New rules for wine snobs

Straddling the fine line between cluelessness and jackassery

Photo Illustration by Don Button

With Sideways out on DVD and wine merchants practically begging their customers to stop talking about it, now seems like a good time for sitting down with an adult beverage. For wine drinkers in particular, these are heady days. If there is any other product in our ever-expanding consumer culture that’s recently become so much more affordable, more available and more palatable all at once, it can’t be legal.

Accordingly, the rules of casual connoisseurship have changed. It won’t ever be cool, or possible, to know everything about wine, but today it’s almost uncool not to know at least a little. For people who care about enlarging their experience of life, or of getting drunk, the days of “Oh, I’ll just have the house red” are over.

A refresher course is in order. Books are available, but if you’re keen to bury your nose in something, it should be the bowl of your crystal stemware, while swirling around a rare treat like Boeger’s 12-buck Charbono from El Dorado County, whose bright cherry and pepper flavors combine in revelatory ways, and of which, maddeningly, no more than a couple of hundred cases are made at a time. If you can’t find it in the store, at least you can talk about it.

For millennia now, the enjoyment of wine has been as much about taste as about loose ceremony and discursive jabbering. Parsing is part of the fun, and it heightens the thrill of perusing wine lists or bringing the right thing to a porch party. But if you’re not careful, you may become one of those people who go around bitching about how bloody complicated it is to store their ’97 Brunellos in this unreasonable heat and squinting at anyone who pronounces the “s” in Riesling like a “z.”

A chord was struck by Sideways, particularly at that moment when Paul Giamatti, in a hissy fit, declared, “I am not drinking any fucking merlot!” To stay on wine snobbery’s cutting edge is to avoid turning into that guy but, also, to know what he’s talking about. (American merlot has had trouble transcending its reputation for seeming flimsy and tasting like nothing much, except maybe some vegetal concoction they push on you at the health-food store.) The best thing to do, honestly, is taste enough to learn what you like, to qualify rather than disqualify. The happy oenophile seeks pleasant surprises and writes nothing off.

On a related note, don’t say “oenophile.” Do you even know how to pronounce it? “Wine lover” will do. “Wine geek” is better, actually; it’s self-effacing and probably more accurate. You say oenophile, and you’re a jackass.

Here is perhaps the most significant of pleasant surprises: Screw caps are here to stay, and that’s OK. In fact, no longer is it quite right to cling to the ceremony of the cork, rustically dignified though it is. Screw caps, once consigned to wines not exactly intended for ruminating delectation, have been widely embraced by people who understand that the humbling whiff of trashiness is just what wine culture’s archer elements needed and that the rest of us deserve freedom from the twin tyrannies of hoity-toityism and occasional bad corks.

Cork taint, a bacterial infection, isn’t harmful to the drinker but is terminally numbing to wine, and so far the only way to prevent it is to not use cork. Historically, that has been a bummer. This is a world where certain wines are actually supposed to taste like socks stuffed inside a dead log (the aristocratically priced pinot noirs of Burgundy) or the worn-out pavement in a gas-station parking lot during a rainstorm (the sauvignon blancs of the Loire Valley). This is a world whose most exquisite and expensive dessert wine, Bordeaux’s Château d’Yquem, is derived from deliberately molded grapes.

In this world, it’s only fair to wonder what the hell is actually good and what’s weird. It’s perfectly reasonable, in other words, to second-guess your instinct that no wine should remind you of a sheepdog running through a sprinkler and then curling up for a few hours between cardboard boxes in an attic. Cork-tainted wine can have that flavor, with varying degrees of intensity, but its real problem is seeming dead. The taint imparts a grim inertness to a wine, making it hard to believe that fresh fruit was ever involved. Sometimes it’s subtle enough to confuse people who don’t recognize it into thinking that a wine simply sucks. That’s a first impression many producers would rather not risk, whereas the fading stigma of the screw cap doesn’t daunt them.

Photo Illustration by Don Button

So, when it’s time for enjoying the everyday bottle, get used to the new ceremony, less dignified but still rustic in its way, of cracking one open. It makes picnics easier, and it all but guarantees that if the wine seems to suck, it actually does.

