What Is A Good Wine?
Let’s say you are given a glass of wine. Can you tell if this is a good wine or not? Before you will jump on the obvious, let me clarify this question a bit – the wine is in the perfect condition – it is not corked, it is not cooked, it is not oxidized – there are no common faults of any kind, this is just a well made bottle of wine. So, is it good or not?
Is this question even makes sense? Can such a question be answered? Let’s talk about something more common first – food. Imagine you are in a restaurant for dinner, with friends and family. The dishes start arriving, and here is a side of french fries. There is a very good chance that if the fries are executed properly – good color, nice consistent cut, crispy and not soggy, with the right amount of salt, tasting fresh – everybody at the table would universally agree that “the fries are good”, and you can only hope that there were enough fries ordered for everybody to share. What also important here is that nobody would be shy to slam these very french fries if something is not up to snuff – too much salt, fried in the old oil etc – everybody is confident in their ability to judge french fries to be universally good and tasty, or not.
Stepping up from the side dish, let’s take a look at the main dishes ordered around the table. Someone got steak, someone got lobster, someone is enjoying vegetarian lasagna. Now, it would be much harder to build taste consensus around the table for all these dishes. One person likes steak rare, and the other one only eats it well done – it will be very hard for these two to agree what is good and what is not. Someone might be allergic to a shellfish – there is no way they can even touch the sauce from that lobster dish to attest to your “this is sooo good” claim. So yes, it is hard to build a consensus here, but people are confident in their own right about the dishes they ordered to be able to judge good or not. If steak doesn’t have the right level of doneness, it will be sent back. If lobster is not seasoned right – well, not sure about “sent back”, but I’m sure the problem with the dish will be stated and discussed at the table. And of course if one states that their dish is delicious, then the whole table must try at least a tiny bit to experience “the goodness” (at least this is how it works in our family).
Now, arriving at a wine, the situation is different, and often dramatically. Unlike french fries, the wine still has an aura of mystery, of a special knowledge required to be able to understand and appreciate it, and to claim if it is good or not. The same people who are very confident to send underdone or overly salty (to their personal taste!) steak back to the kitchen, will be very shy and even afraid to say anything if the wine is obviously corked – they will take it as their own inability to properly understand the wine, and therefore will not say anything. Of course the situation is not as consistently dramatic as I present it here – wine today is very popular, and increasing number of people feeling confident enough around it to state what they like and not; however, step out of the oenophile circle, and go dine with people who drink wine occasionally, and I guarantee you will hear “ahh, I don’t know anything about wine” as an answer to the question if they like the wine or not.
In reality, making a personal “good/not good” decision about the wine is as easy as in the case of french fries. I took the “Windows on the World” wine school back in the day, which was taught by Kevin Zraly – Kevin is single-handedly responsible for teaching tens of thousands of people to understand and appreciate the wine. Of course, the question “is this a good wine or not” was one of the most important questions people wanted to get an answer for in such a course. Kevin’s explanation was very simple: “Take a sip of this wine. If this wine gives you pleasure, it is a good wine”. You can look at it as overly simplistic, as there are many factors affecting the perceived taste of wine – where we are, who we are with, the label, the story behind the label, the temperature, the mood, yada, yada, yada. Of course this all matters. But still, for majority of the cases, we are looking for pleasure out of drinking the glass of wine – the way it smells, the way it tastes, with all the little discoveries we make as we let the wine open up and change in the glass (“ahh, I taste blueberries and chocolate now”) – all those little pleasant moments we experience with every sip, it gives us a pleasure of enjoying a glass of wine; if we are getting the pleasure, this is a good wine. Yep, I said it was simple.
Very often pleasure is simplistically associated with erotic and sex, or at least that would be the very first thing which will come to the mind of many once they hear the word “pleasure” – oh no, I see your condemning look, of course I’m not talking about you, you are wired differently. Meanwhile, we derive pleasure from everything which surrounds us, and from everything we do – and if we don’t, we work hard to fix it. Every waking moment of our day is a perfect illustration to this. If we start our day from a walk or maybe a meditation – it is a pleasure of being one on one with yourself, deep in your own thoughts. Think about the pleasure of hugging that morning cup of coffee or tea and smelling the aroma. We look at the watch on our hand – it doesn’t have to be the Rolex or Philippe Patek to be admired and to create a feeling of pleasure. We put on a shirt or a blouse, look in the mirror – and we are pleased with the way we look (okay, fine, we might not be – but again, then we get to work hard to fix it). After the day at work, we come home to be welcomed by a wagging tail and a scream “mommy is home” followed by a huge smile and a hug – tell me that this is not what defines pleasure. No, not everything we do gives us pleasure – but those little bits and pieces of pleasure are what we seek, every time, every day.
Wine is simply a complementing part of our lives. Today we are in the mood for the white shirt, tomorrow – for the blue with yellow stripes; similarly, today you might want the glass of Pinot Noir, tomorrow it can be Tempranillo. We are constantly changing, and so do the things which we will get the pleasure from. People go from carnivores to vegetarians to vegans and back to carnivores – as long as we find pleasure in the way we are at the moment, that is all that matters. No matter what is in your glass, if it gives you pleasure, it is a good wine. It really doesn’t matter what the experts said about the wine you are drinking. It really doesn’t matter what your friends say. If this is White Zinfandel in your glass, and it gives you pleasure, it is a good wine. If this is massive, brooding Barolo, and it gives you pleasure, it is a good wine. If this is big, oaky, buttery California Chardonnay, and it gives you pleasure, this is a good wine – don’t let anyone who says that Chardonnay should be unoaked and acidic to persuade you otherwise. It is okay to have your own, individual taste – we do it with everything else, and wine shouldn’t be any different.
If the wine gives you pleasure, it is a good wine.
This post is an entry for the 24th Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC24), with the theme of “Pleasure”. Previous themes in the order of appearance were: Transportation, Trouble, Possession, Oops, Feast, Mystery, Devotion, Luck, Fear, Value, Friend, Local, Serendipity, Tradition, Success, Finish, Epiphany, Crisis, Choice, Variety, Pairing, Second Chance, New.