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Drinking Out Loud

What Kind of Wine Lover Are You?

Obsessive-Compulsive? Hedonistic? Or just carefree?

Matt Kramer
Posted: May 7, 2013

"There may be more to learn by climbing the same mountain a hundred times than by climbing a hundred different mountains."—Richard Nelson, The Island Within

It all began while I was making one of my favorite dishes, a lemon risotto. I make it often, if only because risotto is kind of a signature dish chez Kramer, especially when we're entertaining.

Now, making risotto is not that hard. But I've discovered that a good number of otherwise adept cooks are daunted by risotto because a certain "know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em" sense of—to borrow from wine terminology—ideal ripeness is involved. It's not that hard. But a little repetition helps.

While making the risotto I thought of author Richard Nelson's observation cited above. And that, in turn, made me think about wine loving.

We all know an awful lot of wine lovers. They're winemakers, sommeliers, winery owners, restaurateurs and, not least, our fellow wine-loving friends. If you want to get a sense of just how persuasive wine is in your life, give a thought to how many of your friends don't drink wine. My guess is that, apart from a handful who abstain from alcohol altogether, you're surrounded by wine lovers. Common interests and all that.

Yet when you begin to look at each of them individually, odds are you'll discover that they can be surprisingly different in both how they approach wine and how they buy the stuff.

For example, I have friends who are, well, wine sluts. They're promiscuous in their wine buying. Really, they'll buy anything that somehow winks at them—a shelf talker in a supermarket, a retail clerk's recommendation, a mention in a magazine. And they're happy, I assure you.

I view them with affectionate dismay because I, for my part, am a compulsive researcher. I am exceedingly reluctant to buy anything until I've done what I consider to be due diligence. I look at tasting notes. I investigate the winemaker's philosophy, the age of the vines, the history of the estate. I want to know if it's a single vineyard or a blend of sites. I want to get a sense of how oaky the wine might be.

Only after I feel like I've properly researched do I proceed. Of course, if the wine is 10 bucks I don't bother. But if it's, say, $50, I don't make a move without investigation. You won't be surprised to learn that although I've been to Las Vegas a number of times (I like the restaurants), I've never put a quarter in a slot machine, never mind sat down at a blackjack table.

I'm sure that I fall smack in the obsessive-compulsive wine lover category. Mind you, I do love buying and drinking wine. But I also love researching, weighing, sifting, winnowing and so forth. Is it any surprise that I (and my fellow obsessive-compulsives) love Burgundy above all other wines? In my case, that's followed closely by Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera. I feel a siren call for German Rieslings, too, although I have not pursued them as ardently as I probably should.

It's pretty clear, I would think, that obsessive-compulsive wine lovers are strongly drawn to single-variety, single-vineyard sorts of wines. They lend themselves to drilling-down. No detail is too slight or insignificant for those of us afflicted with this approach.

In comparison, you have what are generally referred to as hedonist wine lovers. Far from seeking the meaning of life in a glass of wine, they're all for pleasure. It doesn't have to be, in their defense, unthinking pleasure. But pleasure there must be. And not just any pleasure, mind you. It must be sensory pleasure and, this is critical, abundantly so. They love big, rich wines, cornucopias of fruitiness and pleasurable tactile sensations. Grating tannins and ascetic acidity are not for them. Austerity is a bad word in their tasting vocabulary.

Obviously, I don't share their aesthetic outlook. But I do admire them. Hedonist wine lovers are available to all sorts of wine pleasures. They tend to be neither exacting nor overly restrictive. They are welcoming, accommodating and invariably generous in their judgments, as well as in their hospitality. These are all admirable traits and worthy of praise and emulation.

Beyond hedonists is yet another category of wine lover, what I call the carefree type. They like everything. ("How is that possible?" he asks, rather compulsively.) If you, the hedonist wine lover, offer them, say, a big, rich, high-alcohol Turley Zinfandel, they love it. And if I slide over to them a glass of, say, Giacomo Conterno Barbera d'Alba (no oak, high acidity, gloriously austere fruit), well, hey, they love that too.

Of course, I envy these carefree wine lovers. They are amazingly unconcerned about price. They don't give a damn about establishing the just-rightness of the site or the philosophy of the winemaker. (A close friend of mine cheerfully says, "I love oak, baby. Give me those oaky ones anytime.") They look at guys like me with bewilderment. What's with the fuss?

All of which brings me back to what, for me, is the real question: What's the best way to really understand wine? Is there more (and better) to be learned by climbing the same mountain a hundred times than by climbing a hundred different mountains?

Do wine lovers who happily graze among the offerings, flitting from one wine to another, never learn anything worthwhile? Or do they somehow slowly, accretively acquire a sense of what's good in wine almost by osmosis?

For obsessive-compulsive types the "climb the same mountain a hundred times" approach is clearly rewarding. It would seem essential, or at least seem to return a degree of insight that would otherwise not be achievable. Yet obviously there's much to be learned by climbing one hundred different mountains.

