What you’re about to read here is the product of the past 23 years of work in the beverage trade and the 20+ before that as a chef who daily dealt with the habits, assumptions and preferences of people ordering wine, spirits, and the occasional beer to accompany their dinners. Even before I found my profound ardor for the subject and wound up devoting the best quarter-century of my life to understanding and selling “adult beverages”, I suspected much of what’s to come, here, because common sense and hard experience had, at least to my own satisfaction, proved it out.
I firmly believe that, for the majority of Americans – and the vast majority of people in other countries – our tastes in wine, liquor, and beer are largely determined by the early information we receive when being exposed to these beverages for the first couple of years. The proof of this that I have seen, first-hand, would fill volumes.
The primary example of this is the ongoing and fiercely-persistent belief that French wines are inherently the best in the world. In about a dozen tastings that I’ve held in the past – in my own shop in Woodinville and at Esquin Wine Merchants and private tastings – I’ve done the following…not to embarrass anybody but to gather information that served to make me a more effective seller of beverages and to learn how buying habits are formed and maintained.
I took bottles of decent French wines, poured the samples blind, (with the label hidden) and presented the wine as what it was – a Cotes du Rhone, Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Beaujolis, etc. I took comments and discussed the wines with the tasters, many of whom were very wine knowledgeable and some of whom were complete newbies. Then, after several intervening wines, I poured the same wine again, describing it as an Argentinian, Australian, Italian, Spanish, or American wine. I did this with around 100 people. In only ONE case did a taster tell me that the wines were the same. Almost 70% of all tasters questioned rated the same wine as less appealing and accomplished when it was said to come from somewhere else. I’ve also done this an equal number of times in the reverse, pouring a California or Washington wine and later describing it as French. The result was almost exactly the same: when the wine was perceived as French, its approval rating was higher.
In eight different blind group tastings of wine industry professionals, either the host or I inserted a ringer – sometimes a Caymus, sometimes a Januik, sometimes an Argentinian wine, sometimes Australian. In every tasting but one, the first bottle empty and the one most discussed and raved about was the ringer.
Video by the brilliant Erica Guaca
For a solid 100 years, American producers labored mightily to make wines that adhered to every single aesthetic espoused by French winemakers. Many are still doing it. Chateau Ste. Michelle has been faux-French since its inception and has never abandoned that Francophile style. Their own vineyards continually foil their attempts to remain steadfast to that aesthetic because of the bountiful fruitiness of their Columbia Valley sources and the simple fact that, try as they and many other wineries might to waive this aside, they’re simply not in France. French wine is about their highly-specific terroir every bit as much as it is about fruit; many times far more so. All of us fans of the Loire Valley know this intimately, as we sip and enjoy wines that taste very much like they were aged on a bed of gravel.
The only problem is, in drinking French wine exclusively, that most ardent Francophiles go after the really fine French wines and those will run ya some serious $$$. I had an acquaintance, back in 1998, who had a fabulous cellar; easily 5,000 bottles…ALL French. All of it. He came into the shop and sang the blues for about ten minutes, confessing that he was losing money drinking his collection, which he had hoped to hold and resell as they aged. He had literally never tasted any other wines but a few Napa Cabs, which he found too brawny for his tastes. He asked for a recommendation. I pulled down a bottle of Allende Rioja, handed it to him and said, “This one’s on me.” (Feeling very much like a crack dealer as I did it.) He thanked me and left.
I found him at the door the next morning, as I showed up for work. He was almost feverish. “Is there any more of this? Can you get me two cases, maybe today? This stuff is unbelievable! It’s built like a really fine Bordeaux and it’s FIFTEEN DOLLARS! And the flavors!” The myth that only French wines can show character, balance, structure, elegance, and even terroir simply won’t stand up to prolonged exposure to great wines from, literally, all over the planet. The last wine that really shocked me was an Uruguayan Tannat. And an Italian RED Verdicchio. You never know until you try the stuff…which is really the point of this entire post.
