Asked and Answered

What's the wallaby on the label of that shiraz trying to tell you? What about the syrah label featuring a generic chateau? Dear Dara answers all your peskiest wine questions.

Dear Dara,

I have one question for you: Why is wine so goddamn hard? And why doesn't it ever get any easier?

If a beer says it's an IPA, even if I've never had it before, I know what I'm getting. If a steak is a ribeye, even if it's one individual cow that's unlike every other cow on earth, I know what I'm getting. But if a wine bottle says Chardonnay or if it says Marlborough, you don't know what's in there—it could be anything, and totally different from the last bottle you had that said Chardonnay or Marlborough. I've been drinking wine for 15 years and it still seems so hard.

I never seem to drink the same bottle of wine twice. Never. Ever. Unless it's something like Veuve Cliquot and that is so consistent it seems like a totally different thing. And if I do find something I like in the liquor store or on a wine list, by the time I go back it's vanished, it's totally different than it was, or I can't remember what it is because it sits there in the middle of half a dozen sound-alikes or look-alikes.

It doesn't help when you go into a liquor store. Why do they have 2,000 wines? There's no way they're selling all 2,000, is there? Wouldn't they do better if they had fewer wines, or if they were grouped differently? I go to the paper-towel aisle at Target and if I stick out my hand it comes back with paper towels, and they're more or less going to do what I need them to do and they more or less cost the same. I stick out my hand in any given wine aisle, and I could end up spending $100, or $4, or $30. I could end up with a headache or the best thing I've ever drank in my life, and it has nothing to do with price, or how the bottle looks, or anything.

Speaking of which, all the bottles look the same. All the labels read the same. It's as if when you went to the bookstore they packaged all the crappy mysteries the same as the classic literature, so instead of some books having a big bloody knife on them and others being Anna Karenina with a big black-and-white Tolstoy beard-face picture, they just all looked exactly, exactly the same. Every wine has a nice bottle, a beautiful label, a nice story on the back about some vineyard and some family, they all use the same words, "subtle explosions of soft fruit, notes of this and finish of that." You go into the bookstore, you pick up a copy of Anna Karenina, and it just about screams at you: This is literature, asshole! If you can't tell this is literature, go back to the bloody-knife section!

Every wine experience I've ever had goes like this: I am in a place where I am absolutely, positively going to do nothing else but buy wine. Do I feel happy about this leisure transaction that's part of my enjoyment of life? Never. I feel happy about receiving the wine, but never, ever, ever about ordering it. So I look over the wine list, or the store shelf, I read the name of someplace, some string of information, and then I ask either a waiter or the nearest store employee, "Can you recommend a reasonable bottle of wine?" If I get an answer I can't understand, I just get the second-cheapest by-the-glass wine and call it a day.

Frankly, I don't see how all these different variables—15 percent new oak barrels? 20 percent?—really add up to something different, and I suspect that wine appreciation is an Emperor's New Clothes thing, that it's all made up. Or maybe it's not entirely made up, but it's like finding excessive symbolism in a novel: If you sit around and try really hard to find meaning, you can find some, but maybe it's really only about half of what you think. On the other hand, what if it's all true? I'm a smart guy, I've accomplished much in my life, but I don't have 20 hours a week to study wine, and yet it seems that unless you master the whole thing you're in a tough spot.

Is there any way to make this less hard? Is there any Rosetta Stone, or shortcut, or anything?

—Baffled in Minneapolis

Dear Baffled,

I hear you. When I first heard you, though, I mostly heard your pain. When I started digging into your points, however, I discovered that many of your observations, such as the one about bottles of wine looking the same and tasting different, or looking different and tasting the same, are actually even more astute than you knew. Wine is a world of pirates right now! Well, not all of it, but the budget side of things, the Australian and American under-$15 side of things where so many Gen-X, Gen-Y, and Millennial Generation types drink, with these wines we are really swimming with pirates.

Let's consider the two cases, starting with bottles that look the same, but taste different. This happens all the time. First, there are the sound- or look-alikes, the intentional bad-faith fakes. Just check out the number of wine bottle labels that have hawks, deer, or turning autumn leaves on them. Then there are the winemakers who try to make the field hazy by using a well-known wine word, such as Napa, which describes an actual place, and turning into a brand name, like Napa Ridge. The courts just put an end to that particular one, but piggybacking, bad-faith behavior is just a part of life, and here we have some.

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