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Drinking Out Loud

Wine Roads Not Taken

Wine regrets, I've had a few

Matt Kramer
Posted: August 20, 2013

Despairing of the usual conversational piffle at dinner parties, some friends of mine like to toss out a discussion topic at their table. Since they are serious-minded sorts, sometimes these topics fall flat. Their guests either aren't intellectually up to the challenge or, more likely, just aren't up for it period.

These friends recently recounted one such dinner—my wife and I weren't there—which proposed the revealing, if potentially melancholic, topic of Roads Not Taken.

I never did hear what ensued, but it stayed in my mind. And because my mind is always besotted with wine, it quickly morphed into Wine Roads Not Taken.

Of course, the first thing everyone thinks of along these lines is, “we should have bought Romanée-Conti when it cost less than a fixer-upper house.” This is the dead end of Roads Not Taken. We all coulda-woulda-shoulda been blue-chip wine investors.

My favorite such story was told to me by my wine-loving literary agent Bob Lescher about a wine group he belonged to in New York back in the 1960s.

His group would convene monthly, in a member’s apartment, and hold a brown-bag blind tasting, with each person bringing one bottle based on the theme that month.

This time, it was classed-growth red Bordeaux. Price stickers were purposely left on the bottles. Eight or 10 such wines were duly tasted blind, with discussion following. Most of the tasters agreed that one wine in particular stood out.

The brown bag was removed from that bottle. It turned out to be Château Lafite Rothschild. The person who unveiled it looked at the price sticker, shook his head and commented, "Well, it’s a great wine. But still … $5.95."

Inevitably, some of the Wine Roads Not Taken involve wines themselves. But the category easily embraces other elements, such as cellaring, buying or not buying a vineyard or winery, and so forth.

For myself, I've had the rare privilege of taking many wine roads either unavailable or difficult to access by those for whom wine is a pastime rather than a profession. Even so, I have a few Wine Roads Not Taken, such as:

Buying and Cellaring More Magnums. I've written before about how the biggest mistake I made in designing my decidedly utilitarian wine cellar was in not creating more slots for magnum (1.5L) bottles.

But more than that, I should have taken the magnum road much more often, both in buying those bottles and serving them more frequently. I know why I didn't: money. I didn't have enough.

Magnums often cost more than two 750ml bottles of the same wine. But the real cost is that you really can't buy magnums without also laying in a supply of regular-size bottles of the same wine, at the same time. After all, you need to check to see when the wine might be ready to drink. And it would be crazy to crack a whole magnum to do that. So you’d have to buy both sizes.

Still, as a Wine Road Not Taken, I would like to have bought a lot more magnums. I love their generosity. And the theatrical flourish when they’re brought to the table. Somehow, to me anyway, magnums say "wine love" like nothing else.

Not Seeing the Beauty of Spanish Wines Sooner. I had no problem falling in love first with France and then with Italy. But, somehow, Spain escaped me. I don't know why exactly. French and Italian wines reached out and grabbed me like no others. But not Spanish wines—at least not until quite recently.

Granted, maybe the problem wasn't all me. I really dislike oakiness and, for a long time, too many Spanish wines were slathered in (American) oak. And I don't like oxidation, which marred too many Spanish wines, white and red, for too long. (To this day, I don't care for Sherry.)

So maybe it wasn't just me. Nevertheless, Spain has long issued extraordinary wines, and for whatever reason I wasn't available to them. Big mistake.

Books I Should Have Written. Now here's a Wine Road Not Taken. Every author has more books in him or her than ever actually get written. Partly it's a matter of time. Partly it's a matter of the marketplace. Writing a book—a good one, anyway—is exhausting. There are only so many you can put forth, especially if they don't make money.

Still, even after eight books there are Wine (Book) Roads Not Taken. France's Loire Valley is one of them. I love Loire wines, and that's a book I would have liked to pursue. And even though I wrote a cookbook on Piedmontese cuisine, I never wrote a companion work on Piedmont's extraordinary wines.

Yet other places call out for what might be called an "outsider's view," such as Australia (not just the wines, but also their complicated culture); New Zealand (no nation has rocketed in wine quality so quickly); California (no nation, which is what California really is, keeps changing so rapidly or thoroughly); and Portugal (it's the sleeper among the world's great wine sources).

And, Not Least, Roads of No Regret. It's worth remembering the wine roads you did take—and rightly so. Here my list is long, if only because I had so many opportunities afforded me.

One road ultimately took me to all others: Burgundy. This was not just because of a love of Pinot Noir, but because of Burgundy's profound foundational philosophy of the primacy of terroir. I embraced it as my own, and I'm grateful for it every day. It changed my life.

Italy too was, and is, a major road taken. And I think everyone else should take it too. Why? Partly because the Italians themselves are quite wonderful, maddening though their systems may be to navigate. But more so because Italian wines tell us by their sheer variety, number and originality what wine at every level—from everyday to special occasion—can be. No nation, not even France, explodes with such wine wonderment as Italy.

And then there is California. Something about the place seems to breathe an invigorating air of opportunity. Every time I try yet another lookalike, taste-alike California Cabernet or Chardonnay, I despair.

Yet no sooner does that occur than I come across a producer or vineyard issuing something remarkable and utterly individual. To take the California road is to travel to an exotic land. California and its wines embody that uniquely American belief that "the future is your friend."

