THIS shows you precisely why a little education is a dangerous thing: elitist that I am, I've been keeping a food roman à clef, where everything I ate appears slightly disguised, but not enough that insiders wouldn't recognize them. Plus I had a really good twist ending planned. I think Viacom may be interested.
Fortunately, Roy reprised this two-year-old NRO wonder from wingnut back-bencher Melinda Ledden Sidak--who, assuming her most-Googled work isn't just a pure timecard job, spends most of her days baking cookies, mixing cocktails, and hoovering the collection of exotic-animal-skin rugs before hubby gets home--which reminded me, at the edge of despair, that whatever hardships the possessor of A Little Learning faces, it still beats hell out of 21st century galloping Tory megalomania.
I have a confession to make. It’s about an embarrassing habit that has earned me the sneers and pitying glances of sommeliers and right-thinking people from Europe to the Caribbean. You see, I love to drink Big California chardonnays. Big, fruity, buttery, oaky, in-your-face, so-over, 90s-style chardonnay.
And I refuse to apologize for it.
Let's begin by asking ourselves why this is important. The answer may surprise you: it isn't.
But it is personal, for a number of reasons. One, I've been educating myself about wine for thirty years, since the day I was handed a wine list and asked to make the selection for a big-shot dinner, and I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at. Second, I've been a curmudgeon even longer than that, and while the easy faux-curmudgeonliness of the wingnut right generally rolls off my back, it, like anti-evolutionism, anti-intellectualism, and Driving With Your Goddam Cell Phone Plastered To Your Ear should, on general principles, be publicly denounced and humiliated from time to time, even though the intended target is sure to miss the point. Three: if I've learned anything at all in that time about wine it's that the perennial question about crappy, barely-merchantable products--namely, is the greedy producer or the idiot public most to blame?--is fairly easy to answer where wine is concerned: it's the idiots, and especially American idiots.
We're going to try to get through this with little or no Wine Talk, especially coming from someone who makes no claim of real connoisseurship. So let's begin by saying that, in general, this sort of "I'm an aggressive dumbass, and you can't stop me!" approach has its place, and that place is in the infield watching a NASCAR race. Reverse snobbery is an exponentially-worse intellectual transgression than regular snobbery, because the real snob is required to learn something first.
Then there is the business of believing, or appearing to believe, that the History of the World began when your mother's contractions started coming a minute apart. Being that these days when the temperature tops 70º, but fails to break 88.5º, I am subjected, whatever my preference, to the company of a five-year-old male and, frequently, his seven-year-old brother, and their long-winded expositions on what they find "hilarious", I have come to suspect the education system is to blame for this. Specifically, the pre-analytical child is barraged with facts, which he is taught to regurgitate as readily as he does red-dyed bars of pure sugar flavored with some chem-lab substitute for cinnamon. The thing he does not learn, from what I can see, is that those facts came from someone else, who, at least at this point, knows more about the subject than he does.
And so to Ms (pardon; the offense was fully intentional) Ledden Sidak, whose age we are unable to determine by indifferent internet search, but who lends us a clue right off the bat by presuming an ubiquitous, wildly popular, and much-maligned style of California Chardonnay which gained prominence in the 1980s belongs rather to the following decade, when, one must assume, she is most likely to have first come into contact with it. This is compounded by egregiously suggesting (facile curmudgeonliness, again) that all disputatiousness was a simple matter of a shift in elitist fashion, as though the world's premier white wine grape were a boy band, or a pair of leg warmers.
Now, a brief word about wine talk: it's ludicrous, sometimes embarrassing, and it's been pwned since Thurber (there is, somewhere in my collection, a vintage [sorry] cartoon rendering of two spike-haired, safety-pin-bedecked Punks seated at a Bistro table as one says to the other, "It's a naive domestic glue, but I think you'll be amused by its pretensions."). But there's no other way to talk about physical taste. Try to describe a steak. It's jargon. It's poetic. It also can carry very specific meaning. It takes a lot of experience to use well. Ms Ledden Sidak does not. Big, fruity, buttery, and oaky might all apply to California chardonnay of the particularly blowsy sort she prefers (though I'd use a lot of care with "fruity") but all have become trite through over-application by the ill-informed, something which is not much improved by that "in-your-face".
I have nothing against professions of love for the style, though they won't come from me, but, first, it would have been better to acknowledge that difference of opinion exists and is firmly grounded, by adding, well, "blowsy", or "boarderline psychotic", or something to suggest you appreciate that not all opinion in the world is to be judged by whether or not it's yours. Propounding a particular style of wine, particularly one from so noble a grape as Chardonnay--especially given that "nobility" in a grape denotes its ability to take many, sometimes subtly distinct, forms and remain successful--is a neophyte's foolishness. Simple discrimination and pep-rally enthusiasm are not accomplishments. They're not even the beginning of understanding. Listen, the true connoisseur doesn't care if you put ice in the damn stuff, and two olives, if that's how you like it. He'll probably bristle if you tell him you're right and he's the prisoner of the oenological PC police, though.
