For many thousands of years, the fundamental challenge facing anyone making wine was to produce something sound rather than spoiled. If few people met it, that’s because oxygen invariably threatened to turn any wine sour and vinegary. For many millennia its primary appeal came from its alcohol. But today, that challenge has been met. Very few commercial wines are flawed anymore. As a result, wine has become more popular with more people in more places than ever before. And since plenty of other drinks contain alcohol, its attraction has to come from its taste.
You might think that this would be cause for celebration. But according to a host of commentators, it’s not. Perhaps because so few of us understand how bad the bad old days really were, many wine writers, winemakers, and consumers are not satisfied. They insist that the world of wine remains divided—not between the spoiled and the sound, but between the boring and the distinctive.
Eric Asimov, the New York Times columnist, is a leading proponent of this view. He argues that the contemporary world of wine contains both “huge amounts of acceptable wine sold at cheap prices” and far smaller amounts of “wines of character.” The latter are “more ambitious and more expensive,” and they taste of their origin, the terroir in which the grapes were grown. So just when it seemed that the challenge of division—this wine versus that wine, this type pitted against that type—had been resolved, it turns out that wine remains as divided as ever.
The argument pitting the boring against the distinctive is, however, as full of holes as an old, moth-infested blanket. For one, it is pure snobbery, as its logic holds that expensive wines are by and large superior to inexpensive ones. But all of us can remember drinking costly wines from fancy places that clearly seemed overpriced, and anyone who has ever celebrated a bargain knows that far cheaper wines sometimes taste superb. Moreover, some of the best wines I’ve ever tasted were made by large, often multi-national companies, while plenty of disappointing ones were made by idiosyncratic individuals with exciting ideas unrealized in the bottle. In short, neither price nor the size of production are by themselves indicators of quality.
But what then is? The answer used to be obvious--a quality wine had no chemical flaws. Even when such wines became more common (in the nineteenth century, following the widespread use of bottles and corks), quality was easy enough to define. It involved intrinsic factors such as complexity, balance, and the ability to improve with age. But more important, it also involved an extrinsic factor—memorableness. The proof of high quality was the fact that one remembered a wine long after one drank it. So George Saintsbury, whose Notes on a Cellarbook (1920) stands as a celebration of memorableness, defines the quality wines he consumed over a lifetime as the ones that “pleased my senses, cheered my spirits, improved my moral and intellectual powers, besides enabling me to confer the same benefits on other people.”
As Saintsbury suggests, extrinsic factors such as occasion, company, and personal openness are as important in determining wine quality as intrinsic ones like pH, brix, or alcohol content. This may not have been true when much of the wine for sale in the marketplace tasted sour and unpleasant, but it surely is true today.
Intrinsic factors can be measured, often precisely. Extrinsic ones cannot. While most of us are not scientists and so do not have either the know-how or the instruments to measure a wine’s chemical composition, millions of us still crave measurement. We score (and purchase) wines with points; we taste them “blind,” meaning without context; and we ignore their history. In the process, far too many of us miss out on precisely the benefits of wine drinking that Saintsbury valued so highly.
Paradoxically, the current celebration of terroir is another sign of our longing for measurement. What can it mean to say that a certain wine tastes of terroir? That one can taste the soil in which the grapes grew? Surely not. That one can identify characteristics in the wine that in turn can be traced to elements in that soil? Perhaps, but what really is the taste of limestone (or loam or volcanic residue) anyway? No, in truth the cult of terroir is simply yet another manifestation of the age-old desire for hierarchy and division. The argument one hears repeatedly nowadays is simple enough: A quality wine tastes of place; an ordinary wines tastes of winemaking. The one bespeaks nature’s gifts; the other seems artificial. One is distinctive, the other boring.
Rooting distinction solely in place, however, is as misguided as ignoring it altogether. Asimov is right when he says that many contemporary wines taste boring while only a few taste distinctive. But boring in this context does not mean bad. It instead means predictable. A well-stocked wine store nowadays will have a wide selection of Argentinean Malbecs or New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, most priced under $15 a bottle. Almost all of them will taste fruity and fun. Almost all too will be indistinguishable one from the other. They provide fine value, but they are not especially memorable.
What makes a wine memorable? Physical pleasure via one’s senses—primarily taste and smell, but also sight, feel, and with sparkling wine, hearing—comes first. Then comes what Saintsbury calls “cheer,” the wine’s ability to appeal to more than the senses can deliver. The cheer, he says, can even be moral and intellectual. It compels one to see the good in the world just as it demands thought—about the wine, but also about the context and company in which it is being enjoyed. I have tasted many delicious wines by myself over the years, but I cannot recall a truly memorable one drunk alone.
Memorableness is not in a wine in the way that alcohol, acidity, or tannin are. It is not even metaphorically there, in the way that terroir fanatics contend that place must be. It instead is in the context in which the wine is enjoyed and later remembered. To be precise, then, it is or can be embedded in the experience of wine, not in the wine itself.
Finally, it seems to me important to remember that this experience must be tinged with humility. High quality wine, great wine, is a product of both nature and human agency. If we think we know more than either of these, we will never remember the wine. All we will recall is our own vanity.