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Drinking Out Loud

In Praise of Wine Monogamy

Can you really know wine if you're always playing the field?

Matt Kramer
Posted: 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?

Stephen W Simpson
Acton, MA —  May 3, 2011 2:37pm ET
Matt - As usual, a well written piece.

Even as a self-classified newbie I do not doubt that focus will be required to further my knowledge of wines to the point of bonding with the wine's terroir. How else could I possibly appreciate the differences among vintages and winemakers, let alone terroir, without this focus. Who (other than one who evaluates wine as profession) has the time and/or resources required to delve deeply into more than one or two regions at a time.

And indeed, if my tastes and fancies lead me to wines that require an understanding of aged wines, it is likely that financial resources or even physical storage space will be a limiting factor.

As I commented on a previous piece of yours, by my inquisitive nature, I will want to understand as much as possible about my "settled" wines, their terroir, their vineyard techniques, vineyard history and wine making techniques among others factors. Once again, I perceive this is only possible with the "less is more" approach.

In the meantime, I shall enjoy my newbie status and the steep learning curve I now climb.

Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  May 3, 2011 4:03pm ET
I have to agree. Make no mistake, I still dabble in the new (to me) and the different but I have discovered on my own that I am not versatile enough to drink with wild abandon and expect to actually learn something. Besides my pockets are not nearly deep enough. Importantly I do want to learn about wine. I am fascinated by the experience, the grapes, the terroir and that is why I limit most of my exploration to Rhone varietals. I find that I have become more fluent not only in Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignane, Rousanne and Grenache Blanc but also in the differences that exist between France, Australia, Spain, Washington and the Central Coast. I can see clearly that within this range that it will be years before I start to become as competent as I want to be but the journey is more important than the destination. Now, I have to decide if the summer with its Rose' diversions is a distraction or a side trip. I think I am going with side trip.

Thought provoking, as always, Mr. Kramer
Rob Scarpelli
Elburn IL —  May 3, 2011 11:01pm ET
Very thought provoking piece.
In thinking through the evolution of my experience with wine I actually approached it in an inverse order it seems.
When I first got into wine I found myself focusing on specific regions or varietals for a season or two, trying differnent producers wihtin a region or vintage etc. But as time passed it seems I started to "play the field". In reading all the reviews of new wines coming out I was tempted by all that was out there that I was not experiencing. I began to "play the field" and try to purchase the best wines for the money, or those with great ratings, etc.
Now I find myself wanting to settle back down and really truly learn more as you say.
My wife and I are considering a trip to Italy for our 10 year anniverary which is two years away. I think that's going to be our focus for the next two years...that is until maybe the next best thing comes along.
Gib Masters
Oregon —  May 3, 2011 11:21pm ET
I'm sticking with the girl what brung me (Oregon), flirting with the girl next door (Washington) and occasionally unfaithful with that gal with the delicious accent (Australia). Sure, I've had flings with some ladies of Spain, a French mistress from the Loire, but Oregon Pinot (and Ken Wright in particular) were my first love, and you just never get over that. And no, I don't wish they all they could be California girls.

Lots to be grateful for here in the Willamette Valley. I'd be a cad to be unfaithful.
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  May 4, 2011 10:59am ET
Well put. When I was getting into wine, my work took me to Israel, where I spent a number of years and had a terrific opportunity to explore that country's wines, the majority of which come from small plantings. Only upon my return to Canada did I realize how my palate had become attuned to Mediterranean tastes.

Reflecting on my own experience, and going on a tangent, I wonder if it is not in actively-learning readers' interests for professional reviewers to sample, not by region, but by varietal. To illustrate: my wife and I are learning about NZ sauvignon blanc, and we have one of the world's best retailers in the world in Ontario. Yet, there may not always be a new NZ sauv blanc that we want to try, so facing the choice of going with something that we just tried and something with something unappealing, we will usually go with door 3: a sauv blanc that looks interesting, from a new region. Doing this has consistently resulted in a good learning experience and helps us frame our understanding of the grape. Speaking with retailers and fellow consumers, this is a common approach, including for those who take their wine seriously.

The implication of this is that reviews are enhanced when framed within a broader context. Pinot noir illustrates this well: if I am learning about cooler-climate pinots from Ontario or NZ/North Island and am thinking of getting a village-level burgundy at the same price point, the latter may be a 92-pointer for those who are into burgundies, but compared to the Ontario or NZ alternatives at a similar price point, the burgundy will often come across as bland, lacking aromatics, palette, complexity and structure. I give this example as it is quite prevalent.

Worth having two scores -- one blind-tasted for specialist readers, one not for casual and developing fans -- to help light the pedagogical way?

