Thursday, May 8, 2008
Putting wine in context
"Wine's Pleasures: Are They All in Your Head?" asks Eric Asimov in yesterday's New York Times, reporting on a forthcoming book, The Wine Trials: 100 Everyday Wines Under $15 that Beat $50 to $150 Wines in Brown-Bag Blind Tastings. Even if a lot of wine drinkers prefer Two Buck Chuck to Dom Perignon, Asimov writes, there are some flaws in the book's approach. More significant is another study he mentions, "in which presumably sober researchers at the California Institute of Technology and the Stanford Business School demonstrated that the more expensive consumers think a wine is, the more pleasure they are apt to take in it."
I was interested in the article because I'd been carrying on my own unscientific study. A few weeks ago I went to the semiannual Wine Thing, a 100-bottle tasting offered by the Cabernet & Co. wine shop in nearby Glen Ellyn. I approach a wine-tasting as an educational experience: I pick a theme (a grape, a region) and see what I can learn. This time I focused on sauvignon blanc.
I rarely meet a sauvignon blanc I don't love. I'm especially fond of Marlborough wines from New Zealand, but I like Californian and South African versions too, and the cheap Chilean from Trader Joe's is delightful. It had occurred to me that I am insufficiently snobbish about sauvignons, and perhaps I should educate my palate.
So I sniffed and swirled and contemplated and discussed, and yes, the wines varied in complexity and interest; but at the end of the hour I liked them all. As the CIT researchers would have predicted, some of the more expensive bottles seemed to have a je ne sais quoi that the cheaper bottles lacked--but would those whiffs of gooseberry and licorice even be discernible once the wine was paired with food?
I decided to find out. I bought two bottles of sauvignon blanc: a Viñas Chilenas 2007 from Trader Joe's ($3.99) and a Mulderbosch 2006 from Binny's ($17.99). I put them both in the refrigerator at the same time so they would be equally chilled. I served them with a goat cheese and pear and spring greens salad, followed by tilapia baked in buttered panko and asparagus on the side.
My wine panel consisted of four non-experts who appreciate good food: male, 60; female, 59; female, 35; female, 21. Result: we all liked both wines.
The youngest panelist preferred the TJ. The other three found the Mulderbosch more interesting. The practical old guy suggested serving the more expensive wine to our more discerning friends but sticking with TJ for everyone else (when you come to dinner, you'll know what we think of your palate ...).
As research, our evening was fatally flawed by the fact that all four of us knew what we were drinking, and how much it cost. We discussed the wines among ourselves and no doubt influenced each other's opinions. None of us is a wine expert, nor can we afford to be.
But as an evening among friends, we had a great time. We told stories, we laughed, we enjoyed good food. And ultimately, says Asimov, "the food, the company, the environment" are more important than a wine's price or rating. "Context," he writes, "may be the most underrated aspect of enjoying wine."
Asimov quotes Tyler Colman, a wine writer whose new book A Year of Wine: Perfect Pairings, Great Buys, and What to Sip for Each Season is scheduled for a November release: “'The mood and the food and the context really matters,' he said. 'It’s the neglected pairing.'”