Introducing "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.
Last week, I professed my love of White Castle hamburgers, a food that sits on the lowest rung of the culinary ladder. So, in the interest of sealing my fate as an unworthy food enthusiast, I shall profess the following: I think wine is a farce. It's a folly -- nothing more than conjured drama and sophistication that gives importance and status to something no more status-worthy than any other item in the grocery store.
I confess to being more than just a bit contemptuous of wine, wine culture, our collective obsession with wine, the wine industry, and the general compulsion to spend much time talking about wine. Sure, I like it and drink it, but dare I say that I think wine culture is utter and complete bullshit, a result of a supremely effective marketing machine?
In his book The Accidental Connoisseur, Lawrence Osborne discusses an "important" wine that has been described by oenophiles as "bright." His subsequent quest to define what "bright" really means yields exactly what one might expect, that there are as many definitions of "bright" as there are wines on the shelves at BevMo, and probably more. What constitutes "good wine," like anything, is as subjective as your favorite color or your preferred pair of running shoes. The fact is, we like what we like and really shouldn't feel compelled to have to define it or describe it further. It is what it is. But people feel compelled to talk about wine. And talk. And talk some more. It's downright tedious.
To have legit foodie credentials -- especially in the world of fine dining -- you're expected to love wine. A high-end meal is expected to be accompanied by wine, and restaurants and home chefs alike go through insane theatrics to solidify that point. How many times have you seen the detectable disappointment on a sommelier's face when you're at an expensive restaurant and you order a beer? I just don't understand why wine is so important or why it is any different and deserves more mindshare than any other item that might be at the table or on the menu.
I postulate that fewer than 1 percent of the people that read this are able to look at the wine list in a given restaurant and be able to coherently articulate why the Pinot Noir from Carneros is a better pairing with your entrée than the one from Oregon or Chile. Like most people, I choose a price point at which I'm comfortable and then I pick a name or region that sounds good. The argument that one wine is "better" than another will never resonate with me.
Almost without fail, people will say "talk to the sommelier and let them guide you. You're just out of your element, Eric." But, for me, that has never worked. Sure, I always like what the sommelier recommends, but I'm inclined to believe that there are 20 other options on a wine list that I'd like just as much.
Truth be told: My favorite wine is whatever glass is sitting in front of me.
In my 20 years of legally consuming alcohol, there are very few -- if any -- wines that I didn't like. When I traveled around Europe on a budget, we always would order the "house wine." It always tasted good, yet no one spent any time discussing it. Food and beverage are inherently situational; a $10 bottle of wine might taste better than Chateau Lafite Rothchild when you're overlooking the rolling hills of Tuscany and it's all you've got.
While gathering my thoughts for this column, I mentioned my sentiments about wine to someone that, much to my surprise, felt the same way. "Maybe I just don't know enough about it," he lamented. But would knowing more about it make it taste any different? Does knowledge change your palate? Any why do you need to know more than whether you like it or not, be it Bartles & James or Beaujolais? It seems that the need for knowledge is almost exclusively applicable to wine. As if the more you know, the more you'll enjoy wine. Sometimes knowing too much about something takes all the fun out of it.
My contempt for the culture of wine is not intended to disrespect or in any way negate the blood, sweat, and personal sacrifice that goes into the winemaking process. It is tedious, laborious, costly, and often done purely for the love of the product. There are a few who have gotten rich by making wine, but countless more who have not. I wholeheartedly respect anyone who makes any product with passion, craftsmanship, and dedication. A handcrafted wooden boat might be slow, but it's far more exciting, beautiful, and worthy of my adoration than a speedboat.
But wine is just too snobby. I groan when a restaurant refers to its "wine program." Really, it's a program now? And there's the spectacle of decanting, which is a beautiful show involving some lovely glassware but relevant to only a fraction of the wines in the world that have been bottled up long enough to truly benefit from oxidation. (A wine-loving friend told me this.) But I can still think of a few restaurants in town that decant with reckless abandon.
You might think that I'm just complaining and prone to whining (pun intended), but I can assure you that there are plenty of other topics that I complain about. Don't even get me started on how people only love dolphins because they have permanent smiles on their faces and better PR people than other sea mammals. Don't you know that dolphins are prone to infanticide? And then there's the subject of dinosaurs, something that every kid is supposed to be fascinated with even though no one has seen a dinosaur in eons. But everyone loooooves dinosaurs. Like dolphins and dinosaurs, wine gets way too much attention and undeservedly so. The wine people have better PR people than just about any other product that goes into our body.
Clearly, there are some people who are better-equipped to appreciate wines more than others. Perhaps their anatomy or biology or some combination of both predisposes them to better detection of flavor, terroir, and nuance. But as uncomfortable as it may be, many more of us obsess about wine because it makes us feel important, sophisticated, and cultured. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Besides, who am I to judge? I like White Castles and hot dogs from Costco.