Wanker [from Wiktionary}: (UK, Australia, New Zealand, slang, pejorative) An idiot, a stupid, annoying or ineffectual person who shows off too much, a poser or poseur; someone who is overly self-satisfied.
The Brits and their island relatives south of the equator love the word “wank” which in addition to the above meaning has so many other colorful implications. In the context of wine, it shows up in this article, in yesterday’s Sydney [Australian] Morning Herald, in which the writer, Nick Bhasin, was swirling and sniffing wine at an office party when one of his co-workers said to him, “It’s hard to do that and not look like a wanker.”
I never had any preconceptions about wine wankiness when I was coming up. When I moved to San Francisco and fell into the wine culture, we all swirled and sniffed, held the wine against a white tablecloth to see how clear it was, “chewed” it as if it were meat, thoughtfully appreciated its finish, and then, afterward, talked about it with the excited animation of a cadre of Giants fans debating Tim Lincecum’s abilities as a pitcher. (If you live here and hang out in sports bars, you know what I mean.)
In other words, I’ve always been comfortable being a wine wanker and being in the presence of wine wankers, although, even for me, there’s a limit. You can be wanky (or wonky) about wine without losing common sense and normal ways of talking.
But nobody should be embarrassed about their wine wankiness, as Nick Bhasin apparently was. He asked a “wine educator” for advice on how not to appear wanky, and she told him, “The glass doesn’t have to be raised to the sky in conductor-like fashion. And swirling can be done subtly, it doesn’t require much effort to swirl a glass properly at all – and it doesn’t require exaggerated facial expressions either.”
She’s surely right; one can easily imagine Fred Armisen, on Saturday Night Live, doing his Guy Fieri sthick as an out-of-control wank, gargling the Lafite, and sniffing it so hard it comes snorting out through his nose.
There are such people; we all have seen them, at tastings and such. Usually they’re amateurs. Fortunately, they’re in the minority. I often wonder, though, how we got to this position, where the merest, sincerest interest in wine is perceived by others as pretentious and fatuous. People don’t think that baseball or wrestling fans are pretentious. Personal aircraft owners talk about their planes all the time (try hanging out in Napa Valley) and, while it’s annoying to those of us who do not own such boy toys, I don’t think it’s pretentious. (Well, maybe a little.)
Yet wine talk and behavior has earned its own place of infamy. I guess partly it’s due to our American disdain for high culture. Wine is associated with the wealthy (although that’s a stupid attitude, because wine is really the beverage of the masses), and Americans have always had suspicions of the rich. Particularly suspect are people who aren’t rich but take on rich “airs”; and could any “air” be more offensive than swirling and sipping? Hence “wanker.”
I’ll just conclude by saying that I never exhibit my wankitude in public unless it’s in an appropriate setting. If I’m at a party where nobody cares about what they’re drinking, then neither do I. In my family, we do have certain members who seek me out at Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings to ask me to pronounce on various wines. I’m happy to oblige, but not at length, and not because I don’t want to offend anyone else, but because that’s not why I go to parties. I do my analysis thing when I review and I do my drinking thing when I drink, and I keep the two things separate. Still, after all these years, I never fail to be amused when someone who knows me well introduces me to someone who doesn’t with the words, “Steve’s a wine expert.” The other person’s eyes open wide and, while they search for something to say, I can almost hear them thinking, “He’s a wank [or wonk].”
I think a lot of people feel the same way as Louise Saunders. She writes that, after pretending to like wine for 30 years, she finally realized that she really doesn’t.
I have friends who don’t like wine, for various reasons. They’re not against it morally, but it doesn’t sit well with them. Some of them love spirits and beer, but there’s something about wine they just don’t get.
Personally, I love wine. I don’t see how somebody could be a wine writer and not love wine (although I know at least one winemaker who’s a teetotaler). There are wines that stun, amaze and delight me, and I couldn’t imagine living without that experience. Of course, the buzz is nice–let’s get that on the record and out of the way. But I’ve learned to hold my alcohol pretty well, and I know my limit, so you’ll never see me drunk.
