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What Makes a Wine Great? Maybe Not What You Think!

Vinted on April 30, 2008 binned in commentary, winemaking, zen wine

What makes a wine great?

I don’t mean great as in “pretty tasty, I like it, it’s got a nice beat and I can dance to it” great.

I mean eye-popping, life-changing, “the heavens opened ancient mythology style” great.

That’s a tough question, even for those of us in the wine biz, because so few of us have actually tasted a truly great wine.

I’m going to give you my view of what makes a wine great – and it’s probably not what you’d think.

But before I do that, I need to set the record straight about how I think greatness is judged in the first place…

Winemaking is more art than science. If you disagree with me on this one, then I invite you to read my previous post on the subject.

If you still disagree with me, then you might want to skip the rest of this article entirely, because the rest of this post will be drawing parallels between winemaking and art. For those of you who couldn’t stand art class, I apologize in advance!

Personal preference doesn’t matter. I don’t like pilsner beer. Does that mean that all pilsners are no good, or that they can never achieve greatness? I love the works of Picasso. Does that mean all of Picasso’s art is great? When you stop to think about it, it’s obvious that greatness has nothing to do with any one individual’s personal preferences (not matter how highly that individual might regard his/her own opinion…).

The light red wines of Medieval times would no doubt seem watery and insipid to our Parker-ized palates.

Collective preference does matter. The collective consciousness of a given society and its era in time does matter when it comes to greatness. This is borne out time and time again in art history – and in the annals of wine history as well. If you flip through the pages of Ancient Wine, or the superb Story of Wine, you will learn that the wine of the ancient Greeks and Romans likely would be too cloyingly sweet for our tastes today. The light red wines of Medieval times would no doubt have seemed watery and insipid to our Parker-ized palates. Times make the society; and societies make the collective decision on greatness.

Material matters – but not that much. Is a Picasso painting “greater” than a Picasso sculpture, just because the medium is different? Probably not. In wine, while some grapes (such as Concord) may never make truly great wine, it’s pure folly to discount any one of the “noble” grape varieties when it comes to greatness – all of them are capable of making a great wine. Unless you mixed them altogether. That would probably suck.

Is a Picasso painting “greater” than a Picasso sculpture, just because the medium is different?

Nature matters – and so does nurture. Old World winemakers will tell you that terroir – the nature and place from whence a grape came – is the determinant of whether or not the resulting wine can be great; the winemaker’s job is to interfere as little as possible with the natural process. New World winemakers will tell you that it is trough savvy vineyard practices and the use of modern technology in the wine cellar that greatness is achieved. They’re both right – start with a great pedigree, and finish with great care, and a wine may just achieve greatness.

So how can we measure a wine’s “greatness?”

In The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil offers 5 criteria that can be used to determine if a wine is great. Her take is as good as any other, so I’ll share a synopsis of it here:

  1. Distinct varietal character - a wine exemplifies the true characteristics of its grape(s)
  2. Integration – the wine’s components (alcohol, acidity, fruit, etc.) are harmonious
  3. Expressiveness – the aromas & flavors are clear & focused
  4. Complexity – like an artwork, the wine keeps you coming back, discovering more nuances each time
  5. Connectedness – the wine embodies qualities that link it to the specific place where it was made.

Not a bad list at all. I think it’s missing an important element, however. To me, the most important.

So I’d like to add something to Karen’s fantastic list: Great wine is like great art, or a peaceful meditation, or even a great life lived to its potential with humility and true grace.

Great wine is a Mystery.

By mystery, I don’t mean a problem to be rectified, a secret to be revealed, or a puzzle to be solved. I mean a Mystery like the seat of human consciousness in the brain, the origin of life, the feeling of love, and the nature of pure being.

Great wine is a true Mystery, because it is greater than the sum of its parts in a way that synthesizes our mental, physical, and spiritual selves; connecting us to ourselves, to each other, and to a place and time, and to the earth. The greater the wine, the less likely it is that any words will be capable of adequately describing the experience.


Great wine is a tiny miracle of the universe that cannot ever be fully explained.


