Have you ever had a great bottle of wine? What does that even mean, “great” bottle of wine?
When I first started drinking wine, I was 21 and a server. After a busy night, we’d close up and reassemble at this armpit of a bar just down the road. We were all too young and too inexperienced to have anything resembling “refined” when it came to our palettes. But we knew we liked wine, and after a night of serving it to table after table, it didn’t matter how “good” it was. The staging necessary for us to enjoy our own bottle of wine—being done for the night, feet up on a booth, serving on no one but each other, pool being played in the background, conversation rife with dirty jokes, shop talk decompression and even sparkling with our own plans for the future—made those bottles of wine better than good. It made them great.
Years later, bottles later, tables later, we couldn’t help but develop palettes. It’s the inevitable conclusion to growing up together in an environment where you’re paid to memorize descriptions and risk being challenged by those whom you’re serving. Through humiliation, greed, skepticism, success, epiphany even, you change. As a community, you all retreat into the night, into the armpit as well as the swank of wine dens. If you’re a server who has anything to do with wine, your shoptalk includes talk about wine and the experiences of serving it. I don’t mean to romanticize, but it is romantic.
This is the exception. Most folks don’t grow up near vineyards. Most folks don’t grow up in households where the parents not only let you sip the wine but teach you about it. Most folks don’t ever serve, and if they do and even if this involves serving wine, most don’t have this experience. It’s not guaranteed. This is all obvious.
Just as obvious, however, is that a wine catapults into that lofty designation of great when it involves thoughtful consumption amidst thoughtful company. That’s all. If you have to serve your way into this place, fine. If you have a natural curiosity about wine and pay attention to what’s happening in the glass as well as fortifying your curiosity with a little research, fine. But then there’s the vector of community, of checking your own woefully subjective senses to that of your peers.
Terroir is one of those words that can’t be translated into English. If it’s not familiar to you, it should be. It has everything to do with the ambient around wine. Strictly speaking, it involves the literal growing conditions around a wine impacting what it will smell and taste like. From sap carried on the winds that eventually makes its way to the grape skins to calcium in the soil to fog at night and sun during the day—these things are the wine’s terroir and are often mentioned when discussing the greatness of a wine. But what of the terroir after it’s poured into a glass? When it comes to why this all matters, do we not make up our own terrior?
We mince words when we’re having careful conversation. “Great” denotes something being exceptional in a good way. It means superior, but that word always seems snobby to me. Perhaps it’s my own issues of shame-based-Stuart-Smalley-esque issues that make me uncomfortable with that word. But great? I have no problem with great. It’s a good thing to be great. No. It’s better. It’s great.
When it comes to wine, the convergence of these two words—terroir and great—happen with things that are in need of community. James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds is a book that impressed upon me the importance of community in terms of helping me with what can be most subjective: my very senses. Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist allowed me to read about just how subjective I am. But in the end, it was all these conversations, all these after-hours wine experiences in my formative years that allowed me to really be able to understand the difference between good and great wine.
Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to celebrate something great with a great bottle of wine I’ve been saving for almost ten years: a 2001 Bruno Rocca Barbaresco. It was such a rare event, I thought I had to share. It also got me thinking about how rare it is that I am around great wine. I’m no longer around expensive wines on a regular basis. But more to the point, I’m not around great wines anymore. I no longer can call it as a part of my job to make sure I know every nook and cranny of a wine that I can evoke the wine with nothing but words. It was an epiphany for me, for it made me realize that I’ve been a little bit lazy with my consumption, with good wines but not great wines. And why not great? Because I didn’t treat them as such.
I Googled the wine, I got out my camera, I planned a meal including marbled ribeyes and different variations of cacao in the chocolates, I made room for breathing time, I paid attention to how it opened up and went from painfully dry to hypnotized-by-olives subdued to “Holy shit, one sip lasts for almost 60 seconds!”, I noted the meniscus denoting the aging, the orangish-bronze indicative of Nebbiolo, the bouquet of tar and roses and dried fruits and dusty cellar, I snapped pictures, I even poured the wine in different glasses. But more than all of that, I chatted the wine up to the most crucial part of the ambient, of the terroir, my drinking buddy, my person.
As someone selling wine, the community is forced upon you. But when drinking for pleasure, if you’re not careful, it’s too easy to let this part of the experience ebb. The caution or adage linking drinking alone being bad for you has to do with alcoholism. But it also has much to do with the difference between good and great.