LANGUAGE OF THE HEART: A TALK WITH DEBORAH HANSEN
[NOTE: this long post will be a 2-weeker, as your humble author will take a break from blogging and recharge the ol’ cerebellum. See you on the 31st.]
In Brookline, MASS, there is a restaurant called Taberna de Haro. Its proprietor is one Deborah Hansen, and Deborah Hansen’s wine list is the most passionate and beautiful wine list I have ever seen.
The restaurant is unaffected; it isn’t the upscale side of Spanish cuisine; rather, as Ms. Hansen describes it, “the authentic Spanish tapas and raciones you love,” and the vibe is more neighborhood-y than urban-sophisticated, though guests come from all over greater Boston to eat the yummy food. The wine list is all Spanish, uncompromisingly so, no nods to “must-offer” categories such as California or even Champagne. That’s noteworthy enough, but what’s really inspiring and honestly, remarkable, is the document itself.
Every single wine is described. And not merely with a few words, but rather with what can only be described as an outpouring, full of love and evocation and poetry, gorgeously extravagant and uninhibited. And this is no small wine list, but rather a 300-item kind of soul-survey of the entirety of Spanish wines. You would need two hours to read it cover to cover. I sometimes want to go there by myself, ask for the list and say “Hey guys, just bring me some food, whatever’s fresh tonight, and I’ll just sit here reading this amazing thing…”
Why does such a thing exist? Easy, because Ms. Hansen is a born writer, a fulsome wine lover, a sort of savant of Spanish wine, and she wanted to indulge her passion. The why of it, that’s the easy question.
I’m more interested in the how, as in, how can such a thing exist? It flies in the face of every conceivable business logic, and the thing is so beautifully rich that I can scarcely imagine it is perused as it deserves to be. After all, this is a restaurant, people go to eat dinner and hang out with their friends. And there in the background, sitting quietly on a service-table or some such place, is this symphony to wine.
Obviously I am drawn to mavericks. This you know about me. Some mavericks are bad-ass and they’re huge fun, because who can resist a person who says “Don’t tell me what I can’t do; I’ll show you what can be done…” Catnip to a guy like me, both because of my innate temperament and because I needed people who’d work with “unpopular” wines and not be deterred by the usual obstacles. Deborah has a bit of this in her too – but only a bit. With her it’s different; her devotion to her beloved wines (and the culture from which they emerge) is categorical, irresistible, it’s like limerence, it makes you a little crazy but it shows you where your heart is.
So I set about to talk with Deborah. I had a few questions, but the questions mattered less than the origin-story of this singular gesture of the soul. I said something like, “OK, your wine list. (pause) So, just tell me….”
DEBORAH: Why THIS wine list? I was so completely smitten with Spain back in the 80's, and my involvement with this country just grew. I returned again and again, mostly to Madrid but also to visit every corner of this stunning nation.
TERRY: I know what that’s like.
DEBORAH: Ultimately I did a Masters program in Spanish Literature, plus my sommelier title, and I owned and operated a restaurant there for 5 years. I had my two children during this stretch, with my Spanish (ex) husband. The '80's became the 90's and the Spanish wine world was roaring, demanding attention like never before.
Visits to wineries as well as some of the lectures in my sommelier classes showed me that Spain had a complicated relationship with France.
TERRY: How so?
DEBORAH: Although there is admiration and appreciation, there is also jealousy and resentment. There is both real and perceived preferential treatment by the EU that favors northern wine producers over southern, the prime example being chaptalization. A professor pointed out that while Spain was being forced to rip out vines to decrease production, “northern wine-producing regions were allowed to irrigate and chaptalize, which greatly - and unnaturally - increases production. His ire was palpable and contagious. And, he continued, if they must chaptalize, why can't the EU require them to use grape sugar instead of beet? High levels of ripeness (sugar) are guaranteed in La Mancha and other hot growing areas. The EU made Spain rip out hectares of vines deemed inferior (and yes, the wine produced in these zones was quite often inferior), but they would have been perfect for making grape sugar or sweet must. If northern growing regions are allowed to chaptalize, why not use grape sugar that they could get from us, so we wouldn’t have to rip out our vines?”
