Painting With Broad Strokes

(Originally published July 2009)

Nothing new under the sun. So, as usual, Hanes sticks his nose where he knows it doesn’t belong. And it’s a big nose. He must have been drunked to get trapped in a wine-related discussion online where he knows he is an outlier (at best). Anyway, the best part of having an old fashioned “website” versus a “blog” or “discussion board” is that the owner of the website always gets the final word! Totally sweet!

The topic was, and is, the general merit and utility of asserting vintage generalizations. Here’s the Hanes Take™. Utilizing vintage generalizations has limits but in many instances also presents necessary help due to a variety of factors. Just to define terms, a vintage generalization is like saying “2002 sucked in the Rhône Valley” or “2000 is a fantastic year for Bordeaux.” It is shorthand to convey a general sentiment and (Hanes thinks) you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would defend a vintage generalization in its entirety. To do so would mean believing that 100%, without exception, of 2000 Bordeaux rouge wines were of superior quality. No one believes this. Many are great but there’s some that suck too. So, let’s dispense with any counter-argument that might paint Hanes as taking such an extreme position. Thank you.

It may be fruitful to approach the topic through the needs of both the beginner and the seasoned veteran imbiber. Vintage generalizations tend to serve different purposes depending on where one is on the spectrum of learning about wine.

For the beginner it is a way of framing all the different grapes and regions and such into some kind of coherent form. Pinot Noir is Pinot Noir (albeit there are many varied clones, let’s not go there). Pinot Noir is very cranky and typically only thrives under ideal conditions. Ahh, but what is ideal? Well, there is ideal for the grape per se insofar as this can be asserted for novice learning needs. Then there are the ideal conditions for each region, e.g., Burgundy, Santa Barbara County, Willamette Valley, Alto Adige, etc. Then further there are ideal conditions for smaller regions, micro-climates or vineyards. What makes for a great wine in Pommard may not 100% make for a great wine in Chambolle-Musigny.

But this comes later. Attempt trying to explain the different needs of Pinot Noir in Pommard versus Chambolle-Musigny to someone who only knows they like Pinot Noir better than Zinfandel is using an elephant gun to shoot a fly. It is inappropriate to the circumstances. As a result, you have to back off and ratchet down the explanations to more general, digestible form. You might be able to get away with breaking it down on a Willamette Valley versus Burgundy level, but even that is for someone with at least a passing knowledge of the topic. More often, you will have to explain a little about the general characteristics of the Pinot Noir grape and then assert that, based on these characteristics, 2005 is a stellar year for Burgundy rouge. This will make the sale. Not talking over the head of the customer or your idiot friend who just doesn’t get it.

Part of wine education is explaining that not all vintages are the same, wine is not a product like a can of Pepsi. Now, that statement can, and did, trail off to a whole other topic in the original discussion. That is, naturally winemakers try to produce the best wines they can in every vintage, regardless of good or bad weather, age of the vines, insect infestations, powdery mildew, etc. That is, after all, their job. The only dissension revolves around whether a winemaker should or does let “the grapes speak” about their differing experiences during 2001 and 2002 or rather should continually aim at a certain ideal profile of what the final wine should taste like given optimal growing conditions and winery practices. This is a big debate, related in some ways to vintage generalizations, but beyond the purview of today’s rant.

We will assume here that vintages within a region, sub-region, vineyard, etc. do indeed vary from year to year, in such a manner as to be recognizable to palates of various levels of training. If this assumption holds, one could then sample many wines from, for example, Pomerol in Bordeaux, from 1990 and 1991 and after assessing the various positive and negative qualities and general tastiness of the wines, come to the conclusion that, generally speaking, the 1990 wines taste better than the 1991 wines. Again, this is not to say that all 1990 wines rock or that all 1991 wines suck donkey dick. It merely represents a comprehensive opinion of two different vintages expressed in conversational shorthand. Being able to do so has utility. This utility may change as the interlocutors’ knowledge of wine expands. This happens. But it strikes Hanes as silly to deny that the generalizations made are devoid of utility tout court.

This leads to what Hanes considers to be the core strength of vintage generalizations. Beginners or novices only have limited need for vintage generalizations but as their enthusiasm and knowledge grows into an intermediate stage it helps not only educate but guide purchasing decisions, these purchases likely to become more expensive as one gets into wine, increasing the risk associated with the purchase.

