CHICAGO WINE JOURNAL: To sip, to explore, perchance slowly to collect
By Lawrence B. Johnson
For many years, and by now many years ago, I wrote for various national publications about consumer electronics – sound systems, televisions. The advent of larger-screen televisions came to mind as I was pondering a column on venturing into— – and inevitably collecting – wine.
I regularly reviewed televisions. And as they began to grow larger, each incremental increase seemed to me to take the television screen to just where it needed to be: just the right size. I must have announced this aloud several times, because at a certain point my spouse could no longer contain her amusement, and pointed out that I had declared the achievement of perfection often and in each instance definitively. It can be much the same in one’s early exploration of wine.
Without much context, but with a great newfound enthusiasm, it’s very easy to become seduced by the next wonderful discovery – to believe that the revelation of the moment is, to paraphrase one memorable West Coast pitchman with a carefully honed Franco-German-Hungarian accent, “zee best wine in zee vorld.”
And so, embracing that best of all possible worlds, you join a single-producer wine club and immediately circumscribe your experiences. Which leads us to Rule No. 1: Never stop exploring. The wine world is wide, various and wonderful. The best early counsel I ever received was, never buy a case of anything – anyway, not until you’ve sampled a lot of wines. When you’re still spreading your wings, and you find something you really love, buy three bottles.
But where to jump in, in the first place? The experience of wine is like the study of philosophy: You can plunge in anywhere. Me, I began way back up the road with White Zinfandel. Yup. And I was pretty sure I was strictly a white-wine guy until one awkward moment when – wearing my music critic’s hat – I was interviewing a conductor at this home. He offered me a glass of wine, but he had no white, so I accepted a glass of red. That split-second decision altered my life.
What the maestro served me was (in retrospect) a decent, inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa. I loved it. My ticket on the wine train had just been punched. That conveyance became a bullet train a few months later, the day I walked into a wine shop devoted entirely to the wines of France.
This was a long time ago, understand. My French is not too dreadful, but I have rarely experienced such a blur as I did wandering those aisles crammed with bottles labeled not with the names of grapes, but rather with the appellations and châteaux of Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley. Talk about an adventure of discovery. I was off and running – to buy books. I lined a shelf, devoured whole encyclopedias. And so began a decades-long, ongoing quest to comprehend the art of wine.
Actually, Cabernet Sauvignon is a good place to start, and one could hardly do better at modest cost than the more popularly priced wines of Napa and Sonoma. Pinot Noir is another attractive point of entry. Or, especially now, the luscious Malbecs of Argentina. Or the creative blends from Tuscany in central Italy, the Barbera and Nebbiolo from Italy’s Piedmont, the savory Tempranillos from Spain, the Grenache-based Côtes-du-Rhône wines of southeastern France.
But the right way in, the right exploratory play, is not to go deep, but to go wide. I know what Forrest Gump said about chocolates, but really life is like a mixed case of wine. Let the adventure begin.