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?

Details

Winner, 2007 James Beard Award for Journalism

—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.

How to avoid it? You can't, really, without learning a lot, unless you stick to good restaurants and good wine stores, which should weed out a lot of that for you. (A good wine store is one where the employees have tasted many, or, ideally, all of the wines on hand, and can answer a question like, "What's the difference between Napa Valley and Napa Ridge?")

Second, there is the obvious change in vintage, which is what people mean by "good vintage" or "bad vintage." However, there's also a maxim that runs, "There are no bad vintages, just bad winemakers." There are all kinds of things a winemaker can do to adjust the quality of wine in a bad year. They can hand-pick grapes so they select clusters that are more evenly ripe, they can sell off the bad grapes to bulk producers, they can adjust the blend, and more. If you have to choose between a good vintage with a poor winemaker or a good winemaker with a poor vintage, the smart money is on the good winemaker.

Third, there is the less obvious change of ownership that a vineyard or brand may undergo. For instance, a lot of people have used Bonny Doon's Big House Red, Big House White, and Cardinal Zin as default restaurant picks for a few years now, but this summer the brands were sold to the Wine Group, which makes, no kidding, Franzia and Mogen David. (Yes, the one the kids call Mad Dog.) Will the Wine Group change the wine? They'd probably say no, I'd probably say yes, if only by expanding production, which by default means they'll have to pull in new grapes, which means new flavors.

Over the years, various cheap reliables, like Concha y Toro and assorted Ravenswood wines, have changed in the same way, just by getting bigger. Wine isn't like Pepsi, you can't just get more syrup and water and hire more trucks. Change one thing and it all changes. I used to wonder about the 15 percent oak, 2 percent Cabernet Franc thing myself, until a winemaker explained it to me thusly: Would you know the difference between coffee and coffee that had a teaspoon of tomato juice added to it, or coffee that was brewed in a peppermill? It probably wouldn't be off enough for you to say, "That's not coffee!" But it would be off enough for you to say, "What the heck is wrong with this coffee?"

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