Keith Levenberg on the evolution of a new style of wine appreciation
I always wince when I hear the official term for those of us who spend much more time thinking about wine than most normal people. “Oenophile”, with its classical roots, seems inherently pretentious, and carries the added disadvantage of sounding just a little too similar to “paedophile”. “Wine lover” is hardly an improvement. We want to drink wine, not make love to it. I won’t even get started on those ridiculous tasting-note clichés like “liquid Viagra” or “sex in a bottle”. If drinking jammy Merlot reminds you of sex, you’re doing it wrong. Either wine or sex or both. Recently a new manner of wine appreciation has emerged, with a new set of terminology and descriptors. This is the phenomenon of wine geekery and wine geeks.
The marriage of geekery and oenophilia, was not an inevitable one. While it is theoretically possible to be geeky about almost anything, geekery usually manifests itself in a cluster of pastimes whose appeal remains elusive outside the fraternity of geeks. Sciencefiction fandom, comic books, and Dungeons & Dragons are some classic examples. The popular image of a geek is a socially maladroit outcast, with mannerisms and interests that may as well have been deliberately engineered to reinforce social maladroitness. Geekery itself, however, has less to do with the interests one pursues than with the obsessive-compulsive manner in which one pursues them. It is true that a geek is far more likely to name Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Battlestar Galactica as a favourite TV show than, for example, Monday Night Football, but that is at most a necessary, not sufficient, condition for geekery. When a geek follows a television show they don’t merely watch it; a mental inventory is kept of each episode title, associated writer and/or director, guest appearance, soundtrack composition, continuity marker, and plot hole. Storing such a vast trove of trivial information would strike some people as laborious but it becomes easier when you have watched each episode forty times. The geek brings a similar fastidiousness and photographic memory to all pursuits.
The sequence 14, 121, 129, 252, 289, 298, and 361 would strike most people as a meaningless sequence of a few random numbers, but a certain species of geek will instantaneously recognise them as key issues of The Amazing Spider-man. (First appearance of the Green Goblin, death of Gwen Stacy, first appearance of the Punisher, introduction of the black costume, death of the Hobgoblin, first issue drawn by wunderkind artist and future zillionaire Todd McFarlane, and first appearance of the villain Carnage, respectively. If none of that made sense to you, you probably had a girlfriend in high school. I, meanwhile, only had to double-check one of those on the Internet.) For such a geek, it will be quite impossible to hear some of those numbers in any context without thinking of the corresponding issue of The Amazing Spider-man, in the same way that another species of geek cannot encounter any reference to the date of 8th May without instantly thinking, “Grateful Dead, Barton Hall, 1977,” or to the year 1945 without picturing Philippe Jullian’s iconic label for Château Mouton-Rothschild. So there is indeed something about wine that proves psychologically compatible with geekery.
Apart from artist labels and landmark vintages, (can you ever hear that somebody was born in 1961 without thinking, “Nice Claret vintage!”), Bordeaux is probably the second least geeky genre of wine. The least geeky of all is Napa Valley Cabernet, essentially the wine equivalent of a varsity jacket, right down to their garishly colored, blocky labels—to a geek it’s a substance as toxic as the green blood of the bountyhunter aliens in the X-Files. It’s no coincidence that it tends to be collected by the type of brash alpha males who spent their high-school years practicing their “two for flinching” technique when the rest of us were occupied with far more meaningful pursuits, like watching every episode of the X-Files. The typical Napa Cabernet drinker made their fortune in real estate or dentistry. The typical Bordeaux drinker acquired their fortune via inheritance. Inheritance is probably a central pre-requisite to Bordeaux appreciation because there are only a few dozen producers anyone has any interest in, so without a vast library of back vintages, the game gets very boring very fast. The sum total of planning necessary to execute a get-together with Burgundy drinkers is, “Hey, let’s drink some Burgundies,” and the rest usually takes care of itself. That would never work with Bordeaux, because if you invited six people, the odds of all six showing up with a bottle of 2000 Pichon- Baron are approximately one in four. That happens to be a terrific wine but as far as geekiness goes it’s only a half-step above a cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts, or a Napa Cabernet. Bordeaux drinkers can be oenophiles, but they cannot be geeks.
Bordeaux drinkers can be oenophiles, but they cannot be geeks. Burgundy is compatible with geekery although not necessarily the summit of it.
