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Drinking Out Loud

An Open Letter to Normal Wine Lovers

Do we wine nutters drive you crazy?
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer says the stages of wine obsession can lead us down a fanatical road.

Matt Kramer
Posted: July 19, 2016

Dear Normal Wine Lover,

Like writing to extraterrestrials who, mathematically, we assume must exist, I calculate that you're out there, too. But I'm hard-pressed to recall, at this point, an actual sighting. Everyone I meet now seems to be a wine nutcase.

You may say, understandably, that wine writers, like psychiatrists—who famously insist that everyone they meet is crazy—extrapolate from a deeply skewed sample group. Surely that's true.

But how then do you account for my next-door neighbor, who when I first met him was an utterly normal, beer-and-basketball kind of guy. He had no interest in wine. He drank it mostly to please his wife, who for her part barely rose above rosé. Then they moved next door to me. That was what might be called their primal error, which I'm sure they now rue bitterly.

"So, I understand you write about wine," he affably said upon our first meeting. I allowed that, why yes, I did write about wine for a living. "Don't know much about the stuff myself," he cheerfully admitted. "But if you've got any tips, I'd be happy to hear 'em."

Now, I didn't willfully seek to transform him from a regular guy into a wine geek, but that's what happened. The transformation over the years followed what I now know is a predictable pattern, a wine version of the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief.

Not long after I steered him to a few good wines selling for exceptionally tasty prices than I heard him bemoan his wine fate at restaurants he once innocently enjoyed. "We were at such-and-such last night," he would say. "And we had a Chianti that wasn't anywhere near as good as the one you had us buy. And they wanted, like, three times the price we paid for your wine."

Over the months, then years, this was followed by yet more disillusionment over the inadequate selection or disappointing producer choices of various restaurant wine lists around town. "They didn't have any Mencía wines on the list," I once heard him say. "I mean, how can any good list not have anything from Bierzo or Ribeira Sacra?"

From there, of course, came the inevitable wine vacations to Napa and Sonoma. After every trip, the UPS driver would stagger to his house freighted with cases of one or another expensive Cabernet. "It was a tiny producer, but we managed to get on the list," he would report triumphantly.

Inevitably, as part of the Kübler-Ross five stages of wine grief, my neighbor finally arrived at Burgundy. This, I know for a clinical fact, is the terminal stage. No amount of talk therapy or even hard drugs can bring you back to normalcy once you reach this point.

This final stage of wine grief is characterized by hallucinations of seeing ever-tinier Burgundy producers charging ever-higher prices; fantasies of non-existent wines hopefully and grandly described as "pre-arrival;" and a particularly fascinating delusional pathology wherein victims scratch frantically at their wallets to find $500 to pay for a single bottle of wine. (Wine epidemiologists now report a variant of this condition localized in certain zones in California, with the greatest reporting incidence occurring in and around Napa Valley.)

But this business of wine nutters driving normal people crazy doesn't occur only at the extremes of wine vicissitude. Take, for example, rosé. I'll bet you're drinking it right now—and enjoying it, I'm sure. If ever a beneficent Bacchus had bestowed upon us an innocent wine pleasure, it's surely a cool rosé sipped in the summer heat.

But did you know that your rosé, which almost certainly arrived in your hands in a clear glass bottle, could well be "lightstruck"? That it could well display off odors of cabbage, wet cardboard and even sewage? All that from a rosé, no less.

And what, you ask, is "lightstruck"? Well, it's real enough. Wine (and beer too) is sensitive to ultraviolet wavelengths. Bottles that are green (good) or amber (better) filter out the wavelengths that photochemically create such bad smells. Clear glass bottles do not. But rosés sell on their come-hither hue, so clear glass is their marketing magic.

So what's the hubbub? Fluorescent light can emit similar wavelengths to sunlight. And there's no question that sunlight is really bad. What's more, sunlight works really fast. Laboratory experiments (likely funded by the bottle manufacturers) show that a bottle of beer or wine stored in a cabinet that's a foot or two from a fluorescent light will indeed suffer the off-flavor consequences of being "lightstruck."

Here's where the wine nutters make your life a misery. Because of these experiments, which are unequivocally correct, they paranoically extrapolate that all fluorescent light, at whatever distance from your wine, will adversely affect your once-pristine rosé.

Are there any real-world experiments in, say, a typical retail shop, that prove such a thing? Not to my knowledge. For what it's worth, no rosé I've ever bought has shown any such "lightstruck" effects. But wine nutters live at the edge and, typical of the breed, they're sure that dangers lurk.

So I ask you: Do we wine nutters drive you crazy? I fear that we do, especially us evangelical sorts. (Yes, I know that I recently urged you to seek out Canary Island wines. I mean, how nutty is that?)

But my intentions were good. And don't worry about the fluorescent lights, OK?