We can't go on without a word about "oaky". Sorry. I have a friend who worked for many years in the best wine store in town, and to this day one cannot say "oaky chardonnay" in his presence without first making sure he won't hit any furniture as he falls. If you break it to him gently and while seated, he may recount the time when, one busy and exasperating Saturday, the umpteenth customer asked him for a "really oaky chard", and he suggested buying the cheapest bottle in the house and putting a twig in it. Wine is not supposed to "taste" "like" oak. Or of oak, except in particular circumstances which would include the fact that one is tasting it too young, before the imparted oak has had a chance to harmonize with its surroundings. You're supposed to be tasting wine. This attitude is apparently a by-product of the American discovery of Food, circa 1975, after which a nation whose primary culinary influence is three island nations known almost exclusively for boiling everything until the flavor is safely removed, decided, by the Inverse Law of Idiocy, that everything on one's plate, or in one's glass, should have a flavor capable of stunning a mid-sized dog. Chipotle-Mango Mayonnaise this! motherfucker.
Chardonnay always has seemed to be a very loaded sort of wine compared with other varieties. People think they know something about you the instant they hear you order. The central stigma in the U.S. is its alleged association with affluent political liberals. The term “chardonnay-sipping,” usually is paired with other derogatory compound phrases such as “Volvo-driving,” “brie (or sushi)-eating” “running shoe wearing” and less colorful epithets like “snob” and “sissy.” In this formulation, by the way, chardonnay sippers always live in “leafy” neighborhoods.
Rule #2: just because other people are stupider than you, it doesn't make you smart. Especially when they're the people who share your political allegiances and sense of humorlessness.
Recently, I have tried to break out of my wine rut. My husband and I vacationed on the French island of St. Bartelemy, enjoying delectable food and warm sunshine. There was only one problem with our otherwise perfect holiday in paradise. There was not a single bottle of California-style chardonnay to be had at any price.
Sheesh, the ocean was nearby. Why didn't you walk into it?
Oh, we tried. The chardonnay grape is the basis for many famous French labels such as Chablis, Pouilly-Fuisse, and Montrachet. We tried many an expensive bottle to try to feed our nasty habit, to no avail. Each one of them to our palates seemed watery, or acidic, or too tart. One afternoon, we even set off on a desperate mission to a huge warehouse literally stacked floor to ceiling with wine. The nice French lady who helped me seemed dumbfounded when I asked if they had any California wine among the thousands of bottles surrounding us. “But….thees is a French island!” she asked, bewildered.
Okay, first, "thees is a French island!" is not a question, and, second, I'm guessing that when you replied, "But I vant zee American zhard-o-nay," it didn't help matters.
Lesson--where are we?--three. Zee fucking Mow-ra-chay, from a good vintage and producer, is the goddam epitome of the sort of wine you claim to like, but without the two kilograms/liter of oak chips. French wines are naturally more acidic than California wines (which have a severe problem with over-ripe, acid-shedding grapes). Acidity provides the wine with a backbone (and, in the lack, is why California Chardonnays are so often flabby). It's a good thing. The wine may be "tart" to someone expecting, maybe, a Diet Pepsi, and its naturally lower alcohol may seem "watery" to someone expecting a Jack Daniel's, which, incidentally, is nearly as sweet as that Pepsi, suggesting that American palates, generally educated by the mass market, might benefit from a long-overdue weaning. Greater acidity and less "alcohol burn" make them much better accompaniments to food, which is where, generally, wine should be consumed, not as a cocktail with a faux-Continental flair which one then poor-mouths as not American enough.
Later, when I explained to the proprietor of one of the island’s finest restaurants about my inexplicable craving for California (or Australian—they do it well too) chardonnay, he offered his sincere condolences.
We decided to stick to pina coladas and beer for the rest of the trip.
Why stop there?
Upon our return, we could hardly wait to open a frosty (yes, we like our wine incorrectly and unfashionably cold, too) Rombauer Carneros chardonnay, which we buy by the case and often to the exclusion of everything else other than the occasional splurge on a Kistler or Newton. For those of you who share my leanings, you absolutely cannot do better than Rombauer. How fitting that such a sexy, muscular and swaggering chardonnay should have been created by a winery founded by a former fighter pilot. No watery French swill here.
By the Great Horned Satan and his leafy, tree-lined streets, lady, the reason you like it frosty (wow, I'm shocked) is that home cryogenics numbs the fucking excesses and hides the lack of acidity. Why don't you learn to take it like a man? Although I suppose Koerner Rombauer, stud fighter jock from the California National Guard might miss the fellatio.