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Gus and wine: nobody’s perfect


Many of you know that I recently rescued a chihuahua-terrier mix I named  Gus. Gus is insanely cute, the kind of dog that complete strangers on the street stop to compliment. I love him dearly, but there’s an issue. Gus tends to have the occasional “accident” at home.

I was down at the Old Crow yesterday telling this to Terry, looking for a little advice and, probably, commisseration. Terry, like most dog owners I know, told me that, when you have a dog, accidents will happen, and not to get too upset about it. I told him that, as far as I’m concerned, I want an accident-free Gus, 100% housebroken, without exceptions. No pee indoors, ever, period, end of story. Terry said, “Your expectations are pretty high.”

“I know,” I replied, adding, “That’s the way I am. I either have very high expectations, or none at all.” I’d never stated anything in quite those terms, but it just came out, and I was surprised to hear myself put it so bluntly.

On the way home–with Gus sniffing every tree, lamppost and hydrant in Oakland–I was thinking about this, when it occurred to me that there are analogies with wine. When I taste a new release, I’m looking for the most perfect wine ever, one that gives me pleasure on every level. I expect it not only to not disappoint, but to dazzle. I have a Platonic image in my mind of the perfect wine of every type (Pinot Noir, Champagne, Cabernet Sauvignon, sweet white wine, etc.), because in my lifetime I’ve had such wines, and stored each away in the repository of my brain, where I can reference it in detail. So I’ll take the new wine I’m tasting and hold it side by side with the Platonic wine, comparing them. Of course, almost all of the time, the new wine fails to live up to the mental image or expectation of the perfect Platonic wine. So ultimately, 99.9% of the new wines I taste are, on some level, disappointing.

And then it hit me. Am I holding my wines to the same standard as I hold Gus? With wine, is it all or nothing?

I don’t exactly mean “nothing,” of course. If I give a score over 90 to a wine, it ain’t nothing. But any score less than 100 points, regardless how high, still suggests that there’s something wrong with the wine. And that troubles me. My doggie-owning friends, and I have a lot of them, have convinced me that it’s totally unreasonable to expect a dog to never, ever pee in the house, over many years. So is a 95 point score the equivalent of a wine that, great as it is (and Gus is really great), occasionally pees on the carpet?

I’m still working this out. But without following the analogy too far, let me put it this way: I think it’s fair to hold every wine to a standard of perfection. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a box, or if it costs $500; I measure it in my mind against the greatest, what I want and hope it should be, not what it is.

Is it unfair to hold every wine I taste to such a high standard? The difference between wines and Gus, obviously, is that I have only one Gus. It’s he whom I love and must cherish regardless of whatever imperfections he has. With wine, on the other hand, there are thousands each year. I don’t feel any obligation to love or cherish any of them, no matter how much they cost or how hyped they are.

Still, I wonder if that little bit of irritation I feel at a slight imperfection in wine isn’t unduly harsh. The way I rationalize it is in the relationship between the score and the text of my review. An 84 is going to remain an 84 after I blind taste it, no matter what. If I see the wine costs $7, I’m going to give it a break in my description. If it’s $50, I’m going to be harsh. The analogy with Gus, I think, is that he’s a million dollar dog (in my heart) and so I want and expect him to be perfect. Still, I know how unreasonable that is. That’s why I’m hiring a dog psychologist to help us get through this. I can’t do that with wine; a wine that really disappoints me has no mitigation, no intervention by which it can improve itself–at least, until the next vintage. I guess that’s the difference between the living beings in our lives, and the fixed possessions, like wine. You can’t hope to change a flawed wine, no matter what you do. But you can always hope to see a change in a living being you love.

  1. Seems like I see the world in an opposite view most of the time. My take is you will have better luck trying to change a wine than a living being. Case in point, Mrs. Leslie gave up any hope of changing me somewhere in the first decade of our marriage. Course, if I start to have accidents that might change.