Do you arrive at the same depth of understanding at the journey's end regardless of approach? That, it seems to me, is a real question at hand.

Staffan Bjorlin
Los Angeles —  May 7, 2013 2:26pm ET
Thanks Mr. Kramer for yet another very interesting blog. I too fall in the obsessive-compulsive category: last time a bought Bordeaux futures a couple of years ago, I put all scores/reviews that I could find together with prices and other facts into a spreadsheet in order to better analyze it before making my decision on what to buy. I also seem to share your taste in wine (with Bordeaux being a notable exception), so maybe you are right about OC's preferring more austere, minimalist wines. However, in order to best understand wine, I think the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes that you describe above. If you climb say 10 to 20 mountains that would still allow your obsessive-compulsiveness to focus on all the details, but at the same time gather more reference point from your non-favorite mountains.
Don Chigazola
Santa Rosa, CA, USA —  May 7, 2013 2:32pm ET
Don't you think the tasting experience is heavily influenced by the context at the moment of tasting? I'm sure I will experience it differently if I am tasting in a 16th century cellar in the Valpolicella versus the tasting bar at the local BevMo. Just meeting and talking to the winemaker while I taste provides so much more context to the experience, that I will probably be influenced. Professional judges aside, most people's objectivity will be influenced by their surroundings at the moment they taste.
Jeff Loomans
San Francisco, California —  May 7, 2013 2:41pm ET
Hrm... what about the "obsessive-compulsive foodie hedonist"? End of the day I find it mildly interesting to know the slope-facing of that single-vineyard Barolo, but I'm hardly going to obsess over researching that - or whether the vineyard is biodynamic, or if the cellar recently changed from barriques to tonneaus. And yet the last thing I'm usually interested in is a big rich red without tannins or bracing acidity - simply because those wines rarely if ever go with the food I'm eating (or making).

As my wife - more wine-widow for the first 15 minutes of every restaurant meal - will attest, I *am* obsessive about researching and gathering the broadest possible cellar of wine styles for matching to food. Which usually means Piedmont, Rhone, many secondary Spanish, French and other Italian regionals, and the occasional Burgundy, in a range of ages and weights. But if I'm at a BBQ eating heavily slathered ribs, I'm sure bypassing the Pommard for that Turley Zin. Well, ok... maybe *never* for Turley Zin, but certainly for a fruit-gushing Aussie Grenache or Central Coast Syrah? And hey, every now and then you just gotta eat a steak with something big and Cab-based.

Maybe because I also surround myself with foodie friends, I think I know more wine lovers like this - who take hedonistic pleasure in drinking interesting wines with interesting foods - than research-obsessives *or* partisans of big blowsy wines. And no grazers at all. Personally I think it's been really interesting to climb maybe a few dozen mountains, from enough different approaches, to learn what dishes lie at the top of each.

David W Voss
Wisconsin —  May 7, 2013 5:07pm ET
I would classify myself and most of my tasting friends in the Northern suburbs of Chicago as a hedonist. After 30 years of tasting, buying and consuming wines most any wine has to have a history with me or have been tasted before the purchase decision. Once in my basement rack it is available to be consumed at any time, with any food. There are wines that don't interest me anymore so, I'm a semi-hedonist in my old, retirement life.
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  May 8, 2013 12:21pm ET
Burgundy, Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera, but no Brunello?
Peter Vangsness
East Longmeadow, MA —  May 8, 2013 1:10pm ET

I love the hunt!!
Hear of a great wine, find it, track it down, read the reviews of both the winery and the particular vintage, buy it "right", enjoy it with friends.
I am always looking forward to the next great "hunt" and the mystery of whether or not it was worth all the effort!!
Mexico City —  May 8, 2013 8:56pm ET

How about truly good traditional wines from Rioja, including Rioja Alta and Viña Tondonia? It seem to me these wines would clearly suit your taste. Just curious...
Mr Andrew J Green
OP, KS —  May 9, 2013 8:17am ET
There are two general types of classifiers: lumpers, who seek commonalites, and splitters, who are interested in distinctions. This is a splitter essay. While I enjoyed it, it may be worthwhile to consider that these categories are arbitrary, if imaginative. Most of us have elements of many if not most of these attributes.
Larry Bishop
Florida —  May 19, 2013 6:03pm ET
Love the Nelson quote. He is my favorite author on the subject of arctic survival, as well as finding inner peace. As a hedonist, I hope you OCD types know we are having MUCH more fun than you!!!
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  May 20, 2013 1:51pm ET
I too love the hunt and need to find value before I make a kill(purchase). However Matt, pursuant to your guidance in a blog of a couple years back, I look for wine varietals or regions not yet tasted and will jump at a strong recommendation from a wine manager, friend or acquaintance to try this or that wine. Some of these mountains I wish I had never climbed... but others I have found very enjoyable. So, I am a bit eclectic with my cellar, but with the result that I can please any of the above Kramer labeled wine drinkers.

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