“Bad” vintages instruct as contrast to “good” vintages, allowing the wine appreciator to grasp why the good wines are held in esteem by others and why the bad wines fall short of the theoretical heights. If you started drinking Pomerol with the 1989 and 1990 vintages you’d think Pomerol is almost always a great wine. But once you tasted the subpar 1991 offerings you just might gain greater appreciation for the wines of 1989 and 1990. Without years and years of contrasting experiences with the same wines Hanes thinks it would become awful difficult to learn what makes a great wine a great wine. You also learn that certain producers can make good wines in bad years by contrasting the producer’s wines against those of lesser peers through vintages both good and bad. To Hanes, bad vintages serve the valuable purpose of providing contrast so that you can experientially comprehend the highs and lows wine may achieve. And, further, appreciate the unique rarity of truly great wines.

The intermediate wine lover is really the person who gains the most from vintage generalizations. This person is trying wines from all over the globe: different grapes, different styles of winemaking, different terroirs, all that nonsense. If the person has really caught the wine bug the most perfect world would be one in which she gets to try every single wine made in every vintage. That would be heaven on earth. But this simply cannot be done. We must look elsewhere for answers.

The crux of the matter is FINITUDE. As humans, we need to sleep, eat, drink, defecate, copulate, watch Lost. We cannot always drink wine during these activities. So, choices must be made. Again, the intermediate wine lover typically has an interest in exploring many, if not most or all, of the wines around the world. This person does not have the time to sample all of the wines made in the world. This person cannot even sample all the wines of a specific region. A reason must exist or be created to choose some wines and avoid others. This is required for survival in the jungle of wine. While still keeping in mind that tasting below average wine has merit and benefit, most people will seek out the best wines currently available on the market. If you have never tasted top notch Australian Shiraz before and all the wine writers in the world agree that the 1998 vintage kicks ass, you are going to allocate more money there to see what the fuss is about. There is nothing wrong with this, it is part of the learning process. It also means you may spend less money on other concurrently available wines, say 1998 Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. Likely because the general wine writing world, the main source of information you have given your newly emergent palate, thinks the 1998 vintage of Napa Cab is ho-hum. Remember that the concept of “best” changes as one’s palate matures and becomes more singular. But, conversely, this does not mean any one is an island and that aggregate opinion has no effect nor meaning for an individual’s appreciation of wine (or anything for that matter). Good, bad, best, worst – take these terms out of the language and see how far you get making sense to other people.

Finitude in wine appreciation is most acute in terms of sheer time to sample and consume wine but also in terms of finances. For 99.9% of the people out there, even if you had the time to sit at a tasting table every day for hours and sample wines, you still likely wouldn’t have the money to purchase all these wines (i.e., you’re unemployed). Again, it’s about survival. You’re trying to learn as much as you can about all wines at once and do so on a limited budget. Unless you’re like Hanes, then you just rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt buying wine. Oh, well.

Financial finitude remains the most paramount of the two finitudes once one has become a wine “expert.” After years and years of sampling all types of wines, good, bad or indifferent, you can typically settle on a few favored grapes and/or regions. This makes things easier because in your quest to absorb as much experience and data on newly released wines instead of spanning the entire globe you may instead focus on your favored regions, say Chablis and Oregon Pinot Noir. Now, of course, there is still a lot of Chablis and Oregon Pinot Noir produced each year. More than most people could reasonably expect to sample firsthand. As a result, you will likely first gravitate towards previously favored producers and then experiment with other wines once these favorites have been covered. But if the current release vintage of Oregon Pinot Noir is 1995 you may taste a few, talk to fellow wine geeks, read a few magazines, and then, gulp, make the generalization that the vintage is bad and not worth further exploration. Instead, you may dedicate your limited funds to trying more German Riesling instead of keep plugging away at bottle after bottle of sucky 1995 Oregon Pinot Noir in hopes of finding a few exceptions. This makes sense. It is rational behavior. Even for the wine expert, vintage generalizations can help save money and time. If you taste 20 of the 1995 Oregon Pinot Noirs and your trusted friend Larry tastes another 20 and your trusted magazine The Wine Advertiser tastes another 50 and everyone thinks the wines suck, what kind of idealism would get someone to keep buying these wines? Hanes don’t know.

Once more, it would be fantastic to be able to give every producer the benefit of the doubt in every vintage. Give Hanes a few million dollars and he’ll give it a shot. Promise. Honest injun. He means it!

But since that is not happening, if Hanes tastes a few 2002 Northern Rhône wines and they suck and they are still expensive, watch the money flow across borders into Austria or South Africa or Italy. There may be a kickass 2002 Northern Rhône wine out there untasted which would bowl Hanes over. But untasted it shall likely remain. And this is the smart move to make. Yet, somehow maintaining such an opinion gets Hanes in dutch. Sigh.

