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Drinking Out Loud

An Open Letter to Readers: What Do You Want From Wine?

It's a simple question. Or is it?
Photo by: Jon Moe
Are you looking for hedonistic pleasure, adventure, reliability, value, or perhaps something more?

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 16, 2016

Dear Readers,

What is it that you want from wine? Since I'm asking this of you, it's only fair for me to offer what I, anyway, want from wine. And I know that what I seek is certainly different from what others—many others, I'm sure—are looking for.

I'd venture to say that most wine drinkers want pleasure from their wine. Their favorite word is "delicious,” preferably with an exclamation point attached.

Yet I have to say that pleasure, as it's commonly understood, interests me not at all. I find "Delicious!" just too easy. Not offensive, mind you. Rather, it's boring. Dull. Predictable. Even calculated.

What I want is insight. I want to hear the Earth speak. I want the voice of the land—the site, the place, terroir, the somewhereness, call it what you want—amplified.

This is nothing new for me. If anything, it's always been so. I don't know why. I once wrote a column where I declared that the purpose of fine wine is not to give pleasure, but to give insight. Digging the hole deeper yet, I then went on to say that pleasure is a measure only for ordinary wines. Once you reach the realm of really fine wines, we must ask more.

Do I need to say how many readers thought me nuts—or worse?

OK, I may be nuts, but I'm not stupid. I know this is a minority opinion, although it's one I'm more than willing to defend. But I get it. Such a view is … extreme.

You might say, "Why can't I have both? Why not both insight and hedonistic pleasure?" Why not indeed? Oddly, such an achievement is harder than it sounds, although far from impossible. Too often "wines of pleasure" tend to trade on abundant fruitiness, little or no tannins, low acidity, noticeable sweetness, and a certain obviousness. None of those elements lends itself to anything that might lead to insight.

What else do I want from wine? I want the thrill of discovery, that Star Trekkie sentiment of exploring strange new wine worlds, seeking out new wine life forms and civilizations. In a word, surprise.

This, I'm sure, is a function of age and time and wine mileage. Having explored the old worlds (in every sense), I'm that much more interested in the discovery of new ones. If I were just starting out, I'd of course want to experience what everyone else has been going on about: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Barolo, Napa Cabernet, all the usual suspects.

Also, I like a deal. There's no sport in buying expensive wines. This is the other part of the business of surprise. There's a reason why expensive wines get their price: They're usually sure things. There's no surprise at all, which is why people so willingly pay a premium.

Such wines are not only predictably good, they're also usually made in a predictably conventional style. You pay your money and, by golly, you get the goods. The high price is actually reassuring ("How can it be anything less than terrific at such a price?"). Way of the world and all that.

For my part, I am enthralled—that's the only word—with the extraordinary number of genuinely great wines created today that come from places not previously recognized as great. This includes many locations in Europe, never mind the so-called New World.

Everywhere, the transformations in wine quality achieved because of revived economies and new ambitions are astonishing. Think of Portugal's Douro zone. Or Greece. Or Tasmania. Or New Zealand. California seems like it's been going on forever, but really, the modern wine achievement is barely 40 years old. Oregon and Washington are even more recent to the fine-wine achievement game. And Ontario and British Columbia are younger yet.

All are issuing great wines—with no patronizing pat-on-the-head qualifiers to that declaration needed or wanted.

Anyway, this is some of what I want from wine. Now, what about you? What do you want from wine?

Are you young and therefore most interested, understandably so, in the widest exposure and experience, never mind insight or even pleasure? Or is it geeky esotericism that turns you on? Are you old, and now want the easy-chair comfort of the familiar?

Also, let's be honest: Do you simply want something to take the edge off a hard day? Think of all those scenes in The Good Wife where Alicia comes home at night, arranges a sizable pour into an equally sizable glass, gives the wine barely a sniff and then takes an obviously restorative, equally sizable sip. Given her typical roller-coaster day, who can blame her? It's not politically or socially correct to mention the effect of wine, but who among us hasn't enjoyed just that after a hard day?

Not least, is what you want from wine something that tastes better with food than, say, water or coffee. (If you're an American of a certain age, you doubtless remember your parents drinking watery, tasteless coffee throughout the meal at dinnertime. Looking back, it's hard to believe, isn't it?)

And if the wine has some sweetness and softness, all the better. Thanks for the nice drink, pal. Now leave me alone. Don't fuss me with insight and terroir and all that stuff. It doesn't mean anything to me. Get lost.

Fair enough. But I am truly interested in the many possibilities of human life on Planet Wine. So I ask most sincerely: What do you want from wine?

Warm regards from your wine pal,


Elliot Gluskin
Allentown, PA, USA —  February 16, 2016 1:09pm ET
Hi Matt,
For me wine is about exploration, value, and consistency. I've been preferring New vs. Old World for quite a while as there is so much selection available.

I also like to focus on particular grape varieties and see how they change from vintage to vintage. I've been enjoying the exercise of seeing how the Carmenere grape in particular has been evolving over the past three or four vintages.

