Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On wine and burgers

Yesterday, I had a very nice conversation with someone about Champagne -- and, oddly enough, I was not in a wine store when doing so.  While waiting in line at the bank, a woman in chef's pants (it turns out she is in fact a cook at a local restaurant) struck up a conversation asking "so what do you do?"  When I replied that I work in wine, she asked about my favorite Champagne.

When I told her, "it depends on what I'm drinking it with," there was shock and surprise; I believe she expected an answer like "Piper-Heidsick," or "Laurent Perrier."  A name that she recognized from the wine list.  She was further shocked when I broadly labeled the top volume producers as making "mostly mediocre wine."

So, I came up with a quick-and-dirty analogy that might be useful -- both with Champagne and still wines.  Comparing wine producers to hamburger restaurants.

Big names everyone's heard of are kind of like McDonalds or Burger King.  Big national fast-food chains.  Everyone knows McDonalds, and though the food there won't make you ill, it's not fine cuisine by any stretch. It's serviceable food, meant for mass consumption by people with a broad spectrum of palates.  Same with wine made for mass consumption; it's made to try and please as many people as possible.  Think Veuve Cliquot yellow label, or Chateau Ste. Michelle.  Yes, these names may make good upper-end wines (Grande Dame, or Indian Wells), sort of how McDonalds does sometimes do a good "special" burger (Black Angus and mushroom, for example), but for the most part, it's cheap and cheerful.

Smaller names that you may or may not have heard of are kind of like Five Guys, or In-n-Out, or Whataburger.  Regional chains, these places are about the same price as the big guys, perhaps a bit more, but they make good products.  The wine equivalent would be stuff you sometimes see on wine lists, but that you rarely find in a grocery store.  For Champagne, think Feuilette or Montaudon, for American wines think Martin Ray or Gordon Brothers.  They try, and generally succeed, at making top-flight products that are consistently good, and memorable.

Then, there's the real artisan producers.  RM Champagnes, estate-grown wines (oddly enough, many of these are in the category of "wineries lots of people have heard of," but mainly due to their cost, not as many people have had their wines).  This is like that friend who insists on having fresh-ground beef prepared at the butcher in front of him, hand-selects the freshest lettuce, makes homemade mayonnaise from scratch, and who grills that amazing burger that makes your mouth water to think of.  Yeah, the quality will vary slightly (good years versus bad ones for wine, days when all the butcher has is chuck roast versus sirloins for the burgers), but at the best of times, they're amazing, magical experiences.

And that, my friends, is why wine geeks are always searching for that new winery that "nobody's ever heard of, but you should try their estate cab!"  We're searching for the perfect burger in a world full of McDonalds.

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