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Drinking Out Loud

How to Proselytize Wine—and Should We?

Everyone knows about wine these days. Or do they?
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer says there are no rules to wine appreciation, but it's better informed by knowledge and context.

Matt Kramer
Posted: May 3, 2016

If you have any interest in classical music (opera, symphonies, chamber music, etc.), you have doubtless witnessed the hand-wringing over declining audiences and, worse yet, the graying (or balding) of those same folks. Seemingly everyone in classical music feels a crisis of both interest and support is upon them.

So I was not surprised when I read a recent interview in The New York Times with the conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen which touched upon this ongoing angst.

The Finland-born musician has had an illustrious—and far from over—career as, variously, the music director and conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years (he's now conductor laureate, a position created for him); the longtime conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London; the upcoming conductor of the Metropolitan Orchestra for its Carnegie Hall concerts next spring; and as the recently installed composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic through 2019. Obviously, Mr. Salonen is worth listening to, in every sense of the phrase.

In speaking about the need for the music world to adapt, which is to say confront the dwindling and graying ranks of the classical music audience, he observes that "loftiness doesn’t get us anywhere." Sound familiar?

He further notes that “we should loosen up a bit, and accept the fact that there are so many experiences available," adding that the effective approach is to say to newcomers: "OK, here is an experience you won’t forget.”

I can't imagine that any graying or, ahem, balding wine lover would disagree with this same sentiment applied to fine wine. We all know that there once was—and may still be in certain stuffy quarters—a perceived "loftiness" in talking about the finer points of wine.

That acknowledged, this same loftiness isn't necessarily eliminated or even punctured by the tendency among some writers or commentators to employ what they imagine is a hip-sounding scatological vocabulary, the better to signal that they’re not one of those old-fashioned wine snobs. That trick, so called, is as lame as the old-style pretensions. One just substitutes for the other—and both are equally bad.

Mr. Salonen absolutely put his finger on what really works: "OK, here is an experience you won’t forget." That's what it's really all about, isn't it? All sorts of wines serve, including ones that you or I might deem lesser.

And that, in turn, leads to a contradiction that bedevils fine wine as much as it does classical-music appreciation, namely, the value of actually knowing something. An "experience you won't forget" is only the beginning, however necessary. After your induction, as it were, you become involved in evaluating that unforgettable experience—and all of the others to follow.

Let's be honest: Many of our first "unforgettable" wine experiences weren't, as we look back upon them with greater knowledge, all that remarkable. Myself, I used to love Asti Spumante (as it was then called). We had it with pepperoni pizza, no less. Unforgettable, I tell you. But I can't tell you that either the wine, never mind the food pairing, was "great.” It isn't and never will be, never mind the (innocent) pleasure it once gave me.

The so-called "hedonistic" experience is not its own justification. It doesn't equalize everyone's experience. Rather, it only establishes a measure of pleasure at a particular moment in one's life. The likes of "Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which gives three-year-olds squeals of pleasure, is hardly equal to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

There are differences of worth and value—of complication and depth—and those who, in the name of populism, assert that "if I like it, it is therefore good" are in fact as insistently snobbish (in a we're-all-equal-here fashion) as the snooty and dismissive conventional snobs of their imagining.

All of which brings me back to Mr. Salonen. Having previously acknowledged the necessity of "loosening up a bit,” he then arrives at what, for some, is an uncomfortable truth: “We have been so apologetic in this," he says, referring to classical music. "We say, ‘You don’t have to know anything, you don’t have to have any background, you don’t have to have any frame of reference, just come with an open mind, and you’ll love it.’"

But, he adds, “It doesn’t quite work like that. Because if I go to an American football game not knowing anything about the rules—as, I have to admit, I don’t—it’s totally meaningless."

There are no "rules" in fine wine. But, as in music, there is structure. And an inherent complexity. There are values that both explain and delineate what makes some wines—brace yourself—better than others. Such distinctions are not, as some might imagine, based on "I like this more, so it's better" personal taste.

Instead, as with great music of all kinds—from country to classical, jazz to pop—distinctions that involve elements of originality, surprise, complexity, harmony and many other qualities serve to distinguish lesser from greater.

For example, Frank Sinatra was better than many other—most, even—male pop singers of his time. And it wasn't merely because he had a good voice that could carry a tune sweetly. If anything, he became a better singer as he grew older, as he had more to say, even if his voice was not quite as sweet-sounding as it was in his youth. No less an authority than Nelson Riddle, the great arranger who helped create Sinatra's finest recordings, said, "I didn't care for his original voice. I thought it was far too syrupy. I prefer to hear the rather angular person come through in his voice."

