Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On wine whining UPDATED

Wine. Some tastes better than other. If a friend brings or serves a wine that's especially good, I'll probably end up with a photo of its label on my phone, although I'll almost certainly not do anything about it. Meanwhile there's one type of red wine - I wish I knew what this taste was called in wine lingo - that, even when tasting as it's meant to, strikes me as absolutely foul. Mostly, though, it's good enough. I like the idea of wine with dinner, and sometimes actually follow through and have some. I've heard all the usual contrarian-ness about how even experts can't so much as tell red from white in a blind tasting, or about how it's all in the experience anyway, the setting, so the wine you thought was spectacular on some vacation is nothing special when you have it at home. These are, more or less, my thoughts on the beverage.

And I can't say I'm tempted to become more expert, having read Eric Asimov's article about the near-impossibility of tracking down the wines he himself recommends in the NYT. Readers, he explains, complain that they can't find the wines he mentions. And they're right - they can't. Asimov goes on to explain the logistical reasons for this: NYT readers are everywhere, so no article can promise a product available to all readers. And small producers are better, because artisanal, or something, so basically anything you can reliably find isn't worthy of a recommendation in the paper.

As always, with such matters, the answer is a research project. First step, Internet searches. When that fails, as it will, because any wine worth drinking is too obscure: "What can a consumer do when these tools don’t work? Plenty. It begins with finding and establishing a relationship with a good wine shop." But when? One is already meant to have a relationship with a trusted butcher, fishmonger, cheesemonger, and with farmers responsible for every produce item one consumes. But why stop there? "While most consumers are understandably interested in immediate gratification, it’s important to think in the long term as well. Be demanding. Continue to ask good merchants for the wines you want. And remember that what’s true today may not be true in a couple of months."

I can see how this would be the case with wine, and why if there's a particular one you want to try, it's not exactly urgent. But this seems more or less how it goes with the entire dining section. One is often being advised to get some product only available at the fabulous market next door to where the writer happens to live. Or to try a recipe that showcases an ingredient only available in France, or at any rate not in the States. It's reasonable enough that recommendations won't always be for dishes made with pantry items available at the Target nearest each of us, and that a New York-based paper would at times assume readers live in New York, but there's specific and then there's specific. Once it's a level of specificity where even living in the city wouldn't be adequate, I start to have my doubts.


The comments are pretty great. Many point out that this doesn't need to be about universal availability - if Asimov bought a wine somewhere in Manhattan, he might name the store, so that those who live or work in the city could at least potentially find it. But then there's this, now my favorite NYT comment of all time:

"One of the main reasons I choose to live in TriBeCa is strolling distance to Chambers Street and Frankly Wines."


Nicholas said...

I will say, aside from the truly astronomic level of pretentiousness, that the smaller = better or more interesting tends to hold for alcohol generally. Most of the old regional beer brands were/are terrible, which is why they got replaced by the big national brands, which are rarely good but at least consistent. But microbrews are better for just about every style, even if they're following trends or outrageous for the sake of being different. No idea why, but it seems to be a thing. (The distribution patterns are also really weird: no NC beers made it down to Charleston when we were there, and most of the Charleston beers don't make it out of the city; the biggest brewery in Michigan sold to NC but not Chicago for several years.)

The making friends with a wine shop seems not unlike my experiences with butchers, to say nothing of bartenders: to get that kind of relationship you have to be committed to spending a lot of money over a long period of time. You can get really excellent service at Nordstrom, too, but they expect you to spend enough to be worth it.

Phoebe said...

Huh. With beer, I haven't found myself noticing a pattern along those lines. I really don't like IPA-type beers, which is very often the more micro option. So that's probably impacting the results.

Agreed re: the strangeness of distribution. I did once try to order some sort of alcohol - a bottle of wine? - as part of some online groceries from a NY-based company, only to learn that this can't go to NJ or PA. Is one somehow under-21 for living in certain parts of the tristate area?

As for the making-friends aspect, or doing-research I'd say it makes sense for the things you really care about. What I'm not such a fan of is the idea that one simply *must* do this for everything one buys. So, while it's interesting to know that the best wine is at this one shop in Manhattan that doesn't deliver elsewhere, or that the scallop to end all scallops is in Paris, the more typical consumer looking for better, not necessarily best, isn't much helped. And this advice too often slips into moralizing - like you're a terrible person for not taking the 'slow' approach to absolutely every purchase.