December 2005 Archives

Playing the Game

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Spent Christmas in Europe, splitting time between a couple of different households, neither of which is in a wine-producing region. So they buy and serve wine like most of us do: purchase at retail, drink at home. As I often do outside the U.S., I observed not just the wine I was served, but who served it and how. European cultures have been dealing with wine far longer than we have in the States, and it’s always interesting to see what models we inherited, which ones we follow, and which ones we ignore.

At one home, the widely-traveled lord of the manor has a wine collection in a below-ground cellar with perfect temperature and humidity. He likes to age red Bordeaux, white Burgundy, and German Riesling. He swirls, sniffs, and invites visitors to give their impressions of what he pours. He’s no stiff, though. There’s plenty of laughter and fun at his table, which is often graced with lovely ladies who manage to combine aristocratic bearing and outrageous humor.

At the other home, the modest lady of the house is Spanish and the wine is often from that country or a neighboring one. Bottles come to the table open (often with a little something missing due to their passage through the kitchen), and are poured without ceremony or comment. People drink as much water as wine, and sometimes they mix the two. Here, too, there’s plenty of fun, including teenagers who don’t care a fig about wine. (Yet.)

Can you guess where I drank the wine with more pleasure?

It was at the second, less formal home, where wine was treated purely as social lubricant and comestible condiment. After several days of going back and forth between these households, I realized the difference. At the first home, the gentleman is doing what I call Playing The Game of wine. When people are Playing The Game, most of their wine talk is about how much they paid, how old the bottle is, and so on. The whole idea is to pay less than other people, get bottles other people don’t have, find “steals” that the critics missed (hah!), and so on. It’s a competitive sport.

On this visit, the fellow was showing off his latest find, a European version of “Two Buck Chuck.” It was an Australian Shiraz for one-and-half euros. It was not drinkable by any stretch of my imagination, and if there was really Syrah in it it came from Mars. Of course I sipped the wine politely. I also made sure I was eating something at the same time.

My host was particularly proud of a bottle of Bordeaux he showed me in his cellar. I immediately recognized it as one of those bottles that looks really impressive, with engravings of castles and medals on the buff-colored label, but which came from a minor producer in a weak vintage. It should have been drunk a dozen years ago. By now it was past 15 years of age. I imagined it was a left-over “steal” from years ago, now transferred to the “age-worthy Bordeaux” category.

In other words, it was still in The Game. Its owner was keeping it for that reason, not because he had any idea if it was any good. When he asked me what I thought we should have with dinner that night, I immediately pointed to this bottle so that it would not get any older than it was. He smiled as if to say “nice try,” put the bottle back, and picked something from 1999 (which he never got around to opening).

In the second home, the wine ranged from an Italian Pinot Grigio (a label I had never seen) to a cru bourgeois French red from Mouton Cadet. None of these wines cost much over $5.00 in Europe. All were pleasant, perfect with the food, and poured freely as long as people were at the table. When I asked one of young sons of the house to identify a wine down the table from us (it was a candle-lit table in a dark room), he immediately said, “It’s white. Would you like some?”

This seems to be a good test for determining whether someone is Playing The Game. Do they offer you a position on the wine? Of do they offer to put some in your glass?

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

I’ve recently been drawn into a blogosphere discussion about terroir, which I think is largely empty of meaning. Some points I made in an email string got sent around, and you know how that goes: pretty soon people were chewing on me without having the whole enchilada.

So here’s a simple summary for anyone out there following the discussion. Appellation and terroir are related in one way: vintners can use both concepts to describe (and therefore sell) their wine. Otherwise, they are fundamentally different.

Terroir is abstract, undefinable (even the French love to say that), and personal. Anyone can tell you anything about their terroir, and you would have to do some direct empirical digging before you could even know what they mean, much less believe in it. Terroir is a human concept, which means it’s inherently malleable and spinnable. In the U.S., the term “terroir” is, in my humble opinion, an empty cliché. People throw the term around without understanding it, mostly because they hear other people throwing it around. We are a herd of terroirists. Mooooooooo.

Appellation is geographically concrete, legally defined, collectively determined, and very tough to alter once it’s set. Along with varietal and producer, appellation is the only hard fact people always ask about when they encounter a new wine: "where's it from?" If the new wine is Pinot Noir, and its origin is an appellation like Russian River or Willamette Valley, we can feel fairly confident about the wine. If the appellation is “California,” however, we might wonder. You can’t fake a Russian River Pinot Noir. Either it is or it isn’t.

So that’s one way to tell terroir and appellation apart: one’s spin, and one’s fact. Here's another test: What do you learn when people use the terms?

