Taking my time with wine: a rare treat
Everybody thinks our job is so cushy. “Wow, you get paid to drink wine?”
Yes, but it is work. I’m not complaining. But I have realized in the last few days one of the biggest prices I’ve paid for having my job.
I’m talking about enjoying a glass of wine over a period of hours. Really getting into it. Lingering over it. Taking your time. Seeing how it changes. Playing with it, letting it play with you. Letting the wine into your head. Getting down with it.
Why I’m thinking about this is because shipments of incoming wine sent to me for review have ground to a halt lately, due to the holidays. The result is that for the last week, I haven’t tasted a single new wine–a fairly unprecedented experience. It’s been a little disturbing–tasting wine is, after all, a large part of my income. But then, in a sort of unexpected way, it has turned out to be a distinct advantage. It’s allowed me to open bottles and spend time with them I couldn’t when I’m tasting 12-15 wines a day.
Last night, I chose a Ken Brown 2008 Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir, a wine I formally reviewed 2 weeks ago. (I barely know Mr. Brown, who’s been around for a long time. There is no advertising advantage to this for Wine Enthusiast. Peter Cargasacchi is a Facebook friend, but that’s not why I chose the Ken Brown Pinot.)
I gave the wine a high score when I reviewed it on Dec. 27. Then, it struck me as young and fresh. I loved the fruit and spice and the way the acidity balanced it, so youthful and vigorous. But as soon as I was finished evaluating it–which lasted about 2 minutes–I was through thinking about it. That is an unfortunate aspect of my job. I cannot “spend the night” with any one wine, so to speak, and really get to know it.
So, with nothing else to taste last night, it was a pleasure to open a second bottle of the Ken Brown and experience it over time. My first impression was that I’d been spot on in my initial review.
I asked myself if there was anything particularly Santa Rita Hills-ish about it. My answer was, no. There may be more accomplished palates than mine that can detect that distinction; I wish I were one of them; I’m not. The wine was clearly cool climate. The acidity testifies to that (and it feels natural, not poured out of a bag), and so does the ripeness, which is exceptional, yet bone dry. You don’t get acidity, ripeness and dryness from anywhere in California except the coast. But if it had been Anderson Valley or Sonoma Coast or even Arroyo Grande instead of Santa Rita Hills, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Thirty minutes later, I was enjoying the wine so much, I would have scored it even higher than I initially did. Should I have gone back into Wine Enthusiast’s database and raised my score? No. If I can’t give equal consideration to every wine I review–and I can’t–then I shouldn’t give it to any wine I review.
At 1-1/2 hours (I’d decanted it) you could easily sense the impact of oxygen, or “breathing” to use the fancy word. The wine was beginning to soften and, yes, “age.” It was more mellow, although the acidity was still firm. The tannins were more clearly defined. The wine had already moved beyond primary fruit deliciousness into something complex and earthy.
At two hours it wasn’t so much that anything physical had changed about the wine, it was that it seemed to appeal on a personal basis. That is a very weird thing to say but it’s difficult to put into words. It was like falling in love with someone and then going on a date with them and finding that the initial attraction is even stronger than you thought it was.
As the night wore on the wine revealed more of its attractions, or maybe I was just more open to receiving them. Anyway it was a reminder of why I got into wine in the first place. I don’t mean to give special shoutout to the Ken Brown Pinot. It could have been any great wine I enjoyed last night. It’s sad, in a way, that my reviews and scores have to be limited to a few minutes per wine, but I console myself that if I’m doing my job properly, even if I took three hours per wine my scores wouldn’t be that much different. True, the Ken Brown might have scored 1 or 2 points higher, but any other randomly selected wine might have scored lower, so it all evens out.
But I do want to underscore how wonderful and beautiful it is to spend hours with a single wine. It’s rare in my line of work. I wish it could happen more often. But, on the other hand, I hope that today (as you read this) the wine gates open and I start getting wines to review!