It can sometimes seem to outsiders that people who have been in the "wine game" for a good number of years have nothing left to learn. Not true.
While the learning curve always seems steep when you're just starting out—never mind the subject—the fact is that, if you've got a brain, there's always something left to learn. The great noir writer Raymond Chandler put it best: "There are no dull subjects, only dull minds."
Looking back over the past year I found myself lingering over what I’d learned. The learning did not come in any orderly fashion. Indeed, if I've learned anything, it's that rarely does any substantial learning arrive in anything resembling an orderly fashion.
All my life, whatever I believe I have learned has come to me more in a series of flashes of inspiration or insights, or just as a simple recognition of something that all too often was apparent to many other people before this dim bulb began to glow.
So, what did I learn this year?
Now, this makes it sound as if I never trusted sommeliers, which is not true at all. However, I confess to having been unreceptive in the past to sommeliers' suggestions.
In all honesty, this has much more to do with me than with any sommelier. Like many wine drinkers, I know what I like and I don't expect anybody to be able to read my mind. So how could a sommelier choose for me better than I could choose for myself?
This past year changed my mind. Increasingly, I have come across wine lists that have dazzled me with their insightful selections, adventurousness, originality and—this is no small thing—generous breadth of prices.
One of the measures of a great wine list is an offering of numerous fine wines for what anyone would agree are "reasonable" prices. When I see a list where it's clear that we are being herded toward higher-priced wines for lack of sufficient alternatives, my back gets up.
This year I came across so many wine lists that are nothing less than a wine lover's friend, that I have come to trust sommeliers in a way I never have previously.
Recently, I ate at the newest Michael Mina restaurant in San Francisco, which is simply named after its owner. Its wine list brims with insight and care, with numerous offerings of really interesting wines at prices in the $30 to $40 range. The wine service itself, I might note, was as polished and professional as the wine selection.
The list of restaurants that I've been to this year where comparable sommelier achievement left me feeling utterly confident in whatever was suggested includes one of my favorite restaurants, New York's Gramercy Tavern (whose wine director, Juliette Pope, creates a list that can only be called artful). The same may be said of other New York restaurants, such as Eleven Madison Park and Bar Boulud, among many other places.
More than ever before in my experience, wine lovers in the United States are now treated to what I like to admiringly call "dartboard" wine lists: If you closed your eyes and threw a dart at the wine list, whatever you landed on would be a terrific choice.
This past June I was in Ontario because I was asked to be a speaker at a conference on cool-climate Chardonnays. It was my third trip to Ontario, which, for a West Coast boy is a long ways away, and I was reminded yet again of how extraordinary Ontario wines can be. I was also reminded of how largely unknown these wines are to the larger world, courtesy of the fact that so few are exported outside the province.
Readers of Wine Spectator may recall that one of my Wines of the Year in my latest magazine column (Dec. 31, 2011–Jan. 15, 2012 issue) is an Ontario Chardonnay from Norman Hardie winery in Prince Edward County, on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. I tasted Hardie's wines on a previous visit but was unable to get to Prince Edward County, which is a two-hour drive from Toronto and well away from the mainstream wine locale of the Niagara Peninsula (which lies on the southern shore of Lake Ontario).
So this year I tacked on an extra day specifically to get up to Prince Edward County and make sure that I was able to taste the wines of other producers in that zone. I came away convinced that not only is Norman Hardie creating an extraordinary Chardonnay, but that he's far from alone in doing so. Wineries such as Closson Chase Vineyards and Case-Dea Estates Winery, among the 20-plus wineries in the small zone, are creating wines that range from very promising to downright spectacular.
While Prince Edward County is the most climatically extreme winegrowing district in Ontario (it is so cold in the winter that grapegrowers there habitually have to "hill up" their vines with soil to keep them from freezing and then remove the soil each spring), the distinctiveness of Ontario wines is hardly confined to this exceptionally cool and extremely limestone-rich zone. The larger Niagara Peninsula district, which is where the great majority of the wine action is located, creates comparably impressive Chardonnays, as well as some superb Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc and very promising Pinot Noir, also from limestone soils and in very cool growing conditions.
Because of my work I travel quite a bit. During this year's traveling I was struck, yet again, by how surprisingly reluctant winegrowers are in making their case for the distinction of either their particular vineyard or, more often, their winegrowing zone. Sometimes it's a misplaced (in my opinion, anyway) modesty. Sometimes, it's a simple lack of savvy and ambition.
I saw this, for example, in Australia. Now, the Aussies are hardly considered shy sorts. Yet this year when I visited Clare Valley, which creates some of Australia's finest Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and dry Riesling, I was struck by how they had failed to send this message of wine goodness to a larger world. When I returned to the United States and exclaimed to a variety of wine lovers about how impressed I am with Clare Valley wines, I was met with blank looks. The name simply didn't register. (The same applies to Hunter Valley, I might add, despite that region’s stunning dry Sémillons and lovely Shirazes.)
This same lesson came home to me forcefully while visiting Ontario's wine producers: You don't win by staying out of the game. The sooner Ontario's and Australia's best wines become available to a larger audience, the faster they will cease to be "local heroes" and take their rightful place among the world's recognized great wines. They will also likely fetch higher prices, which some of them deserve. But they can't achieve that recognition as long as they remain exclusively local.
Maybe it's the American in me—probably it is—but if you want to get anywhere in today's wine world you've got to step up and make a case for yourself. I saw this when I visited Hungary this year as well. Some gorgeous wines are being made there, but have you seen many of them? Have you heard much about them? Have you seen many Hungarian producers selling their wines here? You know the answers to these questions as well as I do.
This year, more than ever before, I was reminded of how essential it is for producers of original wines to get out into the world and make a case—and a sale—for what they do.
For our part, our obligation is to welcome them. I look forward to doing just that in 2012—and I hope you do too.