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Five Lessons Thankfully Learned
By Michael Franz
Nov 25, 2008
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Turkey is pretty far down my list of favorite foods, and Thanksgiving is not a culinary highlight of my year so much as an opportunity to fulfill its basic purpose:  Reflect on things for which I should be thankful.  The close of this year marks my 15th as a wine writer, and since this is clearly the World's Best Job, it would be very bad karma not to wax grateful on any anniversary ending with a five or a zero.

Aside from the obvious fact that I've been privileged to taste thousands of wines during each of those 15 years, there are plenty of other reasons to give thanks.  I won't even mention most of them--such as the marvelous meals or all of the fabulous places I've been fortunate to visit.  Better to focus on the people.  I have made so many friends and met so many fascinating, generous, admirable, and amusing people during this period in my life that this is probably the single benefit of my job for which I'm most grateful.

But enough about me.  I'd guess that the best way to express my gratitude is to convey a few lessons that I've learned during these 15 years, just in case you haven't picked them up on your own already.  Five of those lessons appear below.  When you get to the end of the list, you'll see my email address, and I'd appreciate it if you'd share a lesson that you've picked up during your own love affair with wine.  I'd love to assemble and reprint some of these in the WRO Blog space….

Bigger is Not Better, Though More is More:

When I first fell in love with wine, I fell prey--like most tasters--to an adolescent fascination with sheer size and voluptuousness.  I don't use the word "adolescent" here literally; let me assure you that I was I was well over the age of 21 when I turned to wine in a serious way (although I did sneak some "tactical" bottles of wine out to Oak Street Beach in Chicago when dating as an adolescent).  But in retrospect, my initial taste in wine seems akin to certain, um, adolescent fixations.  I was a sucker for what we might call "Playmate of the Month Wines."  Buxom, butterball Chardonnays, big-ass Zinfandels, and wild Petite Sirahs that would rough me up and leave me feeling vaguely dirty in the aftermath.

Those wines don't often do it for me anymore, but not because I'm atoning for a sinful youth or because I've opted for some sort of austere wine aesthetic.  On the contrary, I've learned that there is more hedonistic pleasure to be had from wines that feature complexity rather than size and power.  For example, I find more distinct, pleasurable sensory signals emitted by a mature bottle of light-bodied Riesling from Trimbach in Alsace than from a massive bottle of Zinfandel.  There's more going on in the Riesling even though the wine as a whole isn't as big or as powerful. 

I've never bought in to the "less is more" rationale, which strikes me as inherently irrational.  Clearly, more is more.  The only question is, would you rather--by analogy to music--hear a single, blaring voice or a chorus of many softer, harmonized ones?  This is for me an open question in music--but a closed question in wine.

Don't Get Dug In:  Palates Change

There are a couple of good reasons why, in my view, consumers should be wary of establishing rigid preferences or settling on "favorite" grapes or producers--much less adopting anything as their "house wine" (an idea that makes me shudder).

One reason is that the wine world is changing so fast that any stationary preference is probably irrational, and I'll have more to say about that below.  But another is that personal preferences tend to shift--sometimes quite markedly--over time.

For example, I got started tasting seriously and writing professionally at about the same time as my friend and fellow WRO contributor Paul Lukacs.  When we got started, I was very enthusiastic about big wines from California and Australia, and Paul much preferred leaner, earthier wines from Europe, especially France.  Then we largely flip-flopped:  I gravitated toward French and Italian wines while Paul's interests and affections shifted toward California.  Today, Paul has become much more critical (on grounds of overt sweetness and excessive alcohol) of wines from California in a style he used to defend, and I've found much more to like about New World wines once again, especially from the Southern Hemisphere.

I don't believe that these shifts have anything to do with our palates becoming "better" along the way; it is just that our tastes and interests have shifted, and I suspect that they will continue to shift.  And I, for one, think that is a healthy thing.

By contrast, when I'm in a retail store and overhear someone ask a consultant for a Chardonnay by Jordan or Cakebread and refuse any substitute that is proposed (even from another California producer who makes Chardonnay in a similar style), I want to grab him by the lapels, give him a good shake and say, "Man, what are you thinking?  Have you ever tried a Chablis from François Raveneau?  How much are you going to learn from yet another bottle of Cakebread?  Do you know that there are renditions of Chardonnay out there that could completely change your frame of reference regarding the grape and rocket you into a parallel universe?"

Don't Get Dug In:  The World is Changing

In addition to believing it a mistake to establish rigid preferences for particular grapes or producers, I also think that settling on wines from any one producing country is inadvisable to the point of near foolishness.  So many producers and regions are achieving such astonishing breakthroughs with so many new grapes that it is very nearly crazy to settle on one particular country--even if that country is, say, France.…

More broadly, to focus exclusively even on an entire continent (such as Europe) would entail missing out on Cabernet from Chile, Malbec from Argentina, Syrah from Washington State, Rieslings from Western Australia or the Finger Lakes in New York, red blends from South Africa, Pinot Noir from New Zealand, Pinot Gris from Oregon…and I could go on with this, let me assure you.