There is some danger, if you’re in the wine, beer or spirits business, of drinking too much. We’re surrounded by these glorious beverages all day (and night) and can always tell ourselves that drinking is part of our job. I joke about it, but it’s true: I get paid to drink. But I know exactly how much alcohol my body can tolerate or, to put it more precisely, my body knows how much alcohol it can tolerate, and when I’m approaching that point, it sends my brain a warning signal.
How much is okay for me? Around three-quarters of a bottle a day. I suppose that, by some estimates, that’s too much, but I think we’re all built differently, and I can handle that amount. When I was in my teens, I was a binge drinker. I was away from home for the first time, at college in New England, and fell in with a boozy, druggy crowd. There were days we’d start drinking by 10 a.m. (horrible sweet stuff, like Bali Hai) and still be going strong twelve hours later. That period, fortunately, didn’t last long, because some instinct told me in a strong way that it was unhealthy and I’d better stop doing it, so I did.
Until fairly recently, I could handle big tastings, of 50-75 wines at one sitting, but I don’t think I’m going to do that anymore. Galloni once told me he can taste hundreds of wines at a sitting, and feel stronger and more refreshed at the end. I cannot say I can do the same. I’m comfortable tasting my 15 wines a day, on average. I like it, the routine is comfortable for me, I’ve done it for a long time, and my body and mind are in tune with it. I suppose I could do thirty if I had to (and I’m sure there will be occasions when I will), but it’s not my preference. I want to pay more, and longer, attention to what I’m tasting these days, not less. I don’t want to become a digital tasting machine: like, don’t like, like, like, don’t like. That’s not why I got into wine and I refuse to let it happen
It’s hard to describe the process of tasting to someone who doesn’t understand it. People always smile when I tell them what I do for a living. It’s the same smile, I suspect, they’d make if they thought I get paid for having sex. But really, tasting wine has little or nothing to do with imbibing alcohol. It’s intensely mental. It begins with physical sensations: visual, aromatic, taste, texture. But the experience occurs, not in the nose or the mouth, but in the brain. I think all day long (don’t you?), and usually my thoughts are just monkey thoughts that flit from one thing to another with no coherence, rhyme or reason. (I try to meditate, but have never been very good at it.) There are a few times during the day when I can focus my thinking. Writing is one; tasting wine is another. I like it when I focus my thinking. It makes me feel useful and proper and in line with the universe. Since both writing and tasting focus my thinking, imagine my pleasure at being able to write about wine tasting! I’ll begin a sentence, then realize I haven’t quite got the right adjective, and stare at the computer screen, mind empty on one level but actively searching on another, until the correct word comes. It always does. I suppose that’s a form of meditation. The same concept can be expressed in an infinite number of ways in the English language. You can say “There’s not much alcohol” or “There’s hardly any alcohol” or “There’s scarcely any alcohol” or, moving to different structures, “Alcohol barely shows up” or “As for alcohol, it’s pretty low,” and on and on. Each way of phrasing has its strengths and limitations. I try on phrases the way some people try on shoes at the shoe store, until I find the one I like the best. Then the review is written, and I’m on to tasting the next wine. And so it goes.
I wrote a post recently, “Aromatic whites, including Albarino, come of age,” which was sort of a general musing on the new popularity of these wines, a development I fully support because they can be lovely. Among the comments my post got was this one, which I’m reproducing in full because I want to make several points:
Hi there. I recently put together a blind tasting that largely focused on white spanish varietals: verdejo, viura/macaebo, and albarino. I also poured what I thought could be some imposters (e.g. pinot grigio). I generally found that the spanish varietals were quite difficult to tell apart…from my research, the albarino is typically represented by the combination of more intense aromatics (especially peach and stone fruit) and having the most bracing acidity – compared to verdejo and viura macabeo.
From the limited selection of wines I showed…this premise seemed to hold true. HOWEVER, all the wines did seem VERY similar to me…I think it was difficult to tell the difference between them. Of course, knowing what specific qualities differentiate the grape varieties would be helpful, lol!