Your well-meaning wine pal,

Matt

Rick Jones
Mesquite Texas USA —  July 19, 2016 1:13pm ET
Thank God for middle class poverty. Due to limited discretionary funds I have been saved from nuttery. I can't afford a trip to France. I did spend a week in the Wilamette Valley a couple of years ago, but that was an accident, and any wine consumed was just to be polite to the local growers. I have good manners so I was very, very polite. Just because I read every word produced on line by a certain magazine or scour the on line sites for over 90 pointers under $20 is no indication of potential vino-sanity issues. I only attend wine tastings to humor my brother-in-law, a real wine crazy. The two wine coolers in the house (which I am still paying for every time the wife mentions them and pulls the credit card out) are only stocked with about 320 bottles for any guests we might have over.
My wife keeps telling me I am in the denial stage. I was going to mention a river in Egypt but I got distracted choosing between a Douro and a Sangre de Toro, Spain vs. Portugal is driving me crazy.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  July 19, 2016 10:15pm ET
One of your funniest and most entertaining pieces. Your next career could be in wine satire, which is a sparsely populated field at the moment and one that could do with a few more practitioners. As a wine merchant I have a few of these nutcases as customers and they become impossible to please.
I know several wealthy "collectors" who have nothing other than stratospherically-priced first-growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundies in their collections. How boring could a cellar be? If it didn't cost over $3-400 (and often much more) a bottle then it's just not collectible. Oh Man. How utterly boring. As the old saying goes "a fool and his money are easily parted".
Thanks for a good laugh and bring on the satire.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  July 20, 2016 11:26am ET
Mr. Matouk: Thanks so much for your very kind words. "Wine satire" is a tricky field indeed. Sometimes the modern reality of wine can be so bizarre that it serves as satire with no help from the likes of me!

Ricardo A Maduro
Panama —  July 20, 2016 5:21pm ET
Ha, ha, ha....
you did pull a laugh out of me.
Thomas Bartlett
Ocean Grove NJ —  July 20, 2016 11:51pm ET
The wine knowledgeable people who get silly picky about questionable details are not as annoying as people who know only a little about wine and think they know a lot. Also annoying are the people who believe things that are not true and do not realize it. Like 1. if a bottle is refrigerated and allowed to warm up to room temperature it is ruined, 2. all roses or Rieslings are sweet, 3. sulfites give them headaches though they innocently answer that they love dried fruits, 4. all California wines are oaky etc.

Add in the people who believe that all internet wine websites are reviews by people who understand wine, or that such reviews are impartial, not 'pay for play' cons. Such as the several people who came into my store in the Spring saying that they read on the internet that the best Malbec in the world - at 95 points - was only $7.99 and why didn't we have it?? Could that be a paid-for website set up by the importer!!
Sadly the majority of internet wine reviews are no longer professional, impartial reviews by wine experts like you guys, Parker, Tanzer, and the rest of the old guard. .
Tom
Gary Cohn
California —  July 21, 2016 5:08pm ET
Matt,
I have always enjoyed your writing, but this blog is a classic. I had to laugh out loud. Here are a few more phases the inflicted go through:
OCD: Obsessive Cab Disorder
Hoarding: I have no room in my cellar, but I am still buying wine.
Lying: When a wine a shipment comes to the house I tell my wife that I bought it years ago and it is just arriving.
Anxiety: Never finding the right occasion to open that last special bottle.

Thanks for the Chuckle,

Gary
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
owens cross road,al 35763 —  July 24, 2016 2:32pm ET
I get a laugh when I read a discussion about the tastes of wine. I especially enjoy those who can describe 10 or more flavors, especially "scorched earth"( I would suggest that this expert cannot afford wine if he has to taste dirt) and Jappanesse flavors (could he be describing wasabi?)
Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA —  July 27, 2016 12:42am ET
Matt,
Here's one to add to your nutcase Hall of Fame. It concerns a fellow with whom I've shared many a glass in the past and has one of the best palates around. He claims, that when a fruit fly decides to do a cannon ball into his wine, he can taste its presence immediately and what remains in the glass becomes a laser shot to the dump bucket. "Noooooo! It's Screaming Eagle". He argues that the drowning-happy fruit fly dramatically changes the wine's taste similar to adding a drop of very cheap perfume. Perhaps, Chanel #2?
Eric Campos
Canada —  September 8, 2016 5:38pm ET
I feel compelled to respond to Mr Olszewski's comment: fruit flies contribute a high-toned sweet-floral note not dissimilar to perfume or a particular variety of apple whose name eludes me. Just last week I forgot to rinse a bottle of red wine with a splash of wine at the bottom. Days later, the fruit fly necropolis inside would have convinced the least experienced wine evaluator of this effect.

Personal peeves that serve as purchase deterrents include 1) retailers who cannot speak to freight conditions from source or who insist on placing wine near heat-emitting light sources, 2) wineries that host meals amidst their production areas or ageing cellars.

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