drink what you like?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

It’s all too common for advice on wine appreciation to tilt to one extreme or the other. Either you geek out, get various wine-related degrees, collect the ultimate cult wines, have a 10,000 bottle cellar and can identify blind the 1947 Mouton – OR – you “drink what you like.”

Drink what you like is about the most non-useful “advice” that anyone can offer to someone who wants to learn about wine. OF COURSE you’re going to drink what you like. Who doesn’t? The question is WHAT do you like? If you don’t have the experience or the knowledge base to make a realistic evaluation of what you like, you are de facto going to be limited to drinking what you know. What you know is different.

Here in Washington, a fair percentage of winemakers in the early days drank what they knew. That consisted of their own wine and their neighbor’s wine. And by golly – they liked it! Imagine that.

The better – make that the best – winemakers, whether here or anywhere else, benchmark their wines against those of many other regions. They broaden their experience. The broader the experience, the more meaningful it is to drink what you like. Because you have a really clear understanding of how your palate works, what your individual palate preferences (many of them biological) are, and what constitutes a genuine wine flaw.

Many of you know that I am a dedicated amateur musician. A music career was the goal in my younger years. I worked in FM radio, in recording studios, and made many a song demo of my own. I even sold some tunes long ago on a quick trip through Nashville.

I like many kinds of music. I have studied songs from the inside out. I understand their structure, and I appreciate the many rich veins of popular music, from blues and jazz to folk and country, Americana, songwriter stuff, and acoustic rock ‘n’ roll. I can play all this stuff, and I’ve written a lot of it too. Therefore, I have a really good idea of what I don’t like, and why. When I listen to what I like – or play what I like – I’m drawing on a very broad base of experience. I am not denying myself the pleasure of anything I’ve missed, because I’ve sampled pretty much all of it, worked hard to understand the interior core of the music I listen to, and come to realize what I just don’t have a taste for.

If you do the same with wine, you will be able to drink what you like with genuine conviction. Will there be some dogs along the trail? You bet there will. If there aren’t, then you haven’t really pushed your boundaries out far enough.


scott, The Grande Dalles said...

I agree with you. I hate that phase, “oh, just drink what you like”. It takes a lot of tasting, and some thought and consideration, to find what characteristics you want and like in wine.

For me, though, there is a real difference between tasting a lot for a broad experience and a winemaker benchmarking his/her wine against others. One is a self-education, while the other sounds uncomfortably like seeing what “The Joneses” are doing. Assuming the winemaker has the where with all to make wine that is not flawed, then why not just make the wine and let it be what it is. They say a man can’t be an island, but maybe a truly distinct wine can and should be.


Chris said...

I think there's a distinction between how a winemaker should approach this topic and the general consumer. For a winemaker, yes, they should benchmark everything out there in an effort to improve, and raise their level. For a consumer, even if they have a genuine interest, cost and availability make trying the best in wines pretty daunting.

The music analogy is interesting, but a consumer or a musician can sample 100's or 1000's of musical selections for essentially the same price point, mainly free via radio or internet these days. Tasting wines of all variety, points of origin, and quality is a vastly more expensive even for a winemaker trying to improve.

PaulG said...

I don't equate benchmarking with 'keeping up with the Joneses.' Rather, it is to see how your wines compare with those that are competing against them. That is not to say that the rare individual with genuine flair should try to fit in - but it might prevent at least a few winemaking newbies from treating their first release as if it's something remarkable (and priced accordingly). A dash of reality. As for the cost issue - I think wine is quite comparable. If you live in most major metropolitan areas, there are dozens of free wine tastings available to you weekly. If you visit tasting rooms (outside of Napa) the same is true. It is quite possible to taste hundreds of wines in the course of a year without spending a nickel.

Andy Plymale said...

Hey Scott, good luch and congratulations, etc. I hope to taste your produce soon! -andy

Thad W. said...

Paul, I get your point, but I think you're missing the reason why some folks suggest, "drink what you like".