Now, before you all start sending me lava lamps, crystals, or patchouli, remember the words of Albert Einstein – “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.

Which one would you pick?

Cheers!

(images: winefront.com.au, clevelandart.org, restaurantlacaravella.com, macedonian-heritage.gr)

It’s Spring – Drink Whatever the Hell You Want!

Vinted on April 16, 2008 binned in commentary, holidays

(images: Joe Roberts)

Ah, Spring.

That time when a young man’s fancy turns to love.

And to thoughts of what wines are best to get that love just a little bit tipsy. Or maybe a lot tipsy, depending on the moral stature of the young man.

Although the weather here in the Mid-Atlantic/NE has been a bit unpredictable lately, I know for certain that Spring is finally here. I am sure of it, because I receive regular calls and post mail from Chemlawn asking if I want to participate in their lawn care program (apparently, it’s Spring and my lawn looks like crap).

I had originally planned to write a nice, conventional little post about Wines for Spring. I was even going to call it “Rite of Spring” (get it?) which sounded cute to me (despite the sacrificial death portrayed in the ballet of the same name).

Then the Dark Side took over. Literally…

You see, Quite a bit has been written (very well, I might add) already on the subject of lighter wines for lighter-weather times. For example, WineLoversPage.com has a great recent recommendation of a sparkling pink Prosecco for Spring.

There are many other wines that would serve you well on a Spring picnic. Like a spritzy Vinho Verde. Or a light rosé, which is a nice option for easing out of your heavy Winter reds into lighter Spring fare.

But you know what?

Even though it’s Spring, the evenings are still on the cool side here in eastern PA. And I don’t want to give up those heavy Winter reds just yet.

Maybe I’m just not down with the vernal equinox, but I still find myself liking my wine dark. And when not dark in color, I want that wine dark in character - bold and “heavy.”

To bolster my stubborn stance, it seems the general wine-buying public isn’t easy to sway either when it comes to changing their wine drinking habits. In the Winter, people drink big, bold wines like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

And in the Spring and Summer, they drink: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

At least, that’s the tale that the wine retail sales figures in the U.S. tells.

Who am I to upset the applecart?

Welcome to Spring. Drink whatever the hell you want!

There will be plenty of time in the months ahead to savor those crisp, fruity, spritzy, mouth-watering and thirst-quenching lighter wines.

For now, savor that chill in the air that greets you when the sun goes down and the wind picks up just a bit, for just a second. That’s a little stab of Old Man Winter’s cane, as he pokes you lightly in the gut. You know what he’s saying?

I’ll be back.

As you take a swig of that last big, dark, gnarly, 14% alcohol red wine you had stocked up on when it was snowing outside, just look Old Man Winter in the eye and tell him something for me:

Whatever. I’ll be waiting. And I’ll have more of this killer Shiraz with me, too.

Cheers!

20 Things About Life I’ve Learned From Drinking Wine

Vinted on February 22, 2008 binned in best of, commentary, wine appreciation, wine tips, zen wine

(images: davidzinger.wordpress.com, elsnoozo.blogspot.com, history.com, aceface.com)

It’s been said in some Eastern traditions that to be born a human is a rare event. To be a human and to question the source of life (to become a Seeker) is rarer still. And rarest of all is to seek and find your guru, the way to enlightenment.

Well, I’ve had many gurus in my life. My dog, for example, has taught me a lot (including how to better smell my wine). Wine itself can be one of your life gurus, if you only take the time to pay attention to what it has to tell you.

“Reality is an illusion that occurs due to a lack of wine.”
- Anonymous

Inspired in part by a recent post in Zen Habits, below are 20 things about life that I’ve learned – from drinking wine. I fully expect that the list will grow, as my life journey of wine appreciation continues – but who knows, sometimes I’m stubborn, and I’m also prone to forget stuff, so I’d better share these now!

Roll up with me, if you will, and let’s enjoy together a glass of ‘Zen Wine‘…

20 Things About Life I’ve Learned From Drinking Wine

1) Old is Beautiful
Anyone caught up in our youth-worshiping culture need only to crack open a well-kept aged classified Bordeaux, taking in all of its complex aromas & flavors, to realize that not only do good things come to those who wait, but time offers the gift of real beauty to those who age with grace and humility.

