As I mentioned in my intro post for this series, wine people make appreciating wine kind of miserable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been tasting and some guy parks his Porsche and walks up and says he needs to be served immediately because he’s in the wine club and proceeds to swirl his wine around and wax on about the structure of the wine with his nose high in the air. I either want to strangle him or just walk out. At the same time, I guarantee you at times my friends and family have thought that guy was me.
It’s easy to think that wine “belongs to these people” and that you are out of place. If I’ve gotten any benefit from age though, it’s perspective. To digress, I have always loved nature. I’ve always wanted to be one of those mountain climbing backpackers that drives a Toyota Tacoma and wears hemp clothing and has a hipster beard. The problem is, I’m not one of those people, which is abundantly clear when I hang around with them and they can’t understand why this nerdy dork wants to wear seashell necklaces and go kayaking.
Every time I went out in the wild, I encountered these people. And I never wore the right clothes, or could afford the North Face backpack and the Patagonia fleece. In short, I was a pretender. I didn’t belong out there. But a funny thing happened. I can now afford all the REI clothes. I can afford the Mountain Hardware sleeping bag and the ultralight tent. And you know what’s most ironic? Nature belonged to me way more when I was a poor college student gaffer-taping a foam bedroll to a garage sale 1970s backpack. Now when I load up my ultralight pack, I feel like I’ve bought my ticket to be there. Back then my passage was paid by my passion.
It’s the same with wine. It might seem like the wine experience belongs to the Porsche dude. But it really belongs to the guy who searches endlessly for the perfect $12 bottle to serve his friends or the woman who plans an entire meal around a wine that she’s excited about. The wine belongs to you, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
So why are people so snooty about wine? There are two reasons:
1. Snooty people are drawn to snooty things. In other words, wine lovers are assholes. You can usually spot them in tasting rooms pretty easily. They’re the ones asking why the winery doesn’t have any really expensive cabs (Cabernet Sauvignon, the really expensive wine) that they can take home and put in their trophy case…errr…wine cellar. You can also, unfortunately, find them pretty easily running the wineries.
BUT… It’s not all wine lovers. The last time I went home to Missouri, I found a Western Wear store selling saddles and cowboy boots with their own Napa wine label, and serving it to rednecks. Wine tastes good. ANYONE can like it. It’s snooty because it’s expensive and snooty people are drawn to it. Not because the wine is only suited for people of a certain discerning quality. Which brings us to #2.
2. Wine has a vocabulary to it and a passion about it that can intimidate people. A good wine is so complex that it becomes a very encompassing and involving experience. So wine lovers will, as our friend Kate likes to say, “geek out” about wine. We love to talk about it, to describe it, to somehow capture the experience we are feeling. That can be a little off putting to people who don’t understand it, and even to people who do. And wine has a very specific language that helps you understand it and geek out about it, and it makes it seem a bit unapproachable.
My wife is a biologist, and having taught many undergraduate courses, she basically has said that an undergraduate degree in Biology is a four year vocabulary lesson. Wine can often feel the same way. And aside from most of the terms being French, which is inherently snooty and annoying, there are certain ways that people talk about wine that take some getting used to. So are they using that to be snooty or for a reason? Well, both.
One of the most common alienating things is how wine is described. Imagine every smell you’ve ever encountered in your entire life and that’s how people will describe a wine it seems. Apple, Lemongrass, Vanilla, Currant. Those are really common terms. Less common but still used terms are things like “nutty, cat pee and wet newspaper.” The last one is always bad. Believe it or not, cat pee can sometimes be good if that’s your thing.
Sommeliers (the wine experts at upscale restaurants) learn these terms because it helps them master their knowledge of wine. Those details can help them determine where a wine is from and what to expect from it. Usually I only smell those things after someone points them out to me.
So does it matter to you? Probably not. Some people derive great pleasure from the secondary aromas of wine, and in the course of their enjoyment like to think about the aromas they enjoy most. But you don’t need that to enjoy it fully and completely. I certainly don’t. There’s more than enough complexity in a good wine to keep you engaged.
The frustration is when I try to describe a wine to a friend. “Ned!” I say to my Philly friend who geeks out with me, “You gotta try this wine. It’s really…ummm…winey. And it tastes like, you know, grapey and stuff.”
Not exactly making him run out and buy it. Especially since sometimes I like wine that he doesn’t and vice versa. The descriptions are so that you can predict which wines you will like before you taste them. Lately, I find that I don’t need it as much to predict what I will like. I’ve gotten so used to the wines I drink often that I can predict often ahead of time just from region and price point and varietal.
But early on in my wine journey, I noticed I didn’t tend to like cheaper cabs that said they had “currant” flavors. I didn’t even know what currant was (kind of a small sweet berry that tastes like…um…grapes…or something) but I knew I didn’t like it. Clearly I’m not a wine writer, but I think that’s how this language came to be. To talk about wine, you have to make it relate to something you already know.
The point is, don’t worry about whether you smell what someone else smells in a wine. But pay attention to the words used to describe the wine. If you like it or don’t like it, remember how they described it and you’ll start to notice trends.
Terroir (pronounced tear-war)
There are a lot of wine terms to know. The names of the varietals themselves can be hard to pronounce. I still ask how to pronounce wine terms sometimes and it can be a little embarrassing when you don’t know. So rather than run through all of them here and bore you to death, I want to touch on a term that you hear a lot that’s often, I think, used in a very snooty manner: terroir. Terroir means, literally, a sense of place. It refers to the soil, climate and any other thing you can include that tells you about the specific place where a wine was grown. It can refer to a region, a vineyard, even a single row of grapes.
Winery owners and tasting room experts love to talk about their terroir. It’s a mystical thing that can’t be captured in words though not for lack of trying. It’s like listening to a Native American in a Steven Seagal movie telling you about a vision of the Spirit Wolf.
Why does terroir matter to you? Even more than the wine descriptions we talked about above, learning the basic regions and the varietals that grow there will tell you almost all you need to know about what kind of wine to buy. Just in the last couple of years, we’ve been able to tell a Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara from one in Monterey or Sonoma or Oregon. We can tell a Cab from Rutherford apart from one in Stag’s Leap, or Howell Mountain. And those are all just within Napa! I’m not suggesting we’re infallible in our prediction, but we certainly know what to expect from wines at various price points from those regions. I can taste each in my mind right now as if the glass were at my lips. All the different winemakers and styles and fancy equipment, and one $30 Russian River Pinot tastes pretty much like another $30 Russian River Pinot.
As you build your taste, I strongly recommend that you pick one type of wine you like, and one region and really get to know it. Then try the same wine from another region and see how it’s different. Knowing how something is different starts with knowing how it is the same.
The most educational things I’ve ever done are side by side wine tastings. Taste a regular wine and a reserve wine from the same winery side by side. Better yet, taste the same wine from the same winery AND the same vineyard side by side from different years. That’ll blow your mind.
Right now we’re trying to learn about French wine. For the last 8 months or so, we’ve drunk almost exclusively Rhone wines when drinking French wine. It’s easier to bite off a manageable piece like that than take on all of France at once.
In the next post, I’m going to talk about how to predict what kinds of wine you will like. I recommend picking one type and getting to know it rather than trying to sample everything at once.
In the meantime, don’t get intimidated by by the snooty people in the wine world. Trust your taste buds, and learn whatever helps you figure out what you’re likely to enjoy. The rest is just snobbery.
Next up: Drink This, Not That