Wine writers & tastings — don’t make ’em like they use to

A friend from college days recently visited Tokyo, and I spent some time with him. We had enjoyed a rollicking, roistering youth together and had often heard the chimes of midnight and long afterwards.

In college we had thrown ourselves enthusiastically into the study of wine, both practical and theoretical, with emphasis on the former. Those were the days when the California wine industry — if one could call it that — was convalescing from the blight of Prohibition, which had done more damage than Phytoxera vastatis.

With some other students we had formed a wine club whose main purpose was to drink wine as part of our practical studies. Naturally, we discussed it, too, part of the theoretical side.

I broached a bottle of Clos Vougeot, 1969, when he came to my house. As we sipped it, we waxed senti­mental, a mood intensified by memories. We got on to the subject of the wine world of our youthful days and regretted that it had passed away. He was more vehement on the subject.

“You could count the number of wine writers on one hand then,” he said. “And they knew their stuff. None was flogging anything. Today they appear from no­where in droves, like earthworms after a rain.”

Yes, there was a large number of writers today, but perhaps it was because of the greatly increased number of wine-lovers?

“The wine writers don’t bug me as much as the instant-experts,” he growled. “They pretend to know all there is about wine and chatter about it in words I can’t even understand. Have you ever gone to what they call a wine-tasting nowadays?”

I had.  I had been to several over the years.

“I went to one at the country club near Los Angeles I belong to,” he went on. “It was the last one for me. They didn’t taste; they drank. There were no receptacles into which one could spit out the wine. They didn’t even know about that elementary requirement for a wine-tasting.”

That was true here, too. Few wine-tastings make provision for getting rid of the wine except through swallowing; so I don’t take them seriously any more.

“That’s what I mean,” he said. “At the one at my club, some goofball touted as an expert gave a talk that was full of holes, like saying only one yeast is involved in the fermentation and things like that. And all the while the audience was nodding sagely at each other.”

That happens here, too. But the audience does learn something.

“I’d like to know what it is,” he demanded. “And have you noticed how these instant-experts concentrate on California wines? Bring up a French or German wine, and they blink and wonder what you’re talking about. They wouldn’t be able to tell an Echezeaux from a Corton or a Rheingau from Das Rheingold.”

Surely, wine-lovers today are cognizant of the great wines of France and Germany.

“I’m speaking of the American instant-experts, which you erroneously identify as wine-lovers,” he shot back. “They drink California wine because it’s fashionable and proclaim themselves experts because that, too, is fashion­able.”

Fashionable or not, wasn’t it a good thing that a lot of people are getting interested in wine? Wouldn’t that eventually result in wine-making standards going up?

“Down, rather,” he replied. “California wineries are exploiting their ignorance so as to put out defective wines. Take the oak smell. They have convinced these instant-experts that to be able to detect oak makes them real connoisseurs. Who can fail to detect the oak in California wines? They reek with it.”

But in some French wines the vanillin is quite notice­able, too.

“Yes, but so blended with other aromas that it doesn’t become offensive,” he replied. “Have you noticed how those instant-experts go only for California wines? That’s because they’re afraid they might bump into real connoisseurs, who would uncover their ignorance hidden by their jargon.”

Wasn’t he being too harsh?

“Me harsh?” He laughed. “They’re harsh on me, offending me with their gabble in jargon. They’re the tools of wine-makers and wine writers, both of whom are making money off them. When I hear instant-experts conversing in their ridiculous language, I feel like throwing up.”

Was his peeve against the use of jargon?

“That certainly is one of them,” he admitted. He took a sip of his wine; then tilted the glass so that he could look at the color against the white tablecloth as background. “Look at that,” he said,” a beautiful, rich red.” He sniffed and closed his eyes for a moment. “And the aroma. It creates that bouquet-barrier which almost prevents me from drinking. I just want to keep on sniffing.”

He sipped, rolled the wine around in his mouth, swallowed a bit, sucked in a little air and swallowed the rest. He blew out gently through his nose. The flavor was magnificent. And that after-taste was great!”

So how would he describe the wine?

“Damned good,” he said. “Very damned good.”