Let's stipulate, as the lawyers say, that we live in an age of true wine sophistication. The world has never seen the like of contemporary wine knowledge, of its democratization and its world-spanning scope. It's a wonder. Really it is.
That happily acknowledged, we're not perfect yet. There's always more to learn and, more important, what is left to learn is not mere trivia. We all have, present company assuredly included, what literary sorts call lacunae—gaps, missing parts. For example:
Using the "Wrong" Glass for Sparkling Wine. Is it still possible, in our wine-savvy era, to be talking about the "wrong" glass? Wasn’t that sort of thinking (and terminology) discarded with the etiquette books? Yes and no.
True, the intrinsically authoritarian, elitist terminology of "right" and "wrong" has justly been tossed on the trash heap. But there still remains the more legitimate notions of "better" and "worse." Just about everybody with any sort of interest in wine now knows that some wines show better in certain glass shapes and worse in others.
You'd think, thanks to the unrelenting efforts of Georg Riedel, that all this is old news. We now know pretty much everything about wineglasses, never mind our personal opinions about this or that shape.
Yet one wine appears exempt: sparkling wine. It seemed like a done deal; we congratulated ourselves on replacing those old wide-mouth coupes with the "correct" narrow flutes or tulip-shaped glasses. And that ended matters, right? Not so.
Let me tell you a story from the tasting trenches. This past July I was tasting at Flat Rock Cellars in the Niagara Peninsula area of Ontario. Out comes a sparkling wine called 2008 Crowned. A blend of Pinot Noir (70 percent) and Chardonnay (30 percent), it was aged in neutral oak barrels for eight months and spent five years on the lees in bottle before being disgorged.
That's a long time for a sparkling wine to remain on the lees. In Champagne, one year on the lees is required for non-vintage cuvées; vintage-dated Champagnes have a minimum requirement of three years.
So, we taste the wine, which was served, "correctly," in flutes. The wine seemed exceptionally good: dense, dimensional and offering what can only be called cool-climate finesse. I was impressed. But I wasn't getting all of what I was certain was in there.
"Could I have a different glass?" I asked, as politely as a I could. "It needs a much bigger glass." My hosts seemed baffled, but willingly obliged, bringing out large, red wine–type glasses.
I said nothing more and, once they tasted their own wine in the much more appropriate (larger) glass, nothing more needed to be said. They professed incredulity—and declared themselves converted on the spot. Of course, I'm hardly the first person to pursue this tasting approach, but it was apparently new for them and, I've discovered, for others as well.
With the advent of ever-more-characterful "grower Champagnes," as well as increasingly fine and distinctive sparkling wines from California, Oregon, Tasmania, Ontario and elsewhere, it's a modern wine mistake to use so-called "Champagne glasses."
Caring Too Much About Process and Too Little About Results. One of the features of our wine (and food) moment is our sometimes intense investigation about process. Much of this is all to the (very) good. We want our animals raised humanely. We want to know about sprays used in farming. We want to know about how our foods are processed.
This is likely taken to a greater extreme with wine than with any other item on our tables. After all, so much about the quality of wines depends not just on where the grapes are grown but on how they are processed and how the resulting wine is aged and handled. The level of detail wine lovers seek and absorb is astonishing—and admirable.
However, this same wine modernity too easily lends itself to mere ideology. You didn't use stem inclusion with your Pinot Noir? No indigenous yeasts? You used fungicides? Herbicides? You compacted the soil with tractors? Then there's the matter of adding sulfur, filtering, fining, corks vs. screwcaps, and so forth.
Each of these matters, on its own, is worthy of investigation and contemplation. But it's a modern wine mistake—a very big one—to overemphasize process in the course of evaluating goodness. The two are connected, to be sure. But the linkage is far from absolute—and even further from being as predictable as wine ideologues like to submit.
Waiting for a Wine to Come to You. We've gotten lazy. In what might be called the "Amazon era" we now expect, with cause, that whatever we want should be available to us with as little fuss as possible. And certainly with no effort on our part.
Well, that's a fine idea, and it's real enough for so many things. But it's not true for the most original, distinctive, unique wines. Those, you have to make the effort to learn about. And then actively, even aggressively pursue. They will not come to you.
To borrow from the wonderful 1960s slogan "The revolution will not be televised,” for the best wines of our time, it's "The wines you want will not be stack-cased."
Never before have so many of the world's greatest wines seen so little conventional salesmanship. The luckiest ones get lauded and then sold privately through direct-to-consumer mailing lists. Yet others live in a tiny solar system of acquisition, sold entirely in small quantities to a highly local, in-the-know audience (think Oregon Pinot Noir or many of Australia's best wines).
It's a very modern wine mistake to think that today's most interesting and memorable wines will come to you effortlessly. You've got to know, and care, enough to ask.
It's the wine paradox of our time: Never have so many great wines been created and yet been so challenging both to know about and to acquire. But not impossible.