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But Seriously, Folks

Posted: February 3, 2000

But Seriously, Folks
By Matt Kramer, columnist

Nobody believes me. Really, they don't. Friends and acquaintances sidle up at parties and say, "So what should I buy?" Good guy that I am, I offer a few insights. (You want one? OK, buy as many '97 Piedmontese Barberas as you can afford: Giacomo Conterno, Elio Grasso, Renato Trinchero and many others.) Anyway, after telling them just what I told you, they say, "But what do you really think?"

Maybe I have an untrustworthy face. (Personally, I find guys my age who have full heads of hair much less trustworthy-looking, Jim Laube excepted.) Whatever the reason, friends and readers look at me sideways, like I'm selling a used car.

So, all right, what do you want to know? I swear to tell you the truth, the whole messy truth, about any wine topic you'd like.

Yes, sir, you in the back. What? Why do we always cite the same few names, such as Angelo Gaja or Robert Mondavi or Lalou Bize-Leroy?

I'll tell you why: Because they're symbols. And symbols are an easy, shorthand way of communicating. Also, what's the point of mentioning a name that most of your readers won't recognize? It serves no illustrative purpose.

Yes, the lady in the red sweater. Why can't we wine writers write plain English?

You know, that's a good question. Really, there's no reason why not. As in any other field, part of the problem is plain incompetence. Some folks just can't write. And wine isn't one of those subjects that absolutely demands good writing the way, say, the computer business does. (Just kidding there. Have you seen their writing? Computer verbiage makes wine writing look crystalline.)

Seriously, though, part of the problem is the very real challenge of translating tastes into words. That ain't easy. It would be easier if you could assume that everybody had already tasted, say, a Chinon. But you know that's not possible. So for most wines, you're starting from scratch.

If you look carefully, I believe you'll discover that the best wine writing occurs most often with subjects where the writer can assume a certain level of familiarity on the readers' part, such as Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Yes, sir, you in the checked sport jacket. Did I understand you correctly? Why do we lie about vintages?

Well, we don't lie about vintages. We generalize. And that covers a pretty big point spread, as it were. Let's be honest here: Most vintages, like most children, aren't as bad as you fear or as good as you hope. Some places, such as California, really don't see "bad" vintages, just less spectacular ones.

I'll tell you what we don't say, though. We don't ever say, "Forget about this vintage." After all, peoples' livelihoods are at stake here. And even in truly lesser years--1994 red Burgundy comes to mind--there are always wines worth buying and drinking. And we all know that some producers habitually outperform their colleagues. So why should their beautiful babies be thrown out with the vintage bathwater?

Yes, madam? So what should you do about this?

You know the answer: Read between the lines. I'll give you a frank example. Most of you already know that I'm a Burgundy buyer. Right now we're at the cusp of two vintages, seeing the last of the glorious '96s and the first of the problematic '97s. Now, '97 will see some swell wines, no doubt about it. But absolutely no one is saying that it has the quality consistency of the '96s, both red and white. What's more, the '97s will cost at least 25 percent more. So what should you do? Next question.

OK, we have time for one more. Yes, the gentleman in the front row. Do we make too much of what is, after all, a pleasurable pastime?

No, I don't think so. And I'll tell you why. Yes, it's true that wine, unlike medicine, is a pleasurable pastime. But it's an unusual pleasure in that it admits so many forms, so many tastes, so much insight about the land, the weather and the character and ambition of the people who create wines. In short, it's a genuine article of civilization, an authentic aesthetic. Wine deserves scrutiny, criticism, analysis and, yes, celebration. Besides, it's fun. And why should we want less of that?

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from columnist Matt Kramer, in a piece also appearing in the current issue. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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