Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Folks. Please. It's just wine."

I will probably one day be (God willing) a querulous old lady who is forever going on about "when I used to work in a wine shop." That occupation will always sound so much more glamorous than, say, "when I worked at the dry cleaner's." But I was lucky, not only to work there for a short time but also to work with an Esteemed Colleague who knew a lot about wine and had learned it not from books but from job experience, in retail, wholesale, winery positions, and in the restaurant business.

He used to scoff about what I suppose could be clumsily called the academization of wine -- "all this 'Master of Wine' and 'Master Sommelier' business," he sniffed. And he would say the same thing to neophyte customers concerned, like all of us, to taste and describe the right things in their glass. "Folks, please," he would exhort after a while. "It's just wine. It's wine."

He had a point, of course, but I've also wondered whether he wasn't suffering a case of sour grapes himself -- don't we all, about something? -- and I've wondered whether his non-academic, un-vetted, un-tested knowledge really did leave him untrustworthy on some matters, perhaps major matters. Take the instance of the Larkmead Cabernet from 1973, which he had opened and then sealed with a vacuum pump in the mid-1980s, and which had become, circa now, "past its best but not vinegar, proving that vacuum seals really do work well."

The famed and respected Jancis Robinson (MW), disagrees. In her Wine Course: A Guide to the World of Wine (Abbeville Press, 1999, 2003), she says, right above a photograph of a Vacuvin, that these devices are "better than nothing but not very effective over more than a day or two."

Whom do you trust? That Larkmead cabernet sealed vacuum-style for over twenty-five years did not taste good, nor did Esteemed Colleague mean that it should be judged so. But he did offer it up as something, not unpleasant, from which we could learn. I wonder now if it had in fact spoiled a few days after he had corked it in the Reagan years, and he didn't know it. Didn't know it, because he has never had Jancis Robinson's classroom training, nor passed the tests she has done. Is it really always "just wine"?

A few days ago, I tasted once more a wine that we used to carry in the store. It's called Red Guitar, and is a blend of tempranillo and garnacha, from Spain ($9.99 at the grocery store -- which means we probably charged over $15 for it, which partly explains why the place closed down. Not that I'm being querulous.) My first reaction to it was ick -- rubber. I consulted my books and began reading about what causes the taste of rubber in wine. It's all in the breakdown of sulphur dioxide, leading to mercaptans, and so on. I was ready to snap a picture of a tennis shoe, sole in obvious foreshortening, and send it to Chateau Petrogasm. But the next day, Red Guitar tasted perfectly all right. Perhaps that cough drop I had eaten beforehand, had done the wine some injury. And then I could hear Esteemed Colleague in my head. Folks. Please. It's just wine.

Maybe. Maybe it's just wine, when it's a ten dollar bottle. But, a few days after my Red-Guitar-with-cough-drop experience, my husband and I made an excursion to our favorite antique mall in Crown Point, Indiana. There I was lucky enough to find a copy of Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wine: Fifty Years of Tasting Three Centuries of Wine (Harcourt, 2002).

It is the ultimate in bedside reading and vicarious adventure. Michael Broadbent, longtime head of the wine department at Christie's, is not going to hold the reader's hand and explain How Wine Is Made. (Incidentally, that's an attractive picture of him on the back jacket flap. He looks like John Gielgud late in life, only healthier.) Rather, he reproduces his notes on items like Thomas Jefferson's Chateau Lafitte 1787, and then moves on from there. Open at random: Romanee Conti 1937 ("unquestionably the outstanding vintage in this difficult decade"), Chateau d'Yquem 1959 ("monumental Sauternes"), Ferreira port 1815 ("the Waterloo vintage"), Pol Roger 1911 ("a great vintage and the best between 1874 and 1921"). For this last, and I must quote at length, our author tasted

... a bottle produced by Hugh Johnson for his first Bordeaux Club dinner: sipped reverentially but with immense satisfaction by the members on a perfect summer evening in Hugh's exquisite garden -- I have a happy photograph, taken by Judy Johnson, of Harry Waugh, Jack Plumb (in straw hat) ...

... and others. Yes, it sounds happy. Mr. Jack Plumb, according to the glossary, is the late Professor Sir John Plumb, famed historian, Master of Christ's College, Cambridge. His name on his history books -- my local library owns one, but used to own more -- or in copies of the old Horizon hardcover magazine -- I own the set -- is rendered J.H. Plumb. I'm glad he was a member of the Bordeaux Club.

Anyway, Michael Broadbent's book gives the lie to the idea that it's "just wine." I thought of my Esteemed Colleague when I read, just below the attractive, Gielgudian photograph, that Broadbent became a Master of Wine in 1960. That's a notably and a respectably long time ago, I think, for any phoney academization of wine to have been underway. More importantly, the thousands of closely printed entries in the book surely tell us that there is another universe of wine out there, far above the ten or even the thirty-dollar shelves, beyond the grocery stores and beyond the big suburban discount chains which do have a lot to offer, maybe enough for a lifetime of plain drinking, but not this. Not (open at random again) Assmannshauser Hollenberg Spatburgunder Spatlese 1993, a late harvest pinot noir from Germany, "very good now," if you happen to have it. See page 377.

In his introduction, Broadbent fundamentally explains in what sense it isn't always just wine. "Life is short," and he doesn't waste his time on bland, indifferent wines; he "would rather drink a half bottle of something with character than drink six bottles of plonk." In How to Enjoy Your Wine, Hugh Johnson of the exquisite garden agrees. There is no comparison, he says, between everyday wines and something really superior, and you cannot know -- maybe won't believe -- the difference between glister and gold until you try it for yourself. Besides, Broadbent continues, the world is now so awash with wine, most of it intended to be plain and pleasant, that there is no point trying to keep up with that. In taking the time to write and publish tasting notes, at any rate, "one has to specialise," and not waste the effort on wines, again, of no character. Nor on all those deep-colored, fleshy, alcoholic, vogue reds -- "undrinkable," he says. (Might he also add "licorice cough syrup" to that list of descriptors?)

So, is it "just wine," and do MWs have little to teach us with their trumped-up qualifications, or are we missing the entire divinity of the experience unless we move into the realms they know? As will be obvious by now, I suspect Esteemed Colleague was wrong. Though to be fair, his judgments were not inflexible. He rolled his eyes at our wine shop proprietor's claim that the champagne she offered for sale was the equivalent to Veuve Clicquot, only cheaper. He also rolled his eyes at the way she pronounced "sommelier." In fact there were quite a few things he rolled his eyes at. I adore human nature.

And, because I do, when I am invited to the next Bordeaux Club dinner in somebody's exquisite garden -- well hey, I've got a stand of evening primrose next to my garbage cans -- I promise I will try to wangle an invitation for him, too.

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