How I Developed My Own Scale for Judging Wine
TLDR: Yes, but only in the context of human connection. There are perfect, joy-inducing, connection-forming, memory-making wines, but they require a more nuanced view of perfection than the 100 pt scale allows. Happily, psychologists are showing that the process of tasting, exploring, and savoring even less-than-perfect wines is more than just fun, it can actually contribute to our psychological well-being. Damien Casten of Candid Wines explains.
I first tasted a wine that stopped time for me in 1997.
It was a Syrah from the northern Rhone Valley in France, the 1985 Jaboulet Hermitage la Chapelle. I had just arrived in Paris and a friend's father had invited us both to dinner at Taillevent - my first experience at one of the world's best restaurants. When our host ordered the 1987, the Sommelier expressed doubt about its quality but suggested we try it and see. The '87 was remarkable only because it was the first thing that hadn't been delicious all night. We swapped it out for the 1985, as one does at this sort of restaurant, and the vintage made all the difference. With our venison, and its unctuous sauce, infused with bitter chocolate I had my first Ratatouille moment. I remember it vividly.
It was overwhelming, and it changed the direction of my life. Within five years I had resigned from my corporate job, gone to cooking school, and was working in the kitchen at Lucas Carton, another three-star restaurant in Paris. I spent a lot of time reading about wines that others deemed to be the best in the world. My hard copies of Robert Parker's guides to Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhone were well-worn.
In the moment, and for the better part of the next two decades, I devoted a lot of energy to thinking about and looking for wines that achieve functional perfection, erroneously thinking that the juice in the glass and the perfection of a particular dish was entirely responsible for the rush of endorphins I experienced when consuming them. At Taillevent that night, most of our conversation was about how two wines made from the same site, by the same people, from the same grape could contain such different flavors, simply because of the growing season. And we marveled at the food, the flavors, and the experience delivered by the team at Taillevent.
Sailing head-on into the world of food and wine, I was driven to examine and define each flavor, looking as much for flaws as for happiness. My experience in Parisian kitchens was more about not screwing up than it was about delivering happiness. Enjoying wine was often focused on the perfect pairing, the proper aging, and the best vintages. I had many great wines and many great meals, but as I gained experience and expertise, I've drifted away from a purely analytical reading of wines.
Today, I feel little or no desire to seek functional perfection. I've come to believe that perfection is possible, but only when we are able to experience a wine along with all the memories, the flavors, and the anticipation of future happiness that it inspires. For a wine to stop time, I have to experience more than just what is in the glass.
Perfect bottles of wine do three things at the same time:
They conjure happy memories for me, or for someone at the table. The wine transports us backward to a happy place, unleashing memories and sparking stories.
They command attention and stir positive emotions, holding everyone tasting them firmly in the present moment.
All aspects of these wines seem more satisfying and more vital than expected. They have energy paired with elegance, delicacy paired with power, and always, balance. They seem to be alive.
NB: The more one learns, the higher this bar becomes.
These wines have something that has to be talked about and seem to demand that we focus on it. Other conversations are paused.
They inspire thoughts of future happiness related to when we might open another bottle, or when we might next encounter the winemaker.
For a while, I equated the experience of tasting a great wine with a moment of flow, the idea that we are happiest when we are in a state of complete and total focus introduced by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. I still think that is true, but it is only part of the picture. Fall in love with wine and you will arrive at many moments of flow while you analyze vintages and compare notes with wine-loving friends. It's a great feeling, but I think it unlocks only part of a great wine's potential to induce happiness.
I settled on these simultaneous measures of perfection after hearing Dr. Fred S. Bryant, a Professor of Psychology at Loyola University here in Chicago explain the power of "savoring, or processes through which people attend to, appreciate, and enhance positive experience." More than anyone I've ever heard speak, he is someone who I think would deeply understand what I mean when I talk about my "Happy Meter" and how I pay careful attention to the intensity and volume of endorphins that a wine provokes in my brain.
Dr. Bryant explains the benefits of savoring the moment, whether that be in memory, in the present, or in anticipation of something to come. He demonstrates that the process of mindfully engaging with and appreciating positive experiences or savoring them, enhances positive emotions and well-being.
This is the structure on which my three-tiered scale is built. Every now and then, one of our wines transports me to the past, present and future all at once. It's magical. The first wine that stopped me in my tracks was Klaus-Peter and Julia Keller's 2004 Dalsheimer Hubacker Auslese. More recently, Il Guercio from Sean O'Callaghan at Tenuta di Carleone transported me across time.
I don't think I had the words to describe all of this at the start of Candid back in 2005, but I love that having left France and the world of fine dining in pursuit of wines to share here in Chicago, the idea that "we make wine lovers happy" spoke to a deeper truth than I knew.