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Is wine really as complicated as some people say it is?

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And if it is, whose fault is it–the critics?

I’ve heard it all my adult life: wine is too snooty, too complex for the average person to understand and feel comfortable with it, and the reason is because those of us who write about it prattle on and on, muddying the waters with ridiculous talk of swirling and sniffing, black currants and wet dogs, aftertastes and appellations–when all people really want is simply to drink and get a buzz.

I personally feel some sympathy with this argument, even though I’m a critic, because I’m a very uncritical critic, by which I mean I’m the least snobby wine person I know. Give me some plonk in a paper cup at your next party and I’ll be a happy camper, as long as there’s some decent food to be had. Still, I have to look in the mirror and wonder if I, in my own way, have contributed to the chaos. Some people have so accused me. Even so, I try to adhere to Thoreau’s advice continually in my wine writing: Simplify, simplify!

If wine is complicated, theories of wine and food pairing are even more so. My heart often goes out to the poor host or hostess who worries herself silly with fears of improper matching. How many have apologized to guests for not putting something better out, or more appropriate to the food? This is when the criticism of the critics grows fiercest. “Drink anything you want, with whatever you want!” they say, “and don’t let those damned critics tell you otherwise!” With this, too, I have some sympathy, and have said and written so.

There was a time, in my wine reviewing, when I might consider a certain wine and go to great lengths to dream up the perfect dish to go with it, the way a chef might. I would debate in my mind whether it be pork or lamb. Then, which spices? What sauce? And don’t forget the accompaniment. After all, I was being paid to give readers my expert advice, right?

But in recent years I’ve changed all that, according to the Simplify, simplify rule. Today I’ll go no further than to write of beef or chicken, burgers or salmon, and leave the fine tuning to the cooks. It’s the least I can do to demystify wine, and make amends for whatever role I’ve played in complicating it.

Now we have the folks at Wente, a fine winery in Livermore Valley whose Grey Riesling I used to practically live on, working with The Food Network “to take the pretense out of wines with food pairing suggestions that range from macaroni and cheese to potato chips and salami.”

I say, good for Wente! While I’m not big on mac and cheese (too filled with carbs and fat) or potato chips (junk food), I am a big salami fan (within reason), but, more to the point, I understand where Wente is coming from. “Let’s take real food that real people eat everyday,” they’re saying, in effect, “and give them real wines, at an affordable price ($13), to enjoy.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t make tuna ras el hanout, with Umbrian lentils, arthichokes and preserved lemons, at home. I might order it at Spruce, but on a typical night at home I’ll bake a piece of salmon, steam some zucchini and call it dinner. Maybe not even that fancy: I’ve been known to have whole wheat toast with peanut butter for a meal, sprinkled with black sesame seeds. What do I drink with that? Anything at all, and happily. Life’s too short to fuss over red or white, sweet or dry, sparkling of still, when all you’re hankering for is a simple joy.

  1. Instead of “complicated,” let’s use the word “complex” and see how the equation changes, since most people don’t like anything that’s complicated (well, aside from “Lost”).

    And let’s also distinguish between the mass market and the enthusiast segment of that market, and acknowledge that such categories exist in most human endeavors (art, cars, food). Most of the American consumers fit into the mass market category — they want a good value for their money, something that isn’t too “complicated” (there’s that word again) and something that will fill the basic need of that product.

    In terms of volume, mass market models sell much higher volumes and units than do the specialized enthusiast models. A car that sells for $25K, gets decent mileage, is simple to maintain and doesn’t require your constant attention at speed will sell ten times as many units as will the high performance, limited edition, track day version of the hottest Mustang at $50K. Yet manufacturers still offer both, since they know that they can offer products to fill both segments of the market.

    Is one better than the other? That’s where the hair-splitting of the enthusiasts comes into play, since the folks in the mass market segment could really care less. But every once in a while, the mass market consumer gets a twinge to know more, a craving for a little more depth, some nuance, some….complexity?

    Then they start watching “Lost” instead of “Jersey Shore,” might drink an Oregon Pinot Noir that costs a bit more than the usual grocery store fare, and might even think of getting their next car with a special handling package and some cool wheels.

    Thus are enthusiasts born from the mass market.

    But the manufacturers still pay their bills making products to fill the demands of the mass market, and the mass market has yet to go away (despite many dire predictions of that happening over the last 40 years).

    There’s room for both – it’s not either/or, but more along the lines of “What do I want tonight?”