Now, a cogent point was raised in the earlier discussion and merits addressing here. Instead of depending on vintage generalizations, you may instead ask of any given wine “What is it good for?” or “Does this wine suit a purpose the same wine would not in a different vintage?” Or further “When is this wine good for X (but maybe not Y)?” This is very egalitarian and even-handed. However, to Hanes’s ear, it is a position which tends to gloss over the issue of finitude. It’s a little too idealist in the guise of being pragmatic.

If a winery makes 12 different wines each year and you love the winery you’d want to try all 12, right? And in a stellar vintage, finances allowing, you just might. But even if you love the winery, if you try 3-4 of the wines in a certain vintage and none of them taste as good as previous vintages have to you, will you really purchase and taste the remaining 8 wines? Or will you say oh well and chalk it up to the vagaries of weather and fate and buy other wine instead? Maybe a lifetime of crack addiction has made Hanes squirrelly but he’d pass on the remaining 8 rather than taste them to see “what they might be good for.” Yes, they might pair better with a certain dish or cuisine than the same wine from a “better” vintage but why not spend the money seeking out the best of the best rather than find a slightly different use for (usually) old reliable? There is soooooo much wine out there to try that this approach actually seems limiting to Hanes rather than egalitarianly freeing. If someone gave Hanes a bottle of the not-the-best-vintage wine, hey, he’d find a way to drink it! But, otherwise, if it’s not up to usual snuff or better, next!

The question of when the wines are consumed is more nuanced but still barely pays heed to finitude. Some vintages drink better earlier than others and vice versa. If Hanes was in a restaurant, sure, he’d want to drink the vintage most approachable at that particular juncture in the time/space continuum regardless of general vintage characteristics or the aging superiority of other similar wines on the list. You want to maximize the pleasure of the immediate experience. That is practical. Of course, better still would be an aged wine from a great vintage on the wine list. But let’s not push it. On the flip side of the coin, there’s the times when you are in a restaurant and don’t recognize any of the wines or have experience with them. In such instances, it is perfectly rational to utilize vintage generalizations to guide the wine choosing experience rather than draw straws. Unfortunately, you cannot always count on the restaurant staff for advice and this is doubly so when most of the wines on the list are totally unknown. Utilizing a vintage generalization is merely a way of increasing the odds of success in the face of a lack of other information.

Another example raised with Hanes was that of a Bordeaux from both 1928 and 1929. In the wine’s youth the 1929 was considered the superior wine, the 1928 being too hard and tannic. However, today the 1928 is the superior wine because the 1929 is over the hill while it took a good 60-80 years for the tannins to soften in the 1928. Hanes cannot really argue against this. He hasn’t tried to wines in question but the example is plausible and certainly must have proven empirically true at some juncture for someone.

But, but, but. Doesn’t such a long term horizon skew the discussion? A wine “flawed” by something such as excessive tannin can resolve into something “better” down the road. Duh. But if you bought a case of the 1928 and the 1929 Bordeaux on release and drank bottles from these cases over the next 30 years, who wouldn’t practically and rationally feel the 1929 was better and the 1928 a gyp? Is this person supposed to care that his great-grandchildren got to enjoy some nicely aged claret from 1928? In the purchaser’s life, his finitude should have him concluding that the 1928 just wasn’t a good wine. Arguing that the 1928 is the better wine in 2009 only gets you so far. It’s a slippery slope argumentative tactic, and who is to deny that any subpar wine may “come around” given sufficient time. Say, 300 years or so. To Hanes, the discussion of vintage generalizations needs to be constrained to a fair temporal horizon, say, within the lifespan of a normal human being. If not, the wine has no real utility to the person. Except as an inheritance to someone else. Maybe they did that back in 1929, dunno.

Most wine (and more and more wine that previously required substantial aging) is meant to be consumed on release or shortly thereafter. Vintage generalizations are oriented to this fact. They have more practical value in the short to medium term. After that, things get fuzzy and this is to be expected. If someone has the money to gamble long term and see who comes out the winner in 60 years more power to them. Hanes, he’ll be dead.

It is a conservative and rational decision to attempt to derive maximal return on your investment in bottles or cases of wine. Many people literally cannot afford to take too many chances. People usually want to avoid unnecessary risk and sometimes vintage generalizations help you do this. Can this mislead at times? Absolutely. Can they cause someone to miss out on that dazzling exception? No doubt at all. And hard to argue that with wines of ageable characteristics vintage generalizations become less useful the further the wines get from their time of release. But if someone called up Hanes and asked, “Hanes, I’m gonna pop open a bottle tonight of Australian Shiraz with my friends what should I get?,” and not knowing what specific wines were in the store the friend would be going to, Hanes would say look for a 2006 or 2005 vintage wine over a 2007. They’re better vintages. But, Hanes, he’s nuts.