Why Wine?

The answer is much more than its physical effect
Why Wine?
Matt Kramer says the draw of a great value wine isn't just financial. (Jon Moe)
Dec 15, 2015

"Our present western world is harassed, hustled and driven. It excludes leisure, tranquillity, permits no unexciting pursuits, no contemplation, no slow maturing of ideas, no perfectioning of individual style." —Bernard Berenson (1956)

"Why wine?" It's a question I get asked from time to time, usually at a dinner party or in a casual encounter with someone who discovers what I do for a living. Typically, I offer a throwaway, cavalier reply such as, "It beats working" (which it sure does).

What I rarely, if ever, say is that wine—fine wine, that is—offers us a shot at a sort of peace in unpeaceful times. I can't imagine what the famous art critic Bernard Berenson would have thought of 2015 if he already saw the likes of 1956 as "harassed, hustled and driven."

Let's say this much: Whatever the benefits of our era, and they are many, nobody can say that it offers tranquillity. Wine does. Or it can, anyway.

We're all aware of the consumerist quality of wine loving. I feel it too—and I like it. Which wine to buy? Which producer? Which vintage? How much money is too much money? I love buying wine. I like the weighing of choices, the calibration of how much I want of something I consider beautiful against what I can really afford.

This is why, by the way, there's always an attraction to wines that offer exceptional quality at a price lower than what such quality usually asks. Such wines are known for their "QPR," the common shorthand for having a good quality-to-price ratio.

Actually, the draw of QPR is more than monetary. Such wines offer sport, like landing a weighty fish on a light line. You don't get that with trophy wines. For those, all that's needed is the leverage of money. You simply muscle such fish into your boat (or more likely, yacht).

But once you've bought your wine, then what? The big question then is: How long should you age it? When you've arrived at this question you have crossed the Big Divide between casual wine drinkers and those looking for something more than a pleasant sip. After all, surveys have shown, seemingly forever, that most of all the wine purchased is consumed within 24 hours.

Although it's hardly conscious, once you consider aging a wine, never mind for how long, you're really pursuing some sort of Berensonian ideal of leisure, tranquillity, contemplation, a slow maturing of an idea and, above all, Berenson's "perfectioning of an individual style."

Personally, I love going to a dinner party with wine-loving (or at least wine-interested) friends and bringing a bottle or two of some cellared wine of which I'm rather proud.

Invariably, it's a QPR item, as that's my particular rowboat. Sometimes I even buy a wine that, years later, actually is worth far more than what I paid, thanks to a changing market (Burgundy) or a rising tide (Napa Cabernet). But those are flukes. Usually, what I buy were esoteric then and still oddball today.

Nevertheless, like some sort of wine dandy, I'm secretly proud of what I fancy is a perfectioning of an individual style. I mean, not everyone can offer his or her friends a venerable Gattinara (finally, it's getting some attention today) or trot out the likes of the Hungarian white grape variety called Juhfark. (At a private lunch at Betony restaurant in New York with a group of Portuguese wine producers, I chose from the restaurant list a Juhfark from the producer Laposa. Everyone at the table was stunned by its quality and individuality.)

Sometimes, I have to say, I've waited too long for a wine. This is one of those mistakes of youth that's probably unavoidable. We're told that certain wines get better with age thanks to a transformation that requires time in the bottle. All right, then, I'll wait. Time goes by and you keep buying and the pressure to open that bottle lessens as the collection of bottles keeps growing. Amazingly, you forget you even own the wine. (I never thought I'd reach such a moment in my wine-buying life.)

Eventually, you open your now well-aged wine only to realize that you're drinking it on the down side. I can't tell you the number of well-aged wine drinkers who say in their maturity that they now prefer to drink a wine on it's way up rather than risk seeing it on its slide down.

Such judgments are a matter of taste, of course. Some drinkers love old wines for their venerability and are prepared to exchange the physical pleasure of fresh fruit for the more intellectual pleasure of nuanced, if faint, flavor subtlety.

What you want is to get both, of course, which is why we read about fabulous tastings of old wines that taste anything but old. I went to just such a tasting this past year when my wine heroine Lalou Bize-Leroy decided to celebrate her 60th anniversary of her entry into the family wine business by opening two dozen different 1955 red Burgundies from the legendary Leroy wine cellars.

Most, although not all, of the wines achieved the seemingly impossible, which is the contradiction of being both old and young at the same time. Yes, you can have it all—a youthful fruit with the wisdom of wine age—but not very often. When you experience that, you don't quickly forget it.

As the year draws to a close, it's easy to see that Mr. Berenson is more right than ever. Yet wine offers an escape. If we're so inclined, we can, at least momentarily, resist being harassed, hustled and driven. By savoring a fine wine, never mind whether it's young or old, we can achieve a sense of leisure and tranquillity. It is a quietly exciting pursuit.

Not least, wine admits contemplation and a slow maturing of ideas. And I do love that perfectioning of individual style.

All this is what I want to tell acquaintances who innocently ask me "Why wine?" But obviously I can't say what I just have. But what I do say is true enough: It sure does beat working.


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