My first impulse, when we began Wine School seven years and 87 columns ago, was to offer an easy, enjoyable alternative to the classes and books that focus on tasting and breaking wine down to its component aromas and flavors.
What’s wrong with that method? Nothing, if you are a professional with the goal of identifying wines in blind tastings. But that’s not the aim of most ordinary consumers, who simply want to develop comfort and ease with wine and to feel confident in their own taste.
A far better approach, I thought, was to drink rather than taste, preferably with a meal shared by family or friends. This is the natural environment of wine, where it will fulfill its function of refreshing, intriguing and delighting, rather than a tasting in a more clinical setting. Under such pleasant conditions, we can all learn to evaluate wine by asking the simple but important questions: “Do I like the wine?” “Why?” and “Why not?” The answers can help anybody become a more confident wine consumer.
This method has the further advantage of allowing a bottle of wine to unfold over the course of a meal. Good wine is not static. From the time you pour a glass until you drain the last drop, the wine is changing, as it’s exposed to air, as it warms in the glass and as you add food and social interaction to the equation. Opinions about a wine evolve almost as fast, especially with the opportunity to try it as it changes.
Each month I suggest a particular type of wine and offer three good examples. Readers then drink the wines over the next few weeks and, if they are so inclined, share responses in the comments section of the article. At the end of the month we revisit the wines, discuss and move on to the next subject. Not everybody comments, but enough do that we can have a lively discussion, often suggested by a particular response or insight.
Several ideas have emerged over the course of Wine School that get to the heart of both how to think about wine in the 21st century, when so much of what we thought we knew has changed, and what consumers most want to know when buying wine. Here are 10 of the most important lessons we’ve learned; the perspective they offer is particularly resonant and useful, whether you consider yourself a novice or a connoisseur.
Don’t Be Afraid to Explore
Over the last 30 years, the options for wine consumers have exploded. Good wines are now available at a higher level of quality from more places, made from more kinds of grapes and offered in more styles than ever before. The choices can be daunting, but the opportunities for pleasure are great.
Exploring wines new to the global market has been a big part of Wine School. They are often the place to find great values as well. Cultivating a relationship with a good wine shop is a great way to discover up-and-coming wines.
Find the Best Value for the Price
Few issues matter more to consumers than how much to spend on wine and how to judge the value. Nobody wants to spend a lot of money on wine, or on anything, really. But, as with any category of consumer goods, some bottles cost more than others. Every bottle has its fixed costs: for farming, production, transport and the markups added with each transaction between producer, distributor, retailer and consumer.
Seriousness of purpose has a role. Small producers with an eye toward quality, whose farming and production methods are labor-intensive, have higher costs than big producers with an eye toward quantity. Figure in the law of supply and demand, and understand that the supply of most good wines is finite, as they are products of specific vineyards with one annual harvest. Costs can rise in a hurry.
Our looks at malbec from the Mendoza region of Argentina and Mercurey, in the Côte Chalonnaise region of Burgundy, were two telling examples of how consumers, when better informed, can more easily discern the relation of price and value.
Learn From Mass-Market Wines
The issues of price and value become especially difficult to grasp when consumers see the profusion of popular and exceedingly cheap wines that are widely available.
Many of these bottles, which are highly popular and easy to find in almost every American supermarket, are essentially made in factories to meet characteristics set forth in focus groups and consumer studies. I call these processed wines. Our exploration of them drew perhaps the most explosive response in Wine School, both from fans of the wines who felt their preferences had been validated and from readers outraged that we would even consider discussing such wines.
Another column approached this issue from the point of view of price, specifically wines under $10 a bottle. These are not necessarily processed wines. But we tried to answer the question of what was available from conscientious producers on the extreme low end of the price spectrum.
Both columns, I thought, demonstrated the sacrifices that come with mass-production and ultralow costs.
Pair Wine With Food
Few aspects of wine are as intimidating as the question of how to match it with food. Textbooks offer intricate formulas that are almost impossible to follow, while sommeliers, with their deep understanding of their wines and the food served at their restaurants, focus on the most arcane points of symmetry or contrast.
Wine School has taken a more common-sense approach: Just do it. With experience comes insight and preferences.
Since Wine School is based on the idea that wine and food belong together, every column is an opportunity to experiment with pairings. This was explicit in one column that invited readers to choose their own wines with a roast chicken meal. But it’s implicit in every column, like this early one about Muscadet.
