The Cardinal Rule of Wine Appreciation

Progress Imagine the consequences of assuming—worse yet, believing—you had already tasted the best wines you'll ever taste.

I've been thinking about the meaning of this disastrous state of mind. I've been thinking about the necessity of assuming the next day or next wine will be better than the last. I've concluded that despite past disappointments or even the experience of soaring wines and seemingly unparalleled moments, if we don't assume these things and moments can be eclipsed by what's to come, then we might as well choose to start phoning in our lives.

I've drunk great wines. Old wines. Rare wines. Wines at their peak. I've drunk 30 vintages of the same wine in the very cellar within which they were all crafted. I've many times exclaimed, "this must be the best X I've ever tasted." And yet I can't bring myself to say I've tasted the best wines I'll ever taste any more than I could claim in some morbid Fitzgeraldian mood that my best years are behind me. To do either would be to give up…on everything.

But the hard part about taking this philosophical approach to one's wine tasting life is to actually believe it. To simply state it, as I have above, is merely an expression of the value and necessity of optimism. To truly believe the next wine will be the best or the next day will be better than the last or that the greatest time or greatest love of my life is in my future is to choose to embrace the primary approach to life necessary to be a true and well-rewarded wine geek: That progress is real and good.

Imagine the winemaker who believes his best wines are behind him. Would you trust his wines? Would you trust him to make the right decisions about barrel aging, bottling dates, blending trials or anything else? If you knew he believed the past could not live up the future or even the present, is there any reason to believe he'd be willing to put his full effort into the production of these "not ever as good wines"?

You'd be startlingly dumb to put any faith in the works of such a person, as you would their wines.

The optimistic belief in progress can't possibly be replaced by the opposing philosophy of despair without also embracing mistrust. If the winemaker doesn't believe he'll ever make a better wine than he already has or if the wine critic believes the best wines ever made were crafted in the past or if the wine aficionado believes either of these propositions, then you know that mistrust is lurking about.

This isn't just an observation by a wine blogger with too much time on his hands. This obvious call to live under a cloud of optimism where wine loving and simple living is concerned occurs at a time when, upon reflection of things past and things present, I realize that the joys of wine, life, love and family are actually more easily experienced than I recently believed. 

Furthermore, I realized that holding the belief that that the next best wine is just down the road is surely the only way to encounter that wine.

Not being much of a religious man I don't put much faith in faith. But neither do I possess the kind of arrogance to declare that faith in things unseen is a pathology. The next best wine is, by definition, not in front of you. It doesn't yet exist until it is actually in your mouth and melting your tongue into a state of bliss. Nor is the heart melting, life-long love of your life or the life affirming presence of familial and fraternal bliss really at your disposal and a real thing until you've run into it head first.

Though I'm sure and I know that all these things are possible, the irony is that without an optimistic faith in their arrival on your palate or in your life, they cannot be encountered.

And so it appears that the cardinal rule of wine appreciation, and even of the appreciation of your own life, is to have faith and believe that the best wine and the best life is just down the road.

Don't mistake this blogger's little epiphany as a restatement of "the grass is always greener" philosophy. That's not what this is. It's not that because the question that must follow the Cardinal rule of wine appreciation and life is this: when your optimistic faith finally does puts you in touch with tongue-melting bliss or your life-long love or the unparalleled moment of fraternal and familial love, what can a person with a faith in the goodness of progress do to keep their encounter with perfection part of their life while continuing to move forward in anticipation?


18 Responses

  1. Samantha - September 1, 2009

    Beautifully said Tom. The death of desire is the beginning of “it’s all downhill from here”…truly a sad and inspiration killing thought.

  2. Charlie Olken - September 1, 2009

    There is something slightly wistful, verging on morbid here, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I am wondering if Mr. Wark is worried that he has tasted his last DRC or D’Yquem or Screaming Eagle (OK, forget that last entry).
    I say this because I taste thousands of wine a year and I never worry about when I will taste the next greatest wine of my life. Perhaps it is because I have already tasted so many wines that were great for all kinds of reasons–and I remember them all with a fondness that I might otherwise reserve for my kids and grandkids.
    People ask me all the time, as they do to almost anyone who has been in this business for any period of time, “what is the greatest wine you have ever tasted”, and I have never been able to answer that question. I have fifty or one hundred answers, and it may surprise you to know that they range from the DRCs and D’Yquems of this life to my first encounter with great Bordeaux (66 Las Cases, because it was first) to $10 blind discoveries like Cycles Gladiator and Castle Rock.
    There is always great wine to taste. That is the beauty of our business. I don’t worry about where my next great bottle is coming from or when it will arrive. I prefer to limit my philosophical rambles to this. I get to spend my days tasting wine. It matters not that a tasting of twenty Pinot Gris turns out to be totally unremarkable or a tasting of Syrah reveals great bottles from the hands of Rocca and Paul Hobbs. I love the grandeur, but I love more the opportunity to live this life.

  3. Niels - September 1, 2009

    Way too complicated (but worth reading). Tomorrow there will be good wines to taste. Taste them before your time runs out!

