Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Pretention and the Lifestyle that Goes with It

George and I recently spent a thoroughly lovely day with our friends the Clarks. They invited us to join them at the Kinkead Ridge Winery in Ripley, Ohio, for a tasting and lunch. Ripley seems an unlikely place for a quality winery, but we enjoyed the tasting very much. In addition to purchasing a selection of their wines, we picked up a free wine magazine with the following title: The Wine Buzz: A complimentary guide to wine and the lifestyle that goes with it.

Huh? You need a lifestyle to drink wine? I thought you just needed a corkscrew.

George and I like wine. In 1988, when we first started experimenting with wine, we toured wineries in Napa and learned some wine lingo. Did you know, for instance, that when you swirl the wine in your glass, you’re “volatilizing the esters,” which intensifies the bouquet of the wine? Feel free to use that little bit of trivia to impress people at a pretentious dinner party sometime.

Our tastes back then were really limited to sweeter, lighter wines like white zinfandel and pinot grigio. The bold reds and oak-matured chardonnays tasted icky to us. Over the years, our tastes broadened to include a wide variety of wines, just as they have broadened to include a wide variety of foods. But picking out a good wine remained a mystery to me. I just bought randomly, influenced by the occasional Wine Spectator score posted on the shelf at the grocery store. Some bottles were good, others not so much. With experience, however, I finally developed the sophisticated process by which I now select wines for our table.

First I start by scanning the shelves for prices in our range. No sense picking up a $30 bottle if you’re not going to buy it. Once I find our price point (usually $9-$15 a bottle), I focus on the labels. That’s right. I pull a wine off the shelf because I like the label. Depending on my mood, I’ll go for cute, cool, snarky, artsy, off-beat, colorful, or elegant. I then read the back of the bottle. If it describes the wine with certain key bits of information that strike my fancy, I’ll put it in my cart.

What key information do I look for? This also depends on my mood. If I’m fixing my famous oven-fried catfish that night, and a bottle with a fun label has the sentence “Enjoy with fish” on the back, I’ll likely buy it because I’m practical that way.

On the other hand, I have written lots of marketing copy over the years, so I’m a sucker for evocative word choice. I enjoy drinking complex red wines, so descriptive phrases like “richly textured notes of blackberry and cherry, with a peppery finish” grab my attention. I may not taste blackberry or cherry or pepper when I drink the wine, but from experience, I know I’ll probably like it.

I’m also a bit silly sometimes, so a bottle labeled 7 Deadly Zins or one that pokes fun at snooty wine drinkers will almost certainly jump into my cart. Just because.

This isn’t the process a pretentious sommelier with a degree from some wine institute will follow to select a wine. (Do wine institutes offer degrees?) My method is random, serendipitous, and fun, and anyone can do it. George and I are rarely disappointed in our random wine purchases these days, and friends who’ve adopted our method are also satisfied with the results.

You see, you can judge the wine by its label and have fun drinking it. Or you can pursue the wine lifestyle, which apparently involves spending hours of your life pouring over wine magazines and blogs, studying what to buy and not buy, taking classes, and so forth. If that pops your cork, I say go for it and have fun. Everyone needs a hobby.

Some people, however, pursue a wine lifestyle that is ridiculously pretentious. George came across an article in Saveur magazine which illustrates this perfectly. Oenophile Lou Amdur owns a trendy wine bar in Los Angeles and has his finger on the pulse of the wine lifestyle. He said, “I only pour wines I enjoy. I might have a customer who would like a buttery chardonnay, but I would feel cynical pouring it for him.”

As an infidel who adores buttery chardonnay, I would like to tell Mr. Amdur to stuff a corkscrew in his … cynicism. I bet he would have an aneurysm if he saw my friend Linda put ice cubes in her merlot. He may own a trendy wine bar and live the “lifestyle” of wine, but he doesn’t have the right to tell me what sort of wine I should or should not be drinking. That job resides with my taste buds alone.

Besides, researchers at Cornell and elsewhere have demonstrated that whether you like a wine or not depends largely on the power of suggestion. If you’re told a wine is from North Dakota, for instance, you’re more likely to think it tastes icky because North Dakota’s state tree is the telephone pole and its growing season is about eight days long. You simply don’t expect wine from North Dakota to be good. If, however, you are told the same wine is a lovely and expensive bottle from California, you’ll likely think it is quite tasty, even if it’s really just a $3 bottle of Charles Shaw wine from Trader Joe’s.

Science has proven me right. Wine really is all about the labels. No pretentious lifestyle necessary.

And now I’m going to have a glass of buttery chardonnay poured from a bottle with a totally adorable label. I expect I’ll enjoy it enormously. Care to join me?


  1. An old client of mine in the wine and spirits business used to call the "Wine Spectator" the "Wine Dictator". And I'm sure she wouldn't mind if you used that name to impress YOUR friends! LOL

  2. I love wine, but I don't know much about it. I buy and drink what I like. Yellowtail Shiraz is my favorite wine from Trader Joe's.

    The second this baby is weaned, I'm going have a giant slab of ahi tuna and roughly 17 glasses of wine. It's been a long time. :)

  3. I loved this! And, by the way, I put ice cubes in my chardonnay when I'm at home!

  4. Thanks for the invite...but I already enjoyed my glass of Berringers Cabernet Sauvignon $9 wine WITH ICE CUBES!

  5. I'll be enjoying a "meal in a glass" today, but I have some pink champagne chilling for next week. Buttery chardonnay does sound nice, even though I usually go for the drier types.

    Krystie, I love Yellowtail. Try their blends. I especially like the cabernet/shiraz, it's really muscular.

  6. This will make you laugh, esp. the part about how I choose a wine:

  7. Thanks for flattering me by describing my wine bar as "trendy." If that were only the case--I'd love the additional business!

    You cry, “... he doesn’t have the right to tell me what sort of wine I should or should not be drinking.”

    You’re right: I have no right to tell you or anyone else what sort of wine to drink.

    All I said in Saveur was that I only pour wines that I love. I do not love oaky chardonnays; I stopped drinking that sort of wine years ago. You love oaky chardonnay. So what? Am I some sort of vinous Taliban, shoving my odious opinion down your throat, forcing you to come to Lou and drink a crisp, fresh, 12.5 percent alcohol JP Brun chardonnay? Am I protesting outside of BevMo, chanting, “Hey ho, oaked chardonnay has got to go?” Am I trying to convince vignerons or anyone else that my taste in wine is superior to theirs? Am I lobbying the California state legislature to ban oaky chardonnay? Do I think you’re a bad person because you like oaky chardonnay, an infidel who deserves derision, ridicule, and perhaps even censure? The answer to all of these rhetorical questions is “no.”

    I own a narrow wine bar that reflects my narrow, ideologically driven perspective on the wine world. I do not like oaky chardonnay. I do not serve such wines at my wine bar. If a customer asks for a buttery chardonnay I will use my limited hermeneutic powers to interpret what they’re in the mood for, and I will pour them a taste of an alternative that I hope they will enjoy—and, mostly they do. To me, that’s the fun part of owning a wine bar. It’s gratifying for me when I’m able to turn people on to new wines; I like the spark in their eyes when they try a roter veltliner or fresia for the first time. There are plenty of venues in Los Angeles that offer oaky chardonnay but not too many offering a fumin from the Valle d’Aosta, or a poulsard from France’s Jura region. How does marching to a different drummer make me pretentious?

  8. Oh oh, seemed to have touched a nerve there...would he like some cheese with that whine? (couldn't resist)


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