  2. You both missed the point, although I enjoyed both the post and the response. The majority of thoughtful wine consumers live far in-between the “wet dog” crowd and the “Mac & cheese” crowd. Those who prefer not to listen the the prattle of hardcore wine enthusiasts are not necessarily reaching for a hot dog. And watching Lost – as mind-numbing and stupid as Jersey Shore, aren’t experiencing an awakening of intellect that will lead them to seek more complexity in their wine. Even a first time wine drinker can distinguish well made from poorly made wine with the precision of an expert. People already have all the ability needed to fully understand wine. Rarely, though, does anyone who doesn’t have a passion for wine care enough to feel the need to articulate it’s components. It’s just wine. Move on. It’s the constant self-aggrandizing of wine critics that cast a negative shadow on the entire industry and floods the consumers with waves of self-doubt that they must know less than necessary to truly appreciate their wine. I enjoy very fine wine as much as I enjoy The Real Housewives. I’m confident enough to drink Inexpensive wine with very fine food, expensive, highly touted wine with cheap food and mid-range wine and food together. In other words, I can mix it up however I feel. That’s the attitude the wine industry needs to promote. Inclusiveness, not classist categories.

  3. Steve–

    I have been puzzling over this question for a couple of hours now.

    What wine does one drink with peanut butter and black sesame seeds?

    Milk? But, add a little lime-mango chutney and a dash of black bean hot oil to the mix and I might choose Riesling.

    What’s your choice? Inquiring minds want to know.

    On the larger question of wine and food, I do confess to being one of those who likes to find happy combinations. Salmon to me is not one universal flavor. Poached salmon in parchment, which occasionally graces the Chez Olken table, is very different from a filet grilled in a hot black skillent with butter and shallots, and the sugar-cured, slow-roasted salmon that was served to me with Sauternes in France is yet another. It is on this point that Sherman’s comments are instructive.

    Trying to tell my neighbors to cure salmon for three days and then serve it with Sauternes would be the height of confusion. Indeed, instructions like that would fall on deaf ears. But, it is quite another thing to suggest that dishes like that not be discussed in wine circles. You and I write for a somewhat rarified audience. I would make suggestions like that in Connoisseurs’ Guide. I would never had made them in my newspaper columns.

  4. Tom Quinn says:

    Re: Mr Heimoff’s original premise, I would agree with, but with the added caveat: Wine is only (too) complicated if you choose to make it complicated. Wine,for many, seems to have as much to do with ego and status flaunting as it does with enhancing the pleasurable and satisfying sensory experience of a delicious and complimentary beverage with an equally tasty meal. These two disparate objectives in the wine drinking experience are at once at odds with one another and can lead to some rather unpleasnt discord when combined within the same group of wine lovers. The core question at the heart of this discusion is: Do you want to enjoy wine or are you trying to use wine to impress and elevate your staus?

  5. Charlie, next time you and the missus prepare slow-roasted salmon and serve it with Sauternes, invite me!

  6. If some people think that Wines are too complicated, then try understanding all of the spirits and how they are made and what considerations there are from each of the countries where they are made. It take 12 YEARS for many a good scotch to come to market. Are people drinking just for the buzz? Yes then it is too complicated if all they are attracted to is the possiblity of limiting and dulling their senses and sensiblities.

    What do some of these people want? Instant knowledge on Everything? People want to loose weight but not diet and exercise too.

  7. Cool discussion!
    Wine can be as complicated as you choose it to be but does not have to be complicated at all. I work at Zotovich Cellars in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto (lompocghetto.com) and pour for tasters with varying degrees of appreciation for wine complication. It’s important to recognize who I am pouring for early on or at least recognize eye glazing at first gleam (We get pretty geeky if encouraged – careful, it’s contagious & worse than pink eye. Kidding – sort of. Did she just reference conjunctivitis in the comments section of Steve Heimoff’s blog?! Gross.) Not everybody wants to talk barrel profile, etc. and you can run the risk of completely over-talking the taster. I, with honest enthusiasm, let tasting room wine discussions wind up or down the paths that our customers suggest. Questions range in complexity from all aspects of the growing, producing and bottling processes. The tasting room is similar to a classroom. The worst thing a teacher can do is laugh at a student (especially in front of other students). There is no such thing as a stupid(silly newbie) question.

    By default most of our friends work in some capacity of the wine industry (wine makers, sales managers, compliancy specialists, tasting room managers, etc.). For most of us, wine complication is often a mood thing – time and place. While we do sshpreken wet dog, we sometimes enjoy the mac and cheese. We (the late 20-30 somethings, Santa Barbara County winery crowd) are very spoiled in being exposed to some really impressive mentors and some REALLY killer wines. Often we all bbq next to picnic benches filled with a ridiculous number of opened bottles. We might be drinking killer wine, but we don’t sit around verbalizing our critical evaluations – regardless of who we are in the presence of(novices or expert wine drinkers). We sit back and we appreciate. It’s common knowledge (in some social circles) that winemakers go to dinner after wine events and sometimes they order beer. And they totally do eat Hawaiian Pizza with a decent chardonnay. (SO GOOD) Shouldn’t everybody be allowed to do so? Life really is too short to keep up the jig that wine has to be snooty. Wine is delicious and should be fun for all in whatever capacity it is consumed.

