Tuesday, November 01, 2011

What makes a wine great?

"They say that life itself is really just the dead on vacation." - Tom Waits

Over the years my ideas about wines have changed a little. A lot less than I would have thought. Looking back over 35+ years of seriously tasting wine, there have been moments when I tasted greatness. What was it about those moments? Was it the stage the wine was in, a moment coinciding with its peak? Was it the season? Was it my physiology? Was it a magical confluence of all the above and more? Or was it just dumb luck?

What makes a wine great? It’s in the back of my mind all the time, a touchstone sought and rarely found. Not that the pursuit of great wines is my primary task. I must constantly taste and evaluate wines for my work that needn’t be great. They just need to be good enough, or good values, or in-offensive. Not all days are vacation days. But this is not the time for that discussion. Today, I am pursuing greatness. So what is it that evades these pages, darts about, zips off the screen like a dragonfly or a refraction from a light source? Where does one find this greatness factor?

Is it like our children, whom we think are beautiful, but the rest of the world sees their imperfections? Is it like the place we choose to live, which suits one, but repels another? A person perfectly happy to live in London. Another soul blissful in the searing heat of Tucson. People adapt, from the dreary dark drip of Seattle in March to the drought-ridden Texas Hill Country in August.

Wine is the aftereffect of place and grape. But greatness? Elusive and slippery.

The best way I can think to communicate this is to tell you about the greatest wine I ever had.

It was the 1964 Monfortino. Last tasted in 1981. But I remember it like it was yesterday. We were in Galveston, on the Strand, where the warehouse and main office of the first wholesale wine company I worked for was situated. It was autumn, and Galveston was humid but not tepid. Someone opened the wine, and we stood around for a taste.

My first impression was of a grainy texture. The wine had sediment. The aroma was flowery, like a pink rose in my grandmother’s yard in Southern California, one of those that, when the dew is still on it and the early morning sun warms it up, makes a sweet perfume, that is moist with a little steam rolling off the petals, the smell of the sun. Dipping deeper in the glass, a La Brea field trip balm, like melted licorice that is very mellow. And finally a little touch of unsweetened chocolate, which followed with the initial taste.

Preceded by a wave of thick, viscous, animal essence. Not vermin, but a prowler, like an impala. Nothing foul or rotten. Not yet. No, there was this sensation as if the most perfect animal on the savannah had been distilled, the fast runner, the sleek-bodied predator, captured in this red wine, a Nebbiolo only 17 years old at the time.

And then the finale. The compressed forest floor, leaf after leaf, a loving poultice interspersed with the purest, minute hints of rock and mud and gravel. Not to be left at the altar, the promenade to the end of the church was a glide from 1,000 feet with the velvety chute open, landing softly on a bed of chocolate rose petals.

Later, when I returned to the office from lunch, I saw the bottle still sitting there, half-empty, beguiling with its loneliness – silently, patiently waiting. I was slated to fly back to Dallas, but someone was driving me to the airport, so I moseyed over to the table and lassoed myself another taste.

Then I went outside to listen to the waves.

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