2) Young is Beautiful
Fruit bombs can be fun – there’s something refreshing about the forward brashness of youth. If you want to stay young at heart, you need to keep a bit of youthful bravado, through thick & thin.

3) Nature matters
Start with a crappy vine, and you could end up with crappy wine. Start with a great old vine, and you’ve got a better chance of making some killer vino. We need to remember our roots – if you don’t really know where you’re starting from, you might not be able to get where you want to go!

4) Nurture matters, too
Just as good wine needs a caring hand in its development, we need to seek out strong role models and a positive environment to reach our best in life.

5) Real change comes from within
A great wine starts with a decent pedigree, loving hands during its formative time (fermentation, etc.), and a good environment in which to mature. After that, all the magic happens within the bottle with virtually no exposure to the ‘outside’ world. Like a great wine, once we’re given what we need to succeed in life, the rest is up to us!

6) The greatest pleasure is being in the moment
Pour, swirl, sniff, sip. If you want to get the most out of tasting a wine, you need to let yourself BE, clearing your mind and just accepting everything that the wine has to offer. In other words, you need to be in the moment. Tasting wine is a sacred act – just like walking the dog, getting married, making love, or reading the newspaper. All of our actions become minor miracles in the universe when we give ourselves up to them completely.

7) People & relationships matter more than stuff
We get just as much pleasure from sharing a good wine with good friends as we do tasting that good wine. Wine is a lubricant for life – not a substitute for it. The objects in your life should be used for your life (and not the other way around).

8) Sharing is caring
A friend of mine called me recently, telling me how excited he was that he would be pouring magnums of `60s Ch. Petrus at a dinner, and that he would probably get a chance to taste some of this amazing stuff. Why did he call? “I needed to tell someone who would appreciate it!” he said. The better things in life, like wine, are best when they’re shared.

9) One size does not fit all
I don’t like Retsina. In fact, I hate Retsina. But there are people out there who love it. And both are totally OK. There are over 7,000 brands of wine available to consumers in the U.S. – and that’s AWESOME. Because variety (especially of varietals!) really is the spice of life.

10) We have a duty to ‘Go Green
Wine is arguably the best and most artistic interpretation of the bounty that the earth has to offer us (the French terrior concept shows that they figured this out a long time ago!). We owe a debt to mother nature to be sustainable and nurture her as she has done for us (and hopefully will do for our children).

11) Looks can be deceiving
My wife used to buy bottles of wine because they had pretty labels. And a lot of them sucked. Don’t judge based on appearances – eventually, it will burn you.

12) Not everyone ages gracefully
I’ve tasted decades-old Barolos that were still tannic. I’ve tasted aged Rieslings that smelled more like vinegar than flowers & petrol. Some people just get crotchety and negative, and they’re best avoided.

13) All things in moderation
I’ve tasted a lot of wine. Sometimes a lot of wine in one night. And sometimes, I’ve hugged some toilets. Trust me, things are best when they’re not overdone!

14) A place for everything, & everything in its place
You can’t age wine just anywhere, and having the right storage system makes keeping wine a hell of a lot easier. Life is smoother and more tranquil when you remove clutter from your surroundings (and your mind).

15) The best views come from the toughest climbs
The most beautiful views usually come from the highest peaks, and you’re going to need to do some difficult climbing to see them. Most of the best wine on earth is picked, sorted, and managed by hand – made even more difficult when done from steep hillsides at high altitudes. A labour of love & passion may not be easy, but it usually gets you the best of what life has to offer.

16) Sometimes we need to be challenged to show our best
Better wines come from better fruit, and better fruit comes from vines that are stressed (for water, nutrients, etc.). When we are challenged, we grow. And when we step up to the challenges of life, we really know what we’re made of.