Burgundy is compatible with geekery although not necessarily the summit of it. The fact that a single producer might cultivate ten or more vineyards of interest, and that each one of those vineyards might also be cultivated by ten or more other producers, and that the relative quality of each wine turns on such minute variables as vine age, clonal material, and just where in the vineyard each producer’s rows are situated—to say nothing of winemaking techniques—gives a geek much to obsess over, and obsession is the essence of geekery. Not all types of obsessions are geeky, however. La Tâche is worthy of obsession but it is not a geek’s wine. Savigny-lès-Beaune, on the other hand, can be a geeky wine, particularly if it is a bottling like Bruno Clair’s La Dominode or Pierre Guillemot’s Les Serpentières, which compels a geek to consult reference volumes to determine if they are among the top five oldest-vine bottlings of Burgundy or just the top 10 or 15. Burgundy is also a powerful enabler of a common affliction among geeks: completism. Completism can briefly be defined as the compulsion to possess every member of a very narrowly defined set, even the ones that are no good, even the ones that are appallingly bad, even the ones that are utterly indistinguishable from the others. Amongst the dedicated geek community of bootleg-concert traders, the lowest grade of sound quality is generally defined along the lines of “for completists only”, but completists abound, and thus there are people with entire hard drives (and even vinyl record collections) of every Pink Floyd concert from 1969 to 1972, even the ones that sound as if they were recorded from a microphone accidentally flushed down the Fillmore West’s toilet during a bad acid trip. But try, just try, accumulating four or five of Jean-Marie Fourrier’s Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Crus without needing to have all six.
Geekery is a force of nature, and even genres that are fundamentally contrary to geekiness can generate some geek appeal if given enough time to marinate. One would think it would be quite impossible to be geeky about Dom Pérignon, and yet the Internet (admittedly a virtual petri dish for the incubation of the hardiest strains of geekery) is capable of spawning, on a regular basis, multi-page threads about the difference between one disgorgement and another, slightly later disgorgement of exactly the same wine. One can call this the “Joe Biden sandwich phenomenon”, after the installment of the web-comic XKCD which postulated, “Wine, house music, fonts, ants, Wikipedia signatures, Canadian surrealist porn — spend enough time with any of them and you’ll become a snobby connoisseur. . . . If you locked people in a box for a year with 500 still frames of Joe Biden eating a sandwich, by the end they’d be adamant that some were great and some terrible”. In other words, geekiness abhors a vacuum. It is fortunate that the emergence of the grower Champagne category has enabled people determined to be geeky about Champagne to talk about single vineyards, Pinot Meunier, dosage levels, and biodynamics, instead of another debate about the difference between the June and July disgorgement of some LVMH brand, 85 per cent of which is destined to be consumed in strip clubs.
There is no easy definition of a geek wine other than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Bordeaux, as we have seen, can never be a geek wine. Not even if you bought it at Augé. (Okay, maybe if you bought it at Augé.) Burgundy can be a geek wine in a variety of circumstances, but especially when it conforms to a theme that requires five minutes of exposition. Beaujolais is very geeky because it’s an underdog, although there are borderline cases even near the Ground Zero for geek appeal. Not every bottle of Marcel Lapierre Morgon is geeky because not only geeks drink Lapierre, but an older bottle of Lapierre is geeky because only a geek would cellar Lapierre, and it goes without saying that the unsulphured version, identified only with a discreet “N” on the back label, has major geek credibility. Yvon Métras Fleurie has similar geek cred because it’s impossible to find, but it would probably lose some if more people realized that Frank Prial had written about it as far back as 1998. It helps to be new and cutting-edge if one wishes to make a splash with geeks, unless it’s so old and stale that it’s become novel again, like Sherry. (“Wow. This is so bad, it’s almost good,” remarks a character in the Dan Clowes/ Terry Zwigoff film Ghost World. “This is so bad, it’s gone past good and back to bad again,” responds her geekier friend. One or both of those statements sums up your views on Sherry, depending what kind of wine geek you are).
But it is important to understand that geek wines and hipster wines are not the same thing, although there is some overlap in the Venn diagram. (Overnoy occupies the most prominent real estate in this zone: if a wine geek or a wine hipster tweets an Instagram link with some faux-modest comment like “Not a half-bad lunch,” don’t even bother clicking on the link — it will be a bottle of Overnoy.) But a hipster can be found drinking his Overnoy or his En Rama Sherry at busy wine bars in the company of Suicide Girl sommelièresses; the geek does so in his Fortress of Solitude while managing his inventory on CellarTracker. For a geek, the collection, classification, and categorisation of wine is nearly as important as the consumption. It is a creature that I am not sure would be entirely comprehensible to the oldschool oenophiles of yore, but if you were to lock them together in a box with 500 old Clarets they might, after all, manage to find plenty to discuss with one another.
This article was originally published in Noble Rot magazine and reproduced with its kind permission. For a limited time only, Octavian customers can take advantage of a discounted year's subscription to Noble Rot. Discover more