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A Post-Holiday Wine Aesthetic
By Michael Franz
Feb 16, 2016
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Almost everyone whom I tell about my work as a wine writer, restaurant consultant, wine educator, and wine competition judge shares a common reaction:  They envy my work, and do so quite openly.  However, you may be a bit surprised to learn exactly why I am most thankful for my opportunity to write about wine and work in this world, and maybe you’ll find in this a new way to think about your own relation to this most amazing beverage--one that is perhaps appropriate for this particular time, in which we’re sandwiched between the (definitely expensive) holidays and the (potentially expensive) onset of tax season.

I’ve been writing about wine for 22 years now.  I got started in this line of work for a simple and somewhat selfish reason:  Because I wanted to taste more and better wines than I could afford on a young professor’s salary.  Since analyzing things and explaining them to people was what I had been trained to do, the obvious way to weasel into wine was writing about the stuff.

You might think that I’m most grateful in retrospect for tasting lots of really fancy wines and seeing a lot of beautiful places along the way.  To be sure, I’m very thankful for these opportunities.  However, there’s no question that the most enduring source of delight for me has been the continual process of discovery.

Again and again, every single year, I encounter aspects of wine that are so wonderfully amazing that they re-kindle my initial drive to learn as much as possible.  Every year I seem to find a new region that holds the potential to challenge the world’s most famous appellations.  Each year discloses a couple of grape varieties that seem capable not only of making solid wine, but something really sensational.  And every year teaches me something new about wines that I thought I had figured out. 

The upshot:  There’s more than one way to appreciate wine.  Amassing a giant collection is one of them, and I have no quarrel with those who choose this path.  Chasing the latest wine to earn 98 points is another mode of wine appreciation, and I wouldn’t depreciate that pursuit either.  But for me, there’s more fun to be had by encountering something new, or by digging deeper into something I’ve explored insufficiently--regardless of whether the wine is regarded as one of the Global Greats.

Quite frankly, I got a bigger charge out of discovering my first really good Carménère from Chile than I did out of my first tasting of a First Growth from Bordeaux.  The Bordeaux was a better wine, but the Carménère offered a fuller experience, as it was both delicious and utterly surprising, whereas I fully expected the Bordeaux to be terrific.

You may think I’m crazy in this regard, and I grant that there’s an element of personal idiosyncrasy in my discovery drive.  However, it may also be true that favoring discovery over possession or conspicuous consumption is something more than a personal peculiarity.  It may actually be something much more important.  It is, at least conceivably, a wine aesthetic for our time.

With very slow economic growth seeming like the “New Normal,” a sliding stock market, and some eminent economists assessing the odds of a recession starting in 2016 at 20%, it seems apparent that many of us should be rethinking our relation to wine.

Yes, it is very satisfying to buy a full case of wine and to slug those 12 bottles into the racks in your cellar.  But you might find that you’ll learn more--and find more enjoyment overall--in trying one bottle each of 6 different wines that are new to you.

Similarly, if you are an experienced lover of Burgundy and Bordeaux who is now feeling the pinch, you should ask yourself:  How much will I learn by buying and tasting yet another bottle of Pommard or Pomerol?  Wouldn’t I learn more and perhaps have even more fun (for half as much money) by taking a first test drive of a top Xinomavro from Greece, or by getting up to speed on the marvelous Mencia grape from Spain’s Bierzo region?

Renting a villa and taking a high-end wine tour of Tuscany would be fantastic.  But isn’t there a chance that you’d learn more and have more fun--adding everything up at the end--if you cut your costs by making four weekend trips to relax in an inn and checking out wineries within driving distance of your home?

You’ll need to answer questions like these for yourself.  But I can say with certainty that there’s a lot to learn in wine for relatively little money, and that most people find the process of discovery deeply satisfying.  Tasting a great Barolo that rings up for $100 per bottle is satisfying too, I’ll grant you.  But this sort of satisfaction has always involved a tinge of guilt for those of us who aren’t filthy rich, whereas spotting an affordable but under-appreciated wine on its rise to prominence is an unalloyed pleasure.

Along this same line, a tasting at a prestigious winery in Napa is a heady occasion, but you’ll likely be chatting with a hired hand in the tasting room, whereas you could perhaps learn more by speaking directly with a hands-on winemaker if you stayed closer to home.  Sure, I’ve had some great experiences tasting in palatial wineries in Napa.  But I’ve had equally great experiences talking to a guy like Jim Law of Linden Vineyards who was busting his ass in a pair of rubber boots while proving that Virginia can produce terrific wine within an hour of my house.

Our ongoing economic difficulties have blown in a lot of dark clouds, but they show some silver linings.  For example, many restaurants have been hurting (or shuttered) since 2008, but millions of people have finally learned to cook for themselves since then, and countless families that were formerly dispersed every night are now dining together.  Likewise, many big-ticket wines are now languishing on store shelves, but a lot of little-known wines that were formerly eclipsed are finally enjoying their day in the sun.  My experience suggests that turning one’s attention from the Big-Ticket to the Little-Known isn’t much of a sacrifice…and can actually be a hell of a lot more fun.