What Should Newbies Know?

If you were teaching newcomers to wine, what would you tell them?
Mar 15, 2011

SINGAPORE—Whenever I’m asked to speak in front of a group, especially in a place such as Singapore where wine is just becoming an object of intense interest, I always point out that being an American is an asset.

This cryptic comment always draws quizzical looks. Being an American, I explain, is an asset because we know what it’s like to be a newcomer to wine. We know what it’s like to not know.

I mention this here because there’s been some snickering about those boorish Asians who allegedly add soda pop to their insanely priced Château Lafite Rothschild. Yeah, probably someone did such a thing and it got written up. Or maybe it’s just an urban legend. The reality, as best as I’ve seen so far in trips to Japan, China and now Singapore in the past five months, is something more akin to what we Americans were like just a few decades ago.

Until the rise of wine culture in Japan, and now China and Singapore, we Americans were the world’s greatest tribe of wine newbies. Most of us didn’t grow up with wine. My parents never drank wine. Indeed, they didn’t drink anything alcoholic except an occasional cocktail at a party in order to be “sociable.” I’ll bet you anything that the same could be said for most of your parents, too—at least if you’re old enough to be in the Baby Boomer cohort.

The key point is this: Most American wine lovers are almost as new to wine as most Asian wine lovers are. I don’t know about you, but I remember vividly the bafflement of wine: all that label lingo (in French no less); the seeming arbitrariness of pricing; the snobbery; the humiliation of facing a big wine list in a restaurant skewed to exorbitantly priced wines. Do you remember all that? I’ll bet you do.

So when I was at a dinner in Singapore recently, in front of a group of wine newbies (mostly anyway, as best as I could tell), I tried to convey what I thought wine newbies should know. I didn’t put it that way, mind you. Nobody likes to think of himself or herself as a “newbie.” It creates a needless, and condescending, separation. After all, everyone begins as a newbie. Even you. Even me.

Here’s what I tried to tell them:

• The Big Lie of wine is “If you like it, it’s good.” Every wine evangelist likes to tell newbies this nonsense, the better to make them feel happy and secure. It’s infantilizing. What you like is just that: what you like. You should drink what you like, no question. But assuming that your liking of it automatically makes it “good” is the worst sort of ignorant arrogance. And those who give you such “absolution” are patronizing you, however well-meant their intentions.

• If you want to know what “good” is, you’re going to have to make comparisons. Whether you do so in the structured environment of a wine-tasting class or just at home with a couple of bottles of the same type of wine, you have to make comparisons in order to know better from worse.

Too often, wine tasting teachers make a big deal out of this, emphasizing all sorts of technical doo-dah about tannins, acidity and the “right” vocabulary. That’s all useful, to be sure. But what matters—the only thing that really matters—is your mental stance. As soon as you, as an interested wine drinker, start mentally comparing one wine to another, you’re on your way.

My experience in teaching numerous wine classes is that when given two wines of the same type with obvious quality differences, most tasters most of the time will prefer what is indeed the better wine. What newbies don’t know—how can they?—is why their preferred wine is better.

• Deduct two points from any score over 90 and add three points to any score over 80. This always gets a laugh. And sure, it’s meant only half-seriously. But it’s not bad advice all the same.

Everybody knows that only scores of 90 points and higher have power in the marketplace. So an awful lot of really good, worthwhile wines find themselves in the limbo of, say, 88 points. Like the Federal Reserve, folks who give scores have to worry about inflation. So they try to hold back on that precious 10-point spread between 90 and 100 points.

Consciously or otherwise, an awful lot of really good wines don’t get the benediction of a 90-point-or-higher score. Inevitably, perceptions get skewed. Life is unfair.

So my advice to newbies is to muffle the siren call of those 90-point scores by deducting two points and to increase the potency of the 80-point range by adding three points. Voilà! That delightful Bourgogne rouge that received “only” 88 points suddenly becomes an irresistible 91-point beauty—one that probably has an invitingly low price, too.

Sure, it’s a game, like choosing the third least-expensive bottle on a wine list. But I don’t see much of a down side (the 90-pointers will still be in the running), and there’s a helluva upside for many of today’s best wine deals.

• Smaller usually is better—but not always. We all know that really good wines have limits. But sometimes those limits are surprisingly large. Wine producers everywhere know that there’s a prejudice against large production, never mind the quality. This is why Dom Pérignon, which is terrific Champagne, never reveals its (sizable) production figures. Its parent producer, Moët & Chandon, knows full well that if the world knew how much Dom Pérignon gets made every year, people would (wrongly) think less of it.

That acknowledged, smaller-production wines offer, at minimum, the possibility of greater individuality. This is something that newbies everywhere discover for themselves—and need to know. And if there’s any difference between wine newbies today and those of a few decades ago, it’s that today’s newbies are able to learn this lesson sooner, and more easily, than any other newcomers in wine history.

Here’s an example of how today’s newbies are so much better off. Singapore is home to an ambitious merchant called Artisan Cellars that specializes in air-freighting the wines of small, artisanal producers to this hot, humid, relentlessly air-conditioned city (Singapore is just north of the equator). When I met co-owner and general manager Henry Hariyono, 40, he popped open one of the finest single-grower French Champagnes I’ve yet come across from a producer with an extremely limited production: the Ulysse Collin Extra Brut.

A 100 percent Chardonnay Champagne with an intense chalk dust scent, Ulysse Collin is barrel-fermented, has no apparent dosage (the dollop of sweetness added to most Champagnes) and sported a precise disgorgement date (Oct. 10, 2010, on the bottle I had). This is what great, truly individual wine can be. What a lesson!

I don’t mind saying that when I was a wine newbie, 35 years ago, I had no such opportunity to learn so important, even vital, a lesson about wine quality and originality.

When I asked Mr. Hariyono about his clients, I expected him to tell me that it was expats, as Singapore is chockablock with Americans, Brits, Australians and others making stunning amounts of money in Singapore’s vibrant financial sector. His answer surprised me.

“None of my clients are expats,” he said. “All the expats seem to do is complain about how expensive wines are here compared to in their home countries. They don’t want to pay, even though the prices aren’t necessarily all that much higher for many high-end wines. My clients are Malaysian, Indonesian and Chinese.”

And are they buying the profoundly individual deliciousness of Ulysse Collin Extra Brut? Mr. Hariyono laughed. “People in their 50s are more prestige-oriented,” he said. “They want name brands that their friends will recognize. However, young professionals are more what you’d call ‘lifestyle.’ They’ve been everywhere. They’ve been educated abroad. They’re open and available. I’ve now got some 20 different grower Champagnes. And believe me, they’re selling.”

Sound familiar? Places like Singapore—educated, rich, ambitious—are the future of 21st-century fine wine, just like the United States in the late 20th-century.

Sure, they’re mostly still wine newbies in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia. But not for long. Not with these sorts of opportunities. So what would you tell them?

Opinion

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