It was just so disrespectful. Grape-derived sugar would be more natural for wine than beet-derived, and would allow the hot zones to have a market for their high brix grapes instead of forcing families to literally uproot their livelihoods. That’s how I got introduced to the politics of wine as it intersects with geography, climate, and national interests, and it piqued my desire to be an ambassador for Spanish wine.
TERRY: Thou noble warrior!
DEBORAH: I love to feel needed…
TERRY: Believe me, you are needed, more than you might know. But please continue.
DEBORAH: Spanish wine had quickly become my passion, and once I was stateside again, it was a way I could stand out. The only all-Spanish wine lists I had ever seen were the concise ones in small Spanish restaurants, so I wanted to create one big enough to show the breadth and depth of Spanish wine. What started out in 1998 with 40 wines has grown into a book of over 300 offerings, each with a description written by me. Always.
TERRY: At the risk of fawning, that “always” is really awfully touching. I was always secretly pleased most keenly when someone said they read my catalogues and loved them. It sounds like it really makes you happy to write those descriptions.
DEBORAH: It’s my absolute favorite task, for I simply LOVE describing wine on paper. And now on Instagram, I must admit. After a glass or two I really get my head and palate into a kind of kaleidoscope where the wine evokes memories of smells, tastes, and even tactile sensations. Those wintergreen berries I loved to crush and then sniff as a child? They might emerge from some inner fold of my brain and spring back into my consciousness. That tidal pool that intrigued me in Maine? It roared into a tangible smell-form when I drank an utterly riveting bottle of 2014 Os Pasás from Ribeiro, Galicia just last week. The burned roast beef ends; the pansies and the dirt on a cool spring day; the post-rain petrichor smell; the blackberries that scratched me up so one muggy Martha’s Vineyard afternoon; the cucumber splash of a Pacific oyster; the elusive perfection of the dark cherry surrounded by much more tart and red ones; the unsatisfying syrup on a cheap ice cream dessert; my hands after picking tomatoes; my puppy’s paws; trampled herbs on a hike in Guadalajara, Spain; lilies of the valley. Any smell I’ve ever experienced may leap to my mind when I taste a wine that moves me. My world of smells is one of my joys.
TERRY: I thought I was the only one to use “petrichor” in a tasting note, or to refer to the crusty-end-cap of a roast as a special discrete fragrance. But I think you go farther than I do; it sounds like you live in a miasma of scent.
I hate to leave that compellingly lovely world, but can we look at how this all translates into ordinary practice? For example, do you see your list as a “sales tool” or is it just something you’re soul-driven to do regardless of its impact on the business?
DEBORAH: Actually the list is both a sales tool and a teaching tool. Obviously it expresses my passion for Spanish wine, but it also helps me to dispel facile myths and stupid soundbites. Spain is where the casual consumer and also the accomplished wine professional are least familiar, and often have to resort to dubious sources to be informed.
TERRY: Really? Still? I thought it’d gotten trendy at least for a while.
DEBORAH: Wine books and articles have historically included Spain in broad-strokes but not in fine detail nor at length. There’s a lot of misinformation. I sat in a wine lecture with an MW who shall remain nameless who declared that Lopez de Herédia was completely out of step because they leave their wines in barrel for twenty years. I raised my hand to dispute this absurd fallacy, and he ignored me. Lopez de Herédia emphatically does NOT leave their wine in barrel for 20 years, rather they have the capacity to age in bottle for 20 years (and beyond) thanks to perfectly timed harvests of healthy, well-tended vines grown in exceptional soils, skilled winemaking that dates back to 1877, and up to 5 years in barrel for their Gran Reserva wines. My blood boiled for some months after this ridiculous encounter! When Eric Asimov took a huge shining to Spain some years back, things got a little brighter. Today, you’re right, Spain gets more of the attention she is due.
