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Drinking Out Loud

What You Bring to It

The greatest wines are always a two-way street
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer says that recognizing a great wine requires something of the beholder.

Matt Kramer
Posted: March 21, 2017

"I think of an audience as a cocreator, the fifth instrument to our quartet," said Dave Brubeck, the great jazz pianist.

Music is one thing; wine is another. As a material object, wine exists independently of us. But as an experience, we are essential.

Our experience of a wine, any wine, is richly colored by context: our companions, the time of day, the effect of accompanying food, the shape and size of the glass, the wine's temperature and the ambiance of where we are drinking. Not least is our receptivity, which is strongly affected by the tidal pull of our mood and psychological need of the moment. ("Tough day at the office, dear?")

All this is worth noting if only because there's a tendency, given the consumerism of our era, to view wine—especially fine wine—as a discrete object. This presupposes that a wine qualitatively exists independently of everything previously described. It does not. Indeed, it cannot.

This is why—we've all heard this many times—we or someone else tastes a famous, much-praised wine and says, "That wine was nothing special. I don't see the big deal here."

Now, maybe it is the wine's fault. Not every lauded wine deserves its accolades. Fashion does play a role, as does rarity and (high) price. But if my experience is anything to go by, most highly praised wines—extremes of excessive alcohol, overripeness or incompetently executed "naturalism" excepted—are reliably good.

So what, then, is missing if a reliably good wine fails to register? In a word: you. Now, this is an unpopular assertion. In our populist, crowd-sourced, we're-all-equal-here cultural moment, everybody's judgment is equally valid because, hey, if I like it, it's good, right? And vice-versa. Sorry, pal, but there's more to fine wine than you or I liking (or disliking) something.

A surprising degree of wine appreciation and, especially, understanding, relies on what we bring to a wine rather than on the more obvious feature of what the wine brings to us.

This is not true, of course, for all wines all the time. Some wines, like certain varieties of fish, dwell at the surface. This is why many wine drinkers, quite understandably, want, "Delicious!" That one-word descriptor is for them the highest possible praise.

None of us is exempt from this preference, mind you. And not just with wine. Several years ago my wife and I, after much research and years of gallery- and museum-going in Australia during the time we lived there and over numerous visits, bought an Australian aboriginal "dot" painting that we greatly liked.

We sent a photo of it to an Aussie acquaintance who is an expert in Australian aboriginal art and advises wealthy art collectors. His outback-dry reply? "It's a nice decorative piece." Got it. "Delicious" has its place. We all want some of that in our lives.

Not every sensory experience should require us to bring something to it. This is why I, and many others, love one or another version of Moscato. Talk about delicious. I love Moscato d'Asti, which for me is the best Moscato on the planet. But I certainly don't ponder upon it, chin in hand, trying to fathom its mysterious depths. Instead, I guzzle it with unthinking glee and then look around for more. (It is only 6 percent alcohol, after all.)

That acknowledged, it must also be said that many of life's most rewarding aesthetic experiences do require us to bring something. During a recent dinner party, a married couple sweepingly declared, in unplanned unison, "The greatest 20th-century artist is Mark Rothko." It was one of those assertions people make to keep things lively or to see how fellow diners respond to provocation.

I suggested, in response, that much as I admire Rothko's paintings, the 20th century was chockablock with artistic giants. After all, Pablo Picasso only died in 1973, and even Henri Matisse made it to 1954. And then there were all the many Abstract Expressionists, to say nothing of other "color field" practitioners such as Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell.

But the key point, I insisted, was that however great Rothko might be, recognizing the greatness of his work requires you bringing something to it. After all, conventionally speaking, a few big splotches of color, however artfully arranged, is not most people's idea of artistic "delicious." They insisted that it was not so. It was all there, they said, and requires nothing of us.

I don't believe that for a moment, whether it's wine or art or music. Most of the time, most of the really good stuff requires something from us. Whether we're aware of it or not, most wine drinkers of any experience bring a lot to a wine.

