We here at The Compleat Winegeek have been the fortunate recipient of thousands upon thousands of emails over the years, some pragmatical ("What's the bottle of 1927 Volnay that I found in my grandfather's basement worth?"), some slightly more nebulous ("Is Clarksburg really the Vouvray of California?"), but all very welcome. Well, except for the two of you to whom the restraining orders apply, and YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.
At any rate, there are questions that keep coming up again and again, so often that I've kept answers saved so I can just cut-and-paste them into a quick response. Well self, says I to myself, why not address these right up front and save the loyal reader the trouble of asking?
Self, I answers back, that's a prime idea, just prime. So, here we are: The Compleat Winegeek FAQ.
Esther Izuo of Fort Worth, Texas, asks: Why are some wines really, really cheap and some wines really, really expensive? Are wines that cost a thousand dollars a bottle really a hundred times better than wines that cost ten dollars?
Short answers: Marketing. No.
Long answers: Wines that cost an arm and a leg do so for a variety of reasons, which I will enumerate shortly.
1) Track Record. Wines that have been atop the quality/price heap for a couple of centuries have a built-in cushion.
4) Hype. Many 'cult' wines appear from nowhere, are made in tiny quantities by celebrity winemakers and accompanied by critical hype in the trade magazines ("THICK AS MOTOR OIL--99 POINTS!").
An Expensive Wine: Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes. This wine, a sweet dessert wine from France's Bordeaux region, has been expensive for a long time, and track record is part of the package. Thomas Jefferson paid a premium for his bottles, so you'll pay one for yours, too. The wine is made in years where climatic conditions produce the noble rot that gives Sauternes its zing; some years they don't make any wine, selling off their juice in bulk. The grapes are hand-picked in successive passes through the vineyard, only the shriveled botrytis-affected ones being selected. They like to say that one grapevine makes one glass of wine. This wine is expensive, but expensive for a series of pretty good reasons.
A cheap wine: Clos des Briords Muscadet Vieilles Vignes. The perfect example of a wine that is out of fashion. Muscadet is lean and hard, highly crisp and utterly lacking the gobbiness that gets wines critical acclaim these days. Thus these wines can be farmed organically from 100 year old vines by an artisinal winegrower who is one of the best in his region and can still sell for $10 a bottle. This wine is cheap, but absurdly high in quality for its price.
An expensive wine: Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon. Screaming Eagle was known as the cultiest of the California cult cabernets that emerged in the early '90s, primed to remove some of the tech-bubble dollars from the pockets of eager wine-loving yuppie types. A combination of celebrity winemaker (Jean Phillips), extremely low production (something like a hundred or two hundred cases), stylistic opportunism (low acidity, gobs of big fruit and big wood), and critical raves (Richard Parker, Jr. gave the wine ONE BILLION POINTS or something like that) all added up to turn this into a must-have wine for the more-money-than-sense crowd and those who eagerly sold it to them. Sold for around a hundred bucks to a small mailing-list clientele, bottles were soon going for $1,000 or more EACH on the secondary market. This wine is expensive way beyond sanity for reasons that don't make sense for the consumer, i.e., hype, rarity, prestige. It's just not that good, but people pay the big bucks for it because it's got THE BUZZ.
A cheap wine: Lindeman's Chardonnay Bin XX. This wine is an example of the Australian wine mass-marketing machine: made in huge quantities (I don't have the numbers, but something like a million cases a year) on an industrial scale; manufactured in vast tanks and put together with the chemical precision of Gatorade. In one sense, this tends to make the wine less interesting to geeks after they've tasted it once, as there's very little variation. In another sense that kind of consistency is a positive thing for consumers who are nervous about wine and like to know what they're getting. Not really a wine I'd buy, but there's a good point behind making reasonably priced reliable wine-beverages, so if this is your thing it's certainly a good buy.
I could cite about a million more examples, but I'm tired now and have to have a drink.
Pat Moey of Wellington, New Zealand, asks: "Hey, what's the matter with you guys, don't you know how to spell 'Complete'?"
Answer: Yes, we are all very well educated and clever over here. So clever, in fact, that we simply assumed our readers would be similarly sharp enough to catch on to the hip use of the archaic spelling that dates back to Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler (1653) and is used lightheartedly to give any comprehensive guide to a subject a winking dash of faux-gravitas. (See also: The Compleat Mother, The Compleat Sculptor, The Compleat Strategist, The Compleat Surveyor, The Compleat Dildographer, etc., etc., etc.)
Now you get it, right? Right?
Marguerite Follmer of Coronado, California, asks: "What's the bottle of 1927 Volnay that I found in my grandfather's basement worth?"
Yeah, you heard me, nothing. Unless you live in castle in Scotland that wine will not have been stored properly and will most likely be vinegar. Drink it if you're curious, or give it as a gift to a winegeek friend, who might think it a fine curio, but unless we're talking First-Growth Bordeaux or some few sweet wines like Vouvray or Sauternes, single bottles of old dead wine will not put the kids through college or pay for your trip to Aruba. Take a picture of it and put it on Ebay, see if I lie.
Jeannine Chang of Praetoria, South Africa, asks: "What's up with all that stuff that you guys write about wine tasting like cat pee and dog fur and rocks and chocolate and stuff like that? How come I never taste things like that in wine? You're all just making it up, right?"
Answer: Okay, here's the problem for winegeeks: How to describe the sensations of taste so that we can have a meaningful conversation about what tastes like what?
