A New York-based lawyer and financial adviser, J.P. Bary comes from a family that’s been involved in making, distributing, and marketing wine for generations. He’s traveled widely in the world’s wine regions and counts many growers, winemakers, importers, distributors and retailers among his friends. For The Persistent Observer’s Guide to Wine, he conducted extensive interviews with wine consumers at all levels, and for the last several years, he’s been interacting with readers as he discusses wine and other subjects at The Persistent Observer.
Welcome, J.P. I understand you have a new take on learning about wine so I’m curious to hear what that is. For starters, what do you think makes The Persistent Observer’s Guide to Wine stand out from other books?
What stands out is the focus. Mine isn’t so much on wine itself as on the experience of drinking it. Surprisingly, that’s unique, because most wine writers start with the assumption that the more you know about wine, the better off you are. But there’s a huge difference between knowing a lot about wine and knowing wine in the sense of understanding how best to enjoy it. In fact, knowing what you don’t need to know is an important part of learning how to enjoy wine more. You know, Tyler, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me you had a few friends who were really into wine. And I also wouldn’t be surprised if you told me they’d never given you any advice that really helped you enjoy it more on a day-to-day basis.
That’s very true, J.P., but then will you begin by telling us what we don’t need to know to clear away any misconceptions?
What you don’t need to know are things you often hear the most about. That’s not necessarily because people are trying to mislead you. Mostly, it’s because people who are really into wine find all sorts of arcane details about it fascinating and the media and wine marketers are very focused on connecting with that audience. It’s the same sort of thing we see with rabid sports fans, who delight in knowing all sorts of statistics about the game and take pride in remembering all the details about the great seasons, games, and players of a favorite team. For them, knowing the details enhances the enjoyment of the sport, but it isn’t really necessary to know all those details to enjoy watching, or even playing the sport. In the same way, there’s a big difference between what you need to know to enjoy wine and what you might like to know about wine as you start to develop your own personal relationship with it. In that sense, you don’t really need to know anything about a great wine in order to enjoy it. You don’t need to have a chart showing the temperature and precipitation in the vineyard at various times of the year, or know the history of the winery or how many cases of the wine were made in a particular year. And you shouldn’t need to know how someone else rated the wine in order to enjoy it.
That narrows it down quite a bit, so what are the basic things left that we do need to know?
The two most important things to know are: first, how to choose wines that will appeal to you personally, and second, how to store and serve those wines in a way that lets you get the most out of them. As I first began talking to ordinary consumers about their wine experiences, the thing that struck me was that most of them couldn’t describe the taste of any particular wine. They might say whether or not they liked it, but they couldn’t say why. So it was no wonder that they were a bit challenged by the task of selecting a wine and usually made poor choices. And this was true even for people who’d tried to learn something about wine. They’d get very embarrassed and start running on about various subtle wine characteristics, getting them all mixed up. They thought they needed to sound like great wine critics, when all I was asking about were simple things like sweet, sour, or bitter; fizzy, smooth or rough; light, medium or full bodied. You don’t have to take lessons to learn to taste these things — they’re things you already know how to taste — but they’re the characteristics that make the most difference to your enjoyment of wine. They’re what gives wine it’s basic structure, and you do need to understand the basic structure of wine because that allows you to put different wines in context and build a mental framework that helps you categorize wines and gives you the ability to predict what a wine will taste like before you buy it.
I actually spent more than 10 years doing the research on what people needed to know — and that was after I’d already spent more than 20 years learning about wine. It started when my sons reached the age where I wanted them to understand wine. I kept giving them books to read that didn’t help them. And I knew they were interested! So I began talking to my wine friends about how they first learned about wine and then I began talking to people who were just getting interested in it to find out what they thought they needed to know. Eventually, I began to see what the most fundamental misunderstandings were and they turned out to be pretty pervasive. In fact, I discovered that I suffered from quite a few of them myself and could have shaved a few decades off of my own learning experience if I’d known about them earlier.
What were the most surprising things you found that people didn’t know or wanted to know about wine?
