My reconnection with an Artesa Pinot Noir–the wine responsible for my “aha” moment when I recognized wine could be extraordinary–got me thinking about how we assess the real value of wine. Of course, the sensory properties and alcoholic effects are an important part of the picture. But they aren’t the whole picture. That “aha” moment when wine becomes more than a beverage requires the collaboration of atmosphere, food, friends, and occasion. An excellent wine tasted under humdrum conditions will be quite good when tasted analytically, but it is unlikely to have the magic, the capacity to enchant, that it might have under more favorable conditions.
Wine is also valuable because the range of expression possible when yeast transforms grape juice is fascinating even when that range includes flavor notes that don’t appeal to you. A wine can express a sense of place, provide a geography lesson, or bring you into contact with another culture even if it doesn’t hit 100 on the Parker scale. Flavor is important but so is culture; it’s the culture of wine that contributes to its ability to enchant.
All of this is well-expressed by Charles Antin in this Punch article from November. Antin is Specialist Head of Sale at Christie’s Wine Department, one of the most important wine auctions in the world. The poor man has to taste a lot of really good wine. Yet, in focusing on these high scoring, pricey wines, he realized a great deal was missing from his experience.
One day, I realized that I had officially become a checklist drinker. I was missing out on wine from regions rarely seen at auction—with a few notable exceptions, most of the wines of Australia, Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain and even the United States. In other words, most of the wines of the world. My niche of the wine business was limiting what I was exposed to. Woe is me, I know. The wines I was getting to try were often fantastic, but none was my ah-ha wine…I was able to check off these wines and more, but they were drunk over the course of several years, and often times all I got were a few ounces at a tasting. If they were over dinner, the company was usually in a different age and income bracket. And it’s really hard to have an ah-ha moment of any sort when your dining partner is telling you that his life goal was to have at least $100 million in the bank by the time he hit 40. Only a few of my checklist wines were drunk how wine is meant to be drunk—with good friends, over a meal.
In the end, wine is a collaboration needing food, friends, culture, and an occasion to reach its fullest expression. In that sense it is like a performance art in which the condition of the audience controls the meaning. I suppose then it must be a source of tribulation for the winemaker that she is seldom present when the performance takes place.