When I got started as a wine lover and then a writer, I was intent on chasing down tasting experiences centered on the world's most established grapes and regions and producers.  And I had a hell of a lot of fun doing that.  But I now find even more pleasure in catching things on the rise and being witness to the birth of new wonders.

The pace of innovation and improvement around the world is now much faster than it was 15 years ago, and consequently, I'd advise newcomers to wine to do things differently than I did.  For every bottle of Napa Cabernet or classified-growth Bordeaux, I'd advise them to try a bottle from an up-and-coming region.  Moreover, I'd advise them not to buy expensive, classic rarities to cellar for the long term, but to buy more bottles of less expensive wines from all over the place to experiment much more broadly.  Attend tastings and classes to try sips of the classics; buy bottles from all quarters of the globe to be an active participant in the most astonishing growth spurt in the history of wine.

Out With the Bad; In With the Boring

When I started reviewing wines 15 years ago, I often encountered technically-flawed bottles that were dirty, oxidized, or otherwise ineptly made and essentially undrinkable.  It still made sense, in those days, to think about a wine critic in the role of "consumer advocate," as Robert M. Parker, Jr. pioneered with great personal success.  At least initially, Parker cast himself as a scrupulous intermediary standing between consumers and a minefield of producers who were incompetent, lazy, or corrupt.  However, I'm not sure that that conception still makes sense, as the percentage of downright flawed wines has declined from something like 15% to a current percentage of only a little more than 5%.

(For the record and for you wine techies, this number doesn't include wines that suffer from cork taint, which is the fault of the closure rather than the wine, or wines with potentially controversial stylistic characteristics like excessive oak influence.  I'm including wines with, for example, bacterial problems or brettanomyces or inept acidification.)

The world of wine no longer looks much like a minefield.  Perhaps Parker should get some credit for that, though I think that the diffusion of modern technology and expertise throughout the wine world is vastly more important.  What one finds inside a bottle of wine these days is much more uniform than it used to be--largely because what one finds inside wineries around the world is now much more uniform. 

Musty wines and musty old wooden fermenters have both largely departed the scene, and they've done so in tandem.  Today, the primary shortcoming in wine is not incompetence but boring homogenization, and what consumers need from a critic is not a shield against foul wine but something more like the services rendered by art or theater critics, namely, pointers toward items of distinctive beauty in a sea of sameness.

Don't Worship Your Wines:  Grip 'Em and Rip 'Em

When I first fell in love with wine, I was frequently tormented by conflicting desires for the bottles that I acquired.  Cellar them or drink them? 

Just as it is not possible to have one's cake and eat it too, one cannot keep a wine to build a stash while also getting to drink it to build an inventory of tasting experiences.  To make things worse, there's no way to know whether you'll be catching the wine at the optimal point of maturity until you've pulled the cork.  If it seems too young once opened, there's no undoing the damage of premature opening.  And if it seems like you've waited too long, there's no undoing the damage of an overly delayed opening.

I know that my torment over this issue isn't just a personal peculiarity (though I do have plenty of those), because I've spoken with many consumers who ask anguished questions about the optimal time for drinking cherished bottles that sit, enshrined, in their dwellings.  After years of wrestling with the issue, I now find it quite easy to advise them, and I invariably advise them to get over their reverence and just drink the damned things.

There are several reasons for this.  First, I've found that many more wines suffer from being held too long than being drunk too young.  Second, winemaking has changed so much during the past two decades that few wines--even sturdy red wines--really require ageing before becoming enjoyable.  Even Barolo and Barbaresco and many classified growth Bordeaux can be enjoyed shortly after release these days if decanted and paired with food that has a little dietary fat (which is a natural sensory buffer against astringent tannins).  You may not catch these wines at their absolute apex of complexity by cracking them while still relatively young, but you know for sure that you won't catch them at their dried, dead nadir. 

Third, you don't need to worry about drinking rather than ageing wines from great vintages, because there's sure to be another great vintage somewhere almost every calendar year. 

This is a new situation.  For example, if you were debating in 1970 whether to drink or cellar your one bottle of 1961 Bordeaux, you had a real dilemma on your hands, because there just weren't many regions making great wine back then.  There was no telling when you'd get another opportunity to replace that bottle with another of comparable quality.  However, the diffusion of technology and expertise noted above has now transferred potential excellence so widely across the globe that there's no such thing as a bad year.  If Bordeaux gets drenched, you can still drink what you've got and be secure in the knowledge that you can replace it with this year's Don Melchor from Chile or Vilafonté from South Africa or Catena from Argentina or Penfolds Bin 707 from Australia or Quilceda Creek from Washington.

They might not all be good in 2008, but I would bet my ass that one or more of them will be fabulous.  And when I taste it, I'll tell you so that you can buy it to replace the Sacred Cow you'll wisely drink on your next special occasion.

A final reason to grip 'em and rip 'em is that even the luckiest person isn't guaranteed another day, and you can't drink your treasured wine tomorrow if you get hit by a bus today.  Sure, maybe there's a heaven, and if so, it would surely be well stocked with wine.  But just in case, I'm going to open a really good bottle tonight to toast my good fortune.

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Please share a lesson that you've learned during your love affair with wine by writing to me at:  mfranz@winereviewonline.com