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Drinking Out Loud

Why Are You So Obsessed?

A few answers to questions that wine lovers are often asked
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer explains why he cares so much about "somewhereness."

Matt Kramer
Posted: June 6, 2017

It’s not easy being a nutter. Of course, neither you nor I think of ourselves as nutters. We’re passionate. Involved. Generous. Even evangelical. But obsessed? Nah.

Others, I’ve come to learn, see us differently. They don’t understand why we, unlike them, can’t just pop down to the supermarket, pick up whatever is on sale or has a cute label (preferably both) and then skip happily home, like they do, bless their hearts, as they say in the South.

Well, folks, I’ll tell you why the likes of you and me can’t do that. And it’s not because we’re nutcases—not entirely anyway. Rather, it’s because of two simple, if overwhelming, forces: We know something about wine. And we care—a lot. Such a combination leads to something seen as akin to obsession.

I know about this firsthand, as you might imagine. And I also know that you, too, know about it. Whether obvious or barely detectable (to others), the push, the drive, the siren call of single-mindedness and perfectionism is within us. We love wine. It’s as simple as that. We love buying wine, thinking about it, reading about it, even arguing about it and, not least, drinking it.

Some of us try to hide what to others might appear as an unseemly passion. Some of us more publicly proclaim our passion. Whether you’re stealthy or straight-up, if my experience is anything to go by you’re still left with a good number of friends, family and chance acquaintances who are baffled.

They ask: "Why are you so obsessed with …"

Somewhereness? This is the question I get asked more than any other (apart from, “What’s the best deal out there right now?”). It’s a fair question. After all, I am obsessed with somewhereness, terroir, call it what you like. It’s the basis of the profound beauty of wine. Everything else is cosmetics, mere style, even artifice. Only the savor of site counts—for me, anyway.

It also is the most effective antidote to the following question: "Why are you so obsessed with …"

Whether this wine “beats” that one? This, I must say, is a fair question. It’s also why somewhereness matters so much—and should. We wine lovers too often get caught up in a sense of competition when we’re judging wines. It’s almost inevitable. After all, the basis of evaluating wine is comparison.

When we start tasting—and thinking—about wine at the beginning of our wine interest, we’re adrift. How do I know if this Chardonnay or Cabernet is any good if I’ve never had any others? Context—and comparison—is everything.

Pretty soon that necessary process of comparison gives way to a sense of competition. This Cab is good, but it’s not as good as that one. This is fair. And just. And appropriate.

Then money shoulders its way into the discussion (either in your head or literally so): “This wine isn’t worth that much money compared to the other one.”

I’ve never known a wine lover, present company emphatically included, who has not thought and said such a thing. How can you not, especially when you’re starting out? And especially when you’re young and every buck really counts.

So a sense of wine competition begins. At one level it’s reasonable, even healthy. But eventually, I’ve discovered, this approach becomes not just a dead end, but pernicious. Wines start getting evaluated not on the basis of who they are, if you will, but on how they compare. “You’re not like your brother.” Thanks, Mom.

This is why somewhereness matters. If savor of site is supreme, then every wine—at least every good wine—has its own legitimacy. Being merely of the same grape variety, the apples-to-apples thing, is no longer enough. It’s just too shallow.

Sure, California Cabernets willingly waded into competition with red Bordeaux back in the 1970s and '80s. How else could they prove to a doubting world how good they were? Besides, it was good business.

And it was, at least at one level, perfectly fair. After all, marketing matters. You’ve first got to get their attention, otherwise, as the saying goes, it’s like winking at your girl in the dark.

But do you hear much about California vs. Bordeaux today? Not really. Now, thankfully, California Cabernets are judged on their own merits, on the basis of their very individuality rather than whether one wine “beats” another.

Not least, a notion of absolute value disappears: You buy the California item because of its particularity and expression (hopefully of place), rather than because one wine or another simply is a better deal.