TERRY: “Nevertheless, she persisted…”
DEBORAH: Part of my mission has always been to show people Spain’s most interesting wines, not just her most popular or highly rated. Wineries with bloated marketing budgets, which all too often correlate to bloated wines, can put themselves in front of the point-anointers and quickly gain notoriety. Back in the late 90’s and early 00’s as California and Australia made their splashes and their millions with dense, purple wines (that’s actually how I like my duck breast, not my wine), Spain with her hot sunny climates was able to imitate this style and join the fad. Flashy and pricey, and offered up as they were in those thick bottles that denote, “Yeah, I got bucks,” the overripe, modern wines of Spain became the new mode. Words like ‘fruit-bomb’ supplanted ‘elegant’ and I cringed every time someone ordered a fruit bomb in my Spanish restaurant. New French oak became the benchmark flavor (and driver of the high prices), and the subtle nuances lent by older American oak barrels, whose job it is to gently cradle the wine, were now the has-beens. The upside was a new stream of euros coming into needy agricultural communities; the downside was the new crop of misunderstandings in the Spanish wine world. I had new fodder for people I wanted to enfold into my flock of wine drinkers thirsting for something that would peacefully challenge them while giving them a new and maybe truer experience. At the table I’d say “Have the pear poached in red wine for dessert if you’re looking for a fruit bomb. Try this captivating crianza from Rioja whose fruit is vivid but not sweet and the oak is background music and not a gong, if you're looking for a great wine experience. And, it will harmonize with all these dishes you’ve ordered.” It almost always worked.
TERRY: That must have felt satisfying. Especially in this all-tastes-are-equally-valid-drink-what-you-like-stop-fussing-about-“pairings.” Then again your list is an embarrassment of riches for we who appreciate what used quaintly to be known as “food-friendly” wines.
DEBORAH: These days I have literally hundreds of Spanish bottles to choose from as Spain makes her wine increasingly more luminous and mineral. I’m thinking of Luis Rodriguez of Ribeiro and his gorgeous A Torna dos Pasas, young wines such as Mibal from Ribera del Duero and Luberri from Rioja, the fine and maverick work of Comando G near Madrid and the bravery of Tomeu Llabres of Mallorca with his Supernova wines, the supreme elegance of Leirana’s albariños, and the funk of Bastarda by Fedellos do Couto. I simply adore getting people turned on by wines such as these and by dispelling the odious myths of Spanish wine being either old and rusty or new and brash. Or that they should be inexpensive because they’re not from France!
Spain needed a revolution to snap her into making more vibrant wines with a bit more polish. And there was a need for young winemakers with international experience to come and be more daring. The question is whether Spain needed to wade through those dark and blowsy waters to get to the scintillating place where we are now. I don’t think so, but I’m not absolutely sure. The Spanish wines I so love today, the ones that are fresher, farmed sustainably, more focused, and terroir-driven, are not necessarily enjoying a place at the table today because of the buzz around Spain’s viniculture in the late 90’s and early 00’s, but I suppose I have to admit the press attention didn’t hurt.
TERRY: Can we come back to some more matter-of-fact questions? One thing I wonder is, what’s your sense of how many guests actually read your list? If not in its entirety then maybe just the sections from which they’re considering ordering? Also, do your servers read it in its (wonderful) entirety?
DEBORAH: Actually I'm delighted to report that many guests read the wine list. Some find it amusing and read my sexier passages aloud, others go wide-eyed at the sheer number of entries, others hone in on a few pages and nod with furrowed brows. When wine professionals or aficionados come, they spend some time perusing and choosing. Then we end up conversing and comparing. This, of course, is thrilling, and feeds my grapey soul. (The grape popsicle was always the one I clamored for as a kid, and the grape stickers in fourth grade were my most prized).
