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10.12.2010

Don't Worship Your Wine. Just Drink It.

ome parts of this wine world are utterly ridiculous sometimes. Mostly, it's the luxury parts. Something odd happens when you cross the threshold into the domain of those for whom no wine is too expensive or rare to own, and for whom the full contents of the cellar tends only to be known to accountants. Call it a reality distortion field, a special brand of collector obsessive compulsive disorder, or just plain madness, but people can have pretty odd relationships with their wine cellars when they get above 10,000 bottles.

Witness the recent article in Decanter magazine about British rock star Chris de Burgh, who has decided that he needs to sell his stocks of the incredibly valuable 1945 Lafite and 1961 Latour Bordeaux because opening it to drink would be "like taking down the Mona Lisa and putting it in the toilet."

Say what?!?

Kind of reminds me of that scene in Spinal Tap where Nigel is showing Marty around his "Guitar Room":

Nigel: Exactly. Now this is special, too, it's a...look...see...still got the uh...the ol' tagger on it...see...never even played it ...see...
Marty: You just bought it and....
Nigel: Don't touch it! Don't touch it! No one...no one...no! Don't touch it.
Marty: Well uh I wasn't...uh I wasn't gonna touch it...I was just pointing at it...I....
Nigel: Well don't point, even.
Marty: Don't even point?
Nigel: No. It can't be played...never...I mean I....
Marty: Can I look at it?
Nigel: No.
Marty: Don't look at it.
Nigel: No, you've seen enough of that one.


Says de Burgh of the 45 Lafite, "the Lafite is lying in the same straw in which it was packed. It's awesome: I almost genuflect in front of that box."

Now I don't mean to pillory Mr. de Burgh. He seems like a nice enough fellow, and elsewhere in the interview he maintains, to the contrary, that he buys wine to drink and not for investment. Apparently he plans on taking the money from selling these wines and using it to buy other stuff to drink.

But his off-the-cuff comments illustrate a sickness that festers in the uppermost reaches of the luxury market and trickles down into the rest of the wine world insidiously.

The fact that some wines are now only really ever dealt with as investment commodities is a great tragedy, one that is only lessened slightly these days by the fact that much of the buying of top tier wines is being done in China, and many of those buyers (as opposed to the Americans and Europeans they supplanted) are actually drinking what they buy.

Wine, since time immemorial, has been made to drink. Its sole purpose, and the justification for every shred of enormous energy that goes into making every drop, is to produce something to consume.

Perhaps with the exception of bottles that have some truly historical significance, like the Jefferson bottles were they actually real, wine is literally meaningless without the potentiality of its eventual consumption. As an embodied expression of a place, a time, a season, and the work of those who produced it, wine only becomes these things when we taste them.

The treatment of wine as a financial commodity, and one so valuable that it carries some sense of status with its ownership, produces the distinct and quite unfortunate derivative sense of intimidation that keeps many people from exploring wine, and gives rise to what I've referred to in the past as the travesty of wine and social class in America.

Now, the realities of the global marketplace are not going to change. Wine is not going to get less expensive, nor are those wines that are now trophies instead of food going to suddenly be treated any differently.

And it's probably too much to hope that even as younger generations of casual wine lovers become tomorrow's rich collectors, they won't fall into the trap of putting their wines on a pedestal instead of in their mouths.

But I'm here to implore them, to implore you, to try.

It's actually OK to worship wine, just as long as you eventually pull the cork.

Comments (23)

1winedude wrote:
10.13.10 at 3:57 AM

Is this Vinogaphy's first Spinal Tap reference? Because that IS AWESOME!!!

Now if you;ll excuse me I need to go genuflect in front of my two-disc special edition DVD of Spinal Tap...

Jeanette wrote:
10.13.10 at 4:20 AM

My friend opened a $400 bottle of red wine for a special dinner celebration. No one noticed or stopped to worship the wine. Wine is secondary to food.

Wineguider wrote:
10.13.10 at 8:20 AM

I'm not sure about wine being secondary to food, but I am sure that the link to this awesome guitar discussion is here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7-5io1muSQ
...since I ran off to find it immediately. Funny how I remembered the amp that goes to 11, but not this part. Thanks for this!

Benito wrote:
10.13.10 at 8:26 AM

I loved the exchange between Michael Caine and Steve Martin in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels":

Caine: Now, all these wines are very old. I bought them to make sure they were cared for properly.
Martin: You got a lot of wine to drink.
Caine: They're too valuable to drink.
Martin: So you sell them?
Caine: Never, they mean too much to me.

