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« Bitter is Better | Main | Tastings Tomorrow »
Wednesday
Sep142011

Only The Best - Part I

As a society on the go, many of us are too busy to bother with the mediocre in life.  If we're actually going to stop and smell the flowers, they had better be the best damn flowers around.  Otherwise, what's the point?  Some of us aren't satisfied with merely the experience of smelling any old flower - we need to know that we've experienced the best and that others are aware also.  Facebook pictures of our trips to Paris with poses in front of the Eifel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and Notre Dame Cathedral prove that we were there and that we saw the best sights that Paris had to offer.  A trip to the Louvre results in a mad dash to see Da Vinci's Mona Lisa while ignoring the rest.  As a culture, we are obsessed with cutting the fat and getting to the good stuff, but what are we basing this on?  Who decides what the best things in life are?  Our families?  Our friends?  Robert Parker?  The "best" things in life are not always so objective and absolute, despite what the experts tell us.  Not only is the term "best" a subjective one, it can also require requisite experience in order to understand its proper meaning.  

A great perspective on just how skewed a qualitative scale can be regarding alcohol is found in the 1855 Medoc classification of Bordeaux wine.  Because the 1855 classification still draws the ultimate line in the sand regarding quality of red Medoc wine, it's a great example of how we tend to follow the leader.  The five-tiered system of determining the "great" wines of the Medoc is merely one of many "best of" lists compiled by merchants, negotiants, and wine enthusiasts of the time.  Before the 1855 classification took place there were various versions of Consumer Reports floating around the region to help drinkers decide which wines to invest in.  This particular one just happened to become set in stone for the next 150 years despite numerous arguments for updating and revising it. Instead of developing into an evolving, up-to-date ranking system, the 1855 classification became a dogma.  The top wines could do no wrong and the lesser wines would forever be stuck in the peasant class.  Some still believe that the qualitative distinction of the list holds true today, arguing that it ranked the quality of the soil rather than of the wine itself.  However, many property holdings have changed hands over the last century and many chateaux are using different grapes from 5th growth vineyard sites to make their 2nd growth wines. 

Not only has land ownwership changed, but so has winemaking!  There are talented vintners working everywhere in Bordeaux today, taking previously unheralded properties into the ranks of the very finest.  Yet, we're still stuck with a "best of" list from the mid-19th century?  Are the five first growths still the very best wines of Bordeaux?  Auction pricing and insatiable consumer interest would say "YES!"  People today are still obsessed with drinking the best wines of the 1855 classification because it's a simple declaration of what constitutes greatness, even if in reality there's no longer any basis for it.  That's not to say that Chateau Haut-Brion isn't one of the five best wines in Bordeaux, but rather, "Who actually knows anymore?"  Are the people drinking Chateau Margaux today experienced enough to recognize that utmost quality in contrast to other great clarets?  I don't know.  However, I'm sure it's much easier not to rock the boat and let the money keep pouring in.

The only way to know for sure if something is the "best" is to sit down and compare it against other similar products, but who has the time or the money to do that anymore?  For that reason we simply defer to the experts who tell us what is or isn't worth our time.  I'll be the first to say that I simply don't have time to become an expert on every little hobby I take an interest in, but I still want the enjoyment I find in any particular experience to be based on my own personal pleasure.  If we're constantly worried about experiencing "only the best," how does that make us any happier?  Do we actually know that what we're experiencing is wonderful or is the idea that someone else thinks it is enough?

More on this in the upcoming weeks....

-David Driscoll