The most surprising thing is that people don’t trust their own senses when it comes to wine. It’s something that’s understandable but regrettable…and preventable (because we all do know how to taste and practice tasting every day). Like many people, I assumed that it takes years of training to “educate my palate” before I could appreciate wine. And when I wasn’t making any headway, I was tempted to assume like many others, that an educated palate was just a myth that’s convenient for some people to foster. In fact, it’s all just a terrible misunderstanding caused by some unappreciated but understandable factors.
To me the most fundamental of these factors is that the taste of wine is hard to describe. That’s always true whenever we talk about matters of taste because people’s tastes differ. But it’s particularly true for wine because wines can taste different to us depending on the circumstances we drink them in — not just the food we’re having with them, but the weather, the time of day, the people we drink them with, when we drink them — it’s quite a long list. In fact, the first sip of a single glass of wine often tastes very different from the last sip. So it’s very hard for people to communicate with each other about the taste of wine because it’s a moving target. When wine aficionados think they’ve educated their palate, usually it’s just a matter of learning, through a process of trial and error, which tastes correlate with a consensus that’s built up among wine lovers over many decades about what certain terms mean. What they’re learning is what other people call things they already taste, but might have called something completely different before.
There are some other very straightforward factors that I describe in my book. One of the most important is that people have to learn to give each wine they drink another look. Tyler, you’ve probably heard wine professionals say how mystified they are by the fact that people rely so much on ratings. The main reason is that when people believe some expert has rated a wine highly, they’ll give it a second chance and suspend their judgment about it until they’ve had a chance to really taste it. Then, if they like it, they’re more inclined to look for a highly rated wine next time. But when they drink an unrated wine (or at least one that they don’t know is highly rated), they tend to judge it quickly and may not even notice that it tastes better once they’ve given it some time. Maybe they just need to wash away residual tastes in their mouth or give the wine a chance to breathe and warm up a bit. Or they may be dealing with a wine whose tastes are persistent, which is something you really want. It’s that long “finish” or aftertaste that wine connoisseurs go on and on about. But when you have a persistent taste, you can’t hit people over the head with it right off the bat, because it would become overwhelming by the time you’ve had a glass or two. So when people give a wine a second chance only because they hear it’s highly rated, they’re setting themselves up to believe they need someone else to tell them what to drink, when the truth is, they just need to learn how to be more aware of what they’re tasting themselves.
If you had to boil it down to one item, what is the single most important thing to know about wine and why?
That it’s easy to love and hard to understand…and that’s the beauty of it. To me, about 90% of what most people are told they need to learn about wine has nothing to do with how to enjoy it more and they don’t learn the most important things they need to know to enjoy it more by reading or listening to experts. It’s a shame, but many people actually spoil their enjoyment of wine when they try to learn more about it. I’ve got no problem with people who like to learn wine trivia. If you like trivia and you like wine, it’s a natural. But I do have a problem with people who think you need to learn a lot of trivia in order to enjoy wine.
The most important thing I learned by talking to people about what they needed to know is that the experts are too far removed from what average consumers are experiencing to be able to tell them the most important things they need to know to enjoy their wine more. People expect that if they learn more about something they should understand it better, but the experts on wine are focusing on subtle details that ordinary consumers can’t appreciate. These are the details that only emerge after you understand the basics. But to the experts, the basics are so obvious that they think they don’t need to talk about them.
If you came from Mongolia and you said that something in the aroma of a wine reminded you of the smell of fresh cut cashmere after it’s been beaten and laid out on the damp ground, an expert would be captivated by that description, but it wouldn’t be much use to the average wine drinker. That’s why, after sharing my observations with family and friends, I thought there was a need for a book that wasn’t written by one of the world’s greatest experts on wine, just someone willing to take the time to figure out what non-experts found most confusing about the things experts say.
I think that’s really well said, J.P. and cuts to the chase about why there is so much misunderstanding between experts and most people about wine. So I understand one of the keys to appreciating wine is understanding our individual palate, which you explain in the book. Can you give us a few insights into how we do that?