Perhaps the real answer to your question can be described by my experience this weekend. I was at a friend's house when he put in front of me a 1975 and 1976 Kopke Vintage Port and asked me to describe the differences. Going through the exercise was fun, educational, and provided a couple of "aha" moments. That's what wine should always be about!
Rick Jones
Mesquite Texas USA —  February 16, 2016 2:31pm ET
Matt, I want wine to provide world peace, eliminate all political commercials, and cure the common cold. And now for the hard stuff....
I want a wine I have not tried to provide my friends and I at least 30 minutes of discussion, like, don't like, tastes like, reminds me of etc.
I want a wine that I know and have bought many times to be consistent, no surprises. When I buy it I want to know what I am getting, every time.
I want a wine that truly reflects what I have come to expect as it's terroir. If it is from Italy I want the barnyard. If it is a Pinot from Oregon I want soft and subtle.
When I experiment I want surprises. A wine that comes from a region new to me should entice and captivate. It should be totally different from the expected, or at least different from the same grape coming from a different part of the world.
I want a wine that is so comfortable that when I have friends over and there are at least three different conversations going we don't notice how much we are enjoying the wine until someone says "wow, that's good stuff".
And most important, I want a wine that puts my wife in the mood...every time
Jerry Rosenblatt
Montreal, Canada —  February 16, 2016 3:57pm ET
Matt, love your thinking! I look first for a great surprise in lesser-known (to me) wines! And, simultaneously, I look for the wine to deliver (what does that truly mean?) above my expectations! For this second criterion, that gets tricky because you have to somehow manage those expectations when your "critic" colleagues bless a wine as a "99-pointer". But surprise (in all its glory) is at least as thrilling as meeting expectations, for sure. And that's why I love your thinking and style. At the NYWE every year, one of the most exciting events is the Matt Kramer tasting. Your Portugal and Spanish tastings recently have been mind-blowers, not only because of the sheer enjoyment of the wines' aromas and tastes, but because of the ... yup, surprise! Who would have ever thought that these relatively unknown wines would have been so scrumptious. And this then delivers the second criterion - delivery WELL BEYOND expectations - so a double (positive) whammy! Continue doing what you do - you are a treasure for those of us who truly love wine!

Jerry Rosenblatt (Montreal, Canada)
Chas Paddock
West Boylston, MA. USA —  February 16, 2016 5:05pm ET
What I want most from wine is food friendliness which to me is a nice balance of fruit, acidity, tannins, and finish length to compliment and add to the pleasure of what I'm eating.
Enjoying that wine in the company of family and friends who feel the same provides inner warmth and contentment.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  February 16, 2016 6:54pm ET

Mr. Jones: Well, what can I say? Good luck, pal! My guess is that the wine you're looking for is spelled R-o-m-a-n-c-e. (But a good Volnay is always worth a try.)
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  February 16, 2016 7:01pm ET
Mr. Paddock: You write: "Enjoying that wine in the company of family and friends who feel the same provides inner warmth and contentment."

Yes, yes, absolutely yes. I'm glad you mentioned this. It's so very true how the *moment* is so critical to one's enjoyment, especially if there's that rare feeling that everyone else is enjoying--and appreciating--the wine the way you are. There's nothing else quite as gratifying, is there? And it's got nothing to do with how great (or not) a wine may be.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  February 16, 2016 7:03pm ET
Mr. Rosenblatt: What can I say? Thank you. Very kind of you.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  February 16, 2016 7:11pm ET

After nearly 30 years in the retail wine trade I have tired of the merely delicious as well. I am looking for wines that show a high degree of transparency, my mind seeks complexity in layered flavors and aromas. My interests these days trends overwhelmingly toward non-or-lightly oaked, racy, mineral-driven wines, primarily white. Favorite recent things have been the 2013 San Salvatore Pian di Stio Fiano from Campania, 2013 Vie di Romans Dessimis Pinot Grigio (not strictly a white, really), Schaffer-Frolich's Pinot Blanc de Noir (and his dry Rieslings as well) and the Gobelsburger Tradition Riesling and Grunner Veltliner. For red wine, I'm attracted to German Pinot Noirs, like those from Schnaitmann in Wurttemberg and Etna Rosso is my newest fave, I'm still figuring out which wines are my forte there. These wines engage my intellect with their complexity and perfectly match the lighter cuisine my wife and I have embraced in recent years.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA —  February 17, 2016 3:19pm ET
Though of a certain age, I am still a long way from taking a comfortable (say predictable) seat in a wine drinker’s rocking chair. Like you, the thrill of wine persists in discovering great wines off the well beaten path. My approach is slightly different, however. What I am after is mostly focused on finding emerging, talented winemakers, particularly those up and comers that are able to make consistently great wines across a portfolio of different varietals.

The best analogy is popular music. There are many artists, who turn out to be “one hit wonders”, like the 1976 classic “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots. In wine much can be the same, where a winemaker might freak or get lucky with one wine or vintage. What I look for is a talented winemaker, who shows the potential to turn out hit after hit, year after year.