Let’s say we meet someone a party and he tells us that his new Cabernet is from a "terroir" with well-drained soils, south-facing slopes and little rain outside of winter. What did we learn from this? Almost nothing about the wine, or about him. The wine could come from the high plains of southern Arizona. He could be a wacky dreamer on two acres in Tennessee or a corporate chieftain with 500 acres in Paso Robles. He will say that his wine "reflects its terroir" or that “the terroir is ideal for Cabernet” because every web site says that about every wine. Translated, this means that all terroir is ideal for whatever is growing there – because the people growing there say so. But if all terroir is ideal, all the time, everywhere, then what is it besides pure hype?

Now let’s imagine that we meet someone who says their that their new Cabernet is from Napa Valley. Unless he is a crafty negociant, we instantly know many things about both the wine and the vintner: his level of wealth, his vinous aspirations, the likely weight and style of his wine, what it probably costs, and why it’s priced that way. There is a limited set of places he could be growing fruit or buying it. There is a tight, narrowing band of quality that his wine must fit within for a whole set of reasons. We would be able to guess who this person knows, where he eats, and how he socializes.

Terroir is what vintners want others to think about them and their wine. Appellation is what's true about them and their wine, no matter what they say.

Which do you want in your glass?

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

The Lecture

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Visited my friend Steve in the Bay Area over the weekend, and when I arrived he was opening a bottle of Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon from 1983. He had just pulled it out of his cellar. “I was in the mood for something old,” he said. “It’s probably gone over the hill, but what the hell.” The wine smelled like wet grapes in a cardboard box, and while there was some evidence of fruit and body, they were mostly departed. Steve grimaced and went downstairs for another bottle.

This time he brought up a Chalk Hill Cab from 1987. The red plums and cherries the wine once had were gone, leaving nothing but a liquid, acidic version of green bell pepper. Back downstairs. Steve selected a 1980 Jordan Cabernet from Alexander Valley. I saw a 1998 Jordan Cab and advised Steve to bring that one, too.

The 1980 Jordan smelled like a wet dog that had been eating blackberries, and tasted like the vinous equivalent of a men’s chorus made up entirely of baritones: everything was in the same low range. No high notes, couldn’t hear the harmonies. The 1998 was worse, even with more than an hour of decanting, which stumped Steve. How could a wine almost 20 years younger have so little fruit left?

I pointed out that the 1998 was made when Jordan’s own vineyards were being replanted and the winery was buying fruit. Steve read the source of the grapes on the label (information that’s required by law) and laughed ruefully: “Who ever made ‘Sonoma Coast Cabernet Sauvignon’ on purpose?!”

So we whiffed on that bottle, too. Four old wines, four disappointments.

Now, if you read the popular wine press you’re probably expecting me to give you The Lecture now. This is the sober, wise-old-guy essay that comes down to the old adage that “It’s better to drink a wine a year too early than a week too late.” The latest version of The Lecture was in the December 1 Wine Enthusiast, given at least an entertaining spin by Jeff Morgan. Jim Laube does it every couple of years in his Wine Spectator column. You see it other places, too.

I understand The Lecture up to a point – Steve and I went 0 for the eighties on Friday night – but I also disagree with it strongly in certain aspects.

It just seems too convenient to have “thought leaders” in the wine industry urging us to stop keeping wines and start drinking them up. Morgan himself is a vintner, with a whole load of new wine every year to sell. I’m sure Jeff would tell you to hold his wines, particularly Covenant, as long as you want, but the conflict of interest is built in.

In fact, I find that the The Lecture is completely misleading for young wines, those that have just been released into commercial distribution. These wines are not released because they are ready to enjoy, in my view. They are released because of other considerations, such as cellar space and cash flow.

As a result, I cannot enjoy most young red wines, particularly from California. That’s because the oak’s too strong for the fruit. I want those elements in balance with each other and the wine’s acidity. That takes more time than most wineries can afford to give their red wines before release.

As a result I almost never drink American Pinot Noir until it’s six years past vintage. Most Rhone reds and Zinfandels have to be at least five years old for me to enjoy them. Most Cabs and Merlots I give five to ten years. Brunello, Barolo, Bordeaux? Ten years is a nice round number, isn’t it? Heck, I even cellar high-ticket Chardonnay up to a decade.

But then I drink up.

I don’t go look up what Parker said about 1995 Pontet Canet (a red Bordeaux from the Paulliac region) when he reviewed it as an infant way back then. I don’t care about his (or anyone’s) predictions of 20 or 30 years of bottle age. I crack open a bottle and enjoy the hell out of it. The fruit’s fresh, the body’s plump, the wonderfully mature flavors open out as if they’re overjoyed to be released into the air, and everyone has a damn fine time.

No lecture required.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

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