You know how when there’s something you know something about, and you talk with someone who’s interested in that something but has her or his facts a bit screwy, but thinks she or he knows quite a bit, and you want to correct the misinformation but don’t want to come off like a jerk, so you’re caught between fake-smiling and letting it go, or bringing the knowledge hammer down, and in the aftermath you resent yourself for either the fake abiding or the heavy-handed pedantry?
Well, me too. I’ve had a couple of these experiences lately. I opted for the nice-guy routine; now I’m a bit agitated. Here we are: You’re about to get me on the high horse I had to keep in the stable at the time.
“I used to be all about Cabs,” one man told me recently, ‘but now I’m really into Pinots.” A long monologue ensued, contrasting set-in-stone assumptions about one grape with equally rigid preconceptions about the other. Pinot is “fruity”; Cab is “rich.” The guy clearly loved wine, knew about it and wanted to know more, but his information was incomplete and he had points he needed to make.
I gently raised the simplest of objections: Pinot Noir from two different producers even in the same region can vary widely; add distinctions between, say, the Willamette Valley and Burgundy, and (I used nicer words) an insane, overly masculine face-off between “Pinot Noir” and “Cabernet Sauvignon” (from Napa? from the Medoc?) is literally meaningless.
But I was the help. I poured Pinot Noirs that I knew people would like, in part because they’re somewhat cartoonish Pinot Noirs: hypersaturated and a bit fussed-with, built to entertain, only insecurely tethered to what (I think) Pinot Noir actually is.
I’d recently come across an exceptionally good Pinot Noir from California’s Central Coast, the Folk Machine 2011 ($19, Wicked). It’s exceptionally good because it’s an exception to the usual Californian style, where the grapes hang too long on the vine and overripen, producing wine so flabby that the vintner adds tartaric acid just to prop the thing up on stage long enough to get through the performance. The Folk Machine is delicate, elegant Pinot Noir. Stylistically, then, it represents the actual soft and inviting nature of the grape, while in flavor it represents the more heat-happy home it has made in sunny California: intense cherry fruit and baked-earth flavors.
I could have poured that wine. But would the Pinot-beats-Cab guy like it? I don’t know. I was scared he’d be like, “What’s this? It’s not Pinot. It’s too weak.”
Another client told me she wanted me to choose a Chardonnay for a party, “to be, you know, the dry white we serve. Chardonnay is dry.” This is true of most Chablis, for instance, but I’m pretty sure the Chardonnay she wanted was not the bony, chalky style produced in Chablis. Rather, she was suggesting the conventional American style, where the combination of oak-treated fermentation, chemical additives, and halted fermentation to bequeath residual sugar yields a rich, fulsome and decidedly (often cloyingly) sweet wine.
The fact that people believe such wine to be “dry” is maddening, because these same people will reject a wine (such as a Kabinett Riesling) with more clearly expressed sweetness that is balanced by acidity (zing) and minerality (salt). The reason Riesling gets called out while Chardonnay gets a pass is mostly due to the cultivated yeasts and loads of chemical crap going, unlabeled, into the latter, which disguise the sweetness. Riesling is usually made in a much less adulterated way, so the sweetness is easier to discern. Although the Riesling’s sweetness is pleasant and helpful to any food and/or human in the vicinity, he gets sent to the principal’s office while the instigating jerk in the back of the classroom with a honed nice-girl demeanor (that’d be the Chard) gets a gold star for turning in the “troublemaker.”
So what to do about the Chardonnay? I could say, “Here’s a Chardonnay: the Drouhin Chablis AC 2011 ($20, National). Or try the Servin Petit Chablis 2011 ($20, Wicked). Both are super crisp, dry Chardonnays, very well balanced. A touch of salt, flinty, a chalky texture, ripe but not sweet fruit, very elegant.”
I could also say, “Here’s a Chardonnay: the Von Schleinitz Riesling Kabinett 2009 ($17, SoPo). Riesling is a variety of Chardonnay. This too has a salty/finty bite, some ripe fruit, peach essence. A very stylish wine; everyone will love it!”
It would all be true (except for the part about Riesling being a kind of Chardonnay, but that white lie is in service of a Greater Truth). People would love the wine. I bet most drinkers would say of the Chablis, “Wow, that just pops! It’s such zesty wine. Where’s the tray of pigs-in-blankets? Where are the goat cheese tarts?” I bet most drinkers would say of the Riesling, “That’s the best Chardonnay I’ve ever tasted! Where are those chicken satay skewers? Gimme another smoked-fish cracker. (Or the pigs-in-blankets or the goat cheese tarts; ‘sall good!)”
I wimped out. Instead, I suggested an inexpensive Chardonnay from Spain that is well-made and tasty, but not likely to garner any love or stir up much intrigue. Fine. It was probably all fine. I’m not sure anyone learned much, though learning isn’t always the point.
It’s usually my point, though, which risks irritation for whoever else is in the room. How can I be passionate, committed and principled without being a bore? Or a future “Portlandia” episode?
But shout it from the mountaintop: Grapes are not so important! Don’t classify! Investigate your assumptions!
What matters in wine, as in people, as in life, is character. Not skin color or grape name. Not categories of any kind. You are not objective; come to know your subjectivity. Don’t think about Chardonnay; think about elements. Make decisions about salty flavors, citric fruits, tropics, calm, kinetics, delicacy, power, perfection, flaws, prickle, salve, middles and margins.
At this level there is no quality differential. No one “wins.” No one is impressed. We all just look a little more closely, and live better for that.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market, but not all the wines mentioned in this column are necessarily sold there. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at: