The Chosen None
Refusing to name favorites enriches experience
By Neal D. Hulkower
Visitors to the tasting room where I pour quintessential Pinot Noir regularly ask me which wine is my favorite. Occasionally, my inner smartass causes me to blurt out, “Why, are you inviting me over for dinner?”
My politer response is an homage to St. Anselm of Canterbury. The 12th century Benedictine monk’s syllogistic ontological proof of God’s existence is just about the only fact that sticks with me decades after taking a medieval philosophy course in college: “My favorite wine is the one in my glass at the time since it exists not only in concept but in reality.”
Now well into my fifth decade of serious wine consumption, this declaration seems truer than ever. Having tasted thousands of wines, how could I honestly choose? During the early 1970s when wine was an occasional luxury, I kept detailed tasting notes of every bottle I sampled; nowadays, I rarely do since wine is a part of my daily diet.
Obviously, not all bottles are created equal but, with few exceptions, they serve the purpose for which they are chosen very well.
Dinner parties with special guests merit the pick of my collection, grower Champagne to start and a well-aged Oregon Pinot Noir or Burgundy with the entrée, for example. Less exotic fare such as a simple salad with canned tuna is matched with a Pinot Gris or Vermentino while ground mutton goes nicely with early-drinking Italian varietals such as Dolcetto. I must confess, however, that I frequently take advantage of the fact that the composition of my collection allows for more upscale pairings with a modest meal for two.
My aversion to picking favorites is likely rooted in my satisficing personality. In a 2002 paper, “Maximizing Versus Satisficing: Happiness Is a Matter of Choice” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Barry Schwartz and five colleagues elaborate on ideas first published by Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon. We learn “To satisfice, people need only to be able to place goods on some scale in terms of the degree of satisfaction they will afford, and to have a threshold of acceptability. A satisficer simply encounters and evaluates goods until one is encountered that exceeds the acceptability threshold.” As an “omnipour,” I face no dilemmas.
While I routinely resist the urge to evoke the F-word — favorite, that is — I learned that I often have a “must-tell” that invariably exposes an exceptional vinous experience. Lately, many of these have been with my friend, the superb winemaker Jesus Guillén, who noticed that I emit an oooh when tasting something extraordinary, such as his 2011 Guillén Family Pinot Noir Reserve “Adrian” or the 1949 Volnay-Caillerets from Pierre Latour that we shared recently as part of my 65th birthday celebration. Since each bottle, especially older ones, is unique, it would be fatuous to call it a favorite since it is unlikely to be exactly the same if I could taste it again. “Memorable” would be a better adjective.
We are constantly encouraged to develop brand loyalty, and many of us do. It is one thing to have a favorite pen or blue jeans, but entirely another when it comes to consumables. Do we eat the same food every day or prepare the same rotation of dinners every week? I certainly don’t. Should we be expected to drink the same selection of wine, forgoing the adventure of trying something new? I don’t think so. When it comes to wine, brand disloyalty is much more appropriate.
What about favorite vintages? While I prefer those from cooler years, I thoroughly enjoy a well-made wine from any vintage. Regarding recent back-to-back Oregon Pinot Noir vintages, I find myself saying, “Date the ’12s; marry the ’11s.” While I’m waiting for the complex, elegant, restrained 2011s to come around, why deny the obvious 2012s?
What about favorite grapes? While Pinot Noir and Riesling hold a special place for me, I don’t pine for the former when I’m drinking a big red with a hunk of grilled beef nor do I crave the latter when I’m indulging in a Sauvignon Blanc with a true cod.
Am I designating a favorite if I participate in ranking wines during a tasting? On its surface, that would seem to be the case, since the bottle in first place has earned the right to be called the favorite. But this ranking is ephemeral since it is strongly tied to many factors, including the particular selection and order of the wines in the flight and the condition of the taster’s nose and palate. A change in any of these can result in a reordering.
What is the point of choosing a favorite anyway? Wine is a journey that should end only when you do. Selecting a wine above others can lock you into what is very likely to change over time. The minute a wine is barreled, it develops its own personality, hence the preponderance of “best barrel,” reserve and winemaker’s cuvées.
Each bottle undergoes an individual metamorphosis, so it is virtually certain you will never taste the exactly same wine twice. Better to savor what is in front of you rather than wish it were something else.
So next time you are tempted to ask which wine is my favorite, instead — in your best Samuel L. Jackson — ask, “What’s in your glass?”
A mathematician and an oenophile living in McMinnville, Neal Hulkower’s writing has appeared in a wide range of academic and popular publications. He can occasionally be found pouring Pinot Noir at a Dundee Hills winery.