Literally the Best
I worked at Tower Records for over two years and never once did a customer walk into the store and ask me for the best album we carried. They mostly wanted to know where the newest Madonna single was. In high school, I worked at Hollywood Video and I can't ever remember anyone asking me for the best movie in the store. Most customers just wanted to avoid paying late fees. When it comes to music and movies the general public has a pretty good sense of what they like and what they don't; we recognize that different people have different tastes and that there are genres for these various interests. However, I've now worked at K&L for seven years and I can't remember a day when someone hasn't asked me for the best wine in the store. Not for my opinion, mind you, but for the literal, factual best bottle we carry. The best bottle for $20. The best German riesling. The best Champagne. The best gift.
There must be one, right? Which one is it? Tell me where it is.
Can you imagine walking into Amoeba Records and asking them what the best record is? They would look at you like you were crazy. Can you imagine walking into Whole Foods and asking them what the best vegetable is, or the best whole grain? Can you imagine walking into Macy's and asking them what the best shirt is? Or the best dress? Maybe walking into Tiffany's and asking them for the best diamond? What's the best table at IKEA? The best shower curtain print? What's the best painting in the Louvre? What's the best ocean: the Pacific or the Atlantic? What's the best planet? Jupiter? These questions sound ridiculous when you talk about certain subjective subjects—points of personal preference that clearly have no clear-cut answer—but for some reason asking for "the best" sounds perfectly reasonable when requesting a bottle of wine or whisky. Why is that? Why do we think there is ultimately one bottle to rule them all when it comes to booze?
Part of the answer lies in the way wine and whisky are talked about; the world is and has always been obsessed with ranking its alcoholic beverages. When you learn about Bordeaux, for example, you start with the Classification of 1855; when the Emperor Napoleon had every chateau in the Medoc ranked and organized into five tiers of quality. One hundred and sixty years later these rankings still dictate pricing and desirability for France's most coveted Cabernet-based wines. In Burgundy, one starts by learning the great vineyard sites; where the soil has been ranked by its mineral content to decide which properties are capable of greatness and which are not. It's a longstanding class system that cannot be overcome. Montrachet will always make better wines than the Macon. Greatness has been predetermined. The rest of the world has followed this lead, creating their own appellations, determining their own standards, and handing out medals or awards that also carry a certain measure of factual standing.
When we read about alcoholic beverages in this manner, where rules and certainty are laid out before us with clear explanations as to their rationale, it's difficult not to believe in their existence. It's not easy to learn about wine and spirits on your own. It takes years of practice and dedication to differentiate the nuances between similar products, and most people don't have the time or the interest to reach that level. But it's not like there's a way we can literally determine what the best wines or whiskies are. It's not like Napoleon held an actual tournament in Bordeaux—like the World Cup or the NCAA 64—to determine the victors in 1855. It's not like the Yamazaki 2013 Sherry Cask defeated all other whiskies by submission or knockout in Jim Murray's own personal Kumite this year. These are merely the opinions of certain educated people; and—just like assholes—everyone has an opinion (especially assholes). There may be mountains of empircal evidence and plenty of sound reasoning to reinforce these opinions, but ultimately these are just musings. They're beliefs. They're points of advise that rely entirely on the preferences of certain tastes.
And, let me be clear, that's not to say that these opinions don't have merit, standing, stature, or worthiness. We all have strongly held opinions based on our own personal experiences. More importantly, we trust certain opinions from people we know think on similar wavelengths. I love reading opinions about booze, film, music, and literature, but it's because I'm interested in learning about how other people think, not because I'm researching quality. Why do we like certain things? What makes something interesting or desirable? Why do people make things in a certain way? If I like this what else might I like? These are the questions that opinions can help us to answer.
For seven years, however, the one question I've constantly faced at K&L that I have not been able to answer and will never be able to answer is: what's the best? But I don't think I'll ever stop being asked.