Wine Newbies From Mars
By Matt Kramer, columnist
Let's say someone dropped from the sky, circa 1999, and said, "I understand you've got swell wines here on what you call Planet Earth. But I don't know anything about Earth wines. Take me to your leaders."
This, in a galactic nutshell, is what so-called "wine newbies" face every day. They wander innocently into a wine shop and, yikes! The labels may as well be written in Romulan. As it is, they're in French, Italian, German and that strange dialect called "Californian." (You think they speak English on those back labels? What the hell is "Meritage," for example? Or "leesy"?)
The challenge is simple: Which wines achieve what the painter Lucian Freud says he asks of a great painting: "To astonish, disturb, seduce, convince"? Which wines would you choose to seduce a newbie from Mars?
This is not an entirely idle question. Over the last couple of decades I've taught all sorts of wine classes designed for people who profess to know nothing about wine. (Sometimes they're modest in saying so, sometimes not.)
My approach was straightforward: I charged a lot of money and swore they'd taste wines that would change their lives. (There was no extra charge for the hyperbole.) It must have worked, because a good number came back for more.
I mention this only because it's at the heart of the "newbie challenge." It comes down to this: If you want to convert 'em, you've got to show them a miracle. So I tried to serve at least one truly miraculous wine per session.
By the way, experience reveals that you can't start with a "miracle wine." Newbies need context. For example, in the Burgundy session--always good for a rousing miracle, that--the flight would begin with a good Bourgogne rouge. And it would end with La Tâche, one of Burgundy's grandest grands crus. (This, obviously, was long ago, when prices were merely painful, not preposterous.)
It was something to see. Nobody missed the miracle. I've come to the conclusion that wines like La Tâche are wasted on those who already know too much. After all, aren't miracles really for doubters? Just think of how different Senator Strom Thurmond--who sees conspiracies behind every wine label--would be today if he'd seen the La Tâche light.
Nowadays the choices are boggling. First, the "context" wines are better than ever. For all the bloated, watery California Chardonnays out there, the fact is that there are more good ones today than ever before. And they're not all outlandishly priced, either. I'd certainly serve my Mars newbie a lush, rich Santa Barbara County Chardonnay (Babcock, Byron, Qupé, Au Bon Climat). And for contrast, I'd toss in something austere and long-lived, like a Hanzell or Mayacamas Chardonnay.
Then there's Italy. Where to look there? Barolo, of course. But only at the end. (Some miracles are harder to grasp than others.) A great Chianti, certainly. And--this may surprise you--a terrific Soave from Anselmi or Pieropan. I'd also opt for something deliciously esoteric, like a Teroldego (a red grape) from its greatest exponent, winegrower Elisabetta Foradori.
Then there's France, of course. I suppose we must serve them Bordeaux. Oh well. Then let it be La Mission-Haut-Brion, which surely is one of Bordeaux's most exciting reds. And, absolutely, there must be Sauternes. Need I say which? (Château d'Yquem.) But really, Rieussec, Raymond-Lafon, Suduiraut and half a dozen others are effectively as miraculous.
Burgundy goes without saying. Ditto for German Riesling. I'd go for a great Mosel. But it would have to be something mature, say a classic auslese (sweet, not dry) with 10 years of age on it. A wine like that can really rock your world, wherever it is.
But would you serve Champagne? Champagne has never done anything for me except make me burp. I know this puts me in the minority. But I have to wonder: Is it a wine of revelation--or just celebration? (I ask you, who ever broke a bottle of La Tâche over the bow of a ship? You'd probably get arrested.)
You get the picture. The newbie "game" is more than that. It's real. And it's worth playing. Otherwise, we'll just get another generation of Strom Thurmonds.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from columnist Matt Kramer, in a column also appearing in the May 15 issue of Wine Spectator. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
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