Is preference based on our own reaction to the wine in our mouths? Or is it based on parameters we apply to the wines we taste, growing from inherited assumptions handed to us by our wine mentors? I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had three mentors whose opinions ran the gamut from staunch Francophile to a virtual wine agnostic who refused to hold any firm opinions or preferences to a lifelong disciple of Spanish wines who labored to reconcile his great passion for Spain’s far more rustic and fruit-forward wines with his own early French training. I listened to all three, tasted every single wine from anywhere that I could get my hands on, went to work in a small wine shop and then a larger one and then the largest shop in Washington, all before opening my own shop, losing it in a flood, and then continuing to this year with a large online retailer and shipper. In those 20+ years, I’ve tasted an average of 2,800 wines annually . And I came to two conclusions: 1) Happily, I don’t have the mildly addictive personality I always suspected I did, so I wind up actually drinking – as opposed to tasting and spitting – far less than about 90% of all adult drinkers. And, 2) I’m another wine agnostic: I refuse to harbor preferences, at all. I like and enjoy a vast ocean of different wine styles and origins and I’ve come to absolutely loathe the whole idea of snobbery; the presumption, in any case except bottle-for-bottle comparison, that one wine is inherently better than another.
The cliche of the French wine snob is one of the most enduring artifacts of the American wine culture; that snotty, effete, pedant who makes it his or her life’s mission to correct people in their social circles or who come into their shop in search of a crass, fruity California wine when they can slip them the minor Bordeaux or Cotes du Rhone that they have anointed. Luckily, this stereotype is disappearing (far too slowly) as more and more people come to realize that no one has any right or any business telling them what to drink. Such behavior used to be thought of as imparting erudition and was tolerated by consumers who felt themselves in over their heads in wine shops. It was never really that at all. It’s overt and inexcusable rudeness and should be treated as such when encountered. And it’s simply the continuation of the programming, to which we’ve all been exposed, that says that French wine is the world’s best.
It simply is not so. Not anymore, if it ever was.
In beer, I’ve held forth on this topic before and, Thank God, the changes in attitudes are coming even more quickly than in wine. Simply put, the overwhelming majority of American kids who breached drinking age before roughly 1990 grew from cradle to college watching Mom and Dad fill the fridge with what was available: the watery, insipid, bastardized Pilsners from Anheuser-Busch (now AB/InBev), Coors and Miller (now MillerCoorsAB), Pabst, or one of the handful of regional brewers, like G. Heileman or Yeungling or Rainier, all of which were making, for over 100 years, virtually the same exact beer. Then, starting in the early 80s and beginning to boom just before the turn of the millennium, craft beer came along and changed the game forever. Today, we have successive waves of people turning 21 who never saw BudMillerCoorsPabst in their refrigerators, never had the discussion, in middle school, on the relative merits of Bud vs. Old Style or Schlitz. These young men and women were raised, in fact, knowing that beer can actually be wildly and gloriously flavorful and diverse; knowing they have Real Choices, instead of pretending to taste differences in almost identical beers or picking one because you like the artwork or their ties to a favorite sports team or celebrity. I’ve predicted that, within twenty years – barring some major stroke in the mega-brewers’ relentless campaign to discredit, displace, hinder, and ridicule craft brewing – we will see Budweiser, Coors, Miller, Pabst, and all the rest of the cynical mega-beers reduced to a quaint curiosity niche; the last gasp of the phony “beer as manhood” crowd and the surviving pockets of hard-cases who equate real beer made by real Americans as “frou-frou nonsense”. Real Men, these days, drink Dogfish and Deschutes and Three Floyds and Stone and Rahr and Cigar City and Pelican and Strange and Selkirk Abbey and Jolly Pumpkin…and there is no way to stop this fundamental change.
Inevitably, though, Americans are habitual. We now have roving armies of goobers who refuse to brook any type of craft beer that doesn’t say “IPA” on the label or taplist. For the most part, these are mainly young males, 25 to 40(ish), searching for a revised, slightly-hipper allegory of the “beer as manhood” syndrome. This, too, shall pass, of course, but right now, right here in the literal birth pangs of the future craft beer culture, such attitudes can be overwhelmingly suffocating to brewers who wind up stuck in the box of turning out IPA after IPA, in effect
trying to reinvent the wheel , just to pander to the trendies, simply because they are the loudest sub-set of Craft Beer Fans.
