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.