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.

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