17) You are what you eat (& drink)
If a wine is fed bad water, on bad soil, and doused with pesticides, it’s probably going to turn out bad. Which is why you should never drink plonk if you can avoid it. Also – never cook with a wine that you wouldn’t drink! Our bodies are not that different and they don’t take well to being fed lousy eats. Eat food, mostly vegetables, not too much. Give your body the best chance it can have, by giving it the best food you can get.

18) “The secret to being a bore is to tell everything”
Wines that don’t have much complexity can get really boring, really quickly. Wines that evolve over time in the glass, revealing layer upon layer of aromas and flavors, are among the world’s most exciting. Leave a bit of mystery to life, and to yourself - not everything can be explained, and not everything is worth explaining.

19) Never stop learning
If you want to appreciate wine, you will need to learn a bit of science, geography, history, biology, chemistry… I’m sure you get the point. As Ghandi said, “live as if you will die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever.”

20) Your greatest asset is Patience
If you want to taste a wine aged to perfection, then you need to wait and let it age to perfection, undisturbed, without your meddling. Lao Tzu asked if you have the patience to wait until the ‘muddy water’ of your mind is clear.

And as Pete Townshend asked “Well… do ya?!?

Cheers!

Why Fruit Bombs Are OK (I am Here to Whet Some Palates!)

Vinted on February 18, 2008 binned in commentary, wine appreciation, wine tips, winemaking

(images: jacop.net, pocketpcmag.net)

Warning: If you consider yourself a wine snob, or are easily offended (or both), then I am about to lose you as a friend with this post.

Because I am here to tell you that “Fruit Bombs” (those wines made in a style that deliberately dials up the varietal fruit and shoves it right into your face) are OK.

No, really, I’m serious. They’re OK.

Yes, they really are. YES, they ARE.

Now, before I explain why Fruit Bombs are OK, I need to tell you a little about Jaco Pastorius (stick with me – this will all makes sense in a minute or two)…

Jaco Pastorius is widely considered to be the father of modern jazz bass playing. Often he is cited as the best jazz bassist to have ever lived (if not the best electric bassist ever, period). If, like me, you’re a bass player, then you have to be inspired at least a little bit by Jaco’s amazing playing and harmonious blend of musicality, technique, humor, and inventiveness – if not, you’d better have your pulse checked, ’cause you might be dead.

In the music biz, Jaco was just as famous for his quips as he was for his bass licks. Among his best: “women, children, and rhythm section first,” “it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up!” and my personal favorite, “I am not here to raise hippy consciousness, I am here to wet some panties.”

Artistic Harmony is Important (Especially in Wine)
The key to Jaco’s success was how well he blended all of the different elements of his musical abilities together into a coherent whole. You may not like jazz, but if you’re really listening, you can’t help but admire the genuineness and balance.

When I’m drinking wine, I’m looking for the same things: genuineness and balance. I may not like the style, but I will admire those elements, if they exist in the wine. Because a winemaker who is really trying will give you the most of those things that are possible given the winemaking conditions, raw materials/grapes, and other resources s/he has on command for that vintage.

Don’t Dis Based on Style – Dis Based on Lack of Harmony
Fruit Bombs are nothing more than a style of winemaking. Do I think many of them suck? Sure I do. Do I prefer them to more subtle-flavored wine choices? Usually not. But I don’t write them off on the whole any more than I would tell you that all country music sucks just because I’m not a fan of the genre in general.

Making a wine is a bit like fiddling with the EQ on your stereo. Crank up the bass and extreme treble all the way, and most of your music will sound like shit. And the bad, disingenuous music? That will sound even worse. In winemaking, if you crank up the fruit, you’d better make sure that you’re also cranking up the structure (acidity, tannin, oak, etc.) to some degree, so that you’re providing a balance and giving the disparate elements in the wine the best chance to come together as a cohesive whole. Or most likely your wine will taste like shit.

Wine is Music to Your Mouth
A wine, even an inexpensive one, should be like music to your palate – and the Brittany Spears of wine is inherently no better than Joni Mitchell of wine, depending on which one you’re most into.

So let’s not write off the fruit bombs, people. Let’s write off the disingenuous wines that don’t have internal harmony.

I am not here to raise wine consciousness, I am here to whet some palates!

Cheers!

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