By way of example, this past weekend was spent in the Paso Robles wine country. There were many great discoveries but three stood out. First, was Caliza Winery, which at a Rhone Rangers Event, poured four wines (a rose, a roussanne, a GSM, and a syrah-petite sirah-mourvedre blend) that were terrific across the board. Next, was Tooth & Nail Winery, who poured (among others) a cooler climate Viognier that may be the best domestic example I have tasted. The last one was not a winery but a grape. Grenache blanc does exceedingly well in the area and we sampled many interesting wines both as a single varietal and in blends from several wineries. The grenache blanc from Tablas Creek was a particular standout.
Thomas Bartlett
Ocean Grove NJ —  February 17, 2016 11:37pm ET
Matt, thanks for the stimulus to think about this question. I like wine to be tasty and complex, to make me stop and appreciate and pay attention to it. To distract me. And I like it to be different from yesterday's wine. Same reason that motivates me to listen to different music and not the same sub-genre of pop/rock, classical, jazz or whatever I listened to yesterday. At the risk of being crude, sex is a fine example. It should be a bit different or experienced in several different ways. And this is from a man married to and utterly faithful to one woman for 42 years. Don't misunderstand!
Variety and beauty are spices of life. Today's wine should overwhelm me for a few seconds. So, it needs to be tasty and different-from-yesterday's wine, thus forcing me to stop and contemplate it, which magnifies or deepens the pleasure of the wine, the people, the surroundings, and the food.
Raymond Archacki Jr
Wethersfield, CT USA —  February 18, 2016 10:37pm ET
Hi Matt,

Great article as usual, you are my favorite columnist on WS. I look for a wine that can "transport" you to a memorable place. One of my favorite wine moments was in Las Vegas a few years ago attending the annual Consumer Electronics Show. I had the flu all week, was miserable and tired from the traveling and had to cancel plans to a high end steak house on a clients expense account where I knew the big hedonistic wines would be flowing.
The next day still feeling under the weather and reading emails about what a dinner I missed the night before I grabbed a sit at a restaurant in the Venetian that looks like an outdoor setting in Italy. With the flu receding I ordered a simple Rosso di Montilcino by the glass. As I began drinking it the performers started singing Italian classics. It was my first glass of wine in over a week and it transported me to Tuscany. This literally brought tears to my eyes to experience and taste wine again and feel the grapes, soil and sunshine all blended into the glass. That is the power I look for in wine.
Carlo Dinatale
Coon Rapids, MN USA —  February 20, 2016 7:50am ET

When I step outside after dinner on a cool Fall evening with that last glass of Barolo, all those scents and flavors seem to trip over each other for my attention. There is a sense of "somewhereness" (I really like that word) that confirms this came from a very special place. it always answers my question "why did I pay so much for this?"
John R Slater
Canton Ohio —  February 20, 2016 9:09am ET
Matt - maybe your best piece ever and that's saying a lot. I have been through the various stages you mentioned - the old reliables, price, pleasure, etc. Wasn't sure what I've been seeking these past few years, but now realize it's "insight." Thanx for pointing that out. Don't stop writing (and teaching).
Paul Cooperrider
Boise, ID —  February 20, 2016 4:07pm ET
Matt, great article. I generally don't write or reply to blogs, but I felt compelled to do so here, since it resonated with me.

I once had a colleague ask me what my favorite hobby was. I told him it was fly-fishing. (Now before you ask what is the relationship between fly-fishing and wine drinking, allow me to build the context). I love fly-fishing because it fully engages both sides of my brain. Understanding the entomology, the timing and seasons of the hatches, how trout rest, move and feed all grab the left side of brain. The artistry of casting and mending the fly line, and the sheer thrill of watching a rainbow roar out of the water and tail dancing as it shakes its head consumes the right side of my brain. It is an activity that fully engages all of my mind, and leaves me with the satisfaction of experiencing life.

So how does this relate to drinking wine? I want wines that engage both sides of my brain. I want wines that make me inquire as to its terroir, the soils, the climate, the diurnal changes in temperature. I want wines that drive me to ask how the vineyard was managed, the clones used, how the canopy was managed, how they harvested. I want wines that encourage me to engage with the vintner to understand their approach and methodology to making their wine (to the extent they are willing to divulge). All this captures the left side of brain. I want wines to surprise and seduce me when I first sense their aromas. I want wines with excellent complexity in the flavors and texture, balance between fruit, acidity, tannins and alcohol (though some may find these characteristics blase'), and long silky finishes, especially for reds. I want wines that compliment foods and enhance the experience of dining, especially with family and friends. These attributes of wine captivate the right side of my brain. Combined, they engaged my full mind, and just like fly-fishing, I am left with a quiet satisfaction in this facet of life.
Daniel L Schmoldt
Silver Spring MD —  February 23, 2016 1:48pm ET
Matt, I think that you've hit on some of the many things that people seek in wine, and obviously not all at once, but from time to time--sometimes a comfortable wine, sometimes a challenging wine, sometimes a delicious wine, sometimes a solo wine, sometime a food wine, sometimes an explorer wine, sometimes a terrior wine, sometimes a QPR wine, sometimes an "unwind" wine. To that end, I want a wine that accentuates or complements or fits "the moment," whatever that might be for me today. And, we are fortunate to have all those options out there.

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