by Harry E. Wolf
And much as Wine has ply’d the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honor – well,
I wonder often what the Vinters buy
One half so precious as the stuff they sell.
– Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam, Stanza XCV
WHEN I OFFERED her assistance, the young woman asked, “Are you a romantic?”
“Of course,” I said. “No one should sell wine who is not.”
She turned her face toward me. Her untidy brown hair was drawn back severely, but a few wisps escaped. Her nose was much too long to be cute, too short to be distinguished. Her right hand rested on the display bottle of Dom Perignon.
“I can’t afford this,” she said. “Can I get a good champagne for twenty-five or thirty dollars? I’m staying at the Columbia Inn. He’s on a business trip and he’ll be here only one night. I wish it could be perfect with candles and soft light… We see each other so seldom.”
I steered her to a bottle of Tattinger – pleasant, crisp, light-hearted. She picked it up and went to the cash register. Then she turned back to me. “Let it be perfect,” she said. “Will it be perfect?”
I wasn’t sure whether she spoke to me or to whatever god might be listening.
“It will be perfect,” I murmured.
Her look of indecision vanished. She smiled and was beautiful.
I felt a sharp pang of remorse. I was sure it would not be perfect. It seldom is.
The young man at the register looked up. “What was that all about?” he asked.
He looked puzzled. He hadn’t been around very long. We in the wine trade know that to be a true romantic requires a few years of cellaring.
* * * *
Why does an old, retired physicist choose to sell wine? Because, I say, because of the contact with all manner of people, but especially with the young. By young, I mean anyone under sixty years of age. Let me give a few examples.
There is this couple: he an executive, she an accomplished technician, and their adorable, moon-faced, six-year-old daughter. I’ll call her Melissa. I first held her in my arms when she was only a few weeks old. Now she demands to see me when she and her parents come to the mall where I work. Her parents are happy to talk wine with me and to buy, with exquisite taste, the great and wonderful reds, Dominus and Trinity from California, Cote Rotie from the sun-drenched slopes of Ampuis, or perhaps a great St. Estephe such as Chateau Cos d’Estournal. While we talk, I flirt with Melissa.
There is the young service man who has been in Germany for three months and “learned about German wines.” He still pronounces spaetlese as though it were spelled spotlays and is sure that Liebfraumilch is a great German wine. Only a wine snob (and there are plenty around) would turn up his nose at a pleasant Liebfraumilch on a hot summer evening, and many a lover of wine has been seduced by just such a beverage. But great? No, that adjective is applicable to nothing less than a Beerenauslese, perhaps a Schartzhofberger, preferably by Egon Mueller, or to many other German wines with a procession of credentials that only a true German can string together.
Being a wine consultant is a perfect job for me. I love to teach but could never afford to do so for a living. Eager students come to me – the kind of students teachers yearn for: those who really want to learn.
Ah, students! The best are often those who begin by saying, “I don’t know anything about wine, but…” My first task, then, is to convince them that they have all the equipment necessary for the enjoyment of wine. They have taste buds, probably better than my seventy-eight-year-old ones. They have noses to smell with, which may be better than my sinusitis-impaired nostrils. They have memories, which may be more reliable than this old man’s.
The trick is to pay attention to what you taste, smell, or feel, and to record your findings in your mind or in a notebook or in a computer so that they may be retrieved. The more wines you examine and record your sensations of in one or all of these ways, the larger your data bank will grow. I don’t use a computer and my note-taking is sloppy; so I mainly rely upon my memory. Thus my retrieval is not always so good.
You have to decide what you are looking for, what you like best. Swirl some 1983 Mosel, say a Graacher Himmelreich spaetlese, in your glass and sniff. The scent is complex. Just what does it consist of? Some sort of fruit? Apples? Well, not exactly. Sniff again. Ah, apples plus the wine. Now you have learned a great lesson: ignore the winey smell and notice the scent of apples. A Bordeaux may smell of black currants, or of cigars and cedar, or of all three. But it will always smell of wine.
Just for kicks, you might try a simple experiment: put a piece of apple in a dish. Smell it. Now pour a rather neutral wine over it. Soave, for example. Smell again. Now try smelling a good reisling. Does it smell like your sample in the dish? No? Oops! The riesling you picked just happens to smell like apricots!
Another quality that worries the novice is dryness.
“I want a dry table wine,” says the customer.
“Is there some wine that you especially like?” I ask.
“Well, I like Sutter Home White Zinfandel.”