Soo…..I’d love to know your thoughts! Do you think my assessment of albarino is correct? If not, what might I be missing? I’d really like to understand more of these great spanish whites.
My first reaction was, My goodness, what is it about us that makes us work so hard to find the slightest minute differences between wines? I replied,
I agree that these whites all all very similar. Perhaps you’re trying too hard to tell them apart. It’s a distinction without a difference.
I’ve always thought there’s a strain of behavior in our wine crowd that tries to over-sciencize the art and pleasure of wine tasting. We go about it like laboratory technicians, or MBAs studying the tax code, instead of people who simply love wine, and love talking about it. Personally, I never got too deep into that kind of thing. When I was starting out, I’d hear debates between people with a lot more experience than I had about whether that aroma was peach pit or apricot pit, and I’d think, “Jeez, is this the club I’m trying to join?” Another version of the debate was whether or not the wine was “lightstruck.” It seemed so pointless to me, because one person was going to stick with what he found, the other person would stick with what he found, they’d never agree, they were talking past each other, and it was all unprovable anyway. So why even bother to have the debate?
I’m not saying we should dumb down our wine tasting conversations. But I do think beginners, especially, over-sciencize it. They think that Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine and Famous Wine Critics sit around and detect these distinctions with pinpoint accuracy, and so they should try to do it, too. The fact is, as one gets more experienced as a taster, one loses interest in what kind of stone fruit the wine smells like, or exactly which berry shows up in the middle palate. Instead one begins to think and write in terms of more abstract elements, such as structure, grace, elegance, harmony, precision, focus and balance–or the lack thereof. These are very easy to discern, if you understand what they are. (And blind tasting is the best way to do it.) We might not all be able to agree on precise aromas and flavors, but, in general, experienced tasters will agree on these more sublime qualities.
Albarino is one of those grape varieties nobody in California thought too much of, like Pinot Gris and Gruner Veltliner, until comparatively recently.
Why should they have? California vintners fell into two categories in the modern era: those who wanted to sell commodity wines to lots of average consumers, and those who wanted to create prestige brands along the lines of Bordeaux chateaux or Burgundy domains. Either way, that meant producing those old familiar varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If variety for variety’s sake was desired, the vintner could always throw in a little Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel or something Rhônish.
But something in the California psyche started shifting around the year 2000. I haven’t read much about what instigated this shift, which saw the beginnings of the emergence of what are usually called aromatic whites. There had long been plantings of Riesling and Gewurztraminer in California, but suddenly, one started hearing about Pinot Gris/Grigio, Viognier, Albarino, Gruner, Torrontes and others. Whaf the wines had in common were low to moderate alcohol, keen acidity, bright floral, citrus or green notes and, perhaps most importantly, little or no oak influence to mask the fruit.
What instigated this shift is hard to tell. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Grape growers are very conservative when it comes to planting; they’re not going to stick anything in the ground they don’t think they can sell. So it didn’t come from the growers. But growers are sensitive to signs around them, and the more acute of them, who have their fingers in the wind all the time to detect changing consumer preferences, know what’s happening before most of the rest of us. Maybe they have a good network of restaurateurs and distributors to keep them abreast of what’s happening out there. Maybe they watch the critics, to see what new variety is being touted. Maybe the appeal for fresh, vibrant white wines really did start among consumers, and then traveled from the ground up. Who knows?
At any rate, it wasn’t until 2003 that I reviewed my first Albarino for Wine Enthusiast, a late date. It was a 2002 from the Lodi winery, Bokisch. It was pretty good; I scored it 88 points and, at $16 in price, it was worthy of an Editor’s Choice special designation. But I can’t say it knocked my sox off.
The first 90 point Albarino I reviewed was the 2004 Havens. It represented a big step above the Bokisch, in terms of utter dryness, light alcohol and a flintiness that was like a lick of cold stone. It put the idea in my mind that Carneros, and cool climates in general, were what Albarino likes.
