One of the great contradictions in wine writing is that so many of us review wine that most of our readers will never drink. That’s because we don’t pay for the wine, but get wine samples — thousands of bottles a year for some of us.
The Wine Curmudgeon has always been suspicious of wine samples, not only because of they are often less available and more pricey, but because there’s not enough transparency. That’s why I try to buy most of the wine I review, and each review notes whether it was a sample.
But wine samples are addictive, something I discovered a couple of weeks ago when a distributor friend brought four terrific (two of which were expensive) bottles for a dinner I was having. During dinner, as the five of us were passing the wine around, I thought: “This is so nice — four wines I never would have bought, two of which are too expensive to buy, and I didn’t pay a penny for them. I could get used to this.”
The older one gets, the more the phrase “There but for the grace of God” applies (regardless of religious leanings). What if, all those years ago, I had started writing about something other cheap wine that I bought myself? What if I had stumbled upon wine samples — expensive, hard-to-find wine samples — through one of the newspapers I wrote for? In those pre-recession days, high-end wineries were throwing around $100 bottles like baskets of chips at a Mexican restaurant; what if I started pouring $60 Napa cabernet sauvignon for a weeknight dinner?
Would I have become everything I hate about wine writing? Given my disposition, that’s not likely, but the idea is troubling. I had a lot of fun drinking those wines that Saturday night, which included a $40 sparkling and a $35 riesling, both from Germany. It’s not so much that they were delicious, though they were, but that I didn’t pick them out, I didn’t pay for them, and I didn’t have to suffer them if they weren’t any good (something that happens all too often with my cheap wine).
It was wine drinking the way everyone wants it to be — wonderful wine on the table without any muss or fuss, and I suddenly understood why so many of my colleagues accept it as normal and wonder about people like me. But, as I reminded myself when I was writing this piece, wonderful has nothing to do with it. The people who read the blog don’t get samples. They have to negotiate the terrors of the supermarket Great Wall of Wine, which is why I’m here. I’m not a wine writer to drink great wine that I get for free, but to help wine drinkers figure out what they like. And, in the end, that’s more fun than any amount of wine samples.