Now I know what I’m up against. Sutter Home White Zinfandel is far from dry. This customer has learned that only nerds drink sweet wine. Therefore the wine he likes must be dry. You can easily discover what dry means. Put Sutter Home (A) in one glass and Amador Foothills White Zinfandel (B) in another. The zinfandel scent arises from both glasses. Now take a little of wine A in your mouth and touch it with the tip of your tongue. Notice the sweet, sugary taste. Do the same with wine B. Can you taste the difference? Wine B is dry. Dryness is the absence of sugar. It has nothing to do with acidity or sourness. It has nothing to do with the astringent bitterness of tannin. The amount of sugar can almost be measured quantitatively with the tip of the tongue.
Other qualities in a wine can be assessed in other parts of the mouth, but great wines require an educated nose. It is the nose that analyzes the aromatic compounds that make a wine complex and tantalizing. We call this bouquet. It can change right in the glass. In 1979 I tasted a Progue Marne 1806, a sweet, still (not sparkling), red wine once made in the Champagne region. It was incredible to me that this delicate wine should have lasted 173 years. Its red color had changed to pale pink. Its bouquet of candied fruit had become a ghost of a scent, something that shifted from moment to moment and caused the mind to wander to far off times and places, something as tenuous as a dream.
It would be unkind to ignore the agonized decision-making of the devout – those who go by the book and rely upon “The Pope” to make their choices. Some of us call the wine writer, Bob Parker, the Pope. Parker’s Wine Advocate has become the most influential wine publication in America. There is much to be learned from a careful study of his comments on specific wines. Too much faith in his finicky numerical ratings, on a scale of 50 to 100, may lead the reader to overlook some excellent values in wines and to be disappointed by others that have cost too much. Quite a few wine buyers allow Parker to lead them by the nose. They should let their own noses do the leading.
My advice to customers is not to trust the experts, not even me. We may lead you to new experiences, but we cannot tell you what to like. If you insist on liking Reunite, I drink to you! Who’s to say that my preference for a Barolo is more praiseworthy than yours? But do try a Barola at least once. See if you are not captivated by its scent of tar and violets and by the magical changes in its bouquet as it warms in your glass.
Then there is the customer who says, “I just want a cheap Chablis – nothing special.” He is shocked and amazed when I show him a fifteen-dollar wine that is, indeed, inexpensive for a Chablis. Then I must explain that a wine labeled Chablis, but not made in that tiny spot northwest of Dijon, is a hoax. The use of foreign place names such as Chablis, Burgundy, Rhine, Champagne, or Chianti on inexpensive American wines is essentially dishonest. European countries respect such names; countries in the Americas, Australia, and Africa do not. The better wines of these countries are usually labeled honestly, with the name of a grape or with a proprietary name. There now seems to be a movement toward integrity. Monterey Vineyards in California produces “Classic Red” and “Classic White.” Tyrrel in Australia issues wines delightfully named “Long Flat Red” and “Long Flat White.” All four of these products are good honest wines; honestly named. They are also inexpensive. (We never say cheap in the trade.)
A teacher who cannot learn from his students misses half the fun of teaching. I get the most satisfaction from the customers who know a great deal about wine and those who know nothing. Michael Dresser, who writes a wine column for the Baltimore Sun, is a frequent visitor to our little shop. Occasionally I suggest he try a particular wine, but for the most part I leave him to his own devices. I may ask him for his opinion of a wine that has appealed to me or disappointed me, or we may exchange opinions.
“Michael,” I say, “In your column you describe Navarro Syrah as ‘clumsy.’ I like it. To me it seems well-balanced.”
“I thought it just didn’t hang together,” says Dresser. Then he smiles his engaging smile and adds, “I guess we have to disagree sometimes.”
Another of my favorite customers used to like the characterless semi-dry wines that are so popular with the novice. Gradually the manager and I have guided his taste to more sophisticated dry table wines. Now we must convert him to the decadently sweet dessert wines made from grapes touched by what is poetically known as “the noble rot.”
Perhaps wine appreciation is akin to a cherishing of Mozart. First, we are delighted by being able to hum the melodies. Then we sense there must be more. Finally, we are struck by the power and grandeur of the 40th Symphony or of the opera Don Giovanni. Let us not forget the lovely melodies that first captured us.
The author and his wife, Virginia, both past contributors to this journal, have recently joined NAPA. Their address is: Columbia, MD 21045.
Hand set in Deepdene. The display face is Perpetua. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 380 copies on an SP-15 Vandercook. The cover was printed on a 10×15 C&P.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, MD 20770