Since then, the 90 point or higher Albarinos haven’t exactly flooded my doorstep, but they are coming in with greater frequency. Three producers now stand out as the most dependable: Marimar Torres, Longoria and Tangent. Each takes a different approach, but what all have in common is a cool growing region: respectively, the Green Valley of the Russian River, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Edna Valley. I’ve also been impressed lately by Kenneth Volk’s 2011 Albarino from the Santa Maria Valley, a little more-full-bodied than the others, but still Albarino-ey.
This new penchant among consumers for light, aromatic white wines is a very good thing, and I suspect it’s being driven by younger wine drinkers. It takes a certain amount of courage for a diner to request a wine type he’s unfamiliar with and may not even be able to pronounce, even if the sommelier recommends it. My friends who are floor staff confirm that it is indeed younger people who are drinking these aromatic whites, including Albarino, which pairs so well with today’s fresh, ethnic, pan-Asian fare and tapas-style small plates.
Acreage of Albarino is up sharply, although it’s still miniscule compared to other white varieties: a total of 176 acres in 2011. But 72 acres of that were non-bearing, meaning they’d been planted in 2009 or 2010; and I suspect that when the 2012 Grape Acreage Report comes out, we’ll see even higher numbers. Critics have long lamented that Americans are not drinking adventurously, creatively and experimentally. But I think that trope can now be laid to rest.
One of the biggest challenges to the wine critic is determining if a wine is ageable and, if you think it is, then how long to recommend that your readers age it.
This is irrelevant for most wines, but for that small handful of wines that do indeed improve with age, it’s perhaps the single most important piece of information the critic can convey. After all, when you look at the prices people pay for some of these wines, they deserve to know if their bottle is drinkable now or will improve in the cellar.
If the critic tastes openly, it makes the task a lot easier. You’re at Chateau Figeac tasting the 2009? It’s tight and tannic and oaky, but then, it is Figeac. Tell your readers to cellar it. That’s a no-brainer.
If you’re tasting blind, it’s a different story. Lots of wines are tight, tannic and oaky, but they can’t all be ageable. So there’s got to be something else the critic looks for. In the absence of external information (you don’t know the name of the winery, so you don’t know if the wine has a history of aging), you have to look for other cues. What are they?
That’s why I call it “one of the biggest challenges,” because it’s really hard to make this determination.
You can start by a process of elimination. Think of all the reasons why the wine couldn’t possibly improve in the cellar. It may be too thin, or out of whack in acidity, too obviously hot in alcohol, or flawed in some other general way. This is the easy part. It’s when you’re gotten your flight down to the dense, balanced, tannic young wines that the difficulties mount.
It used to be said (and some people may still believe it) that a wine that’s delicious on release isn’t ageable. People thought that an ageable wine had to be tough and resistant in youth. That may have been true a long time ago, but it isn’t true anymore. Many California Cabernet Sauvignons, in fact most, that age well are super-good on release, and the same is true of many classified growth Bordeaux that I have occasion to sample every year. I was reminded of this fact when I read, in Benjamin Lewin’s Claret & Cabs, the quote from Eric d’Aramon, concerning his father-in-law, the owner of Figeac. “When I did my first tasting [with him]…every cuve that he selected for the grand vin, I selected for the second wine, and vice versa.” This naturally shocked Eric, “but [then] he explained to me, ‘you have been selecting the vats for drinking now, I am selecting them for future potential.’”
Eric, in other words, thought less of the harder, more austere batches than he did of the lusher, more fruit-forward batches. This is perfectly understandable, but it leads back to the conundrum of how to tell the difference between a hard, austere wine that will improve with age and one that won’t.