  8. Brit: I hereby grant winemakers the right to eat Hawaiian pizza with Chardonnay anytime they want to.

  9. John Roberts says:

    The scene isn’t much different up in Napa and Sonoma, Brit. Away from the over-done tasting rooms, wine-makers like Tom Rinaldi and Phillipe Melka, play bocce ball and taste wine out of little white cups in the park too. It’s all about nature and culture, the heights of human expression, as reflected through a fruit fly covered glass.

    Loved the post Steve, and the replies! We make things simple for our own comfort often times, right? I think the wine-drinking public is more nuanced than can be reduced to these simple explanations and descriptors. I know you know that. In the end, both the low and the high-end of wine, is to be drunk and enjoyed, whether we’ll end up drunk and enjoyed is a different story. I applaud those who can distill the subject and make it simple. Simplify! but like in life generally, complexity is all around us, there when we want to find it, but never fully uncovered.

    Peanut butter sandwich… I’d pair with a nice Rhone-style rose ala Unti or Edmunds.

  10. is wine really as complicated as some people say? like others who have written, it can be as complicated as one chooses. but here you have an industry making a lot of money on all those people looking for guidance (books, classes, critics, etc.). why empower a population with the idea that wine is simple? better to keep ‘em unsure and looking for direction, or risk a whole lot of people out of work if the general populace started to (gasp) think for themselves and figure out wine can be simple, on a base level.

    steve wrote to “simplify, simplify!” In my contribution on The Daily Meal, Diary of a Start-Up Winemaker: Wine, Simplified, at the end of June ( http://www.thedailymeal.com/diary-start-winemaker-wine-simplified) I suggested “simplify” X 3; but then again, i have less at stake.

  11. One of the great enigmas of wine, is that it can be as simple or complex as the capacities of person approaching it. For those with only limited scope of experience, or desire to learn, it takes some work and discipline to develop, and for those that can appreciate complexity, the challenge is not to get caught up in it, miss the gestalt, and possibly undermine the simple pleasure when appropriate. This a thread that was pointed in Terry Thiese’s “Reading between the Vines”.

    I vote for a Concord rosé from the finger lakes to go with that PB.

  12. Wine can be very complicated, and so can a lot of other things that people enjoy such as Professional Football. But I think there’s one important difference between wine drinking and pro football. With the NFL, everything happens out in plain sight and most of it is measurable by statistics. With wine it all happens in the mouth, and it’s far less quantifiable.

  13. @James Judd – I echo your sentiments entirely.
    I think it’s the language of wine, rather than wine itself, that scares off many would-be consumers. When I first entered the wine industry and was required to taste on a professional level (for defects), the first thing I did was learn the vocabulary. We all have taste buds (granted, different sensory thresholds) and can learn to associate a taste sensation with a descriptor. Once I knew that, it removed a lot of the mystique, which allowed me to explore and take more risks without worrying about embarrassing myself (which I still do, I’m sure, I just don’t care).

  14. Todd – “Concord rosé from the finger lakes to go with that PB”

    John – “Peanut butter sandwich…a nice Rhone-style rose ala Unti or Edmunds”

    Charlie – “PB + black sesame seeds – Milk?”
    PB + “lime-mango chutney and a dash of black bean hot oil – Riesling”

    Brit – PB + Chambord Raspberry Jam + a SLAMMIN’ Cargasacchi Sta. Rita Hills Pinot
    *****I vote that we schedule an immediate BYOPBS (build your own PB sando) + beverage pairing taste test. We need to get to the bottom of this issue as soon as possible!

  15. Neil Moore says:

    I have found that any time there is a critic involved in offering an opinion, I have to remind myself, “he is not me.” For a critic to tell me what he/she thinks of the wine (or movie, or restaurant, or car, etc.) is fine. To each his own. It is for each person to make it as complicated as they want it to be.
    I enjoy a glass of wine, usually by itself, while sitting on the deck or next to a campfire. I occasionally have a glass, or two, with a meal. But being a simple country boy raised on red meat, potatoes, and fresh-from-the-cow milk, wine has not been a staple or even a consideration in my life until recent years. Admittedly, the perceived attitudes of critics and “wine snobs” have kept me from trying to enjoy wine. It seemed they all wanted me to drink the driest wines, and it seems now it is Pinot Noir. You know what? I don’t necessarily care for Pinot Noir. Don’t ask me why because I can’t tell you in wine-snob terms. I just know I don’t care for it. Some day I might. I prefer semi-dry Reisling, a Pinot Gris, sometimes a Chardonney, and most table whites.
    I will let the winemaker tell me how the wine is composed, let the critic tell me what they like and why, but I will decide whether or not it is a good wine with my own nose, and my own mouth. And I will like it “just because.”
    Great article, Steve.