  4. Samantha - September 1, 2009

    Another thing to keep in mind is a great wine moment can be situational. You can be drinking a great wine, one that you have had before but it can be elevated to “greater” status when seasoned by the situation…a facinating conversation, an amazing sexual encounter, a hard belly laugh, falling in or out of love, these things are not predictable and there are no tasting notes on what is happening outside the bottle.

  5. bob asher - September 1, 2009

    Tom –
    You bring up a very interesting “life imitates wine” topic. I’m not sure if I should quote james Taylor “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time” or Winston Churchill “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
    I agree that you can’t assign a Parker rating to every life experience or every wine because you never know what future event or bottle may re-calibrate everything that has come before.
    Much to think about.

  6. Tom Wark - September 1, 2009

    Nice response. It turns out I don’t worry about where the next great wine will come from. But, I do know that If I don’t believe it is out there, then it surely won’t be.

  7. Tom Wark - September 1, 2009

    Always the sage, you. But of course you are right. The question of what makes a wine great was not in my thoughts today. Had it been, I would have made the same point you just made. But I think just as we must believe the next great wine is down the road, we must also believe that down the road we will also finally find a great conversation, sexual encounter, belly laugh or the love of our life. If we don’t believe this, it surely won’t be there.

  8. Marc Stubblefield - September 1, 2009

    Always true, in wine and life…
    I believe that Therry Theiss said, regarding discovering and tasting wine, “It isn’t perfection we need to look for; it is imperfection, because the assumption of imperfection is the precondition for the miracle.”
    Good advice in wine, good advice in life.
    (Not sure where I got that quote, assuredly on the internet somewhere, so take the attribution and accuracy with a grain of salt.)

  9. Ron Washam, HMW - September 1, 2009

    Wow, such deep thoughts. Makes me feel downright shallow. Which, of course, I am. Where’s Randall Grahm when we need him?
    I always remember the words of the great Tom Lehrer, “Life is like a sewer–what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”
    In all but the darkest souls, it is hardwired into us to expect that greatness–in wine, in love, in our sports teams–is right around the corner. We are forever hopelessly trying to peek around that corner. Not sure any of what you say is a cardinal rule, unless you’re from St. Louis, but hell, there’s always time to waste thinking about it.
    The only sure thing in life is that you never have the slightest idea where it’s going or when it’s ending. Sort of like a Pynchon novel or one of my blog posts. But you do have the choice to enjoy the ride or not. I mostly choose not to.

  10. Charlie Olken - September 1, 2009

    It was also Tom Lehrer who said in his song about “Scouting”, apropos of expecting the next great wine or great sexual encounter to be just around the corner, “If you are walking through the woods looking for adventure of a new and different kind and you come across a girl scout who is similarly inclined, don’t be nervous, don’t be flustered, don’t be scared. Be Prepared”.
    That is Mr. Wark’s message, I believe. He is out there looking for that girl scout (figuratively, of course).

  11. Dylan - September 1, 2009

    You sure know how to take all the fun out of life, don’t you? Of course, I’m being sarcastic. I agree with Tom. If we have nothing to look forward to, and that includes believing there is something to look forward to, then we’ll stop moving entirely. By the very fact that it’s impossible for one human being to taste every wine ever made in their lifetime speaks to the possibility of a new unseen turn, as much as it does for life in general.

  12. LG King - September 1, 2009

    That’s like saying…”you have alrady met the greatest person you will ever meet”.

  13. Thomas Pellechia - September 1, 2009

    Being of the Italian bent, as I am, I accept each moment as THE experience.
    The concepts of what was and what can be are the cause of unnecessary anxiety, not to mention the basis for great disappointments.

  14. The Wine Mule - September 1, 2009

    I have yet to meet any winemakers who feel their best wines are behind them. Frankly, I don’t know how you could stay in the business and feel that way.
    I’ve been lucky enough to taste many great wines, but it has never crossed my mind that I’ve already had the best I’ll ever taste. Have you considered Prozac?

  15. Jack, Chief Inspector, Wine Blog Police - September 1, 2009

    Do I have to call your wife and have her take away your BOLD key? Note that EVERY newspaper and magazine does not bold every other paragraph. Not one of the 240 somethings blogs I read do this, except you. Only you think it’s okay to do this. It’s not. Think of the children!

  16. Samantha - September 1, 2009

    Am I the only one NOT botherd by the bold thing? If anything it is a distraction, like telling me, “this is the important part” but it never bugs me. Bold away me amigo.

  17. Ms.Drinkwell - September 2, 2009

    Heavy stuff. Although I consider myself to be an optimistic person who appreciates wine, I am not necessarily motivated by thinking the next wine will be “the best.” I like tasting surprising, unexpected, quirky, sometimes even flawed wines as much as I do those few that are sublimely, heart-stoppingly fantastic. Because without the former, how could I have any real appreciation or reverence for the latter? For me “the best” in wine comes in the form of the aggregation and diversity of my vinous discoveries, and that I am lucky enough to taste again tomorrow.

  18. Web Design Services UK - September 5, 2009

    While we taste the Wines then it is obvious that in our mind there will be some thing that we will think before drinking for the taste of the Wine. A nice thinking for the taste you mentioned in the article.

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