I have this recurring daydream about being invited to a famous wine writer's house for dinner. I would be awful, and I would take great delight in being so.
- "I'm afraid the salad dressing is a little on the acetic side."
- "The lamb is a little overdone, somewhat dry, don't you think?"
- "The asparagus, is, well, wonderfully green. Perhaps it needs some cheese."
- "I'm sorry, I'm sure your raspberry chocolate soufflé is wonderful, but I find sweet food so cloying."
When you criticize a winemaker's wine, you are, in essence, criticizing his cooking. Nearly all winemakers are intensely interested in food: fresh ingredients, gentle techniques, attractive presentation. The same things that go into making wine.
Cellars are generally tidy places. The wines move in routine and carefully planned stages through pressing, tanks, barrels, adjustments, bottling. Winemakers shuffle around in the cellar tasting the wines as if they were pasta sauces, waiting a little longer on some, blending here and there, time to finish up on others. They also put a lot of energy into choosing their bottles and designing their labels. Some winemakers shop for glassware with the fervor of a bride looking for china. If the winemaker is also the owner, you can deduct much about him from his label design.
Winemakers, however, don't think of their wine as "product" unless they're talking to their CPA or marketing director. They think of wine as a process--the elegant presentation of a whole food, fermented and finished in oak.
Winemakers, as a rule, don't dress like grownups. They prefer shorts or jeans, comfortable and well-broken-in shoes, and soft, old shirts. They drive trucks and they never wear expensive watches to work. If they own a briefcase, it contains equal parts food, dry socks, and viticulture magazines.
Our general perception of winemakers is that of a well-dressed gentleman or gentlewoman in an expensive blazer, with a neatly pressed shirt and conservative tie or cravat, spit-and-polish shoes. This is how we see them in public, at wine tastings and auctions, exuding confidence and power. They seem so sophisticated, so elegant, discussing casually the various merits of yeasts and different types of oak.
What we don't see is that little frisson of nervous energy that always accompanies a wine pouring. No matter how many hundreds of events a winemaker has attended, I don't think he can ever shake that little shudder of stage fright---a bad bottle opened right in front of a wine writer, a new release that people don't seem to like. An unusual and rare varietal that he loves, but other people have never encountered.
One by one people approach his table and try his wines. Some people taste the wine and say nothing, simply taking a sip and then pouring the wine into a bucket, and moving on. Others move aside slightly and discuss the wine in whispers with a comrade. Then they pour it out and move on. A few people ask questions . . . how much time in oak? What kind of oak? What degree of malolactic? They may scribble notes into a small notebook, nod seriously, and move on.
Look closely at the winemaker. When not actually pouring from a bottle, his hands will be behind his back, in his pockets, or folded across his chest. If he's truly a working winemaker, his fingers will be rough, callused and inky from tannins. He has a distracted look on his face. He's thinking alternately and simultaneously about the hors d'oeuvres across the room, wondering why another winery's table is swamped with people, dying to ask another winemaker for some serious input, tacos and a cold beer, and everything he's not getting done in the cellar.
When someone does say something critical about the wine, his attention is suddenly focused. Really? he thinks. Can it be? He pours himself a sample and studies the wine in a panic. Remember, when you criticize his wine, you are not criticizing a glass, or a bottle. The bottle came from a whole tank, or a barrel. Or a lot of barrels. Oh god, he thinks. Maybe this person is being honest with me, and everyone else was too polite to say anything. Even if he assures you that the wine is fine, that it was designed "in that style," odds are good that after you wander on, he'll casually pour himself a sample of the same wine and study it surreptitiously while answering the next ten questions about malolactic.
To a winemaker, the wine is not a commerical product, designed to please the masses. (Well, there are exceptions.) To him it is an expression of food and comfort, reminsicent of warm tummies and busy kitchen aromas. Just as food can be rich and complex, or wholesome and fragrant, there are sophisticated wines and there are simple wines, and each has its place and time.