In the serious wine world–the world of collectors, writers, importers and more-than-casual enthusiasts–there are essentially two camps.
First, there are those who consider wine to be eminently know-able; that 100 point wines do exist and that the purpose of tasting and appreciating wine is to seek out those aspects and characteristics that move a wine toward that achievable perfection. There are traits that make a wine perfect and all wines achieve and fail at these aspects to some degree. This is the philosophy of most major wine publications.
Second, there are those who view the wine world as inherently unknowable; that not just every wine is different but that every sip of wine is different. By increasing the diversity of wines that are tasted, you move closer toward a Platonic understanding of the Truth of Wine that is asymptotically unachievable.
I fall into the second camp, although I believe both have their merits and I will not say that my philosophy is a better one for wine appreciation. It is a more challenging one, though.
Without the security of knowing there is a perfect wine out there, merely knowing that there may one day be a perfect wine, it is more difficult to find motivation for the pursuit. It’s sort of a Christianity versus Judaism sort of thing: has your Messiah already come or are you still hoping for Next Year in Jerusalem?
It takes an inherent curiosity and motivation that is not achievement-oriented; pursuing wine for its own sake, not for the end of passing judgment.
But in the relentless pursuit of new wines and new taste experiences, I do neglect myself the opportunity for in-depth exploration of wine. Perhaps if I sat down with a few bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and tried to suss out the leather, tobacco, stewed meats, brambles and cedar, compared their intensities, and levied judgment, I’d become a more astute taster. But doing that is so counter to my nature that I’d be unable to keep a straight face. Perhaps it’s a flaw. Maybe some would call it laziness, but I prefer to embrace the void and pursue unknowability.
I have a neighbor who is always well-stocked with two lions of California wine: the Kistler “Les Noisetiers” Chardonnay and the Pahlmeyer Cabernet-based “Proprietary Red Blend.” I found the Kistler to be insipidly bad–flabby and uneven, tasting mostly like manipulation. The Pahlmeyer was a more interesting endeavor and I made a good faith effort to explore its qualities and see, perhaps, what I might be missing–what it is that earns this wine a score of 95 in Wine Spectator and the ability to fetch $100+ on the retail shelves. Besides the obvious fact that it scored 95 in Wine Spectator.
It is fairly textbook Cabernet. It’s well-made, with good balance and not as concentrated or ripe as I was expecting. I would call it Perfectly Fine Wine, rich in comprehensibility and sparse in madness. It was one of the most know-able wines I’ve ever tasted–simple and unchallenging.
Just as the skinny blonde women with bolted-on fake breasts on the pages of Playboy are the utmost in titillation to eager adolescent eyes, the Pahlmeyer was round and appealing and, if it weren’t for the fact that my palate has gone through the tasting equivalent of a seven-year long pan-ethnic gangbang with participants of every shape and size, perhaps it would still have been arousing.
But it wasn’t. It was boring. But just as some men’s tastes in women begin and end with that model-blonde specificity, so too do their tastes in wine. Though to be fair both she and a bottle of Pahlmeyer are pleasant for one night.
And that’s fine, it’s just not for me. I find no appeal in checking achievements off a list: BMW, zero property line house in Woodland Hills, Botox-ed wife, 2.5 kids, annual consumption of Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines. I’m sure that works for many people and maybe one day I’ll go to law school and give bottles of Caymus as holiday gifts every year, but probably not.
I’ll take the madness of one line of Blake over all of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
So let’s give thanks to incomprehensibility, the Void, and the empty vessels that are our tasting palates. May they be filled with flavors, good and bad, from across time and space.