Examine Your Biases
We all have firm beliefs about certain wines, like “I hate chardonnay,” or “All rosés are bad.” Often these are not the considered opinions that come with long exposure, but the products of a single bad experience, sometimes from long ago.
That’s why a Wine School tenet is to periodically examine our biases and stereotypes. I’ve personally used Wine School as an opportunity to re-examine my own, as in columns on evolving styles of zinfandel and grenache.
By doing so, you learn quickly (or in my case, relearn) that fixed beliefs about wine are often based on out-of-date information. Styles are not so much dictated by the potential of a grape or a place as by the intentions of a producer.
Defy Conventional Wisdom
Closely related to biases and stereotypes is the overreliance on conventional wisdom. This is especially true in wine because education and experience can often require the considerable time and expense of traveling and of buying and trying wines. It’s easier to open a book.
The problem is, a lot of those books are based on conventional beliefs, too. Personal experience and confidence in one’s judgment are the essential tools in wine, and these are not so easy to come by. That’s why we consistently preach the virtues of an open mind.
Our explorations of aligoté and Valpolicella Classico were cases in point. Aligoté has long been the despised “other white grape” to chardonnay in Burgundy. What a surprise to find that good producers are making excellent versions, and that the wines have a lot to offer.
Same with Valpolicella Classico, a lean style that has largely given way to the plusher Valpolicella Ripasso. You may still prefer the Ripasso. The point is to try both and form your own opinion.
Consider the Place of Origin
Few words are used in wine so often and with so little understanding as terroir, a French term that gives great value to the ability of a place and culture to imprint its distinguishing features on wine. Incidentally, it’s not just wine that displays terroir. Many products, like cheese, chocolate, olive oil and honey, do so as well.
At Wine School, we believe in the power of terroir and feel that great wines almost always possess the qualities that come from extraordinary terroirs, regardless of whether the wines are expensive or well known.
Many columns have focused on the terroirs of particular wines. Two that examined this issue in detail and demonstrated how it was displayed were on Morgon, one of the 10 Beaujolais regions considered distinctive enough to put their names on labels, and Valtellina, an Alpine area in the Lombardy region of northern Italy.
One common assumption about wine is that it must be complex to be good. We’ve seen this exaltation of complexity in other areas as well. The craft beer movement has only recently rediscovered lager after devoting much of its brewing time to ever more creative and complicated expressions of ale.
In wine, as in fashion, everything has its place. Sometimes, you want a meditative, multifaceted wine that rewards contemplation. Other times you want something that’s refreshing and undemanding. To call a wine simple is no insult. It’s simply a question of matching the wine to the occasion.
Appreciate the Beauty of Nuance
As much as we value simplicity in a wine, the answers to many questions in wine are complicated. Unlike politicians who eliminate shades of gray in their campaign commercials, we relish examining questions from all sides.
Prime examples are questions that were asked in two columns about Italian wines: One, on Rosso di Montalcino, the less-expensive sibling of Brunello di Montalcino, considered what is meant by ripeness when discussing wine grapes. The other looked at Verdicchio di Matelica, a white from the Marche region, and asked what is meant by greatness in a wine.
The funny thing is, you can ask these questions about wine, but how you answer them can apply to all parts of life.
Return to the Classics
We believe that, with all the new sorts of wine to explore, we live in the most exciting time ever for wine lovers. But to understand wine, you have to explore its potential. That means returning occasionally to the classics, wines that have gripped the imagination for centuries.
The historic benchmarks offer an opportunity to see wine at its heights. The best bottles are mostly too expensive and require too much aging for our purposes, but we can find less costly examples that at least give the flavor of their potential.
The very first wine we examined was Bordeaux. Another discussion from 2016 looked at the Marsannay region of Burgundy. Both were good examples of stepping back to remind ourselves of why these regions have been so venerated.
Join the Discussion
Wine School is intended to be a conversation. So please join in with your thoughts and insights about the specific wines we are examining each month, and about these reflections. (This month, we’re drinking Chablis from the 2019 vintage.) It’s easy: Just add your voice to the comments section.
And use the occasion to start your own discussion. One outcome I did not anticipate when we started Wine School was the many readers all over the country who have used it as an opportunity to gather regularly with friends over the suggested bottles. This, after all, is the best purpose of wine — to bring people together in a convivial atmosphere.