Wine is extraordinarily complex, both aromatically and tasteistically (okay, that's not a word, but I couldn't think of a better). We all can agree that one glass of red wine won't taste like one of a different wine, the problem is how to communicate those differences in a way that at least makes a bit of sense to other geeks. The way that has evolved into geekspeak is to break the aromatics and tasties down into individual components that have a grounding in the world outside of wine. Many of us share a common understanding of what various fruits, flowers, etc. smell like; it's from this understanding that a common language of tasting is extrapolated. The UC Davis Tasting Wheel is an attempt to codify this somewhat rigidly; many geeks prefer a less contstraining structure in which to operate when they take and write tasting notes.
It's quite a challenge, really. Try it with something else, even something very familiar, and you'll see. We all know what corn tastes like, try describing what "corn" tastes like to someone who is unfamiliar. What you usually start with is "Well... uh... it's yellow... and, er, ah... it tastes like CORN, damnit." Or milk, or strawberries, or whatever. Well, wine is fortunately far more complex than just about other food or beverage, so there's a lot of room to roam.
I'll say it again: the language is not necessarily literal--it's a system to communicate sensory experiences for which we don't ordinarily have language. After awhile you begin to absorb it without thinking about it. So, if someone refers to a New Zealand sauvignon blanc that "reeks of green chiles and litterbox" I can call up a sense memory of many wines to which those (rather classic, for NZ sauvignon) descriptors apply, and so I have an actual idea of what the wine tastes like. Or I think I do, providing the descriptor is an accurate one.
Karen Fukuda of Bisbee, Arizona, asks: "What's a 'Jeebus'?"
Answer: Please see The Glossary for a complete rundown of geek terminology.
Kathy Edwards of Portland, Maine, asks: How come, whenever I read about some fantastic new wine on your website and print out the name for my local retailer, he looks at me as if I were speaking Aramaic? I mean, do ANY of these wines exist outside of New York City?
Answer: Yeah I know, I'm sorry. I happen to like a bunch of tiny-production wines that Dressner and similar oddballs weasel out of farmers in the backcountry of France, so sue me. Look, I've got notes on about 3,000 wines, surely something speaks to you besides the weird Loire stuff, right?
Anne Capron of The Hague, Netherlands, asks: I keep reading about this 'Vanessa Treviño-Boyd, Star Chick Sommelier.' Is this a real person, or a figment of your fevered imagination? Do they really let chicks be sommeliers these days?
Answer: Ms. Treviño-Boyd, Star Chick Sommelier, is a real person, not an invention. In fact, all of the characters that I write about are real people, believe it or not, with the exception of "Brad Kane," who is a composite of several local figures.
And yes, chicks can be sommeliers. It's a brave new world we live in, get used to it.
Here at compleatwinegeek.com we pride ourselves on our responsiveness to our readers' concerns: we consider our relationship to be a two-way street, and are therefore always happy to be able to address a problem that a reader might be having with our content providers.
For example, here is a recent note from David Matzdorf of London, England:
"I greatly enjoyed reading your highly distinctive tasting notes, but two little points drove me consistently crazy:
1. 'Limpid' does not mean 'limp' or 'flaccid'. It is not a criticism of a wine to call it 'limpid'. 'Limpid' means 'clear or transparent', alternatively 'calm and peaceful'. Used in relation to wine, 'limpid' would describe, for instance, a white wine with a particularly pure and gleaming colour. The word is often used to describe a writer's style that has a special clarity and is particularly precise and unfussy, e.g. Bruce Chatwin or Ian McEwan.
2. Can you see if you can get through 3 consecutive notes without using the word 'piehole'? Or 'cakehole', for that matter. I know 'bouquet' and 'palate' combine the oxidised tiredness of overuse with the acetic overtone of pretentiousness, but 'piehole' is several orders of magnitude too chummy to use more than once a year. It's a bit like being slapped hard on the back every 3 minutes by someone who thinks he's being a real card.
You obviously enjoy writing with style, so I reckon you'll want to get your style right.
David Matzdorf (pedant from London)
Reaction to this letter went almost all the way to the top; here is our COO's quick and (hopefully) helpful response:
Dear Mr. Matzdorf-Pedant,
Thank you very much for your kind words and enlightening commentary. Needless to say, as soon as I read your letter I raced to my nearest dictionary, and by god if you aren't absolutely right--it seems I have been blithely misusing the word 'limpid' for years now!
Rest assured that I'm going to have to have a very stern discussion with my editor and several of my support staff this very evening; such malwrongage of the English language shall not continue, at least not on my watch.
I'm afraid your second point is slightly more enervating; as the result of my particular short-form format, my public has come to expect at least two, if not more, uses of the word 'piehole' in each batch of notes contained within one piece. To do less would leave many with a sense of not getting their figurative money's worth out of my little divertimenti.
Furthermore, were you to meet me in person you would find that I am indeed the kind of fellow who would be overenergetically slapping you on the back every few minutes, yet I would do it with (and here's the salutary point) a winking sense of irony at the absurdity of such hale-and-hearty-well-met-fellow behavior. This, I'm afraid, is my modus operandi, and I am no more able to change it than a leopard can change his stripes. My partners refer to it as a 'Joke Reflex' and often threaten me with physical violence if I don't immediately desist; so far they have had no success. So you see, I am more to be pitied than corrected. I ask your understanding in this matter.
Nevertheless, I would be happy to consider suggestions on less grating replacements for what you correctly note are the pretentious and already overused words 'bouquet' and 'palate.' Please feel free to submit any that you consider to have the right combination of entertainment and functionality, I'm afraid my own well of inspiration has run dry on this matter, as I'm sure is readily apparent.
Thanks again for your interest in compleatwinegeek.com. It's readers like you that keep us honest.
Okay, now I'm really tired and in need of Savennières or some other libation. Hold the questions for later, I'll be back in a few weeks...