The path to happiness is seldom straight or easy. Sometimes the obstacles we find enhance the experience. When some friends renovated an old kitchen, they installed modern appliances but they deliberately put the sink and dishwasher a few paces away from the stove, near the window overlooking a garden. In their bustling, busy family, those few extra steps forced them to take a few breaths, to slow down and enjoy their culinary efforts.
My friends deliberately chose inconvenience. They knew that sometimes the easiest, most comfortable solutions are not the best in the long run. What makes us enjoy and appreciate a place, a person or even a wine may involve some kind of challenge to our intellect and our senses.
I was thinking about this as I considered what wines to recommend for Valentine’s Day. The commercial impetus of this sugar-coated holiday puts us in a trap. If we don’t buy long-stemmed roses, boxes of candy, frilly lingerie or sweet fizzy wines (not to mention diamonds), we aren’t participating in the prescribed social ritual. No one will complain if you show up on the doorstep with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and a box of Godiva chocolates. All of that stuff is fine, but it’s impersonal. What brings a real thrill may be something out of the ordinary.
The safe solution in choosing wine is to go for something with a high rating from a critic like Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator. In my experience, these wines tend to be “big impact” wines — wines that make a strong impression on the nose and palate when first tasted. That’s because these critics judge many wines at a time, often spending mere seconds evaluating each one. They’re good at it; their reputations depend on their choosing wines that others will like, too. My problem with these highly rated wines is that they often fail to interest me after the first few sips. The lack of balance that has been covered up by sugar, oak or tannin often becomes evident by the time my glass is empty, if I even get that far.
Think about wine as you would think about a conversation with someone you have just met. In the beginning, you will be influenced by superficial assumptions: Who introduced you? Where do they come from? How do they look? Are they wearing a scent that pleases you? Your mind is already made up. But now the conversation begins and you may change your mind. Do you feel stimulated? Are you getting bored? When the evening is done, will you want to find them again, even if it’s inconvenient? Is that person (or wine) coming back to your mind … do you have cravings?
Many of the foods that cause cravings, like caviar, foie gras, Roquefort cheese, bitter greens or wild mushrooms, are acquired tastes; children run from the table saying “yuck” while adults fight over tiny portions. These foods are valued because they are rare and also because they goad the senses. In wine, similarly, the insipid, simple, namby-pamby and ordinary have their place, but for a special occasion, don’t you want more?
My overriding concept for choosing wine is “denial of satiety.” If I want my thirst quenched, I’ll drink water. Then, I’m sated. But with wine, I want something more intriguing. Let it take me on a long walk. The wine should be balanced, yes, but it should also have some interplay within that balance. I don’t want every sip to be identical; I look for evolution of aromas and flavors. Let there be harmonic waves. Give me wine like Bach or Moby or Cesaria Evora. Make it interesting.
Here are a few examples of wines I’ve had in the past year that pass the “denial of satiety,” “Oops, I’m falling in love” test, in no special order:
• Hatzidakis Dry White Wine from Santorini, Greece. 100 percent Assyrtiko grapes; saline, aromatic, intricately refreshing.
• Pascal Doquet 2002 Pascal Doquet Champagne Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil. A biodynamic champagne bursting with life, exuberant and happy.
• Palmer Vineyards 2013 Long Island Albariño. Great purity and varietal verve, showing alluring fruit with compliant structure.
• Sonberk 2012 Riesling, Moravia (Czech Republic). Fiercely dry, yet bursting with fruit.
• 2006 Duchamp Estate Winery Syrah. Deep, dark, mysterious and delicious.
• Paumanok Vineyards 2005 Long Island Cabernet Sauvignon Tuthill’s Lane Vineyard. Fully aged, fully ripe; a jousting match of luscious flavors.
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.