“I don’t like this wine.” “Oh, good!”
I put on wine tastings and events in and around Columbus, sometimes four or five per week. The above exchange happens all the time, often to the bewilderment of my wine tasters. Let me explain. People come to wine tastings for different reasons: some people come to learn about wine; some people come to talk about wine; and some people come because it’s often the least expensive way to drink. There isn’t a “right” reason to drink wine in the same way there isn’t a “right” reason to enjoy food.
Wine is not a math problem.
There’s no right answer. We may drink the same wine, but we each bring to it different experiences, different histories. If I pour you a wine from a place you’ve visited, I guarantee it’ll remind you of experiences you had while you were there. You’d probably tell me about the time you got a flat tire in Sicily, or spent a semester in Santiago, or flirted with a man in Sydney—and that’s good. Wine is inextricable from a particular place and time and culture and cuisine.
Get rid of the expert.
At my tastings, I advocate and cheer for the wines I think are interesting or delicious or stretch your imagination about what wine can be. I can tell you a story about the family who made the wine and what makes them different, or the struggles they went through to run their vineyard. Or the history of the town the wine you’re drinking is from, and how it was founded and by whom. I can tell you the pH, titratable acidity, residual sugar, and number of months it spent in new French barriques, if you want. I can tell you about the soil science to grow grapevines, the economics of trade that influence which wines have risen to prominence and why, or the psychology of human sensation and principles of organoleptics. But I’m not here to tell you what to do. I’m not here to shame you about how to swirl your wine or to snottily correct your pronunciation of Pouilly-Fuissé. I don’t care if you enjoy wine that isn’t my favorite because wine isn’t about judgment of others. I’m not right because when it comes to wine, there is no right. If you can drink liquid, you can drink wine properly. There is a dangerous culture of “advice” around wine, playing on people’s fears that they aren’t cultured enough to drink wine—that it’s for “fancy” people. I consider this harmful, predatory, wrongheaded, and divisive. And I argue against it whenever I can.
There is no score.
You can’t win at drinking wine, because it’s not a competition. You’re not a better person for liking Bordeaux, and you’re not a worse person for enjoying Riesling. Having met a winemaker or bought a 1947 Cheval-Blanc is fine, but so what? I’m most impressed by people who want to share experiences they find delightful or amazing, because they want others to feel the same wonder they do. The people who open their Dienhard Forster Ungeheuer and invite people around to try it with them bring people together. Wine knowledge and experience can be used as a cudgel to beat down those around them, or like a ladder to help lift them up and try new things. My tastings are designed with the hope of breaking down barriers in small ways by being inclusive and conversational, rather than pretentious and dictatorial.
But isn’t some wine better than others?
I get asked this routinely, to which I respond: better for what? A simple wine with Tuesday’s dinner doesn’t need to be earth-shattering. Wine can be grocery, not luxury. Of course, there can be great wines in the same way that there can be great films: pieces of art that require careful consideration that prompt conversation—beautiful things made with great care and attention by masters to be shared. And there can be mediocre wines like there can be popular summer blockbusters: silly, fun, frivolous things to enjoy as a way to pass the time. The point is, both are necessary. Sometimes you want to watch Citizen Kane and be transported; sometimes you want to watch a rom-com and turn your brain off after a hard day. Both are important and serve different functions. So for anyone to claim that only one or the other category is worthy of attention seems incomplete at best, and disingenuous at worst. There’s a time, place, and price for every single wine.
If you only try things you know you already like, you’ll never find a thing you like more.
When I pour a wine for someone and they don’t like it, I learn a number of things. Obviously, they aren’t wrong—they really don’t like it. At every tasting, the wine someone hates the most will always be someone else’s favorite because, thankfully, no one thing is universally enjoyed. If I ran my tastings like a democracy and only poured the wines people loved the most, my tastings would look eerily bland. We’re in America, and most wine drinkers here have grown up with an American palate for wine. I’d be pouring nothing but lowest common denominator Californian reds, and tragically no one would ever find out they love Vinho Verde or dry Rosés or Priorat. If you only try things you know you already like, you’ll never find a thing you like more. And try not to let one bad experience cloud your judgment! When people tell me they don’t like Merlot, it sounds like they’re saying they don’t like Canadians. Let’s maybe not overgeneralize and miss out on Catherine O’Hara and Leonard Cohen because you met one jerk from Canada. All of this is to say that knowing what you don’t like tells you as much as knowing what you do like. Having preferences is a good thing in part because it means you’re thinking. What’s even better is understanding why you have those preferences to begin with, and that’s why tastings can be so fun and useful. Trying a large number of wines and having a conversation with someone who can parse your likes and dislikes can help you discover why you prefer some things over others. Is it the grape, the town it’s from, the winemaker, the style, the acidity, the tannin, the sugar, the yeast, the blend, the sulfites, the food you just ate? Understanding your preferences enables you to make informed decisions in the future, rather than just randomly picking something familiar and hoping for the best. Let’s figure them out together so the next time you try something you don’t like, you can think, “Oh, good!”
Landon Proctor, an original contributor to (614) Magazine, is now pouring himself into making wine more accessible for all. Follow his events at columbus10for10.com or columbuswineshow.com.