Take drinking old wines, for example. I'm no fan of them myself. But I do get their appeal. However, make no mistake: Appreciating a truly old wine, one where much of the originally vocal fruit has been replaced with, at best, only whispers of flavor suggestion, requires a certain sort of availability, a willingness to meet the wine more than halfway.

You're bringing a lot to such a wine: an awareness of its venerability, its rarity, its historicity, its sheer triumph in having endured, and, not least, in a certain sort of recalibration, an allowance on your palate's part about what makes for wine "goodness."

No one—and I mean no one—bellies up to the old-wine bar and downs a shooter of a 50- or 75-year-old wine, wipes his or her lips with the back of a hand and thoughtlessly declares, "Delicious!" You have to bring a lot to the great majority of old wines, even the sweet ones.

In our egalitarian era, it's unpalatable to suggest that you have to bring something—knowledge, experience, even humility—to a wine, young or old, in order to "get it." But it's so. Not every wine is "Delicious!"

Peter J Gatti
Austin, Texas, USA —  March 21, 2017 8:41pm ET
How fun is that, when it works! I opened up a bottle of 1987 Ahlgren Bates Ranch Cabernet for a table of wine friends about a year ago, hoping for joy, but expecting less. And we had essentially the same experience...a terrifically vibrant red wine, with obvious tertiary notes, but with good fruit and aromatics, too. And all at a stated 12.3% alcohol, which was probably accurate, and which almost none of the younger imbibers could believe. Thankfully, this one needed little 'foreknowledge' or preparation, as it was still delicious.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  March 22, 2017 8:56am ET
Important to note, I think, that "delicious" wines can be profound, too. I give you Sauternes and vintage Port as examples.
Jeffrey D Travis
Sarasota, FL —  March 22, 2017 10:04am ET
Way to go Matt. What a nice way to recognize and appreciate the benefits of bringing something to the table when we enjoy our wine, music, art and life as we know it. It all counts.
Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  March 22, 2017 5:08pm ET
Wowser, a lot to consider here. I would have liked more comment on younger wines as well as older version.

A great wine is like a marathon or long cross distance runner. Early on in its life it is full of energy and enthusiasm. When it is very young it may only go with strong robust dishes. As it approaches middle age, the subtleness and nuance must be paired with food accordingly. Old wines are yet another phase. I am a big fan of older red Burgundies. They don't have the fruit or the power, but what they do have is nuance, subtlety and if they are very good, they have a spherical tasting experience with no edges. It is though the orchestra is still playing but the volume has been turned down and the music is less reliant on the drums and loud brass and now it is showing the subtle light touches of the composer.

To me a great wine should show well through all the phases of its life. Only a few do.
Robert Hoffman
Pittsburgh, PA, USA —  March 22, 2017 10:46pm ET
Much food for thought here. Sure, you can enjoy or not enjoy a wine (or music, art, a book, movie, etc.) just as it is. But, when you bring something to the encounter in terms of knowledge of the background or prior experience for example your evaluation takes on a much greater depth. In short, keep learning and you will make better decisions.
Raymond Archacki Jr
Wethersfield, CT USA —  April 5, 2017 4:09pm ET
I think this article also highlights how in many cases a wine tastes "better" at the winery then when you taste it later at home. Think about it, you've probably travelled thousands of miles, invested time and money and researched the winery. You go on the tour and if it's a good one you sense the passion and commitment of the producer and their approach to winemaking. By the time you get to the tasting room and taste those first few sips you have given of yourself to appreciate the craft on display right in front of you. Doesn't get any better than that. A year later pulling the same wine out you may not have "prepared" yourself in quite the same way and you think to yourself, hmm tasted better on our trip.
Greg Hutch
Regina, SK, Canada —  April 9, 2017 10:57pm ET
I really like this idea. I have certainly thought of each live performance of music as a unique event for the performer(s) and audience. I have found each travel experience something that is unique (even if it is the same people going to the same place multiple times). I really like the idea that each tasting / meal is a unique event for the winemaker / chef and the taster(s). Just as you cannot step into the same river...you cannot have the same music, art, wine, food, travel experience again.

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