My goal has always been to take people out of simple spaces and entice them with the invigoration of a new experience.
TERRY: I like to say that if a guest complains when looking at the wine list, “I haven’t heard of any of these wines,” the best possible answer is I know, and won’t it be fun to have a whole new pleasure this evening?
DEBORAH: One of my mottos, and I have many, is "It's a great day when you get to try something new!” I’ve brought my servers into this mindset, so, yes, my staff ends up reading most of the list. We all share the frustration when we see the ruts people dig themselves into. Guests too often ask for what’s familiar instead of having an adventure. Servers use the wine list as a reference when they’re fixing to sell something good, pre-shift. I try to inspire them with little prods, saying things like, "Choose two wines you are excited about, an inexpensive one and a pricier one, and then aim to sell them tonight." The challenge gets them excited and competitive. Also, they taste dozens of bottles monthly, and love sharing their findings with our guests. The fact that they can recommend first hand, makes me proud and happy.
TERRY: Would you say that the way you present your list increases wine sales? Or decreases them, or it doesn’t matter because you’d be driven to do it that way regardless?
DEBORAH: I believe my list encourages higher sales than a 'normal' list would because it beckons you in to a sensorial place through words. I adore the sensuality of wine and so it inevitably spills onto my pages. Of Luberri Tempranillo joven I said: “…. The epitome of juicy - the leaping fragrance of strawberry and crabapple take you by the hand, and your senses go skipping into a splash of tart blackberry and wild cherries. Luscious, naked, and giving, she offers herself up with a flirtatious, fruity wink.”
Many descriptions are unexpectedly unorthodox, but if it felt that way to me, it goes into the notes: "So rooted in saline minerals you'll feel like a seahorse..." Do Ferreiro Dous Ferrados 2017, a single vineyard albariño by Gerardo Mendez.
Sometimes I feel the wine so deeply that the imagery playing out in my brain spills out: "Taut and purposeful like jazz hands, with ginger and sea-foam tuile." This cava, 111 Lustros Gran Reserva 2011 by Gramona has the grace and strength of a dancer, flowing from flexed to supple by turns.
So what started out back in 1998 as a way to introduce guests to the true flavors and nature of Spanish wines - and entice them to order a nice bottle of wine rather than a cliché pitcher of sangria! - has become a 40 page work that I love amending. I work on it the way perhaps a painter works on a painting that she loves but knows she’ll never finish. And she’s fine with that.
TERRY: Someone said a poem is never finished, only abandoned. That can apply to a variety of works of art. I’m also curious to know how you feel about swimming against the tide. I think we mavericks are attracted to one another because otherwise our lives would be intolerably lonely. Are you reassured by the presence of others who are also idealists, utopians, crappy businesspeople, or doesn’t that matter? Speaking for myself, I never set out to be a “maverick,” but became one as the ineluctable result of forming a portfolio to follow my preferences.
DEBORAH: I love being in the company of the idealists and number-flauters! Accounting be damned. Inventory turnover is nice, but it’s not very sexy, now is it?
TERRY: My tax accountant uses it as foreplay.
DEBORAH: Well he wouldn’t approve of me. I need to offer something unique and that means carrying a lot of inventory, which comes directly at the expense of my personal income, but I have a thing I can feel proud of. Meeting and knowing others who operated from the bottom of their soul instead from the bottom line makes me feel less irresponsible. I relish their company and their stories.
TERRY: : Is there a point where you just did it because you had to do it in just that very way? Did you know or care that it was “too much time spent on something not generative of revenue” simply because you had to tap into the deepest part of your passion for wine, regardless of any other consideration?
DEBORAH: The wine list was like a child growing before my eyes. In 2007 I bought out my partner and had to lead Taberna de Haro alone. Terrified, I made sure any changes I made were very slow and deliberate over the next two years. As I gained confidence, I realized I wanted to have something superlative - the best Spanish wine list and one of the biggest. (Last I knew only Casa Mono’s is larger than mine. Their restaurant group has deeper pockets than I do…) This is not a practical goal. It is expensive and perhaps even vain, but my passion for expressing myself through Spanish wine, meaning my love of drinking fine wine, my sensuality, my love of words, and my penchant for teaching, made it the only choice. I loved the momentum and the purpose.
