"There may be more to learn by climbing the same mountain a hundred times than by climbing a hundred different mountains."—Richard Nelson, The Island Within
It all began while I was making one of my favorite dishes, a lemon risotto. I make it often, if only because risotto is kind of a signature dish chez Kramer, especially when we're entertaining.
Now, making risotto is not that hard. But I've discovered that a good number of otherwise adept cooks are daunted by risotto because a certain "know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em" sense of—to borrow from wine terminology—ideal ripeness is involved. It's not that hard. But a little repetition helps.
While making the risotto I thought of author Richard Nelson's observation cited above. And that, in turn, made me think about wine loving.
We all know an awful lot of wine lovers. They're winemakers, sommeliers, winery owners, restaurateurs and, not least, our fellow wine-loving friends. If you want to get a sense of just how persuasive wine is in your life, give a thought to how many of your friends don't drink wine. My guess is that, apart from a handful who abstain from alcohol altogether, you're surrounded by wine lovers. Common interests and all that.
Yet when you begin to look at each of them individually, odds are you'll discover that they can be surprisingly different in both how they approach wine and how they buy the stuff.
For example, I have friends who are, well, wine sluts. They're promiscuous in their wine buying. Really, they'll buy anything that somehow winks at them—a shelf talker in a supermarket, a retail clerk's recommendation, a mention in a magazine. And they're happy, I assure you.
I view them with affectionate dismay because I, for my part, am a compulsive researcher. I am exceedingly reluctant to buy anything until I've done what I consider to be due diligence. I look at tasting notes. I investigate the winemaker's philosophy, the age of the vines, the history of the estate. I want to know if it's a single vineyard or a blend of sites. I want to get a sense of how oaky the wine might be.
Only after I feel like I've properly researched do I proceed. Of course, if the wine is 10 bucks I don't bother. But if it's, say, $50, I don't make a move without investigation. You won't be surprised to learn that although I've been to Las Vegas a number of times (I like the restaurants), I've never put a quarter in a slot machine, never mind sat down at a blackjack table.
I'm sure that I fall smack in the obsessive-compulsive wine lover category. Mind you, I do love buying and drinking wine. But I also love researching, weighing, sifting, winnowing and so forth. Is it any surprise that I (and my fellow obsessive-compulsives) love Burgundy above all other wines? In my case, that's followed closely by Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera. I feel a siren call for German Rieslings, too, although I have not pursued them as ardently as I probably should.
It's pretty clear, I would think, that obsessive-compulsive wine lovers are strongly drawn to single-variety, single-vineyard sorts of wines. They lend themselves to drilling-down. No detail is too slight or insignificant for those of us afflicted with this approach.
In comparison, you have what are generally referred to as hedonist wine lovers. Far from seeking the meaning of life in a glass of wine, they're all for pleasure. It doesn't have to be, in their defense, unthinking pleasure. But pleasure there must be. And not just any pleasure, mind you. It must be sensory pleasure and, this is critical, abundantly so. They love big, rich wines, cornucopias of fruitiness and pleasurable tactile sensations. Grating tannins and ascetic acidity are not for them. Austerity is a bad word in their tasting vocabulary.
Obviously, I don't share their aesthetic outlook. But I do admire them. Hedonist wine lovers are available to all sorts of wine pleasures. They tend to be neither exacting nor overly restrictive. They are welcoming, accommodating and invariably generous in their judgments, as well as in their hospitality. These are all admirable traits and worthy of praise and emulation.
Beyond hedonists is yet another category of wine lover, what I call the carefree type. They like everything. ("How is that possible?" he asks, rather compulsively.) If you, the hedonist wine lover, offer them, say, a big, rich, high-alcohol Turley Zinfandel, they love it. And if I slide over to them a glass of, say, Giacomo Conterno Barbera d'Alba (no oak, high acidity, gloriously austere fruit), well, hey, they love that too.
Of course, I envy these carefree wine lovers. They are amazingly unconcerned about price. They don't give a damn about establishing the just-rightness of the site or the philosophy of the winemaker. (A close friend of mine cheerfully says, "I love oak, baby. Give me those oaky ones anytime.") They look at guys like me with bewilderment. What's with the fuss?
All of which brings me back to what, for me, is the real question: What's the best way to really understand wine? Is there more (and better) to be learned by climbing the same mountain a hundred times than by climbing a hundred different mountains?
Do wine lovers who happily graze among the offerings, flitting from one wine to another, never learn anything worthwhile? Or do they somehow slowly, accretively acquire a sense of what's good in wine almost by osmosis?
For obsessive-compulsive types the "climb the same mountain a hundred times" approach is clearly rewarding. It would seem essential, or at least seem to return a degree of insight that would otherwise not be achievable. Yet obviously there's much to be learned by climbing one hundred different mountains.
Do you arrive at the same depth of understanding at the journey's end regardless of approach? That, it seems to me, is a real question at hand.