For some reason, I hear this a lot: “I don’t know anything about wine.” This is a silly thing to say. Frankly, there is nothing to know. People may try to convince you that wine is somehow like skilled labor or a subject in school, two categories full of things to know, but wine is not like that. You can learn about how wine is made, about the regions and the traditions, but none of this is necessary when actually using wine. I don’t know anything about how books are printed and bound, but this does not keep me from reading. You see? The doing has nothing necessarily to do with the knowing.
THAT BEING SAID: the wine world does present its mysteries, and people are crying out for answers. Yes, you are aware of this; you have wondered why wine glasses are on stems, why bottles are 750 milliliters, why and how people save their corks and then mount them into an actual corkboard.
AND SO: I will attempt below to answer some of the questions sent to me in my role as a wine adventure writer.
AND REMEMBER: If you have a question about wine or wine culture that your friends and colleagues simply cannot answer, send it here. I will be answering more reader questions in future columns.
This question isn’t so much about wine as it is about wine barrels.
Why do wine barrels bulge in the middle? Wouldn’t it be easier if they were just shaped like cylinders? Like Coke cans? Just curious.
There are many reasons for wine barrels to bulge, not the least important of which is so that those hilarious destitute and mustachioed 19th-century folk can attach leather shoulder straps and slip them on like dresses. I mean: those 19th-century guys weren’t shaped like Coke cans, so why should their barrels be?
BUT ALSO: I read that shaping them that way made them easier to roll across cellars, turn, and generally move in nonstraight lines, which, if you are drunk, is vital.
Reading your most recent dispatch of STAINED TEETH, I was reminded of why I tend to shy away from expensive wines: the thrill of owning/drinking expensive wines, however much there may be, is tempered by my expectations of how much I’ll like it.
Discovering a cheap bastard of a wine that rocks, though, IS a thrill. I’ve tried a number of inexpensive (read: under $10) bottles of South African wines that have blown me away. Ditto for some of the Australian wines before they got popular. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps me going back to the wine store.
My question for you (at long last) is this: what truly inexpensive wines have you tried that you think surpass expensive wines?
And, yes, boxed/jug wines are fair game.
Dear Erik R:
Finding good, cheap wine is not thrilling. You want to talk thrills? Discovering a new dinosaur and naming it after your daughter—that’s thrilling. Publishing a paper on inertial homeothermostasis in larger dinosaurs, a paper that absolutely stuffs the theories of your mentor back into his face, and then giving that paper in front of 45 absolutely riveted audience members at the annual meeting of the Dinosaur Experts Club, and having Dr. Yohata congratulate you on that talk? After something like that, I’m afraid finding a bottle of $8.99 Bonny Doon Big House Red just doesn’t make it on the thrill train.
OH, AND: any wine that costs $4 a bottle or the equivalent.
As a very novice wine lover, I always feel awkward when I order a bottle at a restaurant and then have to taste it. Do I sniff? How much nose is too much nose? Do I swirl? Do I just drink, or is that unrefined? I always feel silly no matter what!
This is for real, and it is important. We will get to the slurping-and-swirling nonsense in a minute, but first we must deal with this: Never, ever send the wine back. This is Jackass Behavior No. 1. If you send back the wine, you are guaranteed to be the butt of wait-staff jokes. You ordered the stupid wine; you don’t get to decide if you like it and then send it back. Imagine if you got to do that with everything in your life? You’d be a complete asshole! You made a decision—be an adult and live with it!
NOW: What the server actually wants to know when he or she pours you that little bit of wine is if that wine has gone bad. This happens to wine sometimes—especially older wine—and if it has actually gone bad (which is to say, if it tastes like your basement, especially if your basement is the locker room for a high-school boys’ football team), then you get to send it back. Be charming about it—tell them you are not sure, you hate to be “that guy,” but the wine may be corked. Totally cool. But if you decide you don’t like it? Too bad. In fact, you’re probably lying about the whole thing, anyway, saying you don’t like it and sending it back to impress somebody, which, if said person is impressed by something like that, dear God. However, you were the jackass who sent it back in the first place, so maybe you guys are perfect for each other. I don’t know. Have a great annoying life
BUT, LEAH: here is what you do, seriously: Swirl it in a small motion, as if you were ringing a little bell. You can smell it, but, if you do, own that shit. Don’t do it because you think you should. If you don’t know why you are doing it, don’t do it. Nobody will think less of you. But again: the reason you are smelling it is to assess whether it smells like a boys’ locker room. That’s it. Same with the tasting. “Does it taste like the sock that a fat man used to wipe off his belly sweat? No? Great, go ahead and pour it.”
OH, AND: Jackass Behavior No. 2: smelling the cork. Don’t do it. It will tell you nothing, unless you happen to live in 1890s Britain, a time when less-savory winemakers would fill up empty, expensive wine bottles with their own rotgut wine and recork those bottles with corks that didn’t match the labels on the bottles. If this is you and the cork does not match the label, you know you are the victim of some wine trickery. BUT: if this is you, which is to say you do happen to live in 1890s Britain, then corks not matching their labels is not your biggest problem. The fact that you can send e-mail and not tell anyone about it is probably a lot more weird.
I am a “beer person.” I sample and savor beers like most people sample and savor wines. For the past year or so, I have begun to do the same with wines. I share your apparent aversion to “wine people” and wish to avoid becoming one of them. My question is how do I go about broadening my knowledge and enjoyment of wine without becoming a “wine person”?
You become a drunk. Nobody ever accuses the local drunk of being a wine snob. Of course, you gotta give up to get: the drunk route will require you to lose your job and grow a gnarly beard. So, really, Don, the question is this: How bad do you want it?
I suppose there is another route for you, and that is filling up empty Belgian and Anderson Valley beer bottles with wine. Then you can savor away like the ol’ crazy Don that everyone knows and loves. They’ll be none the wiser, Don. It will be our little secret.
BUT SERIOUSLY: I don’t know. Wine is annoying.
While my girlfriend is not wine-allergic, one would think so based on her absolute inability to enjoy any kind of wine. I’ve tried the gateway wines of sweet rieslings and white merlot … all to no avail. Is there any hope for her, or am I going to have to find a woman to have a wine affair with? If so, can you help me find one?
Erik in NC
PS: I prefer redheads.
Dear Erik in NC:
I know you prefer redheads! Buddy, it’s me! Old Matty Matt! I’m the guy who was dating Fran before you! The one who called and left sobbing messages on your machine! You remember! And though I should have done this years ago, now is as good a time as any, I suppose, to apologize about the Drano.
NOW: As for your current predicament: getting her to like wine has nothing to do with how wine tastes. Wine tastes weird and tangy and removes all the moisture from your mouth—all of us are aware of that. You got to lateral-think that shit and take her to some old French winemaker’s cellar, the same cellar that his family has been making wine in for generations. Take her there, drink wine straight from the barrel, and tell her whatever you’ve been meaning to tell her. If she doesn’t get it after that? She is probably from the future and is more machine than woman by now, and if you try to have a wine affair with someone else, she will simply remove her skin and open up her torso to reveal a microprocessor so advanced that your brain will melt in beautiful incomprehension.