Embrace the Unknown

(Originally published October 2002)

One of the potential pitfalls of learning about wine is that one's newly acquired warehouse of knowledge, even as it continues to grow in depth, stops growing in breadth. That is, if a few years of serious exploration finds one developing a love for, say, red Bordeaux or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc it's easy to focus on tasting all of the various wineries producing a certain type of wine while also delving into different vintages to explore the contrasts this angle provides. Certainly there is enough wine out there in any narrower regional or varietal band to keep even the healthiest of imbibers occupied indefinitely.

Yet, conversely, one of the joys of wine is the sense it often provides of spontaneously jumping on a plane and jetting off to some far-flung, unknown locale -- while old favorites may continue to satisfy and inspire, it is a good rule to remember that no matter how much one knows, how many recorded faves one already has, one should never abandon the reinvigoration one gets from the "new." On the surface, this lesson may seem fairly obvious but it needs to be driven home periodically. But fear not, for Hanes is behind the wheel.

A recent anecdote. Hanes knows he likes many of the wines from Chablis and the Rhône. He also made a pledge this year to finally get around to trying an Uruguayan wine. This past month the opportunity finally arrived. He located some at a store where a friend works and this friend, when discovering the wines were actually not in stock, was able to secure a bunch of free samples from the distributor (thanks Liz!). Hanes was about to go from zero Uruguayan wines experienced to six in one night! A bunch of us curious wine hounds gathered to taste the wines, the corks were popped, the glasses primed, and... the wines stunk. They were really pedestrian, if not in some cases much worse. Quite disappointing to all involved.

Now, Hanes possessed during the evening in question a nice backlog of Chablis and Rhône wines to drink (and even has many laying about as this is typed). Should he have gone with the known quantity and popped one of these fine wines, letting the Uruguayan itch go unscratched a little longer? If so, when should he have scratched? The point is that no one could have definitively predicted how these Uruguayan wines were going to taste. But the even larger point is that the immediate, comfortable pleasure that would have come from drinking another satisfactory Côtes-du-Rhône should never entirely replace the excitement of discovery and delving into the unknown. Whether the result be good, bad or indifferent, a well-balanced drinking life should sometimes stare into the abyss.

Taking this lesson to heart, Hanes a mere week later acquired a few more bottles of Uruguayan wine from another store. Would these wines too send alligators running for cover in New York City's sewage system as 3/4 of these bottles were poured down the drain? Or would they prove the first encounter a tragic first misstep? That was the challenge! As is usually the case, once the initial fervor of the moment wore off the results were more prosaic. The second batch of wines were certainly nicer and more acceptable, if in the end unimaginative, examples of their varietals. But, hey, at least they were all under $10 per bottle!

Hanes was pleased by the second result and while he is not burning up the phone lines looking for even more Uruguayan wines he is more than willing to take a flyer on any he randomly comes across. It's little things like these that help keep a passion fresh and prevent burn-out (except for the occasional burningly acidic finish from undrinkable swill).

Lest one get the wrong impression that all such "experiments" create Frankenstein monsters, another example. In the past Hanes has had a small smattering of an Italian white wine from Campania called "Greco di Tufo" (Greco being the grape, Tufo the sub-region). He has always liked the ones he has had but buying more never rose that high on his priority list. This past month he swallowed his pride and bared his soul and bought a couple of bottles. And both were highly pleasing. While they were not exactly cheap, retailing for $18 or so, they made a convincing case for future purchases, even if they preclude the purchase of wines previously more preferred. And the one bottle Hanes shared with others made friends and influenced people, making him look even more awe-inspiringly knowledgeable than before (as if that were possible).

It is humbling to remember that every wine you now lovingly drink as if it were mother's milk was once an experiment. For every time you found out through experience you don't care for most Australian Shiraz you discovered a zeal for the wines of Vouvray. But you knew squat about both before drinking a bunch of them. Keeping this in mind, it is not only a good move to take chances with unknown wines but to from time to time revisit wines you had previously decided did not suit your tastes. Who knows, you may end up a Viognier lover after all.

So, even if you do not purchase wine as frequently as Hanes, it is a good policy to go to a quality local wine store once every month or two and fill your cart with unknown bottles at a price point at which you are comfortable experimenting. Try a Blaufränkisch, Albariño or Teroldego! Tonight, why not pop open some Fiano, Chasselas, Müller-Thurgau or Sagrantino? Can't kill you, right? (Look, don't send Hanes your Uncle Mort's autopsy results, OK?) It's not just a way of drinking, it's a way of life. Follow this sage advice and next thing you know you'll be bungee jumping, finally taking that pottery class or moving to Tahiti like Paul Guiguin...