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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.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.