Thursday, February 26, 2015
Ephemera: Great Palates Don't Exist
I am of the opinion that there are no great palates, only very experienced palates. I’ve had the great pleasure, and the occasional great misfortune, to taste with many of the most acclaimed and famous wine people, and that has convinced me of it. Yes, there are certainly physical differences between people in terms of their tasting abilities. Most of us are very sensitive to certain flavors and compounds, while being anosmic to others. And there are people branded as “supertasters,” which would seem to be the equivalent of an enormous penis or big breasts. Impressive, but more fun to imagine than actually possess. Not that I’d know about either one. But how good or well-endowed one is at the sense of taste, that isn’t really what makes you a brilliant wine taster. In fact, a supertaster is a miserable judge of wine (right, Tim Hanni MW?). What makes you a brilliant wine taster is the depth and breadth of your experience with wine, and, more importantly, with great wine.
None of what I’m saying has to do with the enjoyment of wine. Anyone can enjoy wine. Nor is it a sin not to know much about wine, though it would explain why most wine bloggers are going to Hell. And unless I’ve sat and tasted with someone, compared notes and talked about wines with him or her, I have no idea about how accomplished that person is as a wine judge. I don’t even care if he/she has letters appended to their name. I promise you, many of the worst judges I’ve been around have letters after their name, and most of the best have none (yeah, I know, I use HMW after my name, but that’s a joke…or is it?) It’s far more about experience. Lots of folks like to string letters after their name like so many dingleberries, and it’s nearly as disgusting.
Here’s the thing; unless you’ve tasted the “great” wines of the world, and tasted them often, it’s impossible to know where the bar is set for wine. We can argue about what makes a “great” wine, and which wines qualify, but those arguments are rather silly. There are many. But they are rare, and hard to taste for free, and in big demand. For a reason. They’re great wines. My list is my list, but a comprehensive list would include hundreds and hundreds of wines, but begin with the First Growths (oh, I do love Cheval Blanc), and Chave Hermitage, Chateau Rayas, Raveneau Chablis, Y’Quem, Spottswoode (a personal favorite), Jayer, DRC, Biondi-Santi, Giacosa… I’m leaving out hundreds of wines. But these wines set the bar very high for their appellations, and for other appellations that use the same varieties. If you haven’t been exposed to them, it’s nuts, and the height of human folly, to assign scores to other wines. 95? Relative to what?
Forget about scores, it’s about educating yourself to what a great wine tastes and acts like. No, they’re not all the same. They are different frames of references, just as great painters are different but represent a pinnacle of their style. Every great wine taster I’m aware of has a built-in catalogue of great wine in their head, a palate memory deeply ingrained, that they use to judge a new wine. Just how good is this Napa Cabernet? Well, it’s fine, but does it have the depth and grace of a Spottswoode, or the power and richness of Harlan Estate, or the voluptuousness and sweet fruit of Screaming Eagle? Extrapolate that to every region and suddenly you have a great palate. Only it’s really an experienced palate.
“Great palate” bothers me. I think about this shit all the time. There are a lot of pretty inexperienced wine experts pretending they have a great palate. It’s certainly enough to put a wine in your mouth and say, “I like this.” Nothing wrong with that. But that doesn’t make it great wine. There are standards, even if you’re ignorant of them. I’ve said it a thousand times. There are NO great wines under $20. Just stop pretending there are. You’re making a jackass of yourself. You insult great wines, and you insult the intelligence of your readers, the cheap fucks. Greatness is subjective, but not 100% subjective. Only the daft and thunderstruck think something can be 100% subjective. Few accomplished wine people would argue that any of the wines I spoke of earlier are only average or above average wines (Biondi-Santi would be controversial), but our ranking of them among the greats might be subjective to us. I’d kill for Cheval Blanc, but I can take or leave Mouton-Rothschild. Assuming I could afford either one, which I no longer can.
Much of this is about perspective. Don’t lose it. Enjoy every bottle for what it is. Every wine has something to say. But some are profound and life-changing (not that many) while the rest just sort of pleasantly babble. It’s a lot like wine writing. Thank you for reading my wine babble. But while enjoying wines, don’t toss the word “great” around so easily. Stop heaping praise on wines that aren’t particularly brilliant. Great wines have restraint; great wine experts also have restraint. Much of the joy of learning about wine is the joy of knowing that no matter how long and how much you’ve tasted, there’s always something even better out there. Wine humbles us. It makes us all look stupid. Anyone who blind tastes regularly knows that. We’re groping in the dark when it comes to wine. But that’s its gift to us. Wine gives us pleasure even if we’re not its match. Maybe, like the best marriages, because we’re not its match.
I think I hate email. I like it better than texting, which is the modern day equivalent of smoke signals, only less eloquent. Texting is the greatest blessing bestowed upon men since Viagra, though it serves a similar purpose—screwing your partner. Lovely to be able to text, “Thinking of you” while you’re actually watching sports on TV. And women fall for it. Or settle for it. And it takes no effort or thought, just a text. A perfect way to communicate when expressing your feelings is as foreign to you as child birth. No matter. But when I open my email I usually cringe. I’m good at eliminating spam, and I’m not on FaceBook, so, truly, I get the least email of anyone I know. But so much of what I get is dull, or hate mail, or weird marketing letters (some guy yesterday told me how much he loved my blog, "HouseMaster of Wine"), which I quickly delete.
However, the other day I received an invitation to attend World of Pinot Noir with a Media pass. My first thought was, Really, have you read my blog, HorseMaster of Wine? But it turned out to be a legit offer, which I happily accepted. I have no idea who put me on that invite list. I don’t really seem like a wine marketer’s dream. I’m thinking it may be a trap to finally kill me. I’ve never attended WOPN, and I’m pretty excited to go. I think it’s already a sellout, which makes me a perfect match! WOPN has quickly become one of the most important Pinot Noir events in the US. Which makes my invitation even more nonsensical. But I’ll be there, purposefully concealing my name tag, and will certainly have a few things to say when I return.
A big thanks to the WOPN for the invitation.