That’s a great question, Tyler, and it really gets to the soul of my book. As you know, I’ve given my readers a short checklist to make them aware of the things that have influenced their taste preferences over the course of their lives — from general things like cultural influences and personal preferences for sweet, sour, salty or bitter tastes, to issues like smoking, medications, or other day-to-day environmental factors. Ultimately, there are so many of these factors that the best I can do is make my readers aware of how important they are. What’s most important is for me to give them tools that allow them to appreciate the basic structure of wine and a framework for connecting that to their own preferences, so they can find wines that are in their own personal comfort zone and then begin to develop an in-depth appreciation of what works best for them in various circumstances. That’s essentially what the book is all about.
That makes sense to me. So you’re building off the individual’s current knowledge already about his own tastes and applying that to wine. I imagine that relates to the ten conversations about wine that you discuss in the book. Can you tell us a little of what those conversations are about?
Sure. My working title for the book was “Top Ten Wine Mistakes.” What I realized as a result of my research was that it was more important to keep people from making certain egregious mistakes than it was to try to teach them everything they needed to know to find the “perfect” wine for a particular situation, since the perfect wine isn’t usually available. More importantly, you are the only one who can find the wines that will suit you best because only you know your personal taste preferences in detail and the particular circumstances in which you’re going to drink any particular wine. But many of the wines you have ready access to can do a terrific job for you if you learn how to keep them out of situations in which they’ll be compromised. So what I tried to do was identify the biggest stumbling blocks and discuss them in a way that allowed my readers to make a step-by-step progression through all the essential skills they need to have to pick wines that won’t disappoint them. I don’t want to make my readers see wine exactly the same way I do, just make them savvy enough to have a meaningful conversation with a good retailer, sommelier or wine-maker or good friend who likes wine.
So I start with what I call the end result—taste. I explain what gets in the way of tasting the wines that we drink, starting with personal foibles and misperceptions and then working through the mechanical issues, like not taking enough time (as we discussed earlier), or serving wines the wrong way. I also explain to my readers why it’s a trap to use the strategies various people peddle to make wine “simple,” because it isn’t simple and all they’re doing is closing you out from the range of choices which make wine a superior beverage. I concentrate on making sure that my readers understand the basic structure of wine thoroughly, so they can understand how these common misconceptions about wine evolved historically and appreciate the reasons why it’s marketed the way it is in the current global markets. Finally, I thought it was important to discuss the health issues involved with wine. That’s a very controversial issue and one which most wine books try to avoid. I didn’t think it was ethical to do so.
I’m intrigued, J.P. What are the health issues? I’ve always heard having a glass of wine is good for you, as long as you’re drinking in moderation. Can you give us a quick idea of your take on this issue and why other books avoid it?
I think most wine writers have read those questionnaires that are supposed to tell you whether you’re an alcoholic and feel a bit annoyed with the purported medical consensus about the hazards of alcohol when they see themselves rocket off the chart. So when they hear something that supports the notion that wine is healthy, they prefer to focus on that. Health issues also don’t seem to be part of the standard curriculum that people study when they learn about wine, although they should be. As a result, there are very few books on the subject and the reports and articles in the medical literature are hard to read and often seem contradictory.
Taken in isolation, there are many health benefits to wine drinking, but there are also many hazards, which vary with age, sex, lifestyle, genetics and the type of wines you like to drink and what you have with them. You’re right that most people can enjoy the health benefits as long as they’re drinking in moderation, but there are significant differences between men and women that people should be aware of. Also, many people have medical conditions that can be seriously exacerbated by even a small amount of alcohol. It really isn’t responsible to show people how to enjoy wine more without giving them an understanding of how increased consumption might affect them, negatively or positively, as the case may be.
I’ve always understood that certain wines go best with certain foods. Is that true and do you cover how to determine which wine goes best with fish or steak, etc.?
Another great question. As you know, Tyler, I’m perfectly comfortable thinking of a great bottle of wine as a meal in itself. But we rarely drink wine all by itself and wine’s earned its special place at the table because of its ability to make foods taste better. It’s simply the best thing to drink with what you eat as long as you know how to match your wines with what you’re eating. Surprisingly, very few introductory wine books actually give much practical guidance about how to pair foods with wine. It’s treated as if it were a separate subject that requires a special expertise. But the simple truth is that most wines make food taste better, even if most foods aren’t so kind to wine. (The only food I can think of that makes most wines taste better is bread.) If you really care about how people experience their wines, I don’t think you can ignore food and wine pairing issues when you are introducing them to wine. Nothing can ruin a wine like an inopportune food pairing. It’s the most common wine mistake I see on a daily basis.
Do you feel certain wines are superior over others, such as French over Californian wines, or does it vary according to taste?
Certainly it varies according to taste, but it also varies according to the skills of the people producing the wine and the natural advantages of the place where the wine is made. Because of Prohibition, winemaking in the United States was set back considerably. It’s not just a question of picking up where things left off because it takes years for vines to reach the maturity where they produce great wine and it takes time to build the knowledge base and infrastructure that are needed. In the United States and in Asia, we have the potential to have as many great wine-producing areas as they do in Europe, but it’s taken centuries for Europeans to learn which areas are best suited for viniculture. For decades, they’ve had a deeper pool of skilled labor and more local markets with sophisticated consumers. These are advantages that not just the French, but also the Italians, Germans, and Spanish have. To a degree, producers in other areas of Europe, such as Greece, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Georgia, and Turkey have had the advantages of an ancient wine culture, but they’ve also had the disadvantages of government interference or neglect. It’s also important to remember that wine has been produced in places like South Africa, Argentina, and Chile for centuries and that concerted efforts to apply scientific methods have been instrumental to the production of world-class wines in newer areas like Australia and New Zealand or today China and India. The simple fact is that there is more great wine being produced throughout the world today than there has been at any time in the world’s history, and while Europeans currently have the advantage of a higher overall level of quality, other areas of the world are increasingly nipping at their heels. For someone like me, who enjoys finding great wines that don’t yet have the established reputation to command a stratospheric price, this is a wonderful time to be a consumer.
What else does The Persistent Observer’s Guide to Wine cover that might surprise readers?
My primary motivation in writing the notes that ultimately evolved into the book was to help overcome the problems people were having with the existing wine guides. Before I decided to make a book out of my project, I surveyed the existing offerings to make sure I had something uniquely valuable to say. As a result, I sometimes conceived of my book as an anti-wine book book (sic). That’s not because I hate wine books. I’ve read hundreds of them and enjoyed almost all of them. But I figured if something was in all the wine books and that wasn’t working, I should avoid it. What you won’t find in my book is anything to memorize. There are no charts or defined terms, tours through various wine regions or interviews with leading producers. My father, who’s written many more books than I have, says that the best books are revolutionary without being controversial. I’ve tried to put something surprising in every paragraph, but to present it with such compelling logic that it seems obvious.
How did you yourself become a wine connoisseur?
I was lucky in many ways, but what I think is most interesting is that, today, the advantages I had are available to more and more people around the world. There are people in India and Asia who are experiencing the same awakening to wine that I experienced in New York in the 1970s and 1980s and who have the same ability to travel to the world’s premier wine-producing regions that I’ve had over the years.
Thank you again, J.P., for the interesting interview. You’ve certainly begun to enlighten me about wine and I’m sure many of our readers will be grateful for how you clear away a lot of the misconceptions about wine so they can better enjoy it. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information we can find there about The Persistent Observer’s Guide to Wine?
My website. I feel very strongly that one of the beautiful things about wine is the ongoing conversation between consumers and producers throughout the world and my website is an effort to participate in that. Most of what I put on the website is in the nature of follow-on to my wine guide, but I’m also working on a travel guide and will be including some items on that in the near future. I think of my readers as persistent observers themselves, and I enjoy having a way to continue the conversation with them.
A travel guide sounds like a great idea for exploring wine further. Now, before we finish, J.P., could you tell our readers if you have a favorite wine yourself and why do you prefer it?
I always say I hope that my favorite wine will be my next one. So far I’ve had thousands.