Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Living the Not So Big Wine Life

A week or so ago, when reading a post over at Fred Koeppel's Bigger Than Your Head on the 2005 Bordeaux vintage reports, I was powerfully reminded of Goldilocks. Goldilocks visited the house of the three bears and found that life inside was too big, too soft, and too hot. Or, it was too small, too hard, too cold. She was so relieved to find something just right that she fell asleep in the "just right" bed in utter exhaustion.

Sometimes, wine makes me feel like that. There are too many wines that are too big, too hot, too expensive, too manipulated, too corporatized, too hard to find--the list goes on and on. Fred's post prompted me to yearn for a drinking plan that would only include wines that were "just right"--that managed to hold together a whole world of good times, fantastic flavors, and quality in just one glass without going too far into the big, the hot, and the expensive. Fred agreed with me, and expanded on my "just right" description" to include "wines that reflect the grapes from which they are made; wines that reflect, as much as possible, the place where they are made; and wines that embody honesty, integrity and authenticity rather than ego, ambition and manipulation." As I couldn't have said it better myself, I decided to just quote him here. This picture, taken by the talented photographer Kathy~, captures visually what a "just right" wine tastes like to me. (photo of the Town of Monterosso al Mare used with the kind permission of the photographer, Kathy~)

We live in a culture where more is always seen as better. Perhaps the most visible signs of this are the McMansions that dot the landscape, full of rooms filled with stuff nobody uses. Sarah Susanka, the author of the best-selling The Not So Big House and The Not So Big Life, fights this trend in her work. She realized that houses were getting bigger and bigger--but had little "redeeming design merit." Comfort, she pointed out, has "almost nothing to do with how big a space is." Instead, it comes from "tailoring our houses to fit the way we really live, and to the scale and proportions of our human form." When the bigger-is-better mentality seeps into our lives, we end up "so stressed that we are numb."

I started thinking through how to extend Susanka's principles to wine, and have come up with some ideas for a Not So Big Wine Life. These ideas are increasingly shaping my wine purchasing and drinking habits.

1. Drink wine you find enjoyable and inspiring, regardless of hype.
This sounds simple, but it's the heart of the whole plan. I'm inspired by wine that tastes good, is not priced prohibitively, and that is true to the varietal characteristics of the grapes that go into the bottle. Points, marketing, and lemming-like mass hysteria over the latest release or the most recent "vintage of the century" I do not find inspiring. I am not a big fan of what have become known as spoofulated wines--although you should read Craig Camp's thoughtful piece about spoofulation before you decide for yourself. And the idea of GMO yeast and grapes manipulated to cater to certain genetic tasting profiles makes my hair turn white. I don't find genetic coding of taste buds, yeast, or wine to fit consumer wishes inspiring. And frankly, life's too short to drink wine that isn't inspiring. What do you find inspiring in wine? And are you drinking it, or something else?

2. Drink wines that fit your life, and remember that bigger is not always better. I confess: every now and again a fruit-bomb of a syrah makes me very, very happy. But a steady diet of big, jammy reds and overly-oaked chardonnays can numb you to anything that is not HUGE. If this is what you drink most of the time, you may be in a "bigger is better" rut. Moreover, these wines don't reflect the way that most people are trying to live these days. I don't know about you, but there is less meat and more fish on my dinner table than there was five years ago. Happily there is more organic produce, too. Ask yourself this question: do big wines fit the way you live and eat? If not, ask yourself why are you drinking them?

3. More is not always better, either. Moderation is the key to a long-term happiness with wine. Drinking until you fall down in a tasting room, or a living room, is not clever. It's sad, actually. So, too, is the pursuit of more points, more expensive bottlings, more cases in wine storage, being on more mailing lists for more highly allocated wine than ever before, etc. We live in a consumption-mad society. Every day we are told that having more is what makes you comfortable. Does it? Ever? There's always more wine in the world, so relax and remember that sometimes just enough is just right.

