One of the best things about doing The Pour Fool is and has been, “Look, Ma! NO boss!” I have owned this puppy from Day One and have no editor, no investors, no board, no nuttin’. And, honestly, after 40 years of assignments and deadlines and editors with skill levels ranging from world-class to single-celled, it was exactly what I needed, back there in 2008, when this thing got a’rollin’.
That is why, right here in the fat middle of a multi-part series of some importance to me – my tale of revelation and liquid enticements on Vancouver Island – I can bail out for a day and do a de facto commercial for my new TeePublic web page (see header, above) and this…a virtual housecleaning of emotions attached to wine and why we love it….REALLY why, not just flavors and textures and grapes.
For a solid twenty-five years, now, working in the NW wine trade, I’ve contended – and no one has ever seriously refuted it – that a great deal of wine appreciation and the choices we make around it has to do with our early wine indoctrination, our cultural milieu, and whatever the current, ever-changing cultural Hot Thang is now or was when we were at our most impressionable. To some extent, wine fans get programmed, inculcated, brain-washed (in a benign way…usually) toward certain expectations, based on what is almost always received wisdom. We might receive it from a friend or from a magazine or from a movie (“Sideways” blew Pinot Noir up into a Phenomenon that is still roaring on today, seventeen years after it debuted.) or from the wine trade, especially if you happen to be close to someone involved. My poor wife was perfectly happy with her $8 bottles of Pepperwood Grove Syrah (an enthusiasm which I TOTALLY shared) before she met me and was infected with my attitudes, slowly and persistently, over the almost twenty years we’ve been together. She was introduced to Pepperwood by a wine steward at her local Red Apple Market and I never said a bad word about the brand but, over the years, as her tastes changed, she has drifted away…leading me to occasionally bring home a bottle of Pepperwood, (at least until the stopped making the damned Syrah!) now and again, as a sort of penance.
I have a cache of good friends who are absolute die-hard, freeze-dried Bordeaux Weenies. I have watched these folks show up at wine tastings at which there are a range of choices – Amarone, Brunello, Napa Cabernet, Toro, Red Mountain Merlot, Barossa Valley Cab, Chianti Classico, etc. – and single out even the most half-assed Bordeaux as “the best wine on the table!” They’ll sit and moan and say, “Man, I wish I had a Burgundy!” even if there are ten bottles of genuinely great Sonoma or Edna Valley or Northwest reds in front of them.
Far too many people delve into Italian wine only so far as trying a range of Chianti Classicos, ignoring Brunellos and Ripassos and Barolos and Barbarescos and that shit-ton of brilliant lesser-known wines from Italy’s hundreds of less-celebrated appellations, and absorb complicated rationales about why Chianti is enough to know and is, in fact, the pinnacle of Mediterranean winemaking, without so much as even trying a handful of that thousand+ bottles to compare.
I know fellow lovers of Spanish wines who barely acknowledge anything but Ribera del Duero or Rioja, people who claim a love for Australian wines but, when pressed, can’t name a single wine they’ve tried from Down Under but Penfold’s “Grange”. I know Somona fans who routinely rag on Napa and some Napa buffs who pat Sonoma’s head indulgently and allow as how “Sonoma turns out a nice wine, now and again“, but barely even sample the other region for fear that some friend might see them with a bottle with that “wrong” label on it and deduct style points. Even here in Washington, I’ve had people say to me, with a straight face, “If it’s not from Red Mountain, I’m not interested!“, completely dismissing Walla Walla and Horse Heaven and Wahluke and every other WA state region…again, without trying the wines – or worse, having tried one that they didn’t much like and copped an Attitude.
If you never believe another word you read here, PLEASE, read this and THINK ABOUT IT: Dismissing ANY wine style or region or getting married to ANY wine or region – or winery or winemaker or wine technique – is absolute idiocy. It is flat-out STUPID and if you do it, KNOCK IT THE FUCK OFF, RIGHT NOW TODAY.
Those people who cement themselves into an assumption of the superiority of Bordeaux or Burgundy – or Napa or Sonoma or Piedmonte or Mendoza or Chianti or Stellenbosch or _______(fill in blank) – have, at some point in their past wine experience, been programmed. There is no quicker way to find yourself in Friendship Purgatory than to say that to someone who lays claim to a certain degree of wine erudition, because everybody wants to think that they’re that Iconic American Rugged Individualist, who has hand-hewn their preferences from the fine-grained wood of Pure Reason, free of any influences. Back there, however, lurking in the past of even the most veteran wineaux, persistent digging will turn up a college pal or a wine shop owner or a Dad with a wine cellar or a your own stack of wine magazines or a professor or a casual friend who pretended to sophistication or even a spouse like me, who ruined them by osmosis, even while trying to be as aesthetically egalitarian as possible. This is not anybody’s “fault”. We are all a mass of opinions and love to trumpet our genuine enthusiasms and to Share, which nearly all of us hold as a cultural virtue above reproach.
But even if it’s just done by word of mouth, as opposed to flung about like birdseed by the careless hand of the internet, opinions go viral and some become The Accepted Wisdom and once that happens, it is harder to stamp out that some unholy amalgam of athlete’s foot and the common cold. I’m not claiming to be immune. I still harbor a certain probably-unwarranted reverence for Chateau St. Jean because, back in 1996(ish), their Cinq Cepages won Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year and I was working as a steward when the list dropped. I know damned well that the ’96 Cinq Cepages has little or nothing to do with the ’98 or the ’07 or the 2016 but I still get the urge to bow ‘n’ scrape a bit when I see the bottle on a shelf. I still think Mollydooker is a Big Damned Deal because it was when I was opening my old wine/beer shop in Woodinville, WA. And the very real necessity for me NOT to hang onto ANY of that prehistoric programming is the single hardest struggle I face in writing this website.