The auction/collectors' side of the wine world has never really appealed to me, and it's not just because it's way out of my price range. There's too much fun to be had with this amazing world of "drink now" wines that we have access to.

Jaime wrote:
10.13.10 at 8:57 AM

Hmmm...well, a chair is made to be sat in, but if it is an incredibly amazing hand-crafted chair that has survived 100 years, should it not be considered more than just a seat? The eternal dilemma: is wine a consumer good or an art form?

Dan Sims wrote:
10.13.10 at 10:04 AM

I think this just goes to show that nobody actually drinks Bordeaux; they just buy it. Heck, I guess all that ridiculously expensive wine has to go somewhere ...

They can have it as far as i'm concerned but as long as these 'collectors' stick to Bordeaux. God help us if they turn their sights to Burgundy ...

10.13.10 at 10:41 AM

Good read, Alder. Wine is a beverage, an elixir, a social lubricant - treating it any more seriously than that threatens our ability to enjoy it. Regrettably, Mr. Genuflect de Burgh has done just that - which, really, is like boxing the Mona Lisa up in a wooden crate and sticking it in the basement.

John Skupny wrote:
10.13.10 at 11:04 AM

Brilliant - I think this piece deserves an '11'.... my motto is "If you have a corkscrew use it"

10.13.10 at 2:14 PM

I think it all boils down to the last sentence. It is actually OK to worship wine if you eventually drink it. I even have wine I will probably never drink and it does not bug me one bit. Some of the oldest wines in my cellar are probably too old drink like those 75 Chalone Chenin Blancs, but one or two find their ways onto the table now and then. Others do not; some spoil in the bottle or the corks leak. I figure I am out eight bucks and some electricity.

But, I would ask my friend, John Skupny, how does one equate your motto and the need to age some of your wines, especially that lovely Right Bank 2005?

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
10.13.10 at 2:25 PM

Yes to Charlie Olken. I love worshipping my wine. I get about 40% of the total pleasure in owning it for a while before I drink it, knowing it's down there ready whenever I am. And then 50% of the pleasure in drinking it, and 10% in thinking back on how it was. Those numbers may move around a bit, but you get the idea. There's nothing wrong with hoarding as long as you plan on drinking it all eventually. And yes to Benito: I never saw that movie, but those lines are perfect. The sick thing is, I know just what he means.

10.13.10 at 9:01 PM

I bought a '45 Lafite in '76, drank it in '80. Paid $75 for it, a princely sum at the time. It was 35 years too young (at least), but mighty good nonetheless. I don't know about worshipping a wine, but there are wines that can move you, big-time, sneak up on you like a lightning bolt, and rearrange all your important molecules, but only if you drink them.

Spice Sherpa wrote:
10.14.10 at 6:27 AM

Supposedly, a Stradivarious must be played to maintain its quality. If a wine is never consumed wouldn't its reputation be based on speculation? Story: My father bought a couple cases of wine back in the 70's from a vineyard called Estrella in Paso Robles for about $4/bottle. For whatever elusive, magical combination that happens with wine it aged well and by the 90's those bottles were selling for $250 each. I'm happy to report every bottle has been shared and consumed creating the best memories in the process (finished the last one 2 years ago). If you want a shrine; drink the wine, write the story and save the bottle.

10.14.10 at 9:34 AM

Spice writes "If a wine is never drunk, wouldn't its reputation be based on speculation?"

Good question, that. I feel a long essay coming on but will hold it for another day. Let's just say that perception is part of reality. If enough people believe a thing is so, then, for them, it is so until proven otherwise.

It is the same with wine except for this. Wine is not unique. It is made in thousands and hundreds of thousands and millions of bottles. It has history. It has people reporting on it all the time. It does not exist in some encapsulated, mythical universe.

We know how the 1982 and 1970 and 1961 Bordeaux have aged. I have one bottle of 1961 Haut Brion. It may be a bit long in the tooth, but based on reports of other bottles and other wines of the vintage, I am not horribly worried about what shape it is in. I am more worried about whether the cork did its job than the winemaker.

My collection starts big time with the 1970s and I have a few dozen of those. Some are alive, some are not. But they are just wine. I will use them or not. I like knowing that I can grab an old bottle when I want, but the key is in not being compulsive or possessive or to have any other view than as opportunities when the occasion arises. To do otherwise is to run afoul of the Alder Yarrow rule: Do not turn your wines into false idols.

