Several years ago, back in the unfortunately named mid-aughts, which sounds more like a shotgun-gauge measurement than a name for an era, my father and I attended a spectacular series of wine tastings held at the legendary (and now closed) Le Bec-Fin, the classic and much-loved temple of Gallic gastronomy that played a significant part in defining the Philadelphia dining landscape for decades. The Le Bec-Fin Wine Club, as it was known, was run by French Master Sommelier Christophe Tassan, one of the single most accomplished wine professionals I’ve ever known, and a man as kind and passionate as he is encyclopedic in his knowledge. Anyway, one night—Syrah Night—after pouring for the group a number of great examples from around the world (Rhône, Barossa, etc.), he then surprised us all by serving one from around the environs of Lake Erie, in northwestern Pennsylvania.
It was a delicious wine, peppery and expressive and balanced, and despite the surprise that we all initially experienced upon discovering what it was, this particular red won us over.
Except for the group of guys at the bar, a gaggle of three early-thirty-something idiots in overcompensating double-windsor tie-knots and shiny suits which, as far as I could tell, were so padded in the shoulders that they seemed to have been modeled on the pattern for the serious-career-woman jackets that Melanie Griffith wore with such no-nonsense insouciance in the 1988 movie “Working Girl.” One of the guys—we’ll call him Richard, just for the sake of argument—said to the other two, “Dude, I like this wine. It’s really smooth.” To which one of the other guys—also, for the sake of argument, Richard Jr.—replied: “I don’t know. I think I like it, but let me see what ___ says,” at which point he whipped out his BlackBerry, bounced his square-toed loafers, and started typing away with impressive click-volume, surprising given the fact that his thumbs didn’t look any more muscular or prehensile than anyone else’s, but whatever. Less than a minute later, he looked up from his phone and proclaimed, “Yep, I totally like this wine. ___ gave it 90 points, so it must be good. I was right to enjoy it!” Then they all high-fived.
Now, this whole Socratic rat-a-tat-tat was being conducted at a whisper so as not to disturb everyone else in the room, but if I have one super-power, it’s the ability to ferret out stupidity and pretentiousness even at the lowest volumes. I was dumbfounded. Didn’t they trust their own palates enough to say when they liked something? And if not their own sense of taste, then what about that of Christophe, who, being not only one of the nicest guys in the world but also having been awarded the Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2004, is essentially the wine-world equivalent of Mick Jagger and Frank Gehry and Albert Einstein all rolled into one? But no, Richard et. al. wouldn’t even think of proclaiming a single definitive word about the wine without the tacit approval of a score from a man they’d never met and probably wouldn’t have been able to pick out from a crowd of three.
Because wine carries with it a whole lot of unnecessary baggage…at least the way some people treat it. And for guys like Richard and his buddies, a bottle is rarely ever just a bottle to be savored and shared. It’s also, too often, a stand-in for their penises.
There: I said it.
Highly rated wine can be great wine. Expensive wine can be great wine. Expensive and highly rated wine can be life-changing and soul-affirming and thoroughly shift the way you see the glories of mother nature and what man is capable of doing when he works in concert with it. So, too, can less-expensive wine. The problem, as I see it, is when wine isn’t enjoyed on the merits of its flavor and aroma and expressiveness and the rest but, instead, as a signifier of something else. When the opinions of others, even of experts, are allowed to override your own personal sense of pleasure, your priorities are all wrong. Because no matter how many winemakers and vineyard managers I speak with around the world, they all tend to share the same foundational belief: That wine, no matter how high or low its pricetag, is meant to be enjoyed, usually at the table, and as often as possible with people you like. It’s your own personal taste that determines whether or not the wine is good, and worth your time and money.
