August 4, 2012
One of the mantras that experienced old hands like to repeat to new and learning collectors is, “Buy what you like.” This is absolutely terrible advice. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to end up with hundreds of bottles you won’t drink and can’t sell than to start out “buying what you like.” The California section at WineBid is basically one giant cut-rate, over-the-hill, bought-what-I-liked emporium.
The problem is, how are you supposed to figure out what you like?
The simple answer is that you like a wine when it tastes good. This is another terrible piece of advice. Taste isn’t totally irrelevant to wine, but it’s not nearly as important as some people seem to think. Lots of things taste good. Pizza tastes good, milkshakes taste good, pancakes with maple syrup and a side of bacon taste good, frankly even General Tso’s chicken tastes pretty damn good. In terms of the pure hedonic pleasure of consuming something that tastes good, there probably aren’t too many wines in the world that push the needle further into the visceral pleasure zone than a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies and a glass of ice-cold milk. So the thing about wine that makes it something worth caring about obviously has very little to do with whether it tastes good, which is why your newspaper doesn’t have a cookie critic and you don’t hear about anyone’s multimillion-dollar cookie collection.
In any event, the tasting-good test leads to a second problem, which is, how are you supposed to figure out what tastes good?
If you stop and think about it, it’s clear that nobody decides that a wine tastes good the same way a child decides that cookies taste better than broccoli. The latter judgment is instinctive, knee-jerk. There is no thought process—or if there is one it occurs at a subconscious level. Wine is different. Deciding that it tastes good or that it’s something one likes is generally the product of a series of smaller, constituent decisions. That’s because it’s often the case that when we think we’ve decided that a wine tastes good, what we’ve really done is decide that it tastes the way we think a good wine is supposed to taste. And that’s a process that has nothing to do with the pushing of pleasure buttons. Instead, it’s an exercise in judgment.
When I first started reading wine magazines, one of the stock phrases in the tasting notes that struck me as especially silly was “lead pencils.” I had tasted plenty of wine and hadn’t come across one yet that tasted like a pencil. Then one day I drank a Lynch-Bages that absolutely reeked of lead pencils. The description in the tasting notes made perfect sense. I was impressed with myself for finding something in the wine that I was supposed to find there, and impressed with the wine for featuring something that it was supposed to feature. But at no point in this mental process of being impressed did I put much thought into whether lead pencils were an attractive component of a wine or not.
If someone else were to have tasted the same wine without reading the tasting notes or having any knowledge that lead pencils are considered a typical characteristic of wines from Pauillac, it’s anyone’s guess whether his reaction would have been more along the lines of, “Hmm, that’s interesting,” or, “Yuck! This tastes like a pencil sharpener!” There is certainly nothing inherent to that cedar-and-graphite sensation that pushes biological pleasure buttons the way chocolate appeals to our sweet tooth. If it appeals, it’s not so much because it delivers intrinsic satisfaction as a matter of taste, but because it delivers the mental satisfaction of a pattern recognition well done.
Which means that when we decide we like a wine, we’ve done just that: we’ve decided it. It was an exercise in thinking—not only, and not even primarily, an exercise in tasting. We keep a mental checklist of what a good wine is supposed to offer, and we decide a wine is good when it manages to meet enough criteria on the list. And that means that the decision that we like the wine has very little to do with the way it tastes, and a lot to do with how we’ve populated that mental checklist.
Take some time to think about how novices evaluate other sorts of things. A particularly fertile example, I’ve noticed, is stereo gear. When you start reading consumer reviews, it does not take very long at all to figure out which reviewers know what they are talking about and which ones don’t. The ignoramuses always comment first and foremost on the bass. They like speakers that deliver a powerful thump. That deep bass thump is one of the main items on their mental checklist of what makes a speaker sound good. On the other side of the spectrum, you can always tell right away which consumer reviewers fancy themselves serious audiophiles. They don’t care much about the bass except to the extent the speaker covers the entire dynamic range without distortion. But one item that looms large on the audiophile’s mental checklist is the “sound stage.” Picture the musicians each standing in a different place in the room. The sound stage is the ability of the hi-fi system to recreate that image so you can imagine exactly where in the room each instrument’s sound is coming from, even though there might be a dozen instruments and only two speakers.
Whether they sound good depends on whose checklist you’re using. And the checklist you’re using depends on how much you know. What sounded good when you didn’t know anything doesn’t sound so good once you know a lot.
If one were to codify the wine novice’s mental checklist, it might look something like this. The first item, in all-capital, 24-point boldface, would probably be, “IS IT DRY?” The same ignoramus alarm that starts flashing above the head of the Amazon reviewer when he praises Skullcandy headphones for their powerful bass is flashing above the head of the lady in the wine shop who asks the guy pouring samples to give her something dry. (And then says that she likes it because it’s dry. And that she doesn’t care for the next one because it’s not as dry. Some people’s checklists are pretty short.)
As people start to learn a little bit more, they add to their checklists. But this is a very impressionable period. A man gets treated to a $200 wine in a steakhouse. It’s the most expensive wine he’s ever had, so it must be good. And it doesn’t taste like any other wine he’s had before, so all of those differences migrate to his checklist. The local wine shop does a brisk business finding a twenty-dollar “Cab” to pitch as a poor man’s Silver Oak. And then one day the man discovers (cue the theme from Psycho) wine critics. He sees all those shelf talkers and reviews in the magazines and finds all sorts of new things to add to his checklist. Some of these come bundled with a style prejudice (“full-bodied” is good; “on steroids” is even better). Some of them are the usual stock “descriptors.” (Make no mistake, our man is now on the lookout for black currants and lead pencils.) And some of them are total non-sequiturs. (How many seconds is the “finish”?)
And then the poor sucker sets up a wine cellar and starts buying what he likes.
If he’s lucky, he passes through this stage in his youth when he doesn’t have a whole lot of money to waste. Otherwise he probably won’t take more than a few months after that first Silver Oak to accumulate several thousand liters of full-bodied black currant lead pencils on steroids with 60-second finishes. If only somebody had told him—if only his future self could step into a wormhole and warn him—do not, do not, buy what you like! At least not for the cellar. Taste as much as you can. Refine that checklist. Learn what you like. And learn why you like it. Then buy all you want.