Some wines, like some singers, also have more to say. And they manage, vintage after vintage, decade after decade, to express this "content" more persuasively than others. Such wines are better, full stop. You might like them. You might not. It doesn't matter, actually—except when it comes time to choose what to buy.

But to understand and appreciate the greatness of such wines, you have to understand, as Mr. Salonen suggests, the "rules": Complexity. Harmony. Cohesion. Nuance. Finesse. Surprise (call it originality if you like). The list differs from taster to taster, with one or another taster emphasizing one feature over another. No matter. What does matter is that it's real. And, as Mr. Salonen suggests, we shouldn't apologize for it.

Rick Jones
Mesquite Texas USA —  May 3, 2016 1:20pm ET
WS should have a "like" button to press as do certain other web sites. I don't have anything to say or add but I did enjoy the article. It would be nice to be able to let you know.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  May 3, 2016 1:42pm ET
Mr. Jones: Thank you. It's very kind of you to say so.
John R Slater
Canton Ohio —  May 4, 2016 2:59pm ET
I'm a big fan but I'm worried about you. I sense in you a boredom or dissatisfaction with wine. Your recent postings seem to mostly discuss the philosophical or abstract parts of the wine world. I enjoy these pieces but worry that you've grown tired of the nitty-gritty of everyday wine details. You OK?
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  May 4, 2016 4:11pm ET
Mr. Slater: Thanks for your concern. I assure you that I'm very far from being either bored or dissatisfied with wine. Quite the opposite. After 40 years of writing about wine, I'm more gripped by the diversity and excitement of what's available to us today than ever before.

I like to think that I've done a good bit of highlighting less-well-known wine districts (and wines) that I, anyway, think deserve attention. You won't have to look back very far in Wine Spectator's archives to see my discussions about Portugal, Madeira, various districts in Australia such as Margaret River, Clare Valley and Hunter Valley, Spanish districts such as Ribeira Sacra and grapes such as Mencía and so forth.

That said, I do also enjoy the more philosophical or abstract elements of wine. And yes, I suspect that I write about such things more often than others.

I do so for two reasons (apart from the fact that I enjoy it): The first is that so many others, both readers as well as my wine-writing colleagues, are so very involved in, as you put it, the nitty-gritty of wine: vintages, tasting notes, prices, winemaking techniques and so forth. It's all to the good, of course. But quite well-covered, wouldn't you say?

The second reason is that I believe that what some consider "abstract" ideas, such as terroir or nuance or finesse, are more persuasive than some might imagine. How we view things--what aesthetic or philosophical approach we take, consciously or otherwise--can powerfully affect our judgments.

If, for example, one subscribes to the value and concept of "finesse" that's certainly going to influence and shape your evaluation of a wine, to say nothing of shaping what you like or don't like.

Consequently, I think it's useful--and important--to address such ideas. I realize that it's not for everyone. But it has its place, don't you think?
John R Slater
Canton Ohio —  May 5, 2016 8:16am ET
I agree. I really wasn't complaining about your recent articles. I enjoy everything you write. Just had a feeling that maybe you had hit a patch of discontent. As with most of my "feelings," I was wrong - happily. Anyway, thanx for your response and your good work.
Ricardo A Maduro
Panama —  May 10, 2016 5:18pm ET
Mr. Kramer,
All of us readers of your articles have different feelings for your words of insight.
Some of us may like it and some others may disagree.
But something we all have in common is that we keep coming back to read your very interesting, diverse, and entertaining articles.
Be it nitty-gritty, philosophical, mundane, or extraterrestrial - the common denominator is that we all look forward to your next article.
Thank you - you are in my list of must reads.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  May 10, 2016 5:52pm ET
Mr. Maduro: Thank you. Your comment is very kind and generous. I'm most grateful.
James Addison
Marquette, Michigan —  May 12, 2016 9:57am ET
I enjoy the diversity in wine. This allows for a never ending journey of discovery. Each time I am exposed to a new varietal or a new region it is an opportunity to learn about history, ampelography, geology, climate, regional preferences in taste and so many other aspects of the substrate of the wine. Eventually the fragrances and flavors in each individual wine will recall all of these features when it is tasted. I find great comfort in visiting old friends as well as anticipation and excitement in the prospect of making new ones.

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