  16. Complexity is the biggest issue facing the market today and as long as that remains the quickest way to make a million bucks from the wine market is to start with 10 million!
    The industry fails to deal with the issues that consumers have. Critics – yes they love complexity it looks like more work for them – but the core of guilt lies with the people who produce the product for people to drink – critics can only criticise what’s there – but marketeers and producers need to produce what consumers want. Currently as a whole that is way short of the mark.

  17. I was having a conversation with a group of servers and events sales people at a major hotel in DC 3 weeks ago. The topic of ‘dry’ wines came up and here is a recap of the discussion that ensued:

    – “what does the word ‘dry’ mean?” (these were all people serving wine for many, many years and noone has been able to answer the question!)
    …the word ‘dry’ is a relative term meaning ‘not sweet’.

    – “so Extra Dry means more dry?”
    …sort of but in Champagne it is a sign that it is actually pretty sweet. This is because Dry Champagne used to be really sweet by today’s standards, about twice as sweet as white Zin today so Extra Dry used to mean more dry but now it means the wine not dry and it is pretty sweet.

    – “if a wine says DRY on the label it will be dry?”
    …well, almost any wine that states that it is dry is usually not dry, like “dry Riesling’ is usually really off-dry, meaning more dry then many yet still sweeter than most really dry wines. this means if the label says the wine is dry it is usually not.

    -“why is Rombauer Chardonnay so popular?”
    …because it is sweet but the people drinking it think it is dry.

    -“are all Chardonnays sweet?”
    …sort of, and remember the word ‘dry’ is a relative word and that no wine is technically completely dry, different wines might be more or less dry.

    – “red wines seem more dry – they dry out my mouth.”
    …that is actually astringency so when a wine dries out your mouth that alone does not mean it is a dry wine. A wine can be sweet and dry out your mouth – like Port wines. They are sweet, not dry, but can dry out your mouth.

    “Can I have a Cosmo pleae…”

  18. Tim Hanni, good stuff! Sometimes the simplest words express the deepest meanings. Thanks.

  19. Great conversation. I’ve been spouting about dumbing things down a bit for some time now.
    The Regularian Manifesto (from wine-regularians.com)
    Or just some more things that many Regularians hold to….
    We like Chateau d’Yquem but don’t claim to have bought a case of it if for $200. We don’t think “Red Red Wine” should be the theme song for any wine event. We don’t think KJ is good enough. We will spend $100 on a wine we like without niggling for a $5 discount. We can handle baseball caps, tiaras, berets and bandanas as well as straw hats. We don’t believe in big-box wine tours. We don’t chase after Parker points, and we will drink RP82 wine if we darn well feel like it. We believe there is a gift bottle other than Opus One. We like lesser-known varietals. We eat wherever we like. We don’t dress up to go to the grocery store. We don’t believe that paintings of vineyards or produce is any better than abstract surrealism. We don’t care for celebrity gossip. We sometimes read wine-related literature. We won’t pay $30 for a grilled sandwich, and we won’t drive an hour to buy a certain special jar of mustard. We’ll eat a portobella mushroom just as eagerly as a truffle, or drink a daiquiri with as much confidence as 30-year Glenfiddich. We have no shame and do not show off. We like to be frugal but are not cheap, putting our money where it makes positive differences. And we believe that organic wines & foods are not a fad.

  20. Joseph Artuso says:

    I have enjoyed this discussion immensely. Ironically I happened to be watching Somm, a documentary about the Master Sommelier exam at the same time. I feel a little sad to be honest as I listen to these Candidates rattle off description after description. Medium plus body, light straw color with green reflection, black currant, ripe mellon skin, grandmothers closet, dry violet, fresh violet, rotten violet etc.. And to be a good Somm you need to lick rocks before you can understand a mineral finish.

    Wine is this complicated because we make it this complicated. l have been fortunate to have shared some amazing wines, and I can go wine geek pretty quickly. One thing I have learned over the years is that when I open a really special bottle a great Sauternes for example, and share it with people I love,they say things like “wow” “amazing” and so forth. They don’t really care about body, structure, rotten violets, or minerals. They have little tolerance for listening to me go on about such things as well.

    I think they have it right. Sometimes “great” just says it all. And maybe if we said it a little more often more people would drink wine.

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