Tai-Ran Niew wrote:
10.14.10 at 3:30 PM

Jeanette, I know this is painful for most people visiting this site to accept, but what you say is very much true for the vast majority of the population, even those that are very interested in the culinary arts. Like collecting stamps or butterflies, the fascination is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Dan Sims, I'm afraid the collectors are very much moving to Burgundy (DRC?). In fact, in Singapore, the snobs would not be seen with a Bordeaux as it is deemed too Nouveau/Mainland China. The games they play eh? Not good news.

The beauty of wine is very much in the drinking. Otherwise it would be like buying a record and never listening to it!

But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. A decent amount of wines are meant to be aged, and it seems people are so impatient (and there are financial constraints), we are depriving ourselves of the joy of aged wines that another 5-10 years would bring.

Aaron Mandel wrote:
10.15.10 at 7:25 AM

I don't believe the issue is with those that age their wine until they are ready to drink, although that is often overdone, but with those that buy it never intending to drink it. There are many out there that worship their bottles in the same manner Nigel worshipped the guitar with no intention of ever enjoying them as they were intended. A tremendous waste. Wine is made to be drunk and I intend to drink all of mine (although maybe not all at once)

10.21.10 at 1:36 AM

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post, you had me at the headline! Great article and a timely reminder that wine is made for drinking. I recently had the pleasure of drinking a number of Australia's iconic wines at a friends house who embodied the philosophy of "life is for living, wine is for drinking". So, to the cellar I go, to free the poor hostages i've kept cooped up to long!

Sam Silerzio wrote:
10.21.10 at 2:59 PM

Love the Spinal Tap reference and I completely agree with you. Drink your wine!!!

John wrote:
10.22.10 at 5:44 AM

I just can echo everyone of you guys. Great post!

jason carey DWS wrote:
10.23.10 at 8:06 PM

Drink Your Wine!

10.28.10 at 2:05 AM

Alder, you have a good point, but I don't think you are the one who can really deliver this message. How many posts have you written on Napa Cult wines waxing poetic about the owner fulfilling his or her 'unique' dream to make a $200 Cabernet by employing the top consultants in Napa? These are precisely the wines people obsess over, and a verbose blog is hardly the antithesis of wine worship.

Your work is top notch, Alder, but sometimes your self awareness lags behind your talent. One day you glorify $400 bottles of wine, then the next you wonder why luxury wine is divisive.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
10.28.10 at 8:53 AM

Cabfrancophile,

Thanks for the backhanded compliment. It appears you're more interested in condescension than understanding my point (or the humor in this post). I review wines I think people should drink. Period. If I ever glorify a wine it's because it's good, and that has nothing to do with its price, and everything to do with getting people to drink it. That's a far cry from the subject of this article which is people who think wine is too good/expensive/special to drink.

I've been writing this blog for almost seven years and I've written thousands of individual wine reviews. The number of them that are for wines that cost more than $200 I can count on two hands.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
10.28.10 at 9:51 AM

We have issue drift here. The question is not whether expensive wine should be glorified. It's (or at least it started out as) is hoarding your wine a good or bad thing?

I maintain -- somewhat controversially, it seems -- that hoarding bottles is largely good, in terms of the pleasure wine can give over time first as an object and ultimately as a beverage. If you've ever had a friend pull out a perfectly stored bottle of age-worthy wine that he has left alone for 20 years, you don't need me to explain the value in it.

And while you might say, "That wine was drunk eventually, which makes all the difference," until the day the friend opened it, it hadn't been. So did he change from a cretinous collector to a generous host overnight because he finally decided to pop the cork? Because, remember, you can only do it once with each bottle.

Look, we all hear about people with 40,000 bottles of great wine in their cellar that will never be consumed. That's disgusting. But the vast majority of us who have a few dozen or few hundred special bottles are in a different category. And despite Alder's title of this entry, I've found that a little worshipping of your wine before you drink it can greatly enhance how much pleasure you get from it. To the rest of you really disagree with that?

10.28.10 at 10:05 AM

Alder, this is neither insult or compliment, just observation. You often cover the luxury end of the wine market, especially culty Napa wines. It's impossible to separate the wine from its associated image. As good as the wine may be, it's a cop-out to say it's only the juice that matters. If it was, then you wouldn't be writing about the history of the producer, the hands-on production techniques, the attention to detail, etc.

Wine is a luxury good at pretty much any price point. Your blog promotes this perception whether that is your intent or not. I have no disagreement with how or what you cover, though. But with posts like this, your actions don't match your statements. It's like Robert Parker criticizing Bdx growths for their high prices when his florid notes play into the pretension and his scores provide basis for trading wines like graded investments.

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