And, finally, you get asked, "Why are you obsessed with …"

Whether a wine gets a score two points higher than another? Oh boy, is this ever a good, er, point. We all know people for whom the “score thing” is, like, the obsession.

It might interest you to know that, of the many colleagues I know who are regularly involved in assigning scores to wine, I have yet to meet even one who could be described as obsessed with scores.

If anything, it’s the opposite. They know, as we all should, that points are simply a summation of one taster’s judgment.

Yes, it’s true that the seeming exactitude of scores lends itself to a sense of absolutism. Mathematically, a score of 94 is indisputably one point higher than a 93.

The problem lies with what might be called the “magnification of obsession.” That mere point or two is just that: merely a point or two. But when it becomes fetishized, well, you know what happens. We’ve all witnessed it. Maybe we’ve even found ourselves doing it.

Here, the normal people around us have a fair point in asking this question of why you care if a wine gets a score two points higher than another one. It doesn’t matter. You know that, right?

Anyway, those are some of the questions that I’ve been asked—or been subjected to—by my so-called normal friends and family. Surely you’ve had your own such interrogations.

Care to share? After all, you’re among your own kind here. Despite what others may think, we know we’re not obsessed. Right?

Jerry Rosenblatt
Montreal, Canada —  June 7, 2017 11:05am ET
I’ll never forget the first time. Like a newborn en-route home from the hospital, I carefully secured my fragile box in the car, made sure my wife’s seatbelt was fastened and then proceeded to the restaurant while avoiding as many potholes and speed-bumps as possible. So far everything seemed perfectly normal to me. We sat down with our friends and I introduced the purply treasures that have been maturing in our cellar for years. Then, like sending your kid off to college, I watched with great pride as the wine, under the tutelage of the sommelier, was opened and decanted. Still everything seemed perfectly normal. As I reached into the box to unpack the stemware our friend’s faces told me that perhaps I was a bit different. Maybe even, no more than maybe, a bit nutty. But as you probably can relate to, I didn’t care!

Wine is the most delicious of obsessions. Of course I am biased but there are simply few (if any) other things out there with as much flavor and variety capable of evoking a story while equally transposing you to a particular time and place. Try to tell any of that to someone who just doesn’t get it and make sure to film their reaction!

Yes I am obsessed and admittedly the scores are hard to ignore. At this stage it would be very hard for me to purchase a wine below a 90 point rating. Most would not be so brave to go the movies, throw a blind dart at a title and pay to sit and watch a 2 hour unknown in hopes of it being an Oscar contender. Life is simply too short not to give yourself the best chance of consistently consuming great wine and the point system, a reflection of a taster’s palette and memory, does provide needed guidance. Within a category of greatness I agree that between a 92 and 93 that there is little need to dwell on the variance. However, it is when you teeter on the border of almost great and great or great and legendary that the single point difference is magnified and justified. Many are aware of the outcast status an 89 can bring. The taster’s conscious decision to award or withhold that singular point, knowing that they hold the reputation and sell-through for that wine in their sharp pencil, only reinforces the legitimacy of the points. At least that is how I see it. Maybe I am the nutty one. Maybe everyone else is normal. But as a billboard for a local church once preached in print to oncoming traffic “What if we’re right?”
Scott Willis
NJ —  June 7, 2017 4:26pm ET
I don't see points as an obsession. Rather, I see the points as a relative metric. Most of us do not have palettes that are evolved enough to determine flavors such as cassis, tar, leather, elderberry or any of a number of other flavors used to describe wines. We might get one or two in the ballpark that a reviewer gets but not much more.
What I do is read reviews, look at relative scores and descriptions, try wines that are reviewed and start to zero in on wine critics whose opinions and preferences best align with mine. If a particular wine gets a rating of 85 from one reviewer and a 91 from another then that raises questions in my mind. If the scores are within a few points of each other then I don't much care. That is how scores help me.

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