TERRY: A stir-the-pot question: where wine is concerned is the customer “always right?” Are you tempted (or do you actually) intercede when someone’s ordering an appalling choice for a particular prep?
DEBORAH: The customer is most definitely not always right. I do intercede when I feel the wine choice they've made is not going to enhance their night. I’ve gotten more frank in my fifties and it feels fabulous.
TERRY: I’d like to understand a little better, what threads link language and wine for you. Obviously this is unique to each of us but you are unusual in linking the sensuality of flavor with the sensuousness of words. So, what wine would you reach for if you wanted something….let’s call it consoling?
DEBORAH: A consoling wine…. Viña Bosconia Reserva 1994 from Lopez de Heridia. She never lets me down. At once a familiar yet enticing bosom.
TERRY: What about a pensive introspective wine?
DEBORAH: Aires de Vendimia 2016 by Jose Antonio García You think you understand that fanned out array of exotic red fruits, but then you simply must contemplate the smoke, the violets, the peat and the sheer joy the wine exudes.
Another introspective wine - Emilio Rojo, any vintage. There is simply SO much going on, it takes hours to identify the components and then feel them. Once you’ve gotten a hold on it, it shape-shifts.
TERRY: A wine to drink by yourself?
DEBORAH: - La Cigarrera Manzanilla Pasada, because it expresses the most chalk of just about any sherry, and I just want to exhale hard and feel all that albariza reverberating in my nasal cavity and not talk to anyone.
TERRY: A wine to drink with others?
DEBORAH: La Cuca de Llum 2017 trepat is so damn delicious, it pairs with almost anything, and it is a hoot to turn people on to new grapes they have probably never heard of. Plus, it’s so reasonably priced you can bring 4 bottles to a gathering.
TERRY: That prompts me to ask, what about a really rowdy wine?
DEBORAH: Viñátigo Gual 2018 (Bodegas Viñátigo, D.O. Ycoden-Daute-Isora, Tenerife). “Pear and cider aromas promise refreshment, but the jubilee of spice and tropicalia in the mouth is as surprising as it is exciting. Cardamom, coriander, and lychee are just part of the piquant profile. Beautifully concentrated, this boundless white is deeply complex and makes your mouth water. Orange and almond blossom fragrance on the finish.” I love Canary Island wines, especially when they are a bit dizzying.
TERRY: What do you find to be a physical, sensual wine?
DEBORAH: Cami Pesseroles 2014. Because:
Named after the old, well-travelled path from Porrera to Gratallops, this limited beauty is an enthralling biodynamic work by Sara Perez. Another! Garnatxa negreand carinyena grapes from old vines in llicorella soils are almost never bad. Here, they are an exquisite origami of rich black raspberry, smoldering embers, bergamot, and slate minerality unfolding on your astonished palate. Roasted dark bird breast comes to mind, as does an expensive bittersweet chocolate bar with toasted almonds & sea salt.
TERRY: How ‘bout a wake-your-ass-up wine?
DEBORAH: Mibal 2018 joven from Ribera del Duero makes me cheerful. The freshness and vibrancy of these tinto fino grapes are so voluptuously bouncy, they truly confer energy to the drinker. You can’t be sad drinking this wine, not even in a global pandemic.
TERRY: Apropos of which, what wine is just so incredibly fucking fun that it will break through the haze of dread and make us happy for a couple hours?
DEBORAH: Bastarda 2016 from Ribeira Sacra Everyone loves a wine called Bastard, and most everyone is intrigued by the light color, the unabashed funk, and its similarity to trousseau. A little nod to the Jura with love from Spain.
