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There are no great wines, just great bottles



When Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardio hears “Bennie and the Jets”, something comes over him.

“I’ve always associated the song with abundant sunlight and clean-house smells and security,” he told the Wall Street Journal, explaining that when he was a little boy, his mother would clean their house “with the Elton John single playing.”

Now, I love “Bennie and the Jets” as much as anyone, but when I hear it I don’t smell Pine Sol and see sunlight streaming through Venetian blinds. Nor would my mother (who was not much of a house cleaner) have listened to Elton John under any circumstances. (Guy Lombardo was more to her taste.) But I take Gregory Pardio’s point that “Bennie” appeals to him on some highly personal level that ultimately is impossible to explain, even to himself. As he puts it, he adores the song “[e]ven if [I] don’t know the words or what they mean.”

We all have “our songs,” I suppose. Or, to put it another way, we all have songs that strike a particular resonance with us, for reasons that usually occur on an unconscious or subconscious level involving memory, emotion, nostalgia. And I think it’s the same with wine. It’s a cliché to point out how travelers to some little Ligurian town discovered the best wine they’d ever had in a trattoria as the sun set over the sea. Would anyone else like that wine quite as much? Probably not. Same with “Bennie and the Jets” for Gregory. His fond memories of his mother and his childhood wonder set him up for that song to impact him every time he hears it.

What about a “great” wine, like a Grand Cru Burgundy, a First Growth Bordeaux or a cult Napa Cabernet? Do they have some kind of objective greatness that makes them instantly revered by anyone with any sort of understanding of wine? I don’t think so. Most people, even wine lovers with considerable experience, wouldn’t swoon over them if they tried the wine blind, with no context whatsoever. There might be a few people who “got it,” who even when tasting the wine blind experienced something so soulful that they had to stop everything and just experience the reverie. But I don’t think most people would.

There are rock songs that the majority of critics put on their top ten lists. Most reviewers would include Stairway to Heaven, for example. For me, Brown Sugar always does it, but then so does Pink’s You + Your Hand, or Superstition by Stevie Wonder, or almost anything early Beatles, for that matter. I’d be hard pressed to prefer one over the other and would hate to have to declare which is the best.

This is why I say that there are no great wines, just great bottles. Each bottle means something different to each of us, when we sip it. It may mean different things on different occasions. This is why so many wine aficienados say that, while they can appreciate an expensive, critically-acclaimed wine, they’d really prefer to drink something else (cost aside), that means more to them. They want, in other words, a “Bennie and the Jets” wine.

I’ve been in the business of declaring one wine to be greater than another for many years. I still basically stick to that concept. Whenever I have a tasting of wines, one of them always sticks out above all the others. At the same time, I can’t help but be influenced by the amazing revolution I’ve been privileged to be part of, wherein several new generations have arisen that question the pronouncements of “experts,” and share their views over social media. For me, the Big Question going forward isn’t whether or not we’ll still have a handful of “Great Wines” dominating the landscape, but if they’ll be the same “Great Wines” that have dominated it in the past. With everyone having his or her own “Bennie and the Jets” wine, I wonder if we’ll have room for “Great Wines” at all.

  1. Agree that context is hugely important and that most of us have a handful of wines we buy over and over triggered by one event… a long time ago. But if you look at that as a % of what we drink, it’s a rounding error. I wonder if the winery/winemaker relationship is even stronger. For instance, whenever you wrote about Bob Cabral, your reverence was very apparent and, as a reader, I knew that he could ferment cat poop and you’d still give it 95 points. Sure you may have a favorite wine, but without the winemaker part of that, it just doesn’t seem like it would mean that much to you.

  2. People like you, Steve, and I would add myself to that list of people like you with long wine experience, do develop certain “standards” of greatness that transcend names or winemakers or context.

    One example: I was touring a wine region in Europe with which I had passing familiarity, and every day our group of writers would visit three or four wineries and taste up to a dozen wines. Of those several hundred wines we tasted, there were many very good wines, but only one wine that struck me as “great”. It was not context or any other exogenous factor that made the wine “great”. It was the wine.

    And while the wine may have been “Stairway to Heaven” for me, it might have only been verbal plonk to someone else. But, rather than proving your point, the fact is that the half dozen qualified, experienced observers all agreed that it was “the wine of the trip”. It may not have been absolute just as Bohemian Rhapsody may be the be all and end all for someone rather than Bennie or Stairway, but when enough people agree on greatness, there is greatness.

    And it is not less random in wine, I would argue, than it is in music.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    “I’ve been in the business of declaring one wine to be greater than another for many years. I still basically stick to that concept. Whenever I have a tasting of wines, one of them always sticks out above all the others. . . .”

    Philosophically, I would make one editing change to the above statement: declaring one wine to be “personally preferred over” another.

    As Robert Lawrence Balzer taught us students in his wine appreciation course (invoking a Louis M. Martini “truth”):

    “We like best that to which we become accustomed.”

    (Quoted here by Dan Berger:

  4. Bob Henry says:

    It used to be that James Laube would project the “drinking window” of top-rated California Cabernet Sauvignons some twenty to thirty years out.

    Today, not so much.

    A tacit concession that contemporary California Cabs don’t age like they used to, dating back to the pre-phylloxeria replanting era of Napa and Sonoma?

    From the latest “Wine Spectator Insider”:

    Screaming Eagle
    Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2012
    97 points | $850 | 820 cases made | Red

    A seamless, graceful, ebullient effort that’s pure, even exotic, with
    dusty blackberry and wild berry flavors at the center. While the
    fruit is broad and expressive, overall this is amazingly refined, supple
    and persistent. Tempting now for the expansive fruit definition,
    this should only gain over THE NEXT DECADE. Drink now through
    2029. From California. — James Laube

    [So the wine improves (“gains”) between now and 2024 or 2025 — “the next decade” — then hits a plateau or gently declines through 2029? — Bob]

  5. Or maybe the necrotic pleasure of tired old wines wanes with age. I know it has for me.

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