4. Be adventurous. If you want to experience the world in a glass of wine, you have to get off the highway now and again and do some exploring. I've been doing that a lot this year, by getting to know rare grape varieties like Negrette and the wines of Italy. I can guarantee that you won't like every wine you drink if you are out exploring. So what? How will you ever know what wines really inspire you if you drink the same, safe things night after night?

5. Support sustainability.
I mean more here than just looking for organic grapes--though that's important, too. What I mean by sustainability is to create a wine life for yourself that is sustainable in all the ways there are. Support local wineries, small wineries, small wine merchants, and folks who make wine with respect for the environment and who take responsibility for the future. By honoring the grapes, places, and people who make and sell the wine we love--and supporting them with our custom--we will help to shape a wine industry that has some shot of surviving global warming and downturns in the dollar.

What do you think? Are you already living a Not So Big Wine Life? If not, is this something you imagine yourself being able to embrace? What's missing, and what could be improved upon? Add your thoughts below.


MonkuWino said...

You are entirely right! As always, an insightful post. Thanks for some good "rules" to live (or drink) by! Heck, you can apply this to a lot of areas, not just wine.

Taster B said...

Hear hear! At the end of the day, I only care if a wine inspired me. Doesn't even matter to me if there are flaws in it--it's the feeling I get when I drink the wine that dictates whether I love it or not.

Richard Auffrey said...

Excellent post with lots of great advice. I would say I generally follow all five of those rules.

I definitely am adventurous in my wine selection. I find it hard to resist buying a wine with a grape that is new to me. Just to see what it is like. I love tasting wines from less common countries. I just had a Greek wine last night, and I don't often see Greek wines reviewed that often on most wine blogs.

I am big on supporting local wineries, merchants and such. With my blog and newspaper column, I have highlighted numerous worthy local merchants. I firmly believe we should support our favorite places and people, to ensure they stay in business.

Orion Slayer said...

I think what inspires me about wine is its ability to, sometimes, bring people together. It doesn't have to be a "big" wine, just one that my family and I can enjoy together. Robin Garr, at Wine Lover's Page, said it really well today:

"Gurus aren't important, and neither are ratings points. Publicity stunts are amusing, but they don't go deep. But sharing good things with people you love, while there's time on earth to enjoy them? That's priceless."

Anonymous said...

Well said Dr. D! I think I currently follow the practices you have mentioned in your post. I admit that I do sometimes get sucked in by the ratings though.
Like Orion and Robin - I feel good wine with loved ones is what it be a wine lover is all about. That and the obsession to learn everything possible about this magic fermented juice!

Nice Post - should we come up with 5 more and make some "wine commandments"?


Victor Caballero said...

Nice blog. I like what you are talking about. I just signed up to make custom wine at Pasadena Custom Winery in the Paseo on Colorado.

Edward said...

Dr Debs,

It's good advice, provided you kow what you like, and provided you are happy to keep drinking what you think you like :)

If you want to explore fully what's on offer, it does involve an element of risk and an element of chasing what is out there.

"Life happens when you are planning something else" ergo - Live dangerously and buy on impulse!

Dr. Debs said...

Great feedback. I like the addition of "drinking with people you love" to bring even more joy to the process. I think it is about sharing, really. Edward and Richard are right to emphasize the adventurous part. You may find yourself falling into a rut if you don't try new things. Studies suggest that it's our sense of adventure that keep us young. And MonkuWino, I knew you would like this--this is your wine life! Thanks, too, for the great quote OrionSlayer.

Dr. Debs said...

In addition to Edward's great piece (see links to this post below), check out OrionSlayer's Googlemap technique, as well as great commentary: http://tinyurl.com/2lstpm

Joe said...

Hi Debs, I have deliberately kept my cellar at 4ft by 8ft by 5.5ft high - with a bit of creativity I can stack 500 bottles in there - a perfect number for consumption, not collecting. And I value diversity above all. Unfortunately, it is not easy to support small wine merchants or wineries - we don't have either in Montreal. Great piece, cheers!

Dr. Debs said...

Joe, you're still doing something to keep your wine life within what Susanka would call "a human scale." So I think you're doing what you can do.