A few days ago I tasted a new wine, a nebbiolo, the grape from which the famed Barolo is made. This was a California example, from Martin & Weyrich. Let me set the scene: two fairly inexperienced but not stupid women, tasting alongside one very experienced -- we take his word for it, safely so I am sure -- and also not stupid man. One woman tastes, hesitantly considers, as does the other, while the man tastes and goes into raptures. "Glorious." "Big." "At least comparable to a cabernet sauvignon." "The joke is that there are nebbiolos from the time of Christ that are just drinkable now."
After a pause the first woman says, "I don't understand how this is big," and the second woman says, "It tastes like a weak pinot noir."
"Exactly!" I yell. (May as well forget the incognita.) It tasted like a weak pinot noir. It looked like one. It had that similar light color, although to be fair Italian wines, and this California-grown Italian grape, seem to have a gleaming, cherry-garnet color all their own, and it had that acidity common to pinot noirs. Like the genuine Barolo I tasted some weeks ago, it also offered up a quality that I can only describe as plain, which I would think would be the opposite of "big."
However, my experienced colleague's opinions are not to be sneezed at, so I went home and did some reading. In Wine for Dummies, Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan describe the nebbiolo grape, and its Italian wines Barolo and Barbaresco, as high in acids, tannins, and alcohol, dry, and therefore "robust." This marks the nub of what I fail to grasp about the wine. To me, the acidity, high tannin, and high alcohol of that Martin and Weyrich nebbiolo created a thin, meek, uninteresting mouthfeel. Any solid California red blend in the store would have tasted richer and had the "sticky-black, turbo-powered" color and potency which Hugh Johnson attributes to Napa Valley reds -- "and Barolos and Barbarescos" (How to Enjoy Your Wine).
But a man, our esteemed colleague, calling this wine "big," and prominent authors collecting harsh, spare characteristics under the rubric Therefore Robust, leads me to think of what renders intangible things either big or small, aggressive or mild, robust or enervated -- do we dare go on to say? -- masculine or feminine. A fountain pen, a pair of shoes, a houseplant: why is a slim, plain black pen manly, and a fat, maroon one with gold flecks feminine? Isn't the maroon one robust and interesting? What plant would you give a man for his new office, a simple, straight-up snake plant, or a lush China doll? (As for the shoes, maybe we'd better leave those alone.)
And so I'm puzzled to know why, in the world of wine, traits that taste like dessication and thinness are (apparently) considered strong and powerful, while lush fruitiness, spice, sweetness, and flavor are judged as both flaccid and small. I can't help but notice that the wine industry is heavily weighted with men at all levels -- my esteemed colleague agrees -- and I can't help but remember the late Margaret Mead, who noticed in her research the universal constant that whatever men do or value becomes the praiseworthy norm, and whatever women do or value tends to remain secondary. A whimsical train of thought, certainly, and I gather anyway that Margaret Mead's work does not command the respect it did when Coming of Age in Samoa was a runaway bestseller. But it can be so odd to be told that a wine is marvelous when the wine in one's mouth is saying just about nothing at all. And I am not quite fresh off the Prohibition train, eagerly clutching my bottle of Ripple. I even begin to doubt my colleague. How do I know? Maybe he's never tasted a really good nebbiolo. Nobody's perfect.
A day or so later, I took the remains of the wine home and have been sampling it since. Its acidity is chokingly high. The aroma -- and I did dutifully concentrate on this, last night having a eureka moment, when I thought "that's it" -- is old leather, like a saddle. There is some fruit to it, it's not a bad wine, entirely, but it's not something I would rush to try again. Maybe it needs the eight or ten years' aging that wine books recommend for the grape. Or the whole exercise may have been pointless, except that it led to the reading of more wine books, which is always fun. For here is the pronouncement of one of them, McCarthy and Ewing-Mulligan again, on our grape of the day: "Outside of scattered sites in northwestern Italy -- mainly the Piedmont region -- Nebbiolo just doesn't make remarkable wine."
Well, well. Cheers to that.