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Why young wine drinkers should know about the classics



Okay, well, first, I don’t mean they have to know about the classics. It’s not like the occasional wine lover is going to die and go to some awful place reserved for ignorant drinkers if they don’t. Knowing about the classics is not mandatory if you’re like most people—occasional drinkers who like wine’s salutary, gustatory and social effects, all of which are fantastic.

But knowing about the classics of wine is important for people who aspire to be more than they are, to know a little more, to achieve a deeper level of understanding. Again, this isn’t for everyone. What do I mean, then?

By “aspire” I mean the person who, for whatever reason, finds that wine has struck a chord in their intellect and soul, a chord that prompts them to up their game. It is human to aspire; everyone wants to be more than they are, in some area. You may aspire to great wealth or power. You may aspire to be the greatest dobro player, or third baseman, or rapper, or jewel thief or brain surgeon or tattoo artist. Don’t we all want to be greater than we are, in some area? So there’s always going to be that 1 percent or 5 percent or whatever it is of wine drinkers who aspire to hit a higher level. (I like to think those are the kinds of people who read this blog.)

Okay. So two questions:

  1. Why should aspirational wine drinkers know about the classics?
  2. What are the classics, anyhow?

Aspirational wine drinkers should know about the classics because people who know about the classics say they should. Now, that sounds tautological and elitist, and I suppose it is. But you can’t know where you are without knowing where you’ve come from, and people who know where they’ve come from know that, and are best listened to. Baseball fans need to know how Babe Ruth led to Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, if they are to understand why we make such a big deal of Adrien Beltre. You can be a big baseball fan without knowing history (actually, that’s pretty unthinkable, but it’s theoretically possible), but knowing history will enable you to comprehend the game and talk about it (which is half the pleasure) at a higher level.

But there’s more reason than that to know about the classics. If you’re aspirational, you’re probably going to spend more money on wine than the occasional wine drinker, so if you want to know you’re getting your money’s worth, and not getting ripped off, you’d better know how that bottle of wine stands in relation to the wines that history, which after all is just your predecessors, has pronounced them to be. If you’re spending $50, $90, $200 on a bottle of wine, you want to know that it’s not some overnight sensation—a one-hit wonder that won’t stand the test of time, but is a wine that will justify your investment. If you know that your investment is justified, it makes that purchase all the more worthwhile—which increases your pleasure of the wine—which is what buying wine is all about.

I would even go beyond this and say: You cannot experience as high a degree of pleasure from a wine without knowing how it stands in relation to its peers and predecessors, which is to say, how it stands in history. Perhaps I can’t prove this; perhaps it’s an ideology I suffer from that breaks down under analysis. Perhaps. But I think that most experienced critics would agree with me. The same is true of any creative endeavor that requires people to spend their money. If you don’t understand how and why that thing (painting, suit, auto, whatever) is as good as it’s purported to be, then you might as well not buy it.

So that’s my argument for understanding the classics. What are the classics? That’s a whole other post. Suffice it to say that, since I specialize in California wine, for me the classics are those brands that have stood the test of time. We don’t have very many proven older brands in California. Most of our most celebrated wines are new: 15 or 20 years old at most, and often younger than that. But there are brands that were famous 30, 40, 50 years ago, and remain famous today, for a reason: Not just because they’re old (age is not a plus in itself) but because they have remained relevant all this time. And no wine brand remains relevant for a long time, in such a fickle culture as ours, unless it offers something truly remarkable. This remarkableness consists of two things: greatness in its own terroir and region, and ageability. This necessarily limits the number of remarkable wines. But if too many wines are remarkable, then remarkability is meaningless.

This is why I recommend to younger wine drinkers, who aspire to be more than they are, to investigate the classics.

  1. Dusty Gillson says:

    Great post! This is exactly how I’ve directed my study of wine in the last 5 years. In the beginning I may have been like many others, lusting after whatever new or funky wine I could taste. Eventually though, that subsided and I find now that if I want to try a new region or type of wine, I really want to start with something that is considered a benchmark or classic in style for the type of wine.

    The hard part sometimes is that there is no reference that I can find that calls out definitively what some of the benchmark wines of a region might be. Obviously Bordeaux has classed growths which give you a pretty good roadmap, but in a place like Barolo, finding a “classic” bottling may be a little tougher because they are made in so many different styles, and every producer thinks they make the best version. Then you have oddities like 61′ Cheval Blanc, which is considered an iconic wine, but isn’t very typical or “classic” in many aspects.

    I was very excited to have my first taste of a first growth Bordeaux just recently; a 1990 Margaux 🙂

  2. Patrick Frank says:

    Great post. Knowing about the “classics” does indeed add a level of intellectual depth to wine drinking. Tasting them today is difficult, though: Joe Swan Pinot, Heitz Martha’s Vineyard ’68-’70, early Chalone Chardonnay, Santino Amador Zins. Those are classics for me, but I have only memories of them.

  3. first break in harvest, and i stopped in for a read. you’re still the best, Steve. I look forward to a future post defining the “classics”, as well as the lively comment debate that is sure to follow.

  4. I am glad to see this subject being discussed. I hope for many reasons (some selfish) that this approach gets viral in the wine world.

    It will be very interesting to watch as “Classic” is defined. My own definition has been shaped by my interaction with wine from being a restaurant & retail buyer & seller & distributor & educator. I believe that the term Brand in the context of wine should be refined as it has been for such iconic brands as Champagne, Rioja, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre, Corton, Meursault, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon…

    While Brands such as Chateau Montelena, Mondavi, Far Niente, Shafer, Duckhorn, and way too many to name here… are famed and considered Iconic or “classic”, things can and will change, such as ownership, winemakers, viticulturists, all leading to possible stylistic changes. This is much more difficult for a brand that is land based like Champagne, but not impossible (see Barolo, Rioja & Brunello for examples). A classic should not be manipulated to get better scores or more money… reputation for a classic needs to build naturally.

    A grape that is starting to get some well deserved attention is Cabernet Franc… to truly understand that grape, I would want to taste a classic from Bourgueil, Chinon, St-Emilion then move on to more recent places the grape has popped up. Places like Friuli, Hungary, North Fork of LI, Santa Barbara and likely many other places.

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