Wines of Pleasure vs. Wines of Experience

What you get and what you miss come from what you seek
Wines of Pleasure vs. Wines of Experience
Matt Kramer says that expectation and experience can limit the enjoyment of a "wine of pleasure." (Jon Moe)
Mar 17, 2015

I have come to the conclusion—and you may very well disagree based on your own experience—that wine lovers eventually fall into one of two camps. Simply put, you either want your wine to give you pleasure or you want your wine to deliver an "experience."

Now, I recognize that the two camps are not mutually exclusive. A "wine of experience" can also be a "wine of pleasure." That acknowledged, the dichotomy is no less real.

I know a guy who, having deep pockets, almost exclusively drinks exceptionally high quality wine. In other words, he drinks daily, as a matter of course, the world's greatest and most famous wines.

What's not to like, you say? Granted, it's an enviable situation. But quite unknowingly, he's also painted himself into a sensory corner. He expects every wine to be not just pleasurable, but an experience. And if a wine doesn't deliver that sort of dimensionality, which, after all, is the distinguishing feature of all truly great wines, then he's uninterested.

Now, this situation is not a matter of wines being well- or badly made. Nor is it a matter of not recognizing or acknowledging that, inevitably, some wines are better than others. Rather, it's a matter of what's expected of "fine wine."

That expectation is surprisingly powerful. Consciously or not, it will shape what you drink, what you buy, what you value and, above all, what you understand about wine.

Money plays a role in this, as A. J. Liebling in his masterpiece Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1959) noted about food in a chapter titled "Just Enough Money":

"A man who is rich in adolescence is almost doomed to be a dilettante at table. This is not because all millionaires are stupid, but because they are not impelled to experiment. … There is small likelihood that a rich man will frequent modest restaurants even at the beginning of his gustatory career; he will patronize restaurants, sometimes good, where the prices are high and the repertory is limited to dishes for which it is conventionally permissible to charge high prices. From this list, he will order the dishes that in his limited experience he has already found agreeable. Later, when his habits are formed, he will distrust the originality that he has never been constrained to develop."

Clearly, if you can afford to drink what generally (and often myopically) is described as "the best," then the effect that Liebling mentions is almost inevitable.

But I would submit that the effect goes beyond the matter of affordability and exposure. Instead, it's a function of a fundamental preference: Do you demand that every wine you drink—or at least value—deliver an "experience"? If you do, then you have, wittingly or otherwise, ghettoized your taste.

Let me give you an example. Recently, I ordered at A16 restaurant in San Francisco, which has an extraordinary wine list specializing in southern Italian wines, a red wine made from the antique Cesanese grape variety, which is grown mostly in the area around Rome. (For you Italian wine geeks, it was 2012 Damiano Ciolli Cesanese di Olevano Romano Silene.)

Now, Cesanese is a slightly spicy red wine with intriguing notes of fruits such as pomegranate and mulberry. But it is not a "wine of experience." Unlike with, say, a fine Barolo or grand cru Chablis, your understanding of the possibilities of the natural world will not be so enlarged as to allow you to say, "I never knew that the Earth had such a message to convey." That's what a "wine of experience" delivers.

Instead, this lovely Cesanese was a "wine of pleasure." It was an ideal choice (among many other equally ideal choices) for the pizza bianca we had ordered. It did not rock your world. It offered pleasure, which is no small thing.

But I know that the fellow I was referring to earlier would not have appreciated the wine for what it so admirably is. He could not accept its appeal as being as desirable, and as legitimate—to say nothing of preferable in the particulars of that meal—as a "wine of experience."

It's too easy to describe such a reaction as snobbery. Rather, it's a matter of expectation. As Liebling astutely noted, "When his habits are formed, he will distrust the originality that he has never been constrained to develop."

This distinction between "wines of pleasure" and "wines of experience" is important if only because too often those of us who write about wine—and those of us who read about wine—are obsessively focused on "wines of experience." Only those, if only because of the attention lavished upon them, are fully legitimatized. By definition, everything else is "lesser," if only by inference.

If what you or I seek—or exalt—is limited to wines of experience, then we have unjustly created not only a vast second-class citizenry of wines, but worse yet, have constricted our palates by shriveling our values.

Yes, "wines of experience" represent a benchmark. But it is only one sort of benchmark. Talk to any Burgundy grower fortunate enough to own a parcel of grand cru vineyard and he or she will also tell you of their pride in the "mere" Bourgogne rouge or blanc that they also make. They know, better than most, that the beauty of wine is not confined solely to the dramatic likes of a grand cru.

"The best is the enemy of the good," said Voltaire ("Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien"). He wasn't talking about wine. But he may as well have been.

Opinion

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