses
Allamuchy, NJ —  November 5, 2013 12:53pm ET
I am guilty as charged. I am currently obsessing over older vintages of Napa merlot. My friend gave me a bottle of 1996 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley Merlot. I wasn't sure of the provenance of the bottle and to whether it had the stuff to age for a decade or more but was blown away at how well structured and vibrant the wine was. I had never really given much thought to how well a Napa merlot could age as most people think of cabernet or cab based blends as the ones with longer term potential.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  November 5, 2013 1:56pm ET
I have you all beat....I obsessed about wine so much that I now run a 60 member wine making co-op out of my garage (where cars are no longer parked) making 100-125 cases of wine per year from all over N Cal (frequently doing different grapes and different regions every year). And, taking my cue from Tom Sawyer, I get my co-op members to pay for my wine habit!
Sciences Po Millesimes
Paris, France —  November 7, 2013 8:22am ET
As usual, a great piece by Matt Kramer.
I'm only 29, but think I might have the compulsive bug already.

One element that was not highlighted in the article is the importance of having a very good memory, a key element in pushing the frontiers of wine obsessiveness.

If asked what wines were served for dinner at an event that took place, say, 2 years ago, wine geeks can usually easily come up with the right producers, cuvées and vintages most of the time. Normal people are often amazed by that, where as wine obsessed people find it normal.

I find it important to be able to play the 2 parts though: be an obsessed wine geek when amongst people that share the same genome, but try to stay approachable when hanging out with normal folks. I think you'll even get a super hero feel for being able to quickly adapt from one to another.

Best regards from Champagne,

Philippe-Alexandre BERNATCHEZ
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  November 11, 2013 11:46am ET
Nice viewpoint.
My obsession is not being able to turn away from a high point (WS), low cost wine. However, I have been know to go after the WS Top 10 WOTY wines no matter what the cost.
Daniel Bleier
Austin, TX, USA —  December 4, 2013 11:25am ET
My obsession includes tracking and cataloging . I track all of my wine/scores/tasting notes in an simple excel database and on Cellar Tracker. This is was a critical transition from the obsession of my youth, tracking and rating 1,000's of music CD's and tracks.

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