Always Drink Upstream From The Herd

I’m passionate about wine and wine quality and good food. I like trying new restaurants and tasting new wines. I love to cook and eat and drink. In short, I’m a wine geek and something of a foodie. I am also passionate about horses and riding and western culture and music. My wine friends think that, in addition to being a wine geek and foodie, I am quite the cowboy; but most of my real cowboy friends probably think I am quite the wine guy. Nevertheless, I am an appreciator of cowboy philosophy. Some of my favorite expressions of western wisdom include:

– Don’t squat with your spurs on.
– Good judgment comes from experience … and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.
– There’re two theories to arguing with a woman. Neither one works.
– When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.
– Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.
– Always drink upstream from the herd.

All of these are great advice for living a good and happy life whether or not you’re a cowboy. For me, the last one – Always drink upstream from the herd – is particularly noteworthy as it crosses over to the wine part of my life. Always drink upstream from the herd. Always drink the clean water upstream from where the herd is trampling around mudding the water they are drinking. Always drink better than the less informed. How do you do that? By becoming informed. And by not settling for the same old thing. What is the same old thing? In the most general sense (the biggest herd), the same old thing means wines like Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, Menage a Trois, Cristalino Brut, Woodbridge Chardonnay, Santa Margarita Pinot Grigio, Beringer White Zin, La Crema Chardonnay, Clicquot Yellow Label, etc. All of which reads like a list of the best selling wines in the market. So what’s wrong with drinking these best sellers? Not a thing. All of them are good, clean, commercial (in the good sense of that word) wines that deliver a fair value. But they are also a bit boring and in some cases have been dumbed down a bit, maybe to appeal to a broader (or maybe the broadest possible) audience. Or maybe the production volume is so high that these wines seem to lose their connection to a person (a specific winemaker) or a place (a vineyard where the grapes were grown).

Wines from too many places (or too big a place) lack precision and wines from too many winemakers lack soul. While not all places are good and not all individual winemakers are talented, the potential upside of a wine made (in reasonable quantity) by one person from grapes grown in one place is generally higher than that of a wine blended together from lots grown in different vineyards often in diverse regions with fermentations overseen by different winemakers.

What do I drink rather than the wines favored by the herd? Instead of “KJ VR Chard” (yes, that’s what we call it), I drink Les Tuilles Bourgogne Blanc Chardonnay from France. Instead of Menage a Trois, I drink St. Cosme Cotes du Rhone. Instead of Cristalino (an ok Cava), I drink Perelada Reserva (a much better but still cheap Cava). Instead of Woodbridge Chardonnay, I drink Louis Latour Ardeche Chardonnay. Instead of Santa Margarita, I drink Italo Cescon Pinot Grigio. Instead of Beringer White Zinfandel, I drink Villa des Anges Rose or Ch. Penin Bordeaux Clairet. Instead of La Crema Chardonnay, I drink Copain “Tous Ensemble” Chardonnay. Instead of Clicquot Yellow Label, I drink Gosset Brut Excellence or Forget Brimont Brut NV. And so on. Every one of these are wines is tied to a person and a place.

And what if the herd in question is a fancier herd? There are still wines that are herd favorites. So I may be drinking Kenefick Ranch Cabernet Franc or Snowden Cabernet Sauvignon rather than Silver Oak or Caymus. Or I may be drinking Ch. Pontac Lynch Margaux or Ch. Batailley Pauillac rather than the most recently cult-ified (a cult is the worst sort of herd), over-ripe, high-alcohol, highly-extracted “Spectator Selection” or Parker pick.
Are these the only answers? Absolutely not. Talk to the salesmen at any Spec’s store and ask them what they like to drink. They taste and drink a lot of wine and they know what’s good. They’ve been there and drunk that. Or they know someone who has. They know about what’s new and hot but they also all have and remember their old favorites.

Don’t worry of you make a few mistakes (or try a few wines you don’t like). Remember, Good judgment comes from experience … and a lot of that comes from bad judgment. A big part of the fun of wine is discovering what you like and tasting new things. Sure publications can be a good way to learn about wine but you have to remember that their publishers are all in the business of selling publications so their reporting is sometimes more focused on attracting attention than informing. (Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.)
While popularity tells you what the herd likes, it doesn’t always or even often tell you what’s best. By its nature, the herd is used to drinking the muddied waters. Always drink upstream from the herd. And remember: Don’t squat with your spurs on – which relates back to experience coming from bad judgment …

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