It goes without saying – especially if you know me – that here is the perfect way I like wine to be talked about. I don’t care if it’s imprecise, because it is evocative, and evocation, at least in wine, is preferable to precision. And Deborah Hansen is unique in my experience in marching boldly forward with a wine list that is allevocation, no holds barred, no quarter given. And much as I shrink from using this word in a pandemic, forgive me; her approach is irresistibly contagious.
Not all wine lists are like Deborah’s; they couldn’t be. But most wine list are a good deal less than they might be, and that is because the assumptions that build them are teetering on an unstable foundation of misapprehensions.
Two anecdotes. One of the chefs whose work I most revered ended up with two Michelin stars for a restaurant that was like a breathing shaman of locality and wildness. It is no exaggeration to report that the kitchen had ingredients picked by the side of the road. The land exhaled almost palpably in that food, there wasn’t a “luxury ingredient” in sight, it was a numinous marriage of aesthetic intuition and fiercely honed skill of execution. When I was in that city I ate there, and when my first book was published it was my great honor to do a wine/author dinner there.
It was tasting-menu only, and if I ate (as I think I probably did) fifteen dinners there over the years, that meant I’d had around 150 different preps. I knew that food! And was very happy to have my wines on the list. One evening chef and I were schmoozing after dinner as the evening service was winding down, and I was asked to offer an opinion on the wine list in general, which was split roughly down the middle between reds and whites, which I said I thought was a serious problem. “How many dishes have I eaten here?” I began. “And you know how many of them really called for red wine? Maybe four, maybe five, out of 150 or so. This is white wine food, and yet you have all this capital tied up in inventory that doesn’t suit the food or reflect the aesthetic, and I don’t understand why.”
“Well, when you have the Michelin stars, you get a clientele who arrive with certain expectations, certain wines or kinds of wines they expect to see in such a place…”
“No,” I said, “I call bullshit. Those people also expect to see truffles and foie gras and other luxury ingredients and bless you for not having them! You’re true to your vision in the food – so why not the wine?”
Another time I was in Seattle having the time of my life eating an indecent number of west-coast oysters at Taylor’s Shellfish Oyster Bar. I was with colleagues and the proprietor, and we were sitting there “saving the world,” as the saying goes. But here was one tiny segment of the world that was already saved. Next to us arrived a 4-top of women who wanted to have Merlot. There was no Merlot. There was no red wine at all. A “discussion” ensued between the table and its server, and believe me I was sitting on my hands, trying to clamp my jaw shut, because every electron in me wanted to go over to that table and testify. Wisely (and for me, rarely) I refrained. But I was indecently happy to see a wine list that didn’t pander. “Red wine doesn’t work here.” Simple! Why have it if it doesn’t work?
And don’t you dare try telling me that “people want it,” because that argument can be used to justify having sushi at a pizza place. Other than the Applebees of the world, we wouldn’t dream of insisting that a restaurant must be all things to all people. So why do we have so many damn “Applebees” wine lists? Is it somehow verboten for a wine list to have a point of view, just as the menu does, just as the décor does, just as the whole gestalt of the restaurant does?
Indeed it’s somewhat rare – not impossible but exceptional – to find wine lists with decisive points of view. (And the “natural” orientation doesn’t count, as the line between POV and dogma is blurrier than I’m comfortable with. Not to mention all the wines that smell like sweaty bog shrimp…) Far too often I feel the menu and wine list live in separate dwellings. And communicate, if at all, obliquely. A list is judged by its capaciousness more often than by its focus. Some lists are designed for fellow wine industry types, as the “somm” gropes pitiably for things just that much hipperthan anyone else has. Some lists have page after page of trophy wines. And every now and again I’d encounter one of those little interpolations of divinity, a list that wasn’t too large, that made sense, that had a slew of wines you really wanted to drink, that was designed to ignite pleasure instead of buffing the somm’s cred and hippitude. A list that said “I want our guests to be happy” instead of “I want my colleagues to admire me.” Do I need to point out that making guests happy is the quickest way to gain the admiration of ones peers?
