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A Wine Dummy Becomes Cellar-Smart

Pete Wells doesn't know a lot about wine, but he knows what he likes. Or so he thought before a tasting session with a pro challenged his assumptions.

When I have friends over for dinner, I sometimes hear myself saying, as I crank the corkscrew, "I brought this up from the cellar this afternoon." Then I pause to let them picture the vast subterranean facility in which my wines are divided by region, subdivided by vintage, and further subdivided by minute shadings in quality that I compute by means of a scoring algorithm I invented (patent pending). Humidity, temperature and barometric pressure are diligently monitored by a white-jacketed Swiss technologist who sleeps no more than 45 minutes a night. All of this my friends must conjure in their own imaginations because I have never taken anyone to my wine cellar and I never will.

But I'm in a confessional mood, so I'll describe the reality. My apartment came with the use of a 10-by-eight basement storage space that has a broken transom window and a padlocked door. I bought utility shelves at Lowe's, stacked the top rows with drip-spattered paint cans and the bottom rows with bottles and—just like magic!—I had a wine cellar. I tell myself that the underground location automatically assures ideal temperatures, but the truth is that the room is hot in winter and stifling in summer. Those bottles would last longer if I stashed them under the hood of my car. It's handy having them around when the mood strikes, but because long-term storage in my cellar would be a death sentence for wine, I've never made a serious effort to stock up. All sorts of odds and ends wind up down there, forgotten. Then one day the whole scene started to look like one of those orphanages out of Dickens. I knew I had to become more disciplined about my wine buying. But if I was going to sink any money into my wine cellar, I wanted to be sure it reflected the wines I truly liked.

To get started, I made a list of wines I drink again and again (northern Italian reds, Alsace whites, Champagne from small producers) and those I never buy (Merlot, Pinot Grigio, American Chardonnay) and brought it to Jean-Luc Le Dû. For 10 years, Le Dû helped diners negotiate the hundreds of bottles on the wine list he curated at Daniel in Manhattan. Last year, he opened Le Dû's Wines in far-west Greenwich Village, where he specializes in small producers. During his years in the four-star trenches he'd learned diplomacy, so I knew he wouldn't laugh out loud at my list. At the same time, he doesn't have much patience for myths (he thinks it's silly to decant old vintages for hours), so I hoped he'd give me the straight truth with no frosting if I was on the verge of some big, expensive mistake.

I found Le Dû at a cubicle in the back of his shop, taking huge bites of pepperoni pizza and scrolling through the Burgundy ratings on burghound.com. On his desk were an empty bottle of Rioja from Heras Cordón, a half-empty bottle of Fanta and a full pack of Marlboro Lights that he was trying to avoid. In his days at Daniel he used to dress in tailored suits and French cuffs; today his shirt flapped untucked over jeans and his chin was fuzzed over with several days' growth of beard. His attention skittered all over the place. He quizzed the fiancée of one employee about their wedding, ran outside with another to discuss some nuance of the sales tax, and complained to a third that one of his contact lenses had dropped out. At last he scanned my list of preferences and said, "Okay. Fun!"

As we headed out to the sales floor, I admitted that I hadn't bought a Merlot, Pinot Grigio or American Chardonnay in years. I'd only been handed them at parties, which meant that I probably wasn't seeing them at their best. Le Dû nodded. So I asked him if he could challenge me on those three grapes, test my limits. What if I'd been missing out on some terrific drinking all this time?

I think of Merlot as that faceless, featureless, characterless red stuff that every single American learned to pronounce on the same day. Neither good nor bad, it's just there—like a pair of socks. Le Dû led me to a wall where he had stacked empty bottles, trophies, on a high shelf. "'47 Pétrus," he said, pointing. "'61 Pétrus. '61 Latour à Pomerol. These rank as some of the best wines I've had in my life. And they're all Merlot, or Merlot-based." I was aware, dimly, that these wines were made from Merlot in Bordeaux, but somehow I just thought of them as, I don't know, Bordeaux. And I like Bordeaux.

"Merlot had a very big wave of popularity in the '80s," Le Dû said. "You try, and some things work. Other things do not work. Some vineyards in this country are not very gifted for Merlot. Now you get some great Merlots in this country, just at a time when Merlot is being derided. It is a great grape when it is grown in the right place." American examples that Le Dû likes come from Duckhorn's Howell Mountain vineyard and White Cottage—both from elevations above 600 feet, "so they have more finesse," he said. But he wanted me to taste a Bordeaux, so he grabbed a 2002 Tour Simard, the second label from Pavie, the great St-Emilion château. It gave me everything I wanted in a red—a whiff of fresh berries, a taste of mouthwatering fruit, a silky texture and a distant reminder of farmland. Most surprising, to me, given that it was 70 percent Merlot, was how sharply defined it was—far from the muffled, blunt instrument I expected.

