In Praise of Wine Monogamy

Can you really know wine if you're always playing the field?
May 3, 2011

At various wine events, seminars, tastings and even when bellying up to the wine bar, I'm often asked, "What's the best way to really learn about wine?" My answer, admittedly cryptic, is, "Settle down."

Now, I admit this advice hardly suffices as an explanation. But allow me to ask you this: How many times have you met someone who clearly has tasted an awful lot of wines and yet, just as clearly, seems to know nothing really important about wine?

I'll wager that you've met a depressingly large number of people who fit that description. Furthermore, I'll double down on that wager and submit that the reason these people don't seem to really know wine is that they are constantly playing the field.

It's an article of faith in our era that diversity is always desirable. With wine, obviously, there's a vast array to be tasted. Only a fool would not avail himself or herself of the opportunity to taste wines from the dozens of countries now issuing interesting wines. So let us stipulate, as the lawyers say, that wine diversity is a wonderful thing.

That said, I feel obliged to point out that if you really want to know about wine—if you want to fully understand—you're going to have to settle down. You're going to have to focus your, er, promiscuous attentions. To borrow from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, less is more.

If I've learned anything over the decades, it's that eventually you will have to focus your wine interest. You might ask, "Why should I forgo the pleasures of the many in exchange for the restriction of the few?" This is a legitimate question. Let me frame my response in the words of the anthropologist Richard Nelson. In The Island Within, Nelson described what he learned from living with the native Koyukon people of Alaska: "I believe that the Koyukon people's extraordinary relationship to their natural community has emerged through this careful watching of the same events in the same place, endlessly repeated over lifetimes and generations and millennia."

"There may be more to learn by climbing the same mountain a hundred times than by climbing a hundred different mountains."

I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement. "There may be more to learn by climbing the same mountain a hundred times than by climbing a hundred different mountains." Wine is no different—at least if some kind of real understanding, as opposed to mere pleasure—is what you seek.

"If you're no longer a newbie and you wish to get to the next stage, I would advise that you ask yourself this question: Which wine do I love most in the world?"

Let me be blunt: I don't think that anyone can achieve a real grasp of wine by playing the field. I can't think of anyone who I consider insightful about wine who has not, over the years, narrowed his or her focus. There is no such thing as a universal taster.

If my own experience is anything to go by (and I look forward to hearing of your experiences), the focus that leads to insight starts effortlessly from simple taste preference. You find that you like, say, Cabernet Sauvignon more than Merlot. So you start drinking and buying and thinking more about the one than the other.

Eventually, an element of volition enters into the picture. You consciously decide to explore more deeply, say, the specific Napa Valley Cabernets of, say, Oakville or Howell Mountain or Stags Leap District. Or you decide to pursue Barolo and Barbaresco, perhaps because you've visited there and were enraptured by the landscape, the people and the glorious food. Sometimes it's a merchant whose own enthusiasm and insight ignites your curiosity.

To some, this approach smacks of specialization. And in our world of over-specialization, the last thing any of us wants is to have that extend to wine. I understand. And I agree—up to a point. What I am suggesting here is less a matter of specialization and more a matter of in-depth inquiry.

If you are a "newbie" to wine I would tell you, absolutely, play the field. You'll never know what you like or what emotionally moves you without knowing what's out there. That's just common sense.

But if you're no longer a newbie and you wish to get to the next stage, I would advise that you ask yourself this question: Which wine do I love most in the world? You might be surprised at how easily you can answer that question. And if the answer does come easily, then you know what to do next: Get hitched. Find the wine you love and marry it.

You can marry more than one wine at the time. But if my own experience is anything to go by, I have found that it's hard to marry more than a couple of wines at a time. Moreover, I've also found that one tends to "marry" within the family as it were—investigating, say, Barbera with Barolo, or pursuing Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs alongside Chardonnay or Zinfandel from that same district.

The pleasure of such an investigation is that you discover—however strange this may sound—that wine goes beyond taste. You realize that, yes, there is a particular quality and distinction to wines from the Russian River Valley. And you find that the pleasure of being able to recognize this adds immeasurably to the mere "taste pleasure" that previously sufficed.

I believe this is an important subject today if only because we are so encouraged, so often, by so many, to "keep an open mind," "embrace diversity," "climb every mountain," etc. Such life-affirming advice is all to the good. Yet it's not so with wine. If you actually adhere to the "climb every mountain" approach, you are doomed to remain a "tourist of wine."

Of course, you can't engage deeply all at once. And there's no need to. But without this sort of devotion, I'm prepared to say that you will never truly know wine.

What say you? Those of you who have lovingly pursued wine for years, for decades, have you arrived at the same conclusion? When it comes to knowing wine, to acquiring real insight, does this "less is more" approach correspond to your own experience? Or is "less is more" just not enough?


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