But why does any of this matter? We fuss too much about wine, right? And we fuss way too much about “pairings,” I’m starting to surmise. But this is bizarre to me, perhaps even incomprehensible.
I won’t tread over already-trodden ground (on this blog page among other places) regarding the objections to the “pairing” mentality. What I will say here, is that all we are talking about is flavor. Please let me repeat: FLAVOR. To me it doesn’t matter whether it is solid flavor on a plate or liquid flavor in a glass. They are a unity! There is no border between them, no demilitarized zone. I am eating-this and drinking-that and I want everything to taste good together.
Every single time? Nope. Sometimes I’m in the mood to drink…whatever, say Gewurztraminer, and I don’t care what I’m eating because I have a jones for that exact wine. Or I made schnitzel and I really ought to finish that Chablis in the fridge before it goes bad, so it looks like a schnitzel-with-chablis night for me.
Otherwise, I care. There is a continuum of such caring, and I think I’m in the middle somewhere. I care enough to suss a few basic “rules,” or tendencies or whatever you want to call them, and it usually works well enough. Sometimes, if we have company or either the food or the wine are special – or both of them are – I care a lot, because what’s the fun in wasting something great by forcing it to make-nice with something it doesn’t like?
Our friends in the “somm” community have created a backlash that isn’t really called for. For all my gimlet-eyed harpings over their sometimes-misbegotten wine lists, they are generally a good and useful community. It is their profession to delve into the minutiae of flavor combinations. Sometimes they get a little tunnel-vision and forget that most of us don’t need to go that deep, but come on? Everyone’s obsessed about something, and every person’s obsession looks “geeky” to people who don’t share it. The idea that somm-geeking is somehow sucking all the fun and relaxation out of conviviality strains at the bounds of credulity. Really? Are we enslaved by this in any way? Have we no agency? I would have thought we could just take what’s useful in the somm’s experience and discard what we don’t require. Must we really hurl such ruthless charges at these pairing-nerds? “Junk science,” “bogus art” seem like an awful lot of dudgeon for a pretty innocuous irritant. You can kill the mosquito without the flame thrower, methinks. So a few people have gotten a little dotty about their particular fixations! I don’t see them doing so much harm that we need to blast them with anti-intellectual rhetorical artillery.
Which brings us back to wine lists, and the common blind spots of many of those who compile them. While some writers inveigh against excessive or specious detail about flavor matching, I find the far greater problem is that most people don’t care enough. And that, sometimes, they care about the wrong things. This is a good moment to invite DEBORAH back into the skirmish, because she gave a wonderful reply to this question….
TERRY: As a diner – and to the degree you can enter the mind of the “civilian,” how do you want wine lists to be?
DEBORAH: I want restaurant wine lists to offer me a new learning experience within the familiarity of drinking good wine. Often great. Sometimes sublime. Show me something cool and unique, teach me about a new grape variety, tell me about an interesting growing region. Just don’t bore me with the predictable. Show some imagination and bravery. Don’t let dollar-driven distributors write your list. Hire a wine professional and train your staff. Take wine seriously. I’d love to see the bar raised here in Boston. We can do better and we have no excuse not to, given the access to great wine that we enjoy here. And we definitely need more wine writing in this city!!! (Remember when I told you I’d love to write a book about how marketing destroyed the world? Lame restaurant wine lists are a prime example of that. Often the wines with the most notoriety at the lower end of the price spectrum are the wines advertised in magazines and billboards, or even on TV. The investment is in marketing and not the contents of the bottle. So the average consumer orders what he knows and thinks it’s good because it is ubiquitous, which is the goal of marketing. He’ll pass over far better wines that represent way more value in favor of the brand that is familiar, the one he’s been exposed to repeatedly. He gets used to terrible wine, maybe loses his desire to drink wine because his experiences aren't as memorable as the brand, and wine consumption decreases. He’s intimidated to order what he doesn’t know so the onus is on restaurants to expose him to what is good. Lesser known wines made by dedicated farmers and enologists, often representing generations of tradition in a stunning viticultural region, are often no more expensive than the heavily marketed plonk, yet they get passed over. Factory-made wine is mass produced, laden with additives, overly manipulated, too sweet, often nondescript, and usually harsh on the environment, but clever marketing puts these weird juices in high demand at the expense of small producers everywhere).