But it’s necessary because A) constantly espousing the wisdom of 1994 of 2008 or even 2019, and not even thinking about Moving On, will, slam-dunk, turn you into the Turd in The Punchbowl with everyone who has to interact with you. And B) because, although you MIGHT navigate the cultures of beer and whiskey better while hanging into your early influences, wine changes, often radically, with every vintage. There’s no way around it. Grapes grow differently with each vintage. Soils get played out, it rains a lot less or a lot more, air currents carry in smoke or dust or, God forbid, some chemical contaminant. Or, maddeningly, you detect none of these and the freakin’ grapes still, damnit!, refuse to produce last vintage’s wine. To some degree, beer and whiskey are engineered and it’s all totally legit. Wine is often manipulated but nobody will admit it because that’s cheating and the thumbnail description that 99% of all wineries want of their process is “non-interventionist”: grow great grapes, crush gently, inoculate (or not) with yeast, and get the hell out of the way. It’s a fantasy that’s sold wholesale because it slams our “all natural” cultural Hot Button like a sledgehammer. But there are, curiously, a whole BUNCH of wine additives on the market and, gee, they don’t wither and die for lack of use. So, ya gotta wonder…
If you look back into the past of your own Wine Hejira, and you find someone who helped you along your path, remember what they taught you. Was there – if you are of a certain age, say, forty and up – anything in there about France and the birthplace of wine and “fine Bordeaux” and “elegance, subtlety, and nuance” or names like Cheval Blanc or Latour or Margaux or Mouton Rothschild or Haut-Brion? Do you find yourself still referencing them when asked to name great wines? Have you done this without ever having tasted ANY of them? Or did their instruction Head South and you heard Guigal, Beaucastel, Mont-Redon, Pegau, and Autard? Rhone programming is less common and the wines are more user-friendly for us Yanks but it is still received wisdom.
Let me make this clear and, yes, I am going to piss off some people – maybe a LOT of people – but this indoctrination is still just that: indoctrination. You were handed opinions and ate them whole and didn’t ask a lot of messy questions…and, believe me, whether the programming was biased toward Bordeaux or Burgundy or Chateauneuf du Pape or Barolo or Chianti or Rioja, there ARE a lot of messy questions that SHOULD be asked of anyone spreadin’ that road-worn Gospel. They will never welcome these questions and you risk your relationships if you ask but there is no such thing as an unassailable wine country or region or appellation or style or grape or estate or winemaker. ALL have flaws and many are fronted by reputations that conceal serious lapses in judgment. Those are viciously suppressed and painted over and “defensive” doesn’t even begin to describe the response when they’re brought up. But those questions directly impact what you learned about that area or estate or vineyard or wine. Which is why what I am about to write are the two most important sentences in this whole screed…
QUESTION EVERYTHING YOU WERE TAUGHT.
THE ASSUMPTION OF THE SUPERIORITY OF ANY WINE OR REGION OR ESTATE IS SOMETHING TO BE FIXED, GOTTEN PAST, NOT CELEBRATED AND MAINTAINED.
Your Bordeaux weenie college professor who threw those seminal Friday evening wine tastings was himself (herself, but not as often) a product of some older and even more inflexible programming. The ol’ Prof was not about to go into it with you about how many Bordeaux estates fiddle and tweak and manipulate their wines to grim death, how they pick deliberately underripe, how they added sugar to wines (a process called “chaptalization”) to goose the alcohol levels derived from that underripe picking until the French government threw a hissy fit and made them stop. He’s not going to tell you how the estate owners employ PR firms to sell the shaky wisdom of French Supremacy, in the face of wines from literally the four corners of creation making quantum strides in not only popularity but quality. France has untold billions invested in keeping Bordeaux and its quirky crazy aunt, Burgundy, atop the wine heap and the lineage of that early programming, on and on into all our pasts, was goosed subtly and artfully along by the French themselves, who stand to lose a LOT of their economy if we all suddenly cease to shout the Word.
The best thing any wine fan can do for their taste buds is to periodically, actively, set aside established preferences. You had French indoctrination? Lay down the fucking tri-color and stride off into Spain or Italy and stay there for while. You grew up with the phrase “high-end Napa Cabernet” ringing in your ears? Sidle over to Sonoma or Paso Robles or Lake County or even Walla Walla or the Columbia Valley or Rogue Valley for a bit. Poke around. Try some non-Cabs. Malbec originated in Bordeaux, just like your Cabernet, and it’s dark and chewy and delicious, too. Carmenere is also a Bordeaux grape and while it’s a bit leathery, sometimes, the Chileans have developed techniques that nudge it along into User-Friendlyhood. Hell, go totally batshit crazy and try a Washington Syrah or Umpqua Valley Tempranillo.
Most of all, unless you’re tasted literally thousands of wines, from all over the planet, STOP telling people that such ‘n’ such wine or region is “the best”. I PROMISE YOU, within the universe of wine, there really is no such thing as “best”. It is entirely possible that, even after your big tangent and all that tasting, you may well come back to your precocious little Bordeaux as your quaff of choice and there is NOTHING wrong with that. But it will be an informed decision, not one which you got as an earworm from someone who doesn’t use your tongue.
Think for yourself. Drink for yourself