We do it in liquor, too, and maybe even more virulently. There are growing numbers of drinkers who will drink Whiskey, regardless of its origins, as long as they find something to like. But there are still armies of the “Bourbon Man” and “Scotch Only” types, setting aside the even knottier questions of the Vodkas and Gins and Rums and aperitifs that swirl around the Brown Liquids. It’s easy enough to see the roots of this divide: Bourbon is regarded as “our whiskey”; born and bred in America, and I, having grown up in the South, was expected by every friend and friend’s father I knew to come to worship at the altar of Kentucky Bourbon or, failing that, to find a nice Tennessee sippin’ Whiskey and settle down for life. The fact that I’ve openly preferred single-malt Scotch since college has made me a mild outcast in my native culture and cemented the view that many folks back home already had of me as an artsy twit.
Where does all this come from? Simple: our parents…their crowd, our college friends, examples seen on TV and in print ads, simple presumption – “You live in Tennessee. You must be a Bourbon drinker.” I’ve received at least fifty bottles of Bourbon as gifts, in my adult life, starting on my 18th birthday, the age at which I could legally drink back in DC, where I attended school. I usually discreetly gave the bottle away, until about ten years ago, when I finally stumbled upon, in the course of tasting for this blog, a Bourbon that did it for me. If I ever bought one for friends before that, it was always Maker’s Mark. It was simply the only one I could stand. Now, I revel in Bourbons and try every new one I can find.
Inevitably, some of those early tidbits of indoctrination like “You must learn to appreciate French wine” or to “Drink a man’s whiskey“, or “Those imported beers are for sissies“, do become the individual’s actual preference. People who prefer French wine are almost always livid (or disdainfully dismissive, a very French reaction) when their views on them are challenged, which is, of course, part of being a Francophile. (If there were not those of us who refuse to worship at the French cathedral, snobbery would be no fun.) But ask them to trace the origins of their Francophilia and you invariably come across someone, some pivotal figure in their pasts, who handed them a bottle of Bordeaux and said, “Here, Kid. This is what wine is supposed to taste like.” Six Pack Joe and his brethren still sneer at us craft beer lovers – and vice-versa. Bourbon guys still consider Scotch people unAmerican. Scotch freaks still think of Bourbon drinkers as misinformed or unsophisticated. Ginger ale connoisseurs would rather die than be seen drinking Canada Dry…And so it goes.
In a very fundamental way, this is a big part of the allure of adult beverages: the tribalism, the insider sensation of being “in the know” and looking askance at those who don’t agree. The snobbery cuts in all directions and those of us who consider having a preference as being trapped remain in the minority. The tribes, their fetishes (Cork-pullers on parade! The Proper Glass for your ______! “Never serve red wines chilled!”) and the human tendency to cluster will never go away, not until we’re all hatched in beakers and given bar codes.
But this sort of programming is the very antidote to creativity, to that wild, thrilling boundary-pushing that helps beverage cultures and styles emerge, evolve, and mature. I’m not telling anybody what to like, think, or drink. But I, like every other human, am trapped inside this less-than-foot-square vault of my own cranium and the electro-chemical oddities of my own consciousness. For me, falling into a habitual consumption of any style, type, region, or species within the great Universe of Beverages is unthinkable. I’ve taken a few pot-shots at the notion of “session drinking”, in the past. I’ve found nothing to derail my open scorn for the practice, even though I accept that it’s here to stay. But the real underlying reason I dislike it – past the obvious dangers of drinking too much and operating motor vehicles – came to me in a white-hot flash in the shower, last week: I don’t get “sessioning” because it’s something I would never do. I NEVER drink the same beer twice in one day. NEVER. The idea is stultifying to me. I want Choices, diversity, new experiences. That thrill of discovery when I find a truly great new beer, Bourbon, Gin, Cabernet, white blend, or especially those rare cross-cultural experiments like Dogfish “Noble Rot” or Blue Moon “Chardonnay Blonde”, is what I live for.
To each his or her own, of course. But taste widely, approach each new style or region with an open mind. DO NOT write off a wine region or beer style or Whiskey type based on one or two tastings. If you do that, you’re the one who loses, as you sail by some of life’s truly thrilling experiences.