Unfortunately, there are consumers who think a wine is good just because it received either a 90+ rating or was on a "top 100 wines of the year" list. When I or others suggest, "drink what you like", we essentially "trust your own palate, not that of the wine critic".

That said, I agree with your recommendation that drinking a broad selection of wines from different regions and vintages is a good thing. This would offer consumers a broader frame of reference to discover and enjoy new wines.

scott, The Grande Dalles said...

PaulG – That’s an interesting comment about “newbies”. No matter what kind of business or walk of life you’re in there’s always going to be newbies. And the established group is always going to snicker and grumble about the newbies. Agreed, not all newbies are going to be good or exciting, some are going to be bad, but there’s always a good number of folks in the established group that are unexciting and mediocre, too. I can’t remember where I read this, but paraphrasing it went something like this – “New people in the game never get the benefit of the doubt, while those in the so called established ranks almost always do, regardless”.

The price of something can be a funny thing. Is a designer handbag worth 100x more than a good Chinatown knock off? Some people think so, some people don’t. Is a NY Strip from El Gaucho worth 5x more than one from Outback? Some people think so, some people don’t. When you move outside the realm of commodity products price usually isn’t linear.

Andy Plymale – what a surprise and thank you.


PaulG said...

I rarely (if ever) comment in a print review about a wine being overpriced. But on my blog, different standards apply. And as Scott says, in any field, a track record earns a certain degree of respect, simply for sticking it out. Much more respect for being good, of course. But when the best wines in the state cost less than the first release from some unknown, my hackles get raised.

Steve Stevens said...

Great take on the old 'drink what you like' phrase, Paul.

To those folks who took issue, I doubt Paul meant that people shouldn't drink what they like. Just that, since most people already do that, the more useful advice is probably "drink something new." It's hard to know what you truly like when you don't know what you don't like. Or something like that.

WineBoy said...

Paul G.
Good comment about some winemakers not having educated their palates by tasting and benchmarking wines from around the world. I have seen it with in any number of cellar rats and new winemakers. They only drink their own stuff or the wines made by the winery they work for. Not all of them mind you, but enough of them that you realize that they have blinders on. It can get pretty provincial (i.e. only drinking Sonoma Cabs, Oregon Pinots, or Washington Syrahs, etc). No sense of what the varieties really taste like outside of their own "hometown". No context. Sure, they may have tasted their local competitors' wines, but they haven't tasted the Old World wines that their wines are related to. I once asked someone if they had ever tasted a Meursault, after they had touted their wine as having "Burgundian" character (Not). They didn't know what a Meursault was. Some Washington Sangioveses and Viogniers can be so distorted that they have no resemblance to Brunellos or Condrieu. I had a Viognier recently that had been barrel fermented in 100% new oak, and had absolutely no varietal character. I suspect the winemaker had no idea that floral character was a good thing. I can appreciate that "doing your own thing" can be liberating, but I can't see paying more for an inferior knock-off that tastes like a generic wine with no sense of place. Winemakers should realize that there is lots of competition out there, and that high alcohol, wood, and a PR budget do not equate with thoughtful, well made wines with varietal character.

Mrs. G. said...

Well said Wineboy!

scott, The Grande Dalles said...

It’s just like that scene from Godfather III – “Just when I thought I was out they pulled me back in”. My main point was, as a winemaker do you make your wine to beat your competitor or to please the critics, or do you follow the dream and vision within? Matt Kramer has an interesting article (http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/41298) addressing the question of originality.


PaulG said...

I think that the idea that one can make a wine to "please the critics" is completely bogus. Who are "the critics"? Do you think that Parker, Miller, Steiman, Tanzer, etc. etc. all gather together to confer on the " critic palate"? Gimme a break.

Of course winemakers should follow their own vision. But it takes real talent to make it work, and to stand out from the crowd. There are a million guitar players in the world. Only one sounds like Mark Knoppfler. See what I'm saying?

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