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The Annual Wine Panic

November 13, 2015

Thanksgiving is in thirteen days. If you want to panic, go ahead. I’m not going to stop you. Although, if you’re responsible for cooking the meal, and you’re feeling a bit stressed about it, maybe you should consider ordering a pre-cooked turkey from one of your favorite restaurants.

I’m serious. The holiday should be more about spending time with your family than fretting in the kitchen. That said, fretting in the kitchen is a brilliant way to avoid spending time with your family. Whatever works for you.

Today I wanted to try and get ahead of the inevitable stress that happens every year around this time, when it comes to buying a wine for Thanksgiving. Mostly, because recently two infuriatingly popular pieces of “wine journalism” came across my feed, and I wanted to discuss them. But also this is the first week of a brand new wine store in Troy, and I’m still all aflutter.

The common refrain on Vox and Thrillist are that you shouldn’t be a sucker when it comes to wine. Don’t embarrass yourself and make silly mistakes. And it plays right into people’s fears.

My goal, is to remove fear entirely, but with less disinformation.

The VOX video above makes a few interesting points. They keep trying to peg the issue to price. But the larger idea is that if you think something is supposed to be a great wine, you’re more likely to enjoy it.

That’s a powerful idea. And it holds true for things beyond just wine. Greg K. kind of touched on this recently, when he struggled with the idea that a blank wall could, in itself, be art. If you aren’t told the wall is art, the wall is going to be a wall. But if you are told the wall is art, you are going to look more closely at that wall. You’ll examine its form; note its textures; appreciate the patina of time.

So it would make sense that if you were told a wine is expensive, that you’ll spend more time looking deeply into that wine trying to figure out what makes it so special. And it would make sense you would find something special to like about it, even if it turns out you were being misled.

For the most part, wines that sell for under $10 a bottle are just not going to be as well made as wines costing over $20 a bottle. There will always be exceptions on both sides of the equation. The best thing to do is to find a trusted wine seller and come to them with a budget.

It’s not gouache to talk about the price of a wine with the wine seller, although it would be with your guests. Instead, this is helpful information when trying to find a bottle that fits your tastes and desires.

You see, the thing is, there is so much wine out there and it’s all incredibly different. If there was one perfect wine, most wine stores would be very small indeed. Instead, the flavors and textures are all over the map. You can have California wines taste like French wines. Some French wines have decided to mimic their California counterparts. If you watched the VOX video, that’s the source of disagreement between Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson.

To oversimplify the issue, Robinson believes that red wine from Bordeaux should be red, and Parker gives his highest ratings to those that are almost black. Some people love espresso. Others prefer a pour-over. And each of those markets will have a different set of beans they prefer.

Stylistic differences of opinion don’t nullify the evaluations of our most talented critics.

The most important thing is to be entirely open and honest with your trusted wine merchant about what you like, what you don’t like, and really any feelings on wine, regardless of their rationality.

Which brings us to the second story, entitled 11 Things You Should Never Say In A Wine Shop. Hogwash, I say. Sure, I get where Gary Vee is coming from. He spent time on the front lines and it gets frustrating, I’m sure. But the thing is that you can’t change people’s minds unless they are open with their concerns.

So if you suspect that a screw top closure is the sign of an inferior wine, you should say something dammit. And if you’re not convinced, or if it just wouldn’t feel right to pour a glass of wine without pulling a cork, then you should let the merchant know. As we’ve just talked about, your feelings about the wine will effect how you perceive it to taste.

More than anything, a shopkeeper wants you to be happy with your purchase.

Then it’s just a question of where can you get great service from knowledgeable and passionate wine professionals. A lot of small wine shops have great people who can help you. But like finding a realtor, or a doctor, or a spouse, some of it comes down to chemistry.

I just went into the new wine shop in Troy, and loved it. But everyone has different tastes. I really dig the approach Heather has taken with her selection. And I especially love that the prices of the wines are front and center, written on each bottle with a chalk pen, so that it can be easily erased at the register.

Go into a wine shop ready to talk. Go in ready to learn. The conversation needs to be a two way street. How much do you want to spend? When is the wine going to be served? What kind of wines do you love, or hate. Will there be food to go with this wine, and if so, what? Do you want the wine to be the star of the show, or more of a supporting player? Are there going to be other beverages involved? The list goes on and on.

Don’t be afraid of making an ass of yourself. You probably will. But the more you learn, the less it will happen. And trying to pretend you know more than you do, will only prevent you from learning and feeling more comfortable in the wine shop. So be brave. Open up your mouth. And talk about wine without fear.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2015 11:31 am

    My brother is the perfect Thanksgiving guest. He shows up with half a case of wine and a bottle of single malt.

  2. Jack C. permalink
    November 13, 2015 2:26 pm

    I used to manage a liquor store in GA and, though we had a sommelier on staff, he only worked days and I worked the night shift. As such, I often found myself playing the role of “in-house wine expert,” as my employees were all college students more concerned about ABV than flavor profile. I’ve had loads of incredibly frustrating conversations with customers whose blindness towards the real value of screw-tops made them sound silly, but you walk them through it. There’s almost always a really good value to be had with both seals. I also question the folks who only drink wines from France or California, as some Australian shiraz, New Zealand sauv blanc, Spanish garnacha/rioja, Italian chianti/barolo($)/montepulciano, Argentine malbec/torrontes, Oregon pinot, New York riesling, etc. can all be amazing and at much better prices.

    So, yeah, it’s frustrating sometimes. But any salesman worth his salt should be able to help a customer find a wine s/he is happy with and that also satisfies the salesman’s more discerning and experienced palate. There’s no need to be snotty, no need to battle on every point, and there’s certainly no need to force your preferences down the customer’s throat.

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