My Dear (What Shall I Call You?) Wine Skeptics,
I don't know how this letter will reach you. After all, it's published in a hangout for wine lovers. Clearly, most people who read Wine Spectator, either online or in print, already have more than a passing interest in the subject.
Yet I'm addressing this open letter to those of you who do not have such an interest. So how will you receive this letter? I'm hoping that readers of Wine Spectator will send it to you—maybe an aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, friend or parent who loves wine and would like to see you love it too.
Now, before I go any further, I'd like to mention that I think I know why you have refrained from falling in love with fine wine. I'm assuming, of course, that you do like wine, in general, and are willing to drink it providing it doesn't involve too much fuss. That last point, I suspect, is key.
The reason that I presume to know what is keeping you from falling in love with fine wine is that for several decades I wrote a wine column for a good-size daily newspaper. In writing for a general audience, rather than a readership of wine fanciers, I quickly learned that what readers wanted was advice about what to buy, providing that the recommended bottle didn't cost too much money—and had a good story.
I remember back in the late 1970s recommending what was at the time a very obscure wine—an Italian red made from a grape variety called Dolcetto, with which almost no one was familiar. The winemaker was a guy named Elvio Cogno, who was then working for a winery called Marcarini. (Today he has his own winery.)
Anyway, I extolled this red wine, saying how smooth it was and how delicious it would be with a nice steak, some pasta or a hamburger. Not least, it was $5.95. I also noted the unusual label, which had a drawing of a man who was, indisputably, a bum.
I had met Cogno and asked him about this peculiar label. After all, most wineries want a more upscale image. Mr. Cogno said, "You know what the reputation is here in Piedmont for Dolcetto?" I replied that I knew that it was an everyday tipple for many of the people in the zone.
"That's right," confirmed Cogno. Then he laughed. "So what do you think the bums here drink?" The drawing was of an actual guy who used to sit in the local town square swigging away from a large bottle of you-know-what.
After that column appeared, sales of the wine soared. It soon became known as "the bum wine."
Yes, the wine was good and the price was tasty. But people loved the story. It made wine more than a product. It connected them.
Too often the discussion of fine wine is, well, geeky. All those names, all those vintages, all that techno-talk about winemaking and barrels and whether screw caps are better than corks.
Now, I confess that I too have engaged in all of those subjects. After all, I am a professional wine writer and these are topics that are near and dear to many of my readers' hearts. And to mine too, I might add.
But I know that for you, at this point, it's just a bunch of gibberish. A much of a muchness. It's off-putting. You don't want to go there anymore than most of us want to listen to a salesperson extol the technical virtues of one flat-screen TV over another. I don't care, is what you say—at least that's what I'd say.
But can I persuade you to care just a little? This is the challenge.
Why should you care about fine wine? The answer is surprisingly simple: Fine wine can—and indeed will—expand your world. It broadens and deepens the reach of your senses. It can help soften the rough edges of daily life and even remind you that beauty exists in moments when it seems least likely to penetrate your daily life.
Now, that's a lot to hang on a mere bottle of wine. But that's the point, you see. Fine wine isn't a mere anything. It's more of a message. It can tell us something about a spot of land (or an irrepressible culture that laughingly puts a bum on a label) that we couldn't otherwise know. How wonderful (and soothing) it would be if, after a tough day of navigating midtown Manhattan, we could go home and somehow taste Central Park?
Fine wine is capable of putting us in touch with the natural order of things. Yes it's a material object, and yes we do have to fork over a respectable amount of money in exchange for the experience. (A walk in Central Park is free and highly recommended. But, alas, it's not always available.)
So next time you're in the store and looking for a bottle of wine, why don't you at least give something better a try? Maybe once a week allow yourself to look past the generic jug and be persuaded to try on, as it were, something better?
If you're paying attention, you might find that over the course of this new year your quotidian life changes for the better. After all, the daily news might not be to your liking (it is an election year), and the economy may not improve as quickly or as much as you'd prefer. But dinner, at least once a week, will be a bright moment, illuminated by a seemingly simple vehicle that, however briefly, reminds you that life is pretty tasty and worth looking forward to. It's not just the alcohol, of course. Rather, it's that extra something that vaults fine wine beyond the "mere"—and vaults your day along with it.
That's what I'd like to propose. You already know where and how to find whatever information you might need in order to pursue a better wine. There's Wine Spectator, store clerks, wine-loving friends and even fellow shoppers in the wine aisle (I've often proffered advice to a neighboring wine buyer across the aisle).
It's likely you won't become so enthralled that the little details of fine wine become a propelling passion. But if you take up my suggestion and include a fine wine each week as a life treat, well, how far wrong can you go? And it doesn't have to cost a fortune. I assure you that there are loads of truly fine wines that sell for, say, $20.
Please accept my sincere wish that 2012 proves to be a good vintage for you—and that my little suggestion helps make it so.