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Drinking Out Loud

What Would You Say Today to Your Younger Wine-Self?

A voice from the Ghost of Wines Past (with apologies to Dickens)

Matt Kramer
Posted: December 17, 2013

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.

Joel Rosenthal
Toronto, Canada —  December 17, 2013 4:04pm ET
Very well written and pretty much bang on. Thank you for this article, Matt.
Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  December 17, 2013 4:34pm ET
Great Thougts!

I would humbly add - Be True To Thyself

Just because a wine is a "must have" or has a high score - ask yourself "is this really what you like or want?" Too many of us chase the latest trends, highest scores, newest producers, etc. If you can understand yourself and what you really like (and why), then your selection process will be much better - and you won't be regretting your selections years later.

So I would tell my younger self “Understand what you like and why.” Learn this and the future will be much brighter.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  December 17, 2013 4:38pm ET
An interesting retrospective. Oh, those were the years where we thought we knew all that need be. With age, true intelligence surfaces... and with true intelligence comes such a humility that we seldom have the courage to share what we have found. Matt, thanks for sharing!
Richard Moreland
MIlford, MI —  December 17, 2013 4:59pm ET
Over the five or six years that I have been a subscriber, I have discovered that it is your writings that have resinated with me the most. I resolve this year, to seek out some of your long format work, and laugh out loud even more.
David Suway
Georgia —  December 17, 2013 5:10pm ET
Very true. To Quote Bob Dylan,

Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now
Donald G Stone
Altus, OK< USA —  December 17, 2013 8:32pm ET
Your columns are the most insightful ones that I've come across in my 10 year journey as a wine appreciator - I agree with Richard. I need to enjoy those "special" wines instead of holding them back...
Tom Kessler
Parma, Ohio —  December 17, 2013 10:04pm ET
Outstanding and insightful, as always. You are one of the main reasons I love Wine Spectator!
Kelly Carter
Colorado —  December 18, 2013 12:50am ET
I think there are observations where most of us find common ground.

I'm not sure what climate change (particularly for Burgundy) has to do with vintages. Climate change has occurred throughout history of the planet, but do we proclaim climate change impacted the 1870 or 1900 Bordeaux vintages? The weather unquestionably plays a role, but a climate change comment is an generalization without context or evidence.

Some Burgundy vintages don't match the hype and average vintages can produce beautiful wines. That is part of the allure (and disappointment) of Burgundy.
Do Valle Llc
Branford, CT, USA —  December 18, 2013 9:26am ET
Matt,

Great article and advice. I've found myself doing this on countless occasions. I understand the idea behind aging a wine if that's your taste preference but if a wine is ready to drink one should never wait. I finally started letting the wine make the occasion as soon as a colleague of mine left a tagline at the end of his email stating "drink the good stuff first". He couldn't have been more spot on. Cheers!
John S Edwards
United States —  December 18, 2013 9:45am ET
Mr. Kramer thank you for the insight in this particular column but also the many previously written. As has been said very often, when enjoying wine 'stay true to yourself.'The problem for most wine consumers that I deal with is they don't know who is their wine 'self.' In other words they don't trust their own palate without affirmation from someone in the industry be it writer, publication or the person behind the table at the tasting. My advice to them is always be willing to try a wine unfamiliar to them and when you do, follow this process: Taste, Think and Enjoy. Again thank you for your writings.
D Fredman
Malibu, CA USA —  December 18, 2013 11:03am ET
Great advice, and I wish I knew about this stuff 30+ years ago when I first got started with a wine cellar. Many of these points make it apparent that context is SO important in the wine world. What you're drinking is one thing, but with whom you're drinking it, what sort of food is accompanying the wine, whether you're enjoying a particular bottle with friends or with a not-so-friendly boss, all of those aspects factor into whether or not you actually like a wine. At the end of the day, liking a wine enough to drink it trumps having a cellar full of "treasures" you just don't enjoy.
Jeffrey Matchen
New York, NY —  December 19, 2013 10:46am ET
Great reminder that "there's always another vintage." I still catch myself drinking the last of a particular wine from my cellar and thinking, "I have to get some more of that vintage."
And then I remind myself of the Bordeaux vintages of the century in 2000, 2005, 2009,...
Robert Lapolla
san diego —  December 19, 2013 12:42pm ET
don't buy so much crap wine. be more selective.
Salim Asrawi
Houston —  December 19, 2013 7:14pm ET
The wine world has changed much over the last 30 years as has the style, quality, availability and drinkability. And the prices! whew!!!
30 years ago most fine wines needed to cellar and age at least a year or two and many for many more. Not always true anymore.
Now we can find great wines to drink NOW.
American culture is great--fast cars, fast woman, fast food and fast wine. The instant gratification keeps moving forward
Geoffrey Coates
Plani, TX, USA —  December 20, 2013 9:22pm ET
Well written, as usual. Thanks, Matt. ++ for "Make the Occadion." As I'm sure many of us have found, if we don't make the occasion, we will end up gazing at aging (or past their prime) bottles, wishing "what if?"
Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  December 24, 2013 12:28pm ET
Hi Matt -

I always like your thought provoking pieces - which seems to be most of them. I'd only add 2 things (and I believe I have read them in your past columns):
1) explore new areas and grapes; and
2) buy more big bottles.

I only have on big boy - a 3 liter (or litre for those of you in the rest of the world) of an upper end '06 Chianti from Castello Brolio - it's getting opened Christmas Day with family. I could easily sit on it for 10 more years, but I don't want to all of a sudden realize that those I wanted to share it with are no longer around.

Also, I am kinda eager to see what it tases like.

Happy Holidays to you and your readers!

Tom

Chas Paddock
West Boylston, MA. USA —  January 1, 2014 11:20am ET
Hmm, what would I tell my younger self?
1. Go to as many wine tastings as you can and always taste before you buy.
2. Review various critics' critiques and calibrate your tastes to them - either with or against. But still, always taste before you buy.
3. Keep an open mind - many countries now produce great wines - try them all.
4. A wine doesn't have to be expensive to be good. Pay attention to the QPR - Quality Price Ratio - there are a lot of 85-92 pt wines between $9 - $20.
5. Buy wines by the case or mixed case and save an additional 20% to improve the QPR.
Ralph M Carestio
Allen, Texas —  January 21, 2014 7:08pm ET
Enjoy what you enjoy. Forget about convincing yourself that this 94 point wine is better than that 92 pointer. All scoring is subjective and most comes from a predetermined bias. Enjoying wine is now easier than I used to make it. I used to always be pursuing the perfect wine, not fully enjoying the one in my hand.
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  February 19, 2014 7:46pm ET
I'd say, "Buy way more Bordeaux, because those prices are going up and you won't be able to afford it later."
James Addison
Marquette, Michigan —  February 20, 2014 5:37pm ET
I almost always find an impression of graphite in Cabernet Franc from the Loire valley. I thought that the Chinon from Pensees de Pallus 2010, recently reviewed in WS, possessed a very distinct impression of graphite on the nose and palate. Give it a try!

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