When it comes to California Chardonnay, "I think I'm kind of like you," Le Dû said. "A lot of them are overripe and a little too big." But he wanted me to taste what he called "my Chardonnay." Actually, the wine was crafted by Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat near Santa Barbara. Le Dû had only chosen the barrel and put his name on the label. He slid the cork out. We swirled our glasses, took deep breaths and tossed our heads back. The full-frontal tropical fruit flavors that I often found tough to take in California Chardonnays were there, all right, but they were restrained and were further lightened by a bright thread of acidity. I drank and drank some more. I should have hated this wine, but instead I wanted a case for my utility shelves. (No way; we were drinking one of the last bottles. As substitutes, Le Dû suggested Mount Eden, Failla and Ramey.)

"It must be the oak," I said. "Au Bon Climat doesn't use very much."

"No, it's not," Le Dû said. "Oak is much less of a problem now in American wine." Instead, he explained, what made this wine different was its level of ripeness. California Chardonnay vineyards are typically much warmer than those in, say, Chablis. Warm summers, not oak barrels, give the American wines that cloying, zaftig feeling. Le Dû, who likes leaner, more acidic whites, said that while he was at Daniel he made a habit of buying Napa Chardonnays from cooler vintages, the ones that most experts declared bad, like 2000 and 1998. The wines resembled the balanced white Burgundies he admired but were often cheaper.

By this time I expected Le Dû to defeat my expectations, so I had already half-surrendered when I asked, "Pinot Grigio—anything worth talking about there?" Right away he answered, "How about Pinot Gris? It's the same grape." I knew that too—I'm not a complete jackass, okay?—and was only moderately surprised when Le Dû led me to a Pinot Gris from Domaine Ostertag. The 2002 Muenchberg A360P (the odd code standing for the vineyard lot) was a memorable wine with heft and depth. I don't associate any of those traits with Pinot Grigio, which usually reminds me of light beer without the bubbles.

Like many a philistine before me, I've comforted myself with the notion that, while I might not know a lot about wine, at least I know what I like. My afternoon at Le Dû's was disturbing on both counts. Somehow I had blocked out large chunks of what I knew. Worse, I wasn't sure anymore that I knew what I liked. Some of my most strongly held preferences turned out to be prejudices, and dumb ones at that.

Fifty years ago I wouldn't have worried about Pinot Grigio unless I'd lived near Venice. If I was from Prague I would have hoisted a Pilsner with dinner; in Normandy I would have poured a cider; as a Wisconsinite, I would have washed down my meals with milk. As recently as the '70s, oenophiles could consider themselves experts if they knew about France, Germany and Italy. (In a pinch, the last two were expendable.) Today, of course, wine comes from all over the globe and all 50 states. Grapes that were once known only to botanists are now household names. It's an amazing time to be a wine drinker.

It's also a stressful time. A number of new books by social scientists have pointed out that an excess of choice can cause anxiety, unhappiness and even, in the words of one of them, "genuine suffering." At the very least, it can unhinge us to the point where we're incapable of making any decision at all. In one study, shoppers who were given samples of six kinds of jam were more likely to purchase one of them than shoppers who tasted 24. The additional samples, which should have helped consumers find one they liked, had jammed their circuits instead. I feel this way every time I walk into a record store; the longer I spend browsing, the more downcast I get, and pretty soon I leave empty-handed.

One way of avoiding such breakdowns is to reduce our choices voluntarily. This is a rational strategy, but it can be taken too far. Some people simplify their wine-purchasing decisions by 50 percent because they drink only reds. I've had these people in my house, I've sat in restaurants with them, growling under my breath (I hope it was under my breath) when they insisted we order warm Zinfandel in the middle of an August heat wave.

Others buy only whites. And some of these people make things even easier for themselves by calling all white wine Chardonnay. (Ask any bartender if you don't believe me; Chardonnay is sometimes used to mean white wine the way martini became a synonym for cocktail.) As a result, I decided Chardonnay was uncool and swore it off. Yes, this made my trips to the wine shop simpler. And, yes, I had tasted California Chardonnays that I found shapeless and overdone. But it's just as true to say that I was defining myself by banning Chardonnay. I was trying to advertise my own sophistication—and my superiority to Chardonnay's fans.

The simple joy of finding alcohol that tastes good had gotten mixed up with my desire to drink what the cool kids drink. The problem with these sophisticated prejudices is that they aren't sophisticated at all. They're coarse, unfair generalizations. (This is slyly pointed out near the end of the movie Sideways when Paul Giamatti's character, a Merlot basher, opens the bottle he's been hoarding for years, a Cheval Blanc that is roughly half Merlot.) Even drinkers far smarter than I am are not immune. Patrick Watson, who co-owns a serious little Brooklyn wine shop called Smith & Vine, told me he was biased against "mass-production wines, fancy labels, oak chips and a lot of that manipulation." For others, the villains are filtration and micro-oxygenation. In all these cases, we form judgments based on preconceptions rather than consulting the ultimate authority, our palates.

I'm just about ready to organize my cellar now. My old favorites will get shelf space, but some grapes I'd unfairly exiled will be invited in from the cold, too. My shopping trips might be more stressful, but a far wider range of potential pleasure will be my reward. Only one thing is holding me back. I'm waiting for Le Dû to recommend a really amazing White Zinfandel.

Pete Wells is a contributing editor to F&W. E-mail comments to him at pete.is.hungry@gmail.com.

Published October 2006
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