What is it that you want from wine? Since I'm asking this of you, it's only fair for me to offer what I, anyway, want from wine. And I know that what I seek is certainly different from what others—many others, I'm sure—are looking for.
I'd venture to say that most wine drinkers want pleasure from their wine. Their favorite word is "delicious,” preferably with an exclamation point attached.
Yet I have to say that pleasure, as it's commonly understood, interests me not at all. I find "Delicious!" just too easy. Not offensive, mind you. Rather, it's boring. Dull. Predictable. Even calculated.
What I want is insight. I want to hear the Earth speak. I want the voice of the land—the site, the place, terroir, the somewhereness, call it what you want—amplified.
This is nothing new for me. If anything, it's always been so. I don't know why. I once wrote a column where I declared that the purpose of fine wine is not to give pleasure, but to give insight. Digging the hole deeper yet, I then went on to say that pleasure is a measure only for ordinary wines. Once you reach the realm of really fine wines, we must ask more.
Do I need to say how many readers thought me nuts—or worse?
OK, I may be nuts, but I'm not stupid. I know this is a minority opinion, although it's one I'm more than willing to defend. But I get it. Such a view is … extreme.
You might say, "Why can't I have both? Why not both insight and hedonistic pleasure?" Why not indeed? Oddly, such an achievement is harder than it sounds, although far from impossible. Too often "wines of pleasure" tend to trade on abundant fruitiness, little or no tannins, low acidity, noticeable sweetness, and a certain obviousness. None of those elements lends itself to anything that might lead to insight.
What else do I want from wine? I want the thrill of discovery, that Star Trekkie sentiment of exploring strange new wine worlds, seeking out new wine life forms and civilizations. In a word, surprise.
This, I'm sure, is a function of age and time and wine mileage. Having explored the old worlds (in every sense), I'm that much more interested in the discovery of new ones. If I were just starting out, I'd of course want to experience what everyone else has been going on about: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Barolo, Napa Cabernet, all the usual suspects.
Also, I like a deal. There's no sport in buying expensive wines. This is the other part of the business of surprise. There's a reason why expensive wines get their price: They're usually sure things. There's no surprise at all, which is why people so willingly pay a premium.
Such wines are not only predictably good, they're also usually made in a predictably conventional style. You pay your money and, by golly, you get the goods. The high price is actually reassuring ("How can it be anything less than terrific at such a price?"). Way of the world and all that.
For my part, I am enthralled—that's the only word—with the extraordinary number of genuinely great wines created today that come from places not previously recognized as great. This includes many locations in Europe, never mind the so-called New World.
Everywhere, the transformations in wine quality achieved because of revived economies and new ambitions are astonishing. Think of Portugal's Douro zone. Or Greece. Or Tasmania. Or New Zealand. California seems like it's been going on forever, but really, the modern wine achievement is barely 40 years old. Oregon and Washington are even more recent to the fine-wine achievement game. And Ontario and British Columbia are younger yet.
All are issuing great wines—with no patronizing pat-on-the-head qualifiers to that declaration needed or wanted.
Anyway, this is some of what I want from wine. Now, what about you? What do you want from wine?
Are you young and therefore most interested, understandably so, in the widest exposure and experience, never mind insight or even pleasure? Or is it geeky esotericism that turns you on? Are you old, and now want the easy-chair comfort of the familiar?
Also, let's be honest: Do you simply want something to take the edge off a hard day? Think of all those scenes in The Good Wife where Alicia comes home at night, arranges a sizable pour into an equally sizable glass, gives the wine barely a sniff and then takes an obviously restorative, equally sizable sip. Given her typical roller-coaster day, who can blame her? It's not politically or socially correct to mention the effect of wine, but who among us hasn't enjoyed just that after a hard day?
Not least, is what you want from wine something that tastes better with food than, say, water or coffee. (If you're an American of a certain age, you doubtless remember your parents drinking watery, tasteless coffee throughout the meal at dinnertime. Looking back, it's hard to believe, isn't it?)
And if the wine has some sweetness and softness, all the better. Thanks for the nice drink, pal. Now leave me alone. Don't fuss me with insight and terroir and all that stuff. It doesn't mean anything to me. Get lost.
Fair enough. But I am truly interested in the many possibilities of human life on Planet Wine. So I ask most sincerely: What do you want from wine?
Warm regards from your wine pal,