Wine and wine lists: the “Wow!” factor
I woke up this morning thinking about wine lists. Not that I spend a great deal of time thinking about wine lists, but we have a new restaurant that just opened in my Oakland neighborhood. It’s called Lake Chalet, and the restaurant critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael Bauer, recently reviewed it and complained that the wine list wasn’t exciting. That made me wonder: What does it mean for a wine list to be “exciting”? And does this say more about us as people than it does about the actual wine list or wine?
Michael wrote that the wine list contained “boring” brands, such as Silver Oak, Pine Ridge and Sterling. “It’s not that these wines are inferior,” he explained, “but there’s nothing to add excitement.”
It’s strange, isn’t it? A restaurant sells good wine, but because it comes from 25- or 30-year old brands instead of new ones, it’s “boring.” Do we say that Lafite is boring? It’s, like, what? Five hundred years old.
Still, I know exactly what Michael (an acquaintance of many years) means. I have the same reaction when I see a wine list with Pine Ridge, etc. And, just as Michael did, whenever I have that reaction, I frame it into a sort of courtroom trial where I’m plaintiff, defendant, judge and both attorneys. “It’s not as if I don’t like Pine Ridge’s wines,” I testify. “It’s just that, couldn’t the beverage director have found something a little newer?”
Prosecuting attorney: So “newer” is better than “older”?
Witness: Well, no, but…
Prosecutor: But what?
Judge: Witness will answer the question!
And here my testimony falls completely apart. What is my excuse for being bored by Pine Ridge? (I don’t mean to pick on Pine Ridge, but I’ll use it because Michael did.)
Then I think of my reaction, sometimes, when I note which wines I’m going to taste through on any particular day. I have to admit, there are certain brands (and regions) that don’t excite me (which makes it all the more important that I not know which ones they are at the actual time of tasting). And then there are brands that excite me the way a meaty bone excites a dog. (A low-production Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast usually has that effect; see my above parenthetical remark about not knowing what I’m tasting.)
Can I justify these emotional reactions? No. Can I explain them? I can try to, but as the imaginary courtroom dialogue points out, my explanations fall apart on rigorous cross-examination. And yet, there’s no doubt at all about the “wow” factor in wine. Here’s an example of a wine that excited the heck out of me. It was a brand I was unfamiliar with: Evening Land. It was a 2007 Pinot Noir, with an Occidental Vineyard designation and a Sonoma Coast appellation. I knew absolutely nothing about it, except that I know where the town of Occidental is (southwest of Sebastopol).
How dazzling that wine was! It thrilled me to the bone. So, when I investigated it and discovered the vineyard had been planted by the Duttons for Steve Kistler, who hadn’t renewed his lease on it, which caused the Duttons to sell it to the group that invested in Evening Land; and that the wine was made by the talented Sashi Moorman (Ojai, Stolpman), who had been recommended to Evening Land by Larry Stone, the GM of Rubicon, I wasn’t surprised. There’s usually a reason why a wine is exciting.
Still, that explains why the Evening Land Pinot was so good. It doesn’t explain the ennui that can result from a boring wine list. Ultimately, there’s something irrationally unexplainable concerning our reactions to wines and wine lists. Maybe we Americans just don’t like being bored. We crave constant newness, amusement and distraction. I also suspect that people heavily involved in the wine business, such as Michael Bauer and me, might react differently to a wine list than the average diner, who’s just looking for a good wine at a fair price.