When I speak to many wine drinkers, they often express a similar sentiment. They tell me that they really enjoy wine, but they don’t know much about it. With varying degrees of embarrassment or chagrin, they describe their interest in experiencing more of what wine has to offer, but then go on to cite any number of factors that they see as barriers to their own ideal relationship with wine. How do we actually progress from habit to true love affair? Most people believe what they are missing involves knowledge that could fill several textbooks. Certainly the difference between a true connoisseur and an enthusiastic wine lover involves quite a bit of understanding of wine’s complexities. But some things are more important than book learning. Here then, are five essential characteristics of a wine lover that, if embraced, can forever change your relationship to wine.
I believe the single most important quality for any wine lover to cultivate should be their sense of curiosity. The breath and diversity of the wine world almost defies description. With dozens of countries producing wine from thousands of different kinds of grapes, the landscape open to the adventurous drinker rewards exploration with experience. Indeed, more than any wine course or wine book, simply tasting different kinds of wine as often as practically possible may make the greatest difference in any aspiring wine lover’s life. Such exploration invariably yields two primary benefits. First, it helps us figure out what we like and what we don’t. Second, it yields the kind of discoveries that fuel the excitement that makes up a part of every wine lover’s passion. For some that may be the thrill of finding a $15 bottle that drinks like a $50 bottle. For others it might be the first taste of a wine that really smells like lychees. Nothing befits a wine lover more than a childlike desire to experience yet another unknown corner of the wine world.
Wine is about pleasure. There are plenty of other ways to get drunk, and plenty of other things to drink that go well with food. Wine has become what it is for the same reason we have so many different varieties of roses or citrus fruits. The myriad facets of wine reflect back humanity’s pursuit of flavor and quality over thousands of years. Nonetheless, this wondrous quality of wine doesn’t stop many people from building relationships to wine that have little to do with pleasure. From the wine geek who over-intellectualizes wine to the collector who treats wine like a portfolio asset, many people can easily forget to appreciate wine’s most essential charms. Newly aspiring wine lovers, in particular, can easily fall into the trap of drinking wines they think they are supposed to like, instead of those they actually do. As with love, it is possible to think too much about and experience too little of wine.
Wine can be a delicate product, and as such, will inevitably be the source of some disappointment on occasion. While the pernicious scourge of cork taint, caused by a compound found in corks (and occasionally barrels) needs to be wiped off the face of the earth, we can never truly rid ourselves of the many ways that wine can end up delivering less than its potential. From heat to light, to the various bacteriological conditions that can arise in wine, we have to steel ourselves for an occasional bummer, especially when dealing with older wines. For reasons not entirely clear to science, every bottle of wine ends up being slightly different, and those differences are accentuated by the passage of time. It has been said that after ten or twenty years from release, there are no good wines, only good bottles. As we pursue our love of wine, we need to remember that wine is food, and therefore both fragile and perishable. To insist that it be consistently perfect would be to deny its very nature.
Sometimes wine doesn’t need forgiving as much as it does just a little time. Like a living thing, wine adjusts to its circumstances and evolves. This plays out in many ways, all of which require a degree of forbearance on our part. When wine first enters the bottle, its character changes as it adjusts to its new surroundings. Bottle shock can turn a wine from fantastic to flat for periods of time up to several months. Many of the world’s finest wines are also known for their mercurial evolution in the bottle over the course of years. Some wine experts will speak of a “dumb” phase through which some wines will progress on their way to the blossoming of their full potential. Other wines, by virtue of their making or their nature, will simply be unforgiving in their youth, requiring years of cellaring to become what their makers and owners anticipate them to be. Even when freed from the confines of the bottle, some wines can evolve considerably in contact with air and through changes in temperature. It is not uncommon for some wines, in particular the most complex white wines, to undergo a complete transformation over the course of as much as 24 hours. Knowing which wines to wait for, and for how long, requires some experience, of course. But more consistently than many other aspects of life, wine rewards our patience.
Like many of the best things in life, wine is better enjoyed with friends and loved ones. Scientific studies increasingly suggest that our emotional state can affect our perceptions of wine. But few people need scientists to affirm cultural traditions that have existed for millennia. Politics, romance, friendship, loss – in the face of all of these wine has always been something to share with others. Wine bottles do not measure out six to eight glasses by accident. More practically, many wine lovers know the value of pooling their resources to purchase and share a coveted bottle, not to mention the bounty of a bring-a-bottle party. Without ignoring the pleasure of a glass enjoyed in quiet solitude, wine is best paired with laughter and fellowship.
These are the virtues that best serve the wine lover no matter where they are on their journey from simple drinker to deep connoisseur.
A version of this essay appears in my book: The Essence of Wine. Photos courtesy of Unsplash.