Monday, June 8, 2009

Room For Everyone

At a recent wine event, I was seated next to the manager of a prominent Manhattan wine store know for its selection of classic French wines. We were having our dessert, and were musing how it would have been nice to conclude the feast with a nice sweet wine. This led him to relate how the folks at Chateau D'Yquem are always promoting the idea that the classic Sauternes should not be relegated to the end of the meal, but is appropriate from soup to nuts. With this he cracked a wry smile, communicating how ludicrous the idea seemed to him.

It seemed ludicrous to me, too. And it brings up an annoying habit I have often encountered among wine and spirit makers. That is, they want it ALL! It's not enough for them to be the best wine with lamb, the best wine with oysters, the best wine with fois gras. They think people should be downing their vino with every course, at every occasion. The Champagne people have been banging this drum for years, saying their bubbly is not just a special-occasion beverage, but a quencher for all times. (They, it seems to me, have the best case to make where this kind of monolopy-grab is concerned.) The spirits industry, too, has been trying to shed its cocktail-before-dinner image, encouraging people that gin and bourbon and tequila are do be enjoyed throughout a meal.

Most of these campaigns are born of greed, of course, not common sense. I can't think of a more unpleasant and dizzyingly rich experience than coating my mouth with luscious Yquem over a two-hour dinner. As splendid as that manna is, I imagine its saturating flavors would get in the way of the subtler flavors of any meal, and the volume of honeyed elixir would leave you a bit leaden at night's end. As for the "cocktail dinner," I've always thought it a patently bad idea. Spirits are bullies. They don't compliment food as well as wine does; they dominate the proceedings. There's simply no use pretending otherwise. And they get you drunker far quicker, so that, by mid-meal, you wouldn't really care or notice what you're eating or drinking.

Furthermore, I think distillers and vintners are doing themselves a disservice by promoting the supposed versatility of their products. They may imagine that it will result in greater sales and visibility. But it will also lead to a diminishing of their profile and a lessening of prestige. If Champagne is right for every food and every hour, it ceases to be special. And Sauternes and other sweet wines only heighten their attractiveness and allure by keeping themselves the exclusive treasure that is saved for the end of the festivities. (The best is always saved for last, right?) Cocktails have their own "hour"—a much better position than being an also-ran parvenu at the dinner table. A specialist is more highly thought of than a general practioner. Why become common when you've got a lock on a certain niche? Didn't Beaujolais do that in the '80s and '90s with the Nouveau campaign? And look at its dismal reputation now, only just recovering its dignity.

So Champagne, Yquem, Cocktails: recognize your uniqueness and embrace it. Part of the wonderfulness of the drinking world is there's a perfect drink for every human experience.

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