This is a question I’m regularly asked by friends who aren’t obsessed with wine. My answer is always the same.
“Of course,” I begin. “For starters, there’s supply and demand — bottles sell for what the market says they’re worth.”
“But to your real question,” I continue, “no one is dropping that sort of money simply because a wine tastes so good. On those special occasions when you splurge — whether for a $25 bottle, a $50 bottle, or even something that costs $100 or more — you’re hoping for something beyond deliciousness. You’re hoping for a wine that makes you think.”
Regardless of a wine’s price tag, this answer helps explain how wine enthusiasts approach wine. Those of us who obsess over what we drink aren’t just looking for something tasty; we’re looking for an experience. Whether a bottle costs $15 or $150, we’re hoping for something great. And a great wine makes you think.
This concept was made clearer last month while listening to Abe Schoener, an iconoclastic California winemaker, deliver a lecture in Washington, DC.
Until 1998, Schoener was a professor of ancient Greek philosophy at St. John’s College in Maryland. That year, he headed to the Bay Area for a sabbatical and met John Kongsgaard, a Napa Valley vintner who was quickly gaining a reputation for making interesting wines. Kongsgaard’s children were interested in St. John’s, so the two men linked up. They quickly hit it off. Even though Schoener didn’t plan on staying in Northern California, he soon became Kongsgaard’s protégé.
Fast-forward 15 years, and Schoener is still in California. He makes wine as if he’s still a philosophy professor, now teaching students about the limits and possibilities of wine. Like a vinous Socrates, Schoener explores wine by constantly questioning established conventions.
Unsurprisingly, the results — bottled as the Scholium Project — are extremely unusual. The name is derived from the Greek word for “school” or “scholar,” so quite literally, the wines are a scholarly endeavor. Some are hits; some are misses. All make you think.
Thanks to the wines — and a captivating personality — Schoener has developed somewhat of a cult following. So he’s touring the country on a sold-out lecture series. In Washington, Schoener asked attendees to ponder several oil paintings from the National Gallery of Art as he discussed “precision and transparency in winemaking.”
That Schoener’s lecture would spark a dialogue about the purpose of wine isn’t surprising. Nor is such a dialogue unusual. Consider the wisdom of legendary winemaker Jacques Lardière, who recently retired after 42 years with Maison Louis Jadot in Burgundy.
“When you drink wine, you must realize you are drinking something more than wine,” Lardière explained to a recent gathering of oenophiles in New York City. “It’s a very meditative beverage.”
That meditative element is what inspires and fascinates wine enthusiasts.
Obviously, a delicious wine doesn’t have to make you think. Inexpensive New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Provençal Rosé, and reasonably priced Argentine Malbec are just some examples of wines that are typically consumed thoughtlessly.
And there are many unappetizing wines that demand contemplation. For my palate, some skin-fermented whites and purposefully oxidized wines fit this bill. So do a few of Abe Schoener’s projects.
Great wines are both delicious and thought-provoking. That combination is what wine enthusiasts seek, regardless of price.
One might compare this pursuit to music. It’d be hard to contend that listening to a song is worth much more than a dollar — iTunes’ highest priced songs are $1.29. But virtually everyone is willing to pay a premium to see his favorite artist perform live. Bruce Springsteen’s newest album, “Wrecking Ball,” can be purchased for $13; tickets during his recent tour were priced at $98 each. At Springsteen concerts, attendees undoubtedly get their money’s worth.
Next time you pull a cork, think about what you’re drinking. Perhaps you’ll discover a great wine.