Red Heron and Another Jeff Wine Rant
(Important note: This is a rant. If you don't know what a rant is, please look it up. I've discovered that I've had to warn some people, as it's a bit of a departure for me. Thank you.)
The mostly insipid Slate has (finally) knocked one out of the park: Mike Steinberger's recent four-part series on wine language and individual differences in how we taste things, including wine. Mike has confirmed for all time what I have long suspected: That bitter wine (including most Cabernets and nearly all Chardonnays) is shit wine. No, he didn't say that. What he confirmed is that the human experience of taste is not uniform—we don't all taste the same things the same ways.
Wine snobs generally assume that if they say a wine is spectacular and sublime, it is. If said wine makes Jeff gag for its bottomless bitterness, well, that's because Jeff is a yahoo red-stater with insufficient education and breeding to appreciate the spectacularly sublime whiff of cat piss and moldy oak floorboards. The possibility that bitter tastes overwhelm all other tastes in my mouth doesn't occur to them, because it doesn't happen to them, and of course their experience is normative. But now—OMG—one of the wine snobs has had the courage to admit it.
The series is informative and funny; read it all if you have any least interest in wine. Mike explains the current state of the art in flavor science, and how research seems to divide humanity into supertasters, tasters, and nontasters, who differ primarily in the intensity of their reaction to bitter flavors. (Here's another piece on the topic.) Then he lays waste to the whole concept by getting his sense of taste quantitatively tested, only to discover that the science as it applies to him points in all different directions: His genes, his tongue anatomy, and his sensitivity to bitter flavors do not agree. As is true in so many different areas, we find that in the subjective experience of flavor, we need more science, and better.
Wow. A wine critic has been forced to admit what most of us intuitively grasp: Each of us tastes what we eat and drink in entirely different ways. The standard language and uniform culture of wine enthusiasm are learned, and although they are weakly based on identifiable nuances in taste, the operative word is "weak." This language and culture are passed along as received wisdom and mercilessly enforced, though every so often a cultural power like Roald Dahl has the courage to call the whole pretentious business the nonsense that it is.
Here's the only thing you really need to know about wine, and it's as true of wine as it is true (as Professor Schickele says) of music: If it tastes good, it is good. Do not apologize for what you like, ever.
Let me throw yet another handful of mud into the faces of the wine snobs. Michigander Steve Salaba brought a bottle of St. Julian's Red Heron wine ($7 at Meijer's) to Chicago on his last trip here, and we tried it during dinner at Gretchen and Bill's last week. It's a semi-sweet, non-vintage blend of American red grapes and Concord grapes, and quite unlike anything we've ever had before. It's a wonderful summer grilling wine that goes beautifully with the hot dogs and hamburgers that Bill expertly flung about on the coals. Serve it chilled.
Red Heron is about 75% Concord, which is a taste you don't get much in wine because wine snobs hate Concord and have declared it bad in all its possible uses. According to them, Concord tastes "foxy." Umm...what does that mean? And is it really bad? The truth is that we're in circular reference territory here: Technically, "foxy" refers to the flavor of the Concord grape, an American native that was originally called the "fox grape." So the wine snobs dislike Concord grapes because they taste like...themselves. I suspect that it really means "reminds of us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which are unworthy fare for self-anointed cultural sophisticates." (One particularly pugnacious wine critic called the Concord grape a "mutant blueberry," though it really is a grape and tastes nothing like blueberries—or oak floorboards either, which we consider a big plus.)
Red Heron is not easy to find outside of Michigan, and I'm unlikely to get it once we return to Colorado. So it is with relish that I will recall sipping Red Heron from my grandmother Sade Duntemann's 1919 crystal goblets, between bites of Bill's most excellent hamburgers. Life is good, wine does not have to be dry, and your experience of wine—as with all of life—is unique. Let the wine snobs chew their floorboards with ecstatic praises. It works for them. You and I can see it otherwise without explanation or apology.