The most common question people ask the Wine Curmudgeon is, not surprisingly, “What’s your favorite wine?” My answer, also not surprisingly, usually disappoints them. I am, after all, the Wine Curmudgeon.
That’s because I don’t have a favorite. One of the tenets of the Wine Curmudgeon’s faith is that wine should not be about playing favorites, but about looking for new wine to enjoy. What’s the point of drinking the same wine over and over when there is so much still left to try?
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain wines that I like. White Burgundy is my guilty (and expensive) pleasure. Sparkling wine always makes me smile. Well-made regional wine, preferably with obscure grapes, is a huge treat. And, of course, any of my $10 wines — whether I’ve had it before or I’m tasting it for the first time — is a reason to open a bottle.
Which raises an important question that I’ve never really addressed in the blog’s three-year history: How do I decide which wines I like? What are my criteria? What makes a well-made wine? This is especially relevant given Monday’s release of the 2011 $10 Hall of Fame. It is, as always, an eclectic mix — grocery store wines, wines made with odd grapes, lots of rose, wines from small producers, and even chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. What qualities do I find that sets them apart?
The first thing to understand is that wine is subjective. Everyone’s palate is different. What I taste in a wine may not be what you taste. The second thing to understand is that there are no bad wines. If you like a wine, it’s good, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
That’s why I don’t use the words “good” and “bad” to describe wine. They’re empty adjectives and much too subjective — my interpretation of what wine should taste look, as if I was the wine tasting god and everyone had to obey my decisions. I’m also not a fan of descriptions like smooth; I’m not quite sure what that means. Water tastes “smooth,” but it’s not very wine-like. Smooth, I think, is an adjective people who drink a lot of poorly-made wine use when they find a wine that isn’t too tannic or too acidic. Too often, it’s a backhanded compliment.
Instead, I look for several other criteria:
• Is the wine flawed? It is corked or oxidized or dirty or out of balance, or any of the countless faults that can creep in?
• Is it varietally correct? If it’s chardonnay, does it taste like chardonnay? This is the most difficult criteria, oddly enough, since wine styles are ever changing. What was considered pinot noir 10 years ago is not necessarily considered pinot noir today, and I have to take that into account.
• Did the winemaker accomplish what he or she wanted to do? Does the wine taste like the winemaker wanted it to taste? This is not always as easy as it seems.
• Can I appreciate the wine even if I don’t like the style? I’ve noted many times how I feel about merlot, yet a merlot made the Hall of Fame in 2009 and 2010. I was able to put my prejudices aside and taste the wine for what it was, not what I thought it should be. (Note to wine snobs: Do this the next time you drink riesling.) This is the most difficult thing to do in wine, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve been drinking wine as long as I have or if you’re just starting.
• Is the wine honest? Yes, this is probably subjective, but I think it’s crucial to determining quality. Think about how many $10 red wines, regardless of producer, taste more or less the same, full of fruit and without much acid or tannin, and the cabernet tastes like merlot and the merlot tastes like shiraz. In this, they’re made to appeal to a specific demographic, and the idea was not to make quality wine, but to make adequate wine. And who needs adequate wine? Adjectives like interesting or intriguing are hallmarks of honest wine, because honest wine offers some characteristic that adequate wine doesn’t.
Because, in the end, it’s about finding wine that I like — and, hopefully, that you will too.