Archive for January, 2012

Innocence and Experience

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

I just had an opportunity to buy a case of 2004 Riesling Auslese half bottles made by Helmut Donnhoff, who is considered by a great many people who know a lot to be the greatest maker of riesling in the world.  That these wines, one vintage after another, are available for the price they are is a story unto itself, having something to do with how German rieslings were once among the most expensive wines in the world and no longer are, in spite of their obvious greatness.  I am an avid buyer of these wines when I can find them, when it seems like a particular bottling represents and extraordinary value.

Very often, before I make purchases of the blind sort, which is to say when I buy wine that I’m not lucky enough to taste beforehand, I try and get a good deal of research done before I decide to buy.  Thankfully, in this day and age, the enterprise of gathering information about particular wines made by prominent producers isn’t very difficult.  There are websites which profile producers, websites which review wines, websites that provide listings of pricing across the country.  One can very often glean a lot of information in five or ten minutes.

Of course, as it’s the case with all things internet, some bits of information should be accorded more value than others—there are certain sources which I regard as especially helpful and elucidating.  One such source is the wine writer David Schildknecht, who has a long history in the wine business and who has been writing reports on German wines (among others) for Robert Parker’s website for years.  Schildknecht is certainly astute, seems to have as much integrity as anyone else currently writing wine reviews, and generally delivers me a pretty good sense of what’s happening inside bottles I haven’t ever encountered.

By now, railing against the wine journalistic practice of scoring wines is a race which has been run.  The case has been thoroughly made, especially in a wave of backlash against wine criticism in the last decade, that awarding 90 or 93 points to a wine can seem arbitrary, beside the point, somewhat grotesque to people who associate wine with romance.  Those people aren’t interested to know the score of a wine any more than they would be to know the score of a theater performance or an art exhibition.  What they would prefer, if they preferred to know anything at all, is a bit of hard information about content.

But as I read Schildknecht’s impressions of the 2004 Donnhoff Riesling Auslese from the Oberhauser Brucke vineyard, it occurs to me that the tasting note itself is something from which I would prefer to stay away.  His vocabulary is abundant, his palate keen, and his imagination fertile and far-reaching, and his tasting notes read like detailed descriptions of what it’s like to pass through the pearly gates.  None of them are markedly different from the others, so to consider as an example the note for this presently-considered 2004 Donnhoff Auslese:

“The 2004 Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Auslese A.P. #16 exudes aromas of pink grapefruit, blueberry preserves, golden delicious apple and exhibits a liqueur-like concentration and creamy texture allied to almost weightless buoyancy on the palate. Hints of white raisin and honey suggest the tiny-berried and dry-botrytis concentration of fruit achieved by means of ultra-selective picking. Subtle mineral and musky-meaty notes add to the sense of mysterious depth displayed in the long, rich, yet firm finish.”

What first comes to my mind is the debt of gratitude I owe to Schildknecht and writers like him for having convinced me, during a time in my late 20’s and early 30’s, of wine’s magnificence and its place as a treasure of the natural world.  I remember what it was like to begin reading notes like those regularly, when I was starting in the wine business, and I’m certain that collectively, they played a big part in the fascination and burgeoning love I started to feel for wine.

The more powerful reaction I have now is something more like revulsion.  Even as I copy and paste the note and re-read it as I put quotes around it, I find myself trying to avoid considering it too deeply, because of a very great aversion I feel to thinking anything about the way the wine tastes before I taste it.  What am I in it for, after all?  I don’t think of tasting and drinking wine as though it’s a kind of treasure hunt, with a roadmap and sign posts.  The only manner in which I’m interested to do it is without presumptions and expectations.

Think for a moment, because there’s some chance that this particular wine is now already diminished for you too, about what it means for a wine to have a “liqueur-like concentration.”  It’s an extraordinary notion, even if it does come from a word bin of recycled descriptors which has been visited regularly by wine reviewers for the past thirty years.  A liqueur-like concentration suggests something in the tightly-bound, alcoholic flavor of Cognac maybe?  But in this case not exactly, because the wine doesn’t have all of the alcohol of Cognac or a liqueur, so perhaps there is merely something similar about its viscosity or depth of flavor?

Now imagine that this wine is the wine being poured at the most special occasion of your life.  Your closest friends are with you, they all love to drink wine, and there’s a spread on the table of anything and everything you might like to eat with a magnificent, somewhat sweet Riesling—fresh goat’s milk cheeses, apricot cream tarts, foie gras, whatever.

Would you hope, at such an occasion, to consider the degree to which you find yourself in agreement about the liqueur-like concentration?  Would you want to know from your friends whether they too found that the wine was exuding aromas of grapefruit and blueberry preserves?  The resounding answer for me, having sat around tables at which these very sorts of conversations occurred, is no, thanks, and please point me in the direction of the nearest exit.

When I’m lucky enough to open great bottles of wine that I expect to help consume, my greatest desire is to be surprised.  My heretofore unarticulated hope, each and every time, is that I’ll look up from my glass after smelling and and tasting for thirty minutes with the dumbstruck impression that the wine is singularly spectacular.  Imagine, by contrast, looking up from the glass and saying “The wine is very good, and I’m amazed at how accurate Schildknecht’s note is—it’s all grapefruit and blueberries with a touch of golden delicious apple.”

And isn’t it true that we might not invite this sort of contemplation into any of our favorite sensory activities?  When your new sports car hits 50 mph, you’ll feel beads of sweat on the small of your back and a tingling in your thighs—be sure and stay on the lookout for them as you’re shifting into third gear.  The next time you have sex, about halfway through, you’ll have the unmistakable sense that you’re on a beach, being fanned by angels, a soft rain falling.  Just giving you a head’s up.  Keep an eye out.

It’s an observation that I offer with qualification, because I do believe that the writing has a real capacity to thrill and excite, to pique curiosity, to plant a seed for someone like me when I was on the brink of discovering the beauty of wine.  I (still) read those notes by the dozen in an attempt to gather information in order to learn about different vintages and wineries, in order to make decisions about what to buy.  I don’t know what I would do without this sort of criticism.

And yet if I could go back to the times when I felt nothing but ignorance and innocence, and awe, about wine, I would.  I often feel a twinge of envy when I’m tasting something extraordinary with someone who doesn’t have very much experience tasting, and I watch their face light up with joy and astonishment.  It’s a simple pleasure that often fades—innocence and experience can’t often co-exist—in all kinds of different realms.

I take it for granted that I don’t have the same dumbstruck feeling about love, or professional sports, that I had when I had my first crush or walked through a tunnel at Fenway Park for the first time.  For some reason, I’m less ready to relinquish the thoughtless exuberance of eating and drinking without a care in the world.