Another pleasant surprise: Wine should taste like fruit. Just because you’re traumatized by the memory of getting blotto on Boone’s Farm Country Kwencher once too often in junior high, there’s no need to protest too much about things being “sweet.” Wine is made of fermented grapes, which means that, at some point in its life, there was sugar in it.

Anyway, it’s a classic rookie mistake: talk dry, drink sweet. In the old days, the way to seem “with it” was to talk about how talking dry and drinking sweet is a classic rookie mistake. Today it’s by talking fruity, or ripe, and drinking sweet—for which you have your Rieslings, your Gewürztraminers, your Grüner Veltliners. They’re not dessert-sweet, but they are plenty tasty. Typically, but not exclusively, the best of these are middle-European numbers with labels that nobody understands and ample, curvaceous bodies, well-balanced by natural acidity. If they were people, they’d make good lovers.

On the tarter side of fruitiness, and the outer curve of nouveau-chic, pleasant surprises abound. Vinum Cellars’ Chard-No-Way out of Clarksburg is a bracing alternative to the same old chardonnay that everybody knows is boring. The Vinum guys can get a little rah-rah about underappreciated grape varietals; this one’s label pictures the winemakers by the side of a road holding up a hand-painted sign that reads, “Will Work for Chenin.” That would be the grape, chenin blanc, which is crisp, lively and often surprising.

Note how swiftly the back-label copy shifts in tone from traditional earnest self-satisfaction to a much more modern polemical hedonism: “It is our belief that Chenin Blanc (when made well) rivals some of the greatest white wines of the world. This wine was made from cool climate grapes, barrel fermented in French Oak, and aged for 9 months. Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah….REDISCOVER CHENIN BLANC!”

Rediscovery is essential to wine appreciation and a good compass for navigating received ideas. Of course, some received ideas are correct. For example, here’s what you need to know about how they make white zinfandel: Some guy melts a whole bunch of pink cotton candy in his mouth and spits the results into a tank, which is briefly refrigerated, stirred, watered down as needed and drawn off into individual bottles for immediate mass consumption.

Not really, but close enough. White zin is starter stuff, not far from a soft drink and still the object of scorn among snobs—so much so that it’s now too obvious to discuss. So, the best way to deride it and those who enjoy it is quietly. And to confidently enjoy another, quite different, pink wine: rosé. Most grapes, even red ones, are white on the inside. Color and texture comes from exposure of the juice to the skins, and rosé’s color and texture are highly adjustable. That means a whole spectrum of pink wines to explore. Many of them are ideal for pastas, pizzas, most white meats and many reds, vegetables that don’t seem to go with anything else, and as a general counterforce to Sacramento’s unreasonable heat. Take Terre Rouge’s Vin Gris d’Amador, which tastes like fresh spiced strawberries with a citrus zing, a gentle essence of cream and the added bonus of about 13-percent alcohol (no, it’s not sweet).

But take it your way—that is, if you still can. Scientists actually have proven our susceptibility, particularly in the olfactory sense, to the power of suggestion. Tell somebody a wine smells like pencil shavings, for example, and they actually become more likely to say, “Oh, yeah. Pencil shavings.” Seriously, there’s data on this.

Now, a wine can smell like pencil shavings for several reasons: (1) The novice may fear ridicule as an undiscriminating idiot or may be eager to please or silence the know-it-all. (2) The suggestion, encoded with memory, is potent enough to prevail over the actual sense. (3) The wine smells like pencil shavings (good cabernet franc comes to mind).

For the uninitiated, a good rule of thumb is to assert the sovereignty of smelling for one’s self. Don’t let them tell you what to whiff. Conversely, for those in the know, it’s best to be fair. Faking sets a bad precedent, and trying to trick people makes you malicious, which makes you dangerous to drink with. Besides, sooner or later, you’ll come across someone who may or may not smell the pencil shavings but has a bloodhound’s nose for bullshit.

For those who really would like to know it all, there’s always UC Davis’ department of viticulture and enology, which has produced a generation of famous winemakers and an infamous test proving that even experts sometimes can’t tell the difference between white and red. The rest of us will just keep tasting. If we don’t get savvier, we’ll at least get drunk.