He said he was new to wine, but added that he regularly bought bottles of my Wine of the Week that appeared Thursdays in the local paper.
And he asked for help.
In a brief typewritten memo (it was long ago), he said he usually liked the wines I recommended, but shied away from more obscure ones because he wasn’t sure he’d like them. And he asked if I knew of a crash course to help him simplify his wine education.
I wrote back some ideas, a few of which are below. But I said that wine education can be an endless if fascinating quest.
However, there was a problem with his memo, one that I mused about over the decades. And it nagged at me until a few weeks ago when I read a few lines in a recently published mini-book by an acquaintance and compatriot that addresses some of wine’s more philosophic topics.
That long-ago memo that the reader sent may have been his way of addressing the essential differences between a Pinot Grigio, a Sauvignon Blanc, and a Chardonnay. Or why certain red wines were astringent and others soft.
Those questions aren’t about simplifying wine. They are more about explication, illumination – ways to distinguish different wines from one another, even when the wines are made from the same grape variety.
To simplify wine might seem like a worthy strategy, but not to Jamie Goode, a British wine columnist for The Sunday Express in London and a sublime observer of wines of the world.
In his year-old mini-book “The Goode Guide to Wine, A Manifesto of Sorts” (UC Press, 2020, $18.95), Goode explores in several small chapters many topics vital to understanding truly fine wine. By which I mean wines of character – not necessarily wines that someone gave 100 points to or cost $237.86. Per ounce.
In the few times I have chatted with Jamie, I found him quietly forthright when it comes to wine personality, and he doesn’t fixate on alleged wine quality. Indeed, I find wine quality to be a rather murky subject on which some people seem completely focused while ignoring far more dynamic issues.
In his book, Goode questions the validity of simplifying wine. Many people have heard that wine is “a complex subject,” Goode wrote, “and that you have to learn a lot to be able to choose wisely and get the most out of them.
“It is the complexity of wine, however, that draws many people in. Demystify it at your peril if you wish to keep the keen consumer engaged. I think that many people can live quite well with a bit of mystery. It’s the control freak self-appointed consumer champions who want to iron out all the details and make it much simpler. They should relax: Wine can never be truly simplified without ripping out its heart.” Brilliant.
After decades of searching, I found the answer. But in looking back on my own path into fine wine, I now realize that I had sort of figured it out experientially.
I became endlessly fascinated with all sorts of wines a decade before writing a column. I ended up so fixated by this vastly complex subject that never ceased to shock me with its myriad facets and astonishing intricacies.
What’s also beguiling is how humans can develop sensory skills to dissect wines almost better than can the most sophisticated machines.
It is true, of course, that the more one is educated in the intricacies of a particular wine grape or style or region, the greater the understanding and thus the greater appreciation of the differences that are so fascinating and keep us constantly alert.
It’s like when I’m certain a wine is a Sauvignon Blanc, but it turns out to be a Pinot Gris from a strange locale.
Obviously, learning about wine can be an unending journey.
Educating oneself about any complex discipline (classical music, auto restoration, koi), takes dedicated study. Unlike other academic endeavors, discovering the joys of different kinds of wines can be a lot of fun.
The problems that budding wine lovers usually face are:
(a) the difficulty finding skilled instructors (many people say they know wine, but do not);
(b) finding the money to taste the best in each category;
(c) recognizing that there is a huge difference between wines of differing ages. And about a dozen other topics.
Most people start with young wines, then experience slightly older wines. But only after they experience perfectly stored, classic older wines does collecting wine begin to make any sense.
In my case, decades ago I attended a tasting of young Barolos. I didn’t like any of them, but people I respected spoke about how great they’d be in 30 years. So even though many were absurdly expensive, I bought a few and stashed them in a cellar, waiting until I could understand them.
(My old UCLA English professor John Espy said that as a student he had a professor who told him he’d never understand Shakespeare until he was 50 years old. On the eve of his 50th birthday, Espy said he went to bed with a copy of the collected works of Shakespeare open on his nightstand table, so when he awoke...)
I didn’t touch any of those Barolos until 15 years later and when I began opening them, they proved to be a revelation.
Learning about wine should start with the understanding that each varietal should have some sort of aroma and taste characteristics.
Doing this for a single grape variety takes years to master. The first year usually is dedicated to various inexpensive wines. By Year 2 we look seriously at classic examples. By then, you have the beginnings of a knowledge base about one grape.
Expand that to the top 20 grape varieties, and you’re looking at decades of study. Since I’ve been doing this since 1970, give or take, and since I like a lot more than 20 different grape varieties, I consider myself to still be on a learning curve and a novice with some grapes.
Are there general rules to make this quest simpler? Not really. Generalizations often lead us to cul-de-sacs. Here are a few ideas, but remember: there probably are as many exceptions as there are rules:
• When looking for a good example of varietal correctness in a wine, it may be necessary to spend at least $16 to get a decent varietal example. Below that, an awful lot of blending makes wines that are “tasty” — a horrible word that usually has nothing to do with varietal personality.
• Varietal correctness is more often seen in wines that have less than 14% alcohol. The closer you get to 15%, and especially over it, the more wines begin to resemble their cousins, raisins. And a raisin is more like prune juice than a wine.
• Varietal-ness in wine is more likely if the grapes were grown in a cooler climate. This is especially true of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and several other varieties – including Syrah!
• However, don’t automatically disparage warm-climate wines, especially since vineyard variations often offer cool-climate influences in otherwise warm regions.
• Generally, I would pass on wines with “California” appellations. Many are ordinary and usually don’t display varietal elements.
• Buy a few bottles that are deeply discounted because they’re older. The marketplace frowns on wines from prior vintages, but you can often discover bargains in wines that actually needed additional time in the bottle.
• If you find a bottle that’s a bit astringent or very tart, but otherwise has aromas and flavors that are attractive, buy an extra bottle and put a note on it with the date a year ahead. Then keep the bottle out of light and cool and try it in two months to see how time has dealt with it.
• Sameness in wine can be boring. Embrace unusualness.
• Above all, experiment.
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Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.
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