Back in 2007, I had the insanely good fortune to taste with Angelo Gaja, the Piemontese genius who is the wine-world equivalent of, say, Sir Laurence Olivier, or Don DeLillo: A man whose impact on his field is impossible to measure because it’s been so significant. After tasting through a phenomenal range of his wines, and savoring every drop of them as I took my tasting notes, he then informed me that we’d be enjoying them with dinner that night as well at the wonderful restaurant La Contea, in nearby Neive. Because, he said, he wanted me to see what they tasted like with the local cuisine. So here was Angelo Gaja, a legend in his own lifetime, crafter of some of the most profound wines on the planet, wanting me to see how the fruit of his labor showed alongside tajarin and tartufi and the rest. That moment has stuck with me now for nearly a decade: The best wine, even the most exquisite and prized and valuable bottlings, are meant to be enjoyed, and shared, and, yes, paired with food. Not, as too many people would have you believe, fetishized and displayed and never opened up.
I’m reminded of this every month when I attend the tasting group that I’m lucky enough to be a member of, the Dead Guys Wine Society, when we gather in an unassuming-from-the-outside warehouse in Camden, New Jersey, where we enjoy wines that fit into whatever the theme of that particular evening is...alongside Philly soft pretzels, and Italian hoagies, and cheese eaten off of paper or plastic plates. (In other words, it's absolutely, thoroughly perfect.) Once a year, we savor the annual Bordeaux night, the wines for which are limited to First Growths and “Super Seconds.” The vintages usually slide back to the 1970s and beyond, and there are a number of important rules that govern the proceedings, including, among others: (a) No one gets seconds until everyone’s gotten firsts, (b) No pontificating about the wines; just enjoy them and discuss them but no declaiming from on high, and (c) Enjoy the experience itself. Which we all do, and because there is no pretense, and no sense of mine-is-better-than-yours, the juice in those bottles—and yes, it’s usually (but not always) pretty expensive juice, sometimes, depending on the vintage, worth a car payment or mortgage payment—is savored for what it is: A glorious expression of a particular year in a particularly blessed patch of the planet. When the cost of the bottle is not its defining characteristic, the path is cleared for it to be enjoyed that much more. Often, at our Dead Guys gatherings, with a glass in one hand and a cured-meat sub in the other. (There’s something beautiful about enjoying a $1000 bottle of wine alongside prosciutto and mozzarella on a sub-roll. And also a $10 bottle. Both have their merits.)
But Richard and Richard Jr., in their massively beshouldered suits and cheesy shoes at the bar at Le Bec-Fin, would never have understood that. It's their loss.
So, in this season of giving gifts and savoring great bottles with friends and family, remember: The value of a wine isn’t always tied to its cost or its rating, and great bottles exist at all price points and scores. Here, then, are a handful of wines, irrespective of price, that I’ve tasted lately that I strongly recommend. The pleasure they provide is immense, and all of them more than justify their cost, whether they’re $8 or nearly $50. I’d be happy to purchase them all, and honored to drink them with the people I love.
Sappy red berry and cherry fruit, kirsch, and coffee aromatics are kissed with a solid yet appropriate dose of vanilla, and lead to a palate nicely lifted with pomegranate-like acidity and anchored by coffee, chocolate, creme de cassis, kirsch, blueberry jam, and a singing dose of oak spice. Drink now - 2017. But now is probably better.
The minerality on the nose here is almost saline in nature, and reminds me (at the risk of sounding horribly florid and pretentious) of seashells that have dried in the sun after being picked up on the sand at the beach. Those notes are joined by a hint of lemon pith and turn to flavors of lemon flesh, nectarine, and then more mineral and a brininess. Drink now.
Honey, nougat and orange blossom aromas are joined by Marcona almonds that lift from the glass. Wonderful aromatics. On the palate, this is distinctly concentrated, with nectarine, pineapple, sweet and crisp yellow apple, honey, and slate-like minerality. Drink now - 2028+.
Staining dark-purple color. Aromas of dark cherry, melted licorice, cafe mocha, and a hint of grilled herb are rich and attention-grabbing. They turn to a palate that’s nothing short of phenomenal already at this stage of its evolution, though it is still a wine with more than a decade left to go if you want it more mature. Still, it’s drinking beautifully right now: It practically bursts with mulberry, dark-cherry liqueur, a hint flowers pushing up against the notes of meatiness in the middle, spice, cedar, sweet cigar tobacco, and baking spice. The oak is well-integrated and beautifully calibrated, and lends it both additional tannic depth and a nice vanilla-spice character. Gorgeous, and dripping with flavor. Drink now - 2030.