An Open Letter to Wine Newbies

To get a grip on wine, you need an edge
Oct 18, 2011

While perusing Wine Spectator's online forums I came across a thread titled "How To Get Into Wine." As a topic, it's hardly new, of course. Wine can be daunting in its complexity, to say nothing of expensive. Who can blame anyone for seeking advice on how to approach the subject without feeling like you're engaged in the Western Civ version of walking barefoot over hot coals?

The creator of this thread described himself or herself, saying "I am 23 (and poor) and want to learn more about wine, and while I have read books and been to vineyards and wineries in Napa, Washington state, Tuscany and Alsace, I still feel like I know very little."

Various board members replied, most offering very good practical advice about tasting, reading books, not buying expensive wines (a piece of advice someone 23 and poor will have no difficulty following) and so on. That they have already laid the foundation of practicality allows me to write the following:

My Dear Newbie,

Like anyone who loves wine, I'm delighted that you too find yourself at least intrigued and maybe even enthralled by wine. Chances are you've already received all sorts of practical advice about how to read a wine label; how to buy wine and get the best deal; how you should avail yourself of every tasting opportunity, and so forth. This is all worthwhile.

But what most folks don't tell newbies is that finding the wines that will give you not just pleasure but "life satisfaction" depends upon recognizing what you're really seeking. The poet E. E. Cummings put it as well as anybody ever has when he wrote, "Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question."

The real trick, in short, is to discover your particular "more beautiful questions." Allow me to explain.

Recently, I was in Napa Valley and was tasting a Cabernet that is, by most estimations, a lovely wine. And it was a lovely wine: dense, fragrant, irresistibly supple and oh-so pleasing. A lot of people like it. They like it so much, in fact, that they pay a triple-digit price for it. Money is the sincerest form of flattery.

Yet I've never cared overly for the wine, although I sure don't push it away either. Here we come to the "beautiful question" part. Whenever you taste a wine that goes beyond the ordinary (dull wines allow only the dullest demands), you've got to go beyond the usual techno-talk about tannins or acidity or oakiness. If those are your "more beautiful questions" I promise you that you'll never really "get into" wine. This is why, I'm sorry to say, so many winemakers aren't really very insightful tasters. They don't ask especially beautiful questions.

So what was my problem with this perfectly fine Napa Cabernet? It had no "edge." Really good and, especially, great wines, for me anyway, have an "edge." It's a certain something that not only fascinates, but challenges. This Napa Cabernet offered no challenge. It only offered—dare I say it?—pleasure.

I can hear you now: What's wrong with pleasure? Nothing, of course. But the so-called "hedonic" approach to wine reduces all wines to the simple, knee-jerk palate-pull of "it gives me pleasure, therefore it's good."

Big mistake. If that's your "more beautiful question" you will find yourself preferring ever-bigger, ever-fruitier, ever more oaky wines that slide down the gullet without a catch.

You will unconsciously first avoid and then, as you grow more confident, condemn any wines that disturb your ease. You will prefer a sense of sweetness in what are supposed to be dry wines, either actual in terms of residual sugar, or effectively, from intense fruitiness and vanilla-scented oakiness.

Now, you may say, "That's what I like. So why should I change?" Fair enough. There's no obligation to go beyond the pleasure pursuit. But you may be sure of this: If you really want to "get into" wine, you'll never do it if mere pleasure is the measure.

What you ask of a wine determines which wines you'll choose—or be offered. It's a Ouija board thing. Through subtle cues when you ask advice at wineshops, from sommeliers and, yes, on wine chat boards, you'll almost predetermine the advice/suggestions you'll wind up getting by signaling your "more beautiful question."

Try it for yourself. Next time you go to a restaurant that has a good wine list and a sommelier who strikes you as sympathetic, ask him or her, "If I said to you that I like wines with an 'edge,' what would you propose?" However vague this term "edge" may seem, I guarantee you that they'll get it.

Here's the tricky part: At first you may not like what's put in front of you. If your palate has been lulled by "easy" wines, those with an "edge" might at first seem, well, edgy. Perhaps a little acidic. Certainly challenging. This is why you should do this experiment in a restaurant because to become comfortable with such wines requires food alongside. (Many, if not most, "pleasure wines" are persuasive as stand-alones, while wines with an edge only rarely show well without food.)

Depending upon the sommelier—and the type of restaurant—you may get a really good Muscadet, which delivers an almost electric acidity that pairs famously with shellfish. Or an earthy Auxey-Duresses (red or white) from Burgundy, which would go beautifully with strong-flavored cheeses. Or you may get a wine that’s made differently from the norm, such as the trendy “skin-contact whites,” where a dry white wine is fermented on the skins (most white wines aren’t), resulting in a coppery/bronze hue that would seem to signal oxidation, yet it’s not so. Talk about an “edge.” Or a white made from unusual grape varieties, such as the dry Spanish whites Albariño or Hondarrabi Zuri. Or a dry Furmint from Hungary. Or a characterful, high-elevation red or white from California or Argentina.

The bottom line is simple: With wine, like so many other things, you get what you ask for. The trick is recognizing what you're really asking for. Look inside yourself and inquire, "What do I really want from wine?"

Do you want to hear the Earth speak? Or do you simply want not to be fussed? The choice is yours. And wineshops, sommeliers and chat board advisors are ever at the ready to give you what you say—subtly and otherwise—you want.

As no less a wine lover than Socrates said, “Know thyself.”

Good luck and good drinking.

Your pal,


Education Opinion

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