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In Vino, Very Unsure
How do we ever really get to know wine? Sometimes, maybe not knowing is okay.
Today’s newsletter is by our regular contributor Alexandra McInnis, who is co-creator of the Alpine Wine Society newsletter. Alexandra works at Crush Wine & Spirits in New York, and began her wine journey after a career in the film industry.
It was a few weeks after I had taken my first job in wine when I was approached at the store where I work by a young man in gym shorts. “Hey,” he said, “you guys got any PEE-WHY-SEE-EM?”
“Puh-puh-wha-what?” I replied.
I would learn that my customer of few words was in fact looking for wines made by Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, a hotshot domaine in Burgundy famed for its whites from Chassagne-Montrachet. It wasn’t long before I understood that one, “PYCM” was a legitimate acronym to use and not some de-facto signal of entitled irreverence (that comes down to the individual customer), and two, that the domaine was a name. And when a wine is a name, it elicits its own kinds of buying patterns. Over time, I saw customers make plays for more than their fair share of these heavily-allocated bottles, presumably for the investment potential. I sold the wines to people who didn’t know the difference between Burgundy and the Northern Rhône, but were willing to shell out hundreds of dollars on either during a casual weekday shopping trip.
Once, I fulfilled an online order for a bottle of PYCM sent by a man to a woman, with a gift note that simply read, “I’m sorry.” This annoyed me greatly, mostly because it made me think of all the grievances I’ve suffered that haven’t resulted in a $200 bottle of Burgundy arriving at my doorstep.
It was perhaps these types of interactions that colored my perspective on the domaine, and by the time I actually got around to trying any of the wines, I confess that I was already set on thinking that they were bruisers. I remember tasting the 2014 Chassagne-Montrachet Abbaye de Morgeot and remarking to myself with satisfaction that it confirmed everything that I had already believed— the wine was impressively made, but made to be impressive. It was flexing its muscles. I mentally placed PYCM in a separate box from the wines I was trying to associate myself with, which is to say wines of a more discreet, more poetic beauty.
Recently, Pierre-Yves Colin’s son Mathis came to work a brief stint at our store. One evening towards closing time, my boss told me that Mathis had brought in a bottle of the 2015 Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets, one of the premier cru vineyards in the appellation. I accepted my glass and returned to my desktop in the back office. I took a sip. It was extraordinary. It was as though all of the elements were working together in rare, flawless harmony, from the aromas to the body to the finish. And while the wine shone, it was anything but flashy; its perfection seemed somehow essential and inherent, perhaps even divine. Moreover, it spoke to having been made by people who were not after prestige, but rather by people who sincerely loved wine and everything it could be. I felt real tears form in my eyes.
I generally subscribe to the idea that the wine is secondary, that it’s really about the people you drink it with, but I’m pretty sure I could have been sitting across from half of the inmates at ADX Florence and this wine still would have taken my breath away. There was a bottle of red sitting open that night, but I refused to touch it; I just wanted the taste of 2015 Caillerets lingering in my mouth.
As I rode this high through a quick post-work sweep through Trader Joe’s and then my walk home, I realized with some giddiness that I had misjudged PYCM. I simply hadn’t known the wines. Since that night, I’ve become acquainted with a few more excellent offerings from the domaine, including the 2009 Meursault Les Perrières, and the 2008 Meursault les Narvaux. But it’s the 2015 Caillerets that will still occupy a special place in my heart as that singular, revelatory wine.
All of this has come to raise the question for me: How do we ever really get to know wine? We learn by tasting, surely, but there are too many wines in the world to try them all, every vintage. More than 11,000 wineries exist in the U.S. alone. Even knowing the wines you’ve already tasted is a challenge, since wine is constantly evolving in the bottle, so what was spectacular five years ago could have already dimmed by now. This is the context for a wine professional tasked with informing the public which wines are good or not, as in, worth drinking, and worth buying.
There’s not an easy formal path to getting there, either. A lot of major wine education programs favor a well-rounded knowledge instead of a more nuanced one, placing more or less equal weight on all the major wine regions of the world. And while there’s value in comparing Chardonnays from regions as various as Walker Bay, South Africa, and Adelaide Hills, Australia, and Santa Barbara, and Burgundy, the academic side still can’t speak to the relative quality of the individual bottlings from those regions.
Meanwhile, anyone who works in a customer-facing job in wine can tell you that knowledge often works against people more than it works in their favor, when tidbits of information get conflated with absolute truths. For example, the idea that a wine shouldn’t be opened if it’s too young, when really, most Barolos aside, there are very wines out there where there isn’t something to be gained from drinking them after they’re released. Or sometimes I’m asked if the wine came from a good year, and as I try to formulate a definitive response, what I really want to say is that a good year won’t save a mediocre wine, and that some of the most fascinating wines can come from so-called off-vintages, because their success is a testament to how well the winemakers react to the hand that they’ve been dealt. Unsurprisingly, “sometimes, maybe, not always” isn’t an acceptable answer to customers when their own money is involved, but it is unfortunate to see people get boxed in by their (usually) well-intentioned efforts to know something.
On the flipside, there are also plenty of people out there who proudly admit that they don’t know much about wine, but who also seem convinced that those of us in the business don’t actually know anything, either. They can name only three or four different types of grapes, possibly without even knowing that they’re grapes, but they know about the Judgement of Paris, or, “that thing where they found out that the French wines weren’t better than the California wines.” They know humiliating tales of blind tastings, and stories of wine forgers who swindled connoisseurs for years with bottles of swill.
This type of ingrained skepticism might sound demoralizing, but I think a huge part of wine is getting comfortable with not always knowing. I left the entertainment industry amidst greater pressures of predictability through metrics, as more and more studios got subsumed by bigger, publicly-traded telecommunications conglomerates. After spending countless hours on Powerpoint presentations designed to convince management that their employees knew exactly what was going on at all times, there was something refreshing about watching even an experienced taster take a sip of wine and silently grapple with what they held in their glass.
I’m led to think of the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise: “I know myself…but that is all.” Sometimes, not knowing is okay. With a wine like the 2015 Caillerets, it can be glorious.