One of the major ingredients of wine is time. Like gravity, it's unseen but strongly felt. Apart from Beaujolais Nouveau, there's almost no such thing as a brand-new wine. Even rosé gets half a year or more of age before being released to market. Obviously, more substantial wines see far more time than that.
Time plays yet another role. We change. None of us is the same taster today that we were even a year ago, never mind five or 10 years ago. The wine we thought spectacular when we first began tasting and drinking might today seem ho-hum. "What did I see in that?" is a not-infrequent refrain.
So it's worthwhile, I think, to look back on yourself as a wine taster, a wine thinker and—dare I say it?—even as a wine philosopher. That last category may sound awfully high-falutin' but, consciously or not, we all arrive at some sort of "philosophy" that informs how we choose what to buy and decide what we think is great.
So when you look back, what do you see? Having arrived at where you are now, what would you say to your younger wine-self?
For my part, I would suggest the following—partly because some of it is (I like to think) nearly universally true, and partly because it is true for what might be called my personal particular. Your choices will surely vary for precisely that same reason.
There's always another vintage. When you're first starting out with wine—and never more so than today, with all sorts of you-gotta-have-it advice blaring at us—you're sure that the latest offerings are irreplaceable. Nonsense. There's always another vintage.
This may seem elementary (and it is), but its importance is no less true for that. I can't tell you the number of times I went into debt that I truly couldn't afford because I was certain that I'd never see a vintage like this again. This is, I'm afraid, a particular plague for lovers of Burgundy, where truly great vintages are indeed relatively rare. (They were far rarer decades ago than they are today, thanks to climate change and more rigorous winegrowing.)
Yet the truth is that no vintage, no matter how ballyhooed, is irreplaceable. There's always another one coming down the pike a mere year later. And who knows? It may be even better than this latest don't-die-without-buying-it vintage that so entices today.
The "who" of the advice is more important than the "what." More than ever before in the history of wine, you cannot be too discriminating in deciding whose advice you're going to take. Never before, for reasons we all know, have so many people offered so much wine advice with seemingly so much apparent certainty. (Yes, yes, the point system is partly to blame for that air of certitude.)
But it's got to be said: Be careful whom you choose to trust. Just because someone seems so all-fired sure about the greatness (or lack of it) of one producer or another doesn't make him or her right or even trustworthy. Look for a track record of recommendations that suggests a certain sense of balance and context. This is as true for professionals as it is for those who don't get a paycheck for giving advice.
Personally, I discovered this over time as I dealt with various wine professionals such as winemakers, university professors in enology, importers, wholesalers and retailers. Each had, more than I first realized, a sometimes overly narrow, even blindered, view of wine. Too often there was a lack of generosity about others' accomplishments or insights. (I can think of several wine importers who, to read their screeds, are sure that only their selection of producers delivers the "real, true thing.")
As with financial advisors, everybody's got an opinion—often voiced with assurance. But look at how many folks have lost money because they confused cheap certainty with expensive competence.
When you look more closely at the "who," the odds are greater that the "what" of the wines you choose to buy will be in your personal favor.
Acuity isn't insight. This was a hard-won realization. I think everybody is always dazzled by tasters who can reel off all these flavor descriptors. (I'm still looking for "graphite," myself.) And it sure is impressive when someone nails a wine blind. I've done it a few times and nobody was more surprised than I.
All of this reflects taste acuity and, for blind tasting, a good taste memory. These are not nothing, to be sure. But they're not everything, either. Both are fundamentally devoid of insight and judgment, which are separate from a forensic ability to dissect a wine or call it blind.
Go ahead: Make the occasion. This is a variation on that old trap of waiting for just the right occasion, which never seems to arrive, to drink that special wine. The reason it never seems to arrive is that this waiting game has it backward: It's the wine that makes the occasion, not the other way around.
Of course you need a wine-loving group. Nothing is more dispiriting than serving a prized wine to a group that could care less. Don't go there.
But if your fellow drinkers are wine-interested, then make the occasion, even if it's just a picnic. Or a dinner with good burgers. Or even a drop-in get-together. I would tell my younger wine-self (who was indeed always waiting for that right moment): Life is too short for this. Bring out the wine and make the occasion—and the memory.
Never let power pass for beauty. Oh boy, this is a classic. Seemingly all of us when we first get involved with wine—and I emphatically include myself—are mesmerized by power. After all, it's in your face. You can't miss it. "Wow," you say, "that's really something."
If I've heard one refrain more than any other, it's how wine lovers with a certain amount of mileage report that they're selling some of their early purchases because they bought too many wines that they now find just too big, too bullying, too powerful. What once impressed now does so far less.
Is there a way to sidestep this from the get-go? I'm not sure. Here we arrive at the philosophy thing previously mentioned. If your philosophy prizes a sense of impact with weight, then at least initially, power will indeed pass for beauty.
But if your philosophy prizes features such as nuance, shadings and finesse, then you're less likely to conflate power with beauty. Then again, some relatively powerful wines can be beautiful. So it's not always so simple.
"It is not enough to be wrong, one must also be polite." This admonition comes from no less a figure than the great Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist Niels Bohr. He was famously one of the most decent, humane scientists of his time, a man even other genius physicists (not the most humble lot) admired and deferred to.
My younger wine-self was often wrong. And I was nowhere near polite (or kind) enough. Very big mistake.
If you read or participate in wine chat boards or blogs, or write about wine in any capacity, then you surely know that Niels Bohr's admonition is one we should all take to heart.