    But wines, I am always trying and sometimes with success. Those monster 15% Cabs are dropped to 13.5 with an accurate dose of distilled water and sometimes Sauvignon blanc or Semillon. If low in acid they get a shot of tartaric. That heavy over oaked Chardonnay gets a healthy dose of a thin Pinot Grigio. I have learned to wait to open that oaky Chardonnay until I have a partial bottle of a potential blender. Last night I had success with a thin, harsh Vin du Pays Pinot. (Mrs Leslie had picked it up both because of the name Pinot Evil and it filled out the case for the discount – I thought Pinot Envy was more appropriate.) All it took was a few ounces of Grey Goose vodka to mellow it out. I admit I worried for a time that it might be a waste of good vodka, but that would be giving up on helping out a wine. And I’ll never give up on a wine.

  2. Dog psychologist?? Steve, you are one sick puppy.

  3. Cripes Steve you’ll be expecting Gus to put the toilet seat down !

    The dog does not need analysis, he’s fine. He may appreciate a doggie door ( and secure outside area ) if that’s the option.

    We’ve never had a herd much under about 5 ( not counting the horses, cats, fish and goats ). We’ve done lots of ” sitting ” for the winery owner I work for now ( what’s just another ? )and generally the bigger problem is the fur than the accidents.

    It’s not hard to ” want to ” hold the wines in high esteem, when you know what is possible.

    After spending hours creating the perfect sand garden, why does the gardener throw a handful of dirt on it ?

    Steve, would you mind giving me a call at Zichichi ? I have a couple of questions for you. Thanks in advance .

  4. Steve, I like the analogy of wine to Gus. Sometimes, I find that when popped and poured, wines do show as an “accident” in the glass if I taste them immediately. Often a 30 minute “walk around the block” is just what it needed to be a happy, well-adjusted companion. Last week, I was part of a blind tasting of 2009 Sonoma Pinot Noir and it was interesting to hear how the rankings of each individual taster fundamentally changed over the course of the evening as the wines opened up.

  5. If I give a score over 90 to Steve Heimoff, it ain’t nothing. But any score less than 100 points, regardless how high, still suggests that there’s something wrong with Steve Heimoff. And that troubles me. My doggie-owning friends, and I have a lot of them, have convinced me that it’s totally unreasonable to expect a Steve Heimoff to never, ever pee in the house, over many years. So is a 95 point score the equivalent of a Steve Heimoff that, great as Steve Heimoff is (and Gus is really great), occasionally pees on the carpet?

    Answer: Sure, as long as Steve Heimoff urinates 95 point wine wine.

  6. I’ve always wondered about wine writers who award wines a 100 point score — is there truly anything influenced by the hand of man that can warrant perfection? And if you’ve tasted a 100 point wine, is everything else going to be a disappointment? Can there be more than *one* perfect wine (assuming that such a thing is possible)?

    As wine is a living, breathing and developing thing, and no living, breathing and developing thing is capable of perfection (well. perhaps for a moment but not as a lifestyle) — the search for perfection in this world is a never-ending search that will ultimately lead to almost endless disappointment. But I’m perfectly happy to have “good enough” in my life on a daily basis, with the occasional bump to “outstanding” once in a while — I’m not sure I want to experience perfection, as all else will pale in comparison.

  7. Ivan, I don’t pee 95 point wine. On the other hand, I don’t pee on the carpet, so you don’t have to be afraid to invite me to your house!

  8. This is a pretty interesting reflection on a good aesthetic point: Even something imperfect can be lovable. There are definitely wines out there that, while they don’t pee on the carpet, certainly have what you might call flaws (bad pH, hi alc, rustic qualities), but I love them anyway. Kind of like a shelter dog.

  9. Bill Smart says:

    I wish I could post a picture of my golden boy of joy – Truman. I think the point of this post is that if you don’t like dogs, there is something wrong with you.

  10. Hey Bill, I love dogs! Before I adopted Gus, one of my joys in visiting wineries was to meet the winery dog. I often got down and played with him/her before I even interacted with my human host. I’d love to see a picture of Truman!

  11. Patrick: Thanks for such a great insight. I was searching for that phrasing, “Kind of like a shelter dog.” That’s exactly what Gus is. I rescued him from the SPCA, bless them for what they do.

  12. The Wheel of Karma turns…

  13. When my dog has an accident, it’s probably of larger size than your entire dog. 🙂

  14. 1WineDude, thank you for sharing! Pictures?

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