The other night I served to some guests what I thought was an absolute beauty of a dry white wine. We were having a simple fish dish and I figured that one of my beloved Muscadets was just the ticket. I figured wrong.
"So tell me," said one of my guests in her most diplomatic, I'm-trying-to-be-reasonable-here voice, "what exactly is the appeal of this wine?"
"It's the stoniness," I said. "The minerality. The crispness. The sheer originality."
"I'd rather have a Chardonnay," she replied.
Yes, you'd think I would have learned my lesson by now. This was hardly the first time that I've trotted out a wine that others have considered about as attractive as a five-day-old flounder. Is it my fault? Sure it is. My job as a host is to please my guests.
But we wine writer types are nothing if not evangelical. The old Star Trek line—"To explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before"—well, that's what wine writers are supposed to do, right?
"Not with guests," said my wife. "How about a nice Chardonnay?"
I've got nothing against Chardonnay. Really. But wouldn't you like an intriguing dry white from Portugal's Douro Valley made from who-ever-heard-of-them grapes such as Viosinho, Rabigato, Codega do Larinho and Gouveio? Or one of those unpronounceable but delectable dry whites from high-elevation vineyards in Greece?
How about one of the many dry Chenin Blancs from France's Loire Valley? Or a delicious dry Sémillon from Australia's Hunter Valley, north of Sydney? Or a dry white from the Carricante grape variety, redolent of rocks, from Sicily's Mount Etna?
Wine greatness is a two-way street. It's not enough for a producer to find an exceptional site, craft a lovely wine and then get it to us. Someone also has to appreciate it at the other end. That's us.
We have responsibilities too. Yes, yes, of course you should drink what you like. But let me be blunt: Don't tell me what a great wine lover you are if all you want to drink is the same handful of wines. Today more than ever there is an increasingly big difference between a wine drinker (once rare in America, but no more) and a wine lover (a rare creature anywhere).
So how do you "get" wine? Allow me to acknowledge from the outset that none of us, which assuredly includes me, too, will either like or "get" every genuinely fine wine out there. (Myself, I don't care for Sherry, as I don't enjoy oxidation.)
The key is a willingness to make an effort. The effort is twofold. Part one is trying wines that are new to you. This in itself requires a certain proactiveness. Put bluntly: Don't look to your supermarket for really interesting wines. Make the effort to visit a specialty wineshop.
Once there, try to find a salesperson with whom you feel comfortable. (I personally recoil from guys who declare, "This is the best Chardonnay we've had in the store this year." What I hear in that is, "The distributor is blowing it out and we're making a helluva markup on this rather oaky, stupid wine that most folks will like.")
Part two occurs once you find a wine you really like. This is the moment where wine lovers differentiate themselves from mere wine likers. In my experience, many wine drinkers are, well, passive. A wine gets put in front of them. They say they like it. But then, only hours later, they can't remember anything about it.
I get calls from friends that go something like this: "Hey, I was at our favorite restaurant last night and we had a wine I really liked."
"Great!” I say. "What was it?"
"Yeah, well, that's what I'm trying to remember. It was Italian, I think. I thought you might be able to figure it out because you know their list."
I make some apologetic noises and the phone call dribbles off. What I don't say (but would like to) is: "Make a note! Borrow a pen and write it down: Name, producer, vintage." Or you could take the empty bottle home with you. Some restaurants are handy at removing the label for you (which these days is getting harder as label glues grow more tenacious).
Once you have that information at hand, jump on the Internet. Check out the Wine Spectator site for more information. Check out the winery's website. Look at see what other wine lovers have written on chat boards or cellar note–sharing sites. And not least, tell your retailer that you enjoyed this wine and ask if there are any more at home like that one.
Only after all of this—and a few more bottles of wines from different producers in the same zone—will you "get" it. You liked that Barbaresco you had? Wonderful. Hunt down some more. Read all about it. After a mere handful of examples, preferably with some food, you'll "get" Barbaresco.
And what about wines that you don't care for, such as when my guest diplomatically rejected the Muscadet? A real wine lover might ask, "Is this something everyone who knows wine would acclaim?"
In the case of the Muscadet, I would honestly have to answer no, not really. It's a quirky wine that appeals to those who like higher-acidity, leaner white wines. But what if it was, say, a good vintage of Château Margaux or a great white Burgundy such as Meursault Perrières? What if it was a great Napa Cabernet or a stellar Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir?
Ah, then I would have to say “Make an effort.” Because that's often what it takes.