Sam Bremer
Minneapolis, MN —  May 4, 2011 11:48am ET
Thanks Matt for the nice piece but I am going to have to respectfully disagree with your take. Using your mountain climbing analogy and converting it to golf, if someone who plays the same golf course every day and is a great putter on that golf course that doesn’t necessarily make them a great putter overall because they have not experienced other grass types, undulations, speeds, and a host other elements that can affect how they putt. The same is true for wine. Is the real joy in wine getting to be an expert of one grape or region or is it the journey one takes as they explore and learn about the countless number of grapes, regions, cultures, and foods that all make up the experience? We tend in this day and age to be so focused on an end result or the future that we forget to stop and enjoy the journey.
I also think that while it’s great to have a “go to” region or grape that you know you will enjoy I have also found that some of the best learning’s I have is from trying to figure why I do not enjoy a certain grape, producer, or region. To many it is through our failures that we learn the most, we can gain a better understanding of the wines we do like, and in the end I have in certain cases found a new respect or understanding for those wines I didn’t like in the past and can now enjoy them for what they are supposed to be if they are good expressions of that region or grape.
If we limit ourselves we may take a faster route to understanding one piece, but it’s really only through taking a life long journey through wine as whole exploring the regions and cultures as well that will give us a complete and better understanding of why wine is the special thing that it is.
Ryan Schmied
Miami, FL. USA —  May 4, 2011 1:04pm ET
I couldn't agree more with your feelings, Mr. Kramer. When I started drinking wine, I realized I loved McLaren Vale Shiraz and Barossa Shiraz. From there I learned about those regions. Then Magaret River, Clare Valley, Victoria, and all the other great Aussie Shiraz regions.

Once done with that obsession, I moved my interests to the Northern Rhone, Syrah's home and next logical step. Learned about all the differnt AOCs, tasted what I could afford, and so on and so forth...

I go through intense obsessions with particular grapes or regions, fully immerse myself in them and once move on to the next. Now, I'm in my Beaujolais Cru phase (loving the 09s) and who knows where I will be next!
The Odom Corporation
oregon —  May 4, 2011 2:27pm ET
Piedmont, Piedmont, Piedmont, with some Burgundy and Champagne thrown in for variety.
Jonathan Lawrence
somewhere in the world —  May 6, 2011 8:24am ET
Personally, no, I've never met anyone who has tasted an "awful lot" of wine yet knows nothing "really important" about wine. But doesn't your "really important" beg the question? Who decides what is "really important"? And what is the "real insight" to which you allude in your final paragraph?

It's difficult to know a great deal about any one wine, though, without knowing a fair amount about all wines, that is, about wine as a total phenomenon. In any case, I don't think anyone needs to be encouraged to focus on the wines that they like most.
Jonathan Rezabek
Chandler, AZ —  May 6, 2011 9:51am ET
Matt, I have come to that realization of late. It took me a while to articulate what qualities I like most in a particular wine after having tasted anything and everything I could. By having a particular profile you are able to narrow down your selection by grape then region then winemaker then vintage. For reds my tastes lean more towards clean, red fruit, acidity, and minerality, so you will find me in France and Italy with more traditional producers in not-as-blockbuster type vintages (unless they have significant bottle age).
Tom Miller
Vestavia Hills, AL —  May 14, 2011 1:53pm ET

On point, as usual. When I started to seriously get into wine over 30 years ago, it was all California Cabs. I dabbled in Bordeaux but got real serious when the '82 futures came out. Then, in the mid-80s, a few trips to Oregon and my epiphany wine (1983 Yamhill Valley Vineyards) changed my whole outlook. I had found a varietal that went with a greater diversity of food groups. That, in turn, led to Burgundy (Dujac and Jadot in the early days) and California Pinots (Au Bon Climat and Calera in the early days).

And although there isn't much I haven't tried and there are still many other red and white wines I really enjoy, it's still Pinot noir that makes my tongue beat my eyeballs out. Go to the International Pinot noir Celebration in McMinnville in late July or the World of Pinot noir in Shell Beach in March, meet some great winemakers, make some new friends, taste a boatload of great wine and thank yourself later.
Dustin Gillson
Dayton, OH —  July 30, 2011 3:18pm ET
I might like to add that I believe the counterpoint to this discussion and the reason the "climb every mountain" approach is pushed so hard in so many places comes from the demographic to which this is pushed. It seems to me that the "newbies" that you mention are still somewhat versed in the wine world and have moved beyond only buying in their "comfort zone." I believe there is another level of entry-level newbie which is more intimidated by an enormous selection at a wine shop and will strictly adhere to the 2 or 3 wines they remember having and not hating. I might take your conclusions and clarify that the "climb every mountain" approach should be sold on those just realizing there may be something to wine and witheld from those who likely know what they like and deny it for the sake of keeping an open mind.

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