TERRY: We agree, of course. I might take a teensy bit of issue with you about Boston, which I think has more swagger than you say, partly because the restaurant wine scene is so feminized – a topic for another time.
DEBORAH: Boston can do better because the female-driven programs are the delightful exception and not the rule. Cat, Theresa, Lauren Hayes, Sarah Marshall, etc. have written fabulous lists over the years, but why aren't there more like this? We are a city with a large proportion of well travelled and educated people who could easily be persuaded to try something new and interesting in the wine world, so why are there so many vapid mega-brands on wine lists? And why do so many lists have 3 truly terrible wines under $50 and then anything good is over $125.
TERRY: I seem to be more encouraged by the loads of somms writing lists that embody all the principles you correctly outline. The question for me, is whether they go too far into esoterica, whether their lists are self-indulgent at the expense of the diner (and the cohesion of the establishment), and obviously we’re looking for the Goldilocks moment. My sense of you, Deborah, is that what looks like your radicalism is actually a plea for a kind of classicism. And one of the things that distresses us both is a kind of anything-goes callowness in way too many trendy lists right now.
DEBORAH: The overly geeky somms, as you put it, are largely young bucks who haven't had nearly enough experiences in the fine wine world. To compensate for that glaring hole in their resumes, something that would have been intolerable a generation ago, they go rogue. Many seem to consider themselves mavericks who don't have to abide by any rules nor traditions, rather they make them up thereby appealing to youngsters who similarly align themselves with disruption. The buzzword disruption is one that infuriates me no end, by the way. No one has a right to disrupt unless they have a viable, workable, well-planned replacement for the paradigm they wish to subvert. If you disrupt and don't solve, you are a child who dumps out the toys and refuses to put them away - a mess-maker in big boy pants.
TERRY: Too true. And too sad, and too addle-headed. But there’s another side to this, at least sometimes, and that is the beauty inherent in the quest for the transcendent moment in wine and food interactions. What may seem nerdy to someone is actually the opposite; it’s a dogged pursuit of the kind of experience that can catapult us to bliss. It’s been written that the “2+2=5” moment is a fantasy, that wine and food cannot combine to create some new synergy of flavor that didn’t exist in either thing alone. Can you recall a time you experienced this lovely phenomenon?
DEBORAH: So many times!! This is what I'm always seeking when I drink fine wine, and the experience I want to replicate for others when they ask for pairing advice. That's the magical part for me, those flavors that waft before you - they are pure and you are sure! - but a chemist would tell you it's simply not possible.
After a tasting at El Maestro Sierra in Jerez, I was handed the last few ounces of a bottle of their Oloroso VORS 1/4 to take with me. Alas, I had to fly out early the next day, and in the airport I realized this precious bottle in my purse would not get to board an airplane. I sat down to drink this brown and beautiful sherry despite the clock's heeding. 8:45 am. I took a sip, and yes, from the bottle. It was heady and shimmery; profoundly and perfectly bitter in the way that old sherries get. I knew I needed sustenance to better enjoy this strange and solitary experience in the middle of the Jerez airport, and like Mary Poppins I dug out a packet of salty marcona almonds from my bag. After a few almonds, I could suddenly taste glints of fruit shining through the oloroso, like sun-ripe apricots and candied orange peel. They were utterly imperceptible before, as if hiding between the fragrant old books on the mahogany-scented shelves, and now here were those ripe gold notes of warm-climate fruits, unmistakable and clear. Best plane ride ever...