In his introduction to Kingsley Amis’s “Everyday Drinking,” Christopher Hitchens (may he live to down another thousand martinis) notes that while alcohol itself does a good job of making life less boring, alcohol enthusiasts are always at risk of becoming bores on the subject of their enthusiasm. The tequila enthusiast, for example, may unwittingly one day find that he is a man with twelve unique hand-blown glass bottles of craft-brewed tequila on his mantle, each with a thirty-minute story behind it that he is eager to share, and every one of those stories deadly—because the alcohol bore (of course) fails to note that his enthusiasms aren’t necessarily the stuff of deep interest to others. That’s what makes them enthusiasms.
Among the long list of alcohol enthusiasts whose obsessions lead them to become bores, wine bores stand out as truly exceptional cases. Beer bores, in comparison, tend to be good-naturedly so, deeply interested in the science of the thing, which is so obscure as to be both infectiously sweet and beyond reproach; and cocktails bores can only go on for so long before they pass out, thanks to the strength of their poison of choice, which is helpful; neither, in any case, can hold a candle to the truly astonishing anesthetizing effects of a wine bore, who harbors, within his psyche, a desire to both possess and talk away all that is good and magical about the thing itself. (Wine, like sex and pizza, is one of the few things in the universe that requires no discussion; everybody just naturally knows it’s great, or ought to.) What’s more, it’s been my experience that the wine bore will ask deep and solemn respect for producing (that’s the word they use, wine bores: producing) a bottle of Chateau Petrus ‘89 purchased, with great outlay, at auction—never mind that he didn’t actually make the wine. He only bought it. This is, if you think about it, the equivalent of a person asking attendants to revere him as a Shakespeare for having produced a set of the bard’s volumes purchased at a yard sale, or a friend giving you a lavish gift and then asking, “You’re really grateful, aren’t you?”
I’m reminded here of a quote by Camus that good intentions may do as much harm as bad, if they lack understanding. The wine bore, I think, does have good intentions in mind—he wants you to enjoy something as much as he does, and he feels that educating you on the subject is the surest way to do this. What he fails to understand is that for many people understanding why you enjoy something is the surest way to stop enjoying it.
I know wine bores well for two reasons: first, because I have been acquainted with more than a few in my time, some of them merely garden-variety, some impressively devoted, and one of them a truly astonishing, world-class wine bore of the highest order, whose drinking rituals and lengthy homilies on subjects like chaptalization and terroir still cause me to shake my head and deliver a low whistle of amazement (if someone in attendance ate a bite of something that contained vinegar, he’d berate him for ruining his wine and sometimes even refuse to serve him); and second, because I myself am a recovering wine bore.
This is no easy thing to admit—that a decade ago I was the guy holding forth about what sort of late summer St. Émilion had had, while the person I happened to be drinking with probably sighed, and looked away, and wished I’d just pour a little faster. I have attempted to purchase futures. I have closely followed evening temperatures in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I have openly debated which of two Burgundies had more or less manure aroma. Unquestionably, the wines I drank during these years were the best wines I’ve had in my life (and I still wish I could drink Châteauneuf-du-Pape every day). But when I think back on those wines, I’m often reminded of the discussions and rituals that surrounded the drinking, rather than the experience of the wine itself. This is what talking too earnestly about wine (as well as other basic pleasures) does: it intellectualizes—and therefore sanitizes—what was meant to be experienced purely through the prism of the senses.
What caused me to reform my ways was a lack of funds, which is the quickest cure for any wine bore known to man. My daughters, who have robbed me of my last dime in their hunt for things like new shoes and education and ice cream, have effectively saved me from myself. Here I am, with far less scratch than I would prefer, forced to walk the shelves stroking my chin as I search for that $9.99 wonder.
The wine isn’t as good as some I’ve had. That’s for sure. There are some good wines out there to be had for $9.99—though even the best ones at that price tend toward the familiar, the less challenging. (These days, the best bargains with the most oomph seem to come from the Rhone—the Spanish wines at this price are still a little rough around the edges, but are getting there.) These wines are simpler, less fanciful, less arresting, than those I used to drink—yet I find myself enjoying wine more than ever these days. Perhaps that’s because the simplicity of these wines means they almost never require the sort of lengthy and priggish and coded dialogue that must accompany a bottle one bought for an amount that might otherwise have purchased a used car. Instead I find myself sending off a quiet note of appreciation with the first sip—nice Juliénas, good black cherry aroma—and leaving it at that.
Happily, it turns out that good $9.99 bottles are every bit as effective as a thousand-dollar Petrus. The warm glow of the second glass is just as heady, with no lecture involved to tamp down the pleasure. Plus you still have the money left over to buy that used car, afterward—which is pretty exciting indeed.