Here’s how I do it. Since I don’t know the identity of the wine while I’m reviewing it, I’ll work up some preliminary thoughts about it [flavors, structure, balance, length and so on], and also assign it a score. Those things are invariant. Then, when the bottle comes out of the bag, I work on my final review, before sending it electronically to Wine Enthusiast. So how I do decide whether or not to give a wine a “Cellar Selection” designation? Well, it’s not necessarily because I’m familiar with the aging histories of many of these wines. For example, I’ve recently given Cellar Selections to Cabernets from Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Bjorn, Venge, Redmon and B Cellars, and I’ve never had any older wines from any of them. I did it because the wines seemed to me to possess all the stuffing and equilibrium to go the distance–and they are all from Napa Valley. On the other hand, I’ve also given Cellar Selection recommendations for the likes of Ridge Montebello, Corison and Beaulieu Private Reserve in Cabernets, and some of Williams Selyem’s single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, all of which are wines I’m familiar with as they age. With those, I feel like I’m on surer footing than with wines Ive never tasted old. But I wouldn’t give a Cellar Selection unless I was sure in my own mind that the wine would age well, which is why, for example, I gave a good score to Raymond’s 2009 District Collection Cabernet, and suggested it could do interesting things in eight years, but ultimately didn’t give it a Cellar Selection. I just wasn’t sure enough to go there.
Lord knows I’m a big defender of California Cabernet Sauvignon against the bashers who say it all tastes like a candy bar, but I will admit to occasionally having my own moments of despair.
It happens when I set up a flight of 10 or 12 Cabs to review. Normally, I try to segregate them by appellation–all Napa Valley, for instance. But it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, lately I’ve been concentrating on the wines of Paso Robles, including Cabernet and Bordeaux red blends. It’s seemed to me that the wines have been getting better, for a variety of reasons. One way to check that out is to taste Paso Cabs against Napa Cabs, which are the gold standard, to see if they have anything to be ashamed of.
As far as I can tell, few other reviewers do it that way. They’ll go to Paso Robles and taste, or they’ll receive the wines at home, and then taste them openly–which invites preconceived notions about Paso Robles. And we all have them, don’t we? It’s too hot, etc. etc. Yes, it is hot, but no more so than Calistoga (I can send you the temperature statistics if you want), and there are areas in Paso (particularly in the west and south) that are cooler than, say, the Estrella flats along 46E. So its only fair to take ambitious Paso Cabs and set them next to the best of Napa and see what’s up.
I can see some eyebrows rising high in scandalized incredulity. What? Taste Paso Robles Cabernets next to great Napa Cabernet? Yes; why not? It’s not against the law. And I’ll tell you that some of these Paso Cabs stand up remarkably well.
But what I was writing about was my moments of despair. Let me explain. If you do a search on my wine reviews using the words “candy,” “candied,” “sugary sweet,” “jammy,” you’ll get an awful lot of hits, and not just for Cabernet. Syrah, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, there really is a lot of treacly stuff out there, the kind that drives the Europeans mad. Tasting through a flight of such wines can start to be tedious, so much so that, on occasion, I start thinking to myself, “Maybe Terry Theise has a point. Maybe even Raj Parr has a point.”
There used to be a saying, “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” which makes no sense at all literally. It means that the way you see and experience things depends on your perspective. Now, having a perspective is complicated business. You may have inherited a perspective from the way you were raised. You may have developed a new perspective through education. The Europeans, who grew up with wines in the 13%-14% range, naturally recoil from a 15.5% L’Aventure Cabernet. To them, it tastes utterly bizarre, not like wine at all.
I didn’t grow up with a European perspective. When it came to wine, I had no perspective, as we didn’t drink it in my parents’ home. My perspective concerning wine developed after I moved to California, and fell in with other amateurs who liked California wine quite a bit. In that environment, I developed an affection for our style, which may be riper and sweeter than it was 30 years ago, but not all that much. California wine (especially red) has always been about fruit.
So when I start thinking that there’s an awful lot of candied sameness out there, it forces me to dive deeper to discern which wines are balanced with candied sweetness and which ones aren’t. For there is such a thing as a Cabernet that’s sweet and jammy and chocolatey, yet maintains perfect balance. To give just one example, the Paul Hobbs 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon, which clocks in at a hefty 15.2% alcohol, and which I gave 96 points. That wine has balance, despite the glyceriney, fat unctuousness. I sometimes think the people who bash this style throw the baby out with the bathwater. They dismiss all California wines of this style without realizing or understanding that there are grand wines made in all styles.
Having said that, yes, my Europhile friends, there are a lot of candy bar wines in California.