I'll leave it to you to consider your own Wine Roads Not Taken. For some, I'm sure that that involves a vineyard or winery. For others, I'd guess it's your own wineshop, or becoming a sommelier or restaurateur.

Your thoughts are, as always, warmly welcomed.

Don Clemens
Elgin, IL, USA —  August 20, 2013 2:41pm ET
Lovely article, Matt. I keep wondering when Portugal will actually arrive, as Spain finally seems to have done. And I couldn't agree more about magnums. Never enough, and always "just a bit pricey", for the good ones.
Thanks for your insights.
Jordan Feldman
Baltimore, MD —  August 20, 2013 4:13pm ET
Did the Cinque Terre when I was 19. Didn't see as much as a bunch o' grapes or a bottle o' vino! Walked the wine road but didn't take a sip! Big regret...
David Dickson
Sacramento, CA —  August 21, 2013 11:44am ET
Many yearsa ago I bought a wine cabinet stocked with vintage bordeaux and california cabs. Did not know it at the time but found out shortly thereafter that the value of the wine far exceeded the price I had paid for the used wine cabinet.
Well I paid for the cellar several times over by selling the wine inside but have always regretted that I did not sell less and drink more. Had I known then what I know now......
Raymond Archacki Jr
Wethersfield, CT USA —  August 21, 2013 2:41pm ET
Back in the late 80's as an engineer at a small high end audio company we had dinner with a very influential customer. The President of the company brought us along to show off our technical knowledge. While he was ordering Lafite and Latour we declined a glass and smirked at the wine snobs as we sipped our hip craft beers, which were all the rage for 30-something geeks. I missed out and it probably would have converted me to wine a lot earlier. Finally in the early 2003 time frame with another company and more wine dinners with customers I did have that glass of wine that converted me. It was a CdP not a 1st growth but awesome none the less.
Tom Miller
Birmingham, AL —  August 21, 2013 6:20pm ET
October 17, 1985 was my first visit to Portland, OR. We were there for a 9-1-1 Conference Planning Session for the National Emergency Number Association. My great friend and Portland resident, Karen Trangmar, insisted that the group go out to the Willamette Valley and visit a few wineries. So we did and had a blast. In 1987, Karen insisted I come to Portland because they were doing something called the International Pinot noir Celebration. So I did. It still shines as one of the best weekends of my life. If you've never been, GO! The ultimate Road of No Regret...28 years of Oregon Pinot bliss. And you're right on the money, Matt, about magnums. Way back when he was still drinking wine, I think it was Marvin Overton who said "you can never have enough magnums". He seemed to know what he was talking about so I took his advice as well...another Road of No Regret.
Allan Gottlieb
Camarillo, CA —  August 21, 2013 10:38pm ET
When converting an underutilized partly below ground level utility closet into a 5' x 7' x 8'high insulated and Whisper Cooled 800 bottle wine cellar a few years ago, I knew I wanted some magnum storage. I designed the back wall as an uncorking/tasting table with stemware and drink soon bottles above and wooden case storage below. The two back angled corners hold tilted double magnum (3L) display shelves for 14 bottles and the side walls have floor to ceiling mostly 750 ml bottles and cases but two columns on each side for magnums and/or Champagne. My only regret is I converted one column to 375 ml bottles, which I never seem to buy, but I can easily convert back. I went one size up on the cooling unit in case (no pun) i decide to go under a stairwell and expand into another closet for additional wine storage.
Best trip ever taken? Small barge in Burgundy on narrow canals with bicycles aboard. Barges go very slow so I could get off each morning and pedal around the vineyards and small villages. Love your column Matt!
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  August 22, 2013 9:57am ET
A great, timely article for me! As I near retirement my "roads to take" options become much more important. Here are my thoughts for a wine "bucket list". The overall theme of my list is to be much more selective; quality trumps quantity.
1. Do not buy anymore "every day" bottles
2. Start drinking bottles saved for a "special" occasion.
3. Embrace more whites
4. Sample wines from regions and varietals little known.
5. Read, listen and watch; and ask intelligent questions.
Ted Hudgins
Naples, FL —  August 22, 2013 2:47pm ET
I graduated from cooking school in 1982 and, but for the fact that I was getting married, should have done "the Tour" doing stages in restaurants in France. I can only imagine how cool it would have been to be a commis at Troisgros and be able to walk around the different vineyards on my time off.
Kenneth Wheeler
Lago Vista TX —  August 22, 2013 5:09pm ET
Write it,they will read.
Paul Paradis
Montréal,QC —  August 26, 2013 9:37am ET
I cannot find the reason why I snubbed the Rhone Valley
wines for so long.
I am not talking about the hermitages or côte-rôties because the reason here is really obvious.
But I had no interest for even the very affordable gigondas and vacqueyras.
As I am now discovering, this is a road I should have taken earlier.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  August 29, 2013 8:05pm ET

In many years of loving German Riesling, I regret that I did not cellar more Kabinett wines. Big scoring Auslese and Spatelese may appeal to the "trophy mind", but a mere 2 to 4 years in the cellar takes well-made Kabinett wines into the flavor zone! These reasonably priced, moderately aged wines are incredibly food-friendly, at a price that makes them a real bargain. Every time I taste one I find myself thinking "Wish I'd bought more of that!"

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Gerard Brocato
Huntsville, Ala —  August 30, 2013 2:15pm ET
OMG. The "whine" not taken.

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