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Picking a Good Wine Should Be Like Shopping at a Record Store

When I was younger and wanted new music, I'd always head to a record store. Wine shops are the same thing. You go in, and develop a dialogue, and someone gets a bearing for your palate.

by Thomas Carter
Nov 23 2014, 4:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Paul Goyette

In the wine world, we're inundated with so much information and so many scores and opinions that sometimes you forget to put your own perspective into it. Many recommendations, whether they're in magazines or blogs or apps, are offered in a vacuum, but the most important factor when buying or drinking wine is to put yourself into the equation. There are good and bad things in all of them.

Once you have a good wine that's ecologically sound—we're not talking about mass-produced, overly manipulated wine—what matters most is your taste and your mood.

Most people listen to a wide range of music. What do you put on after a grueling day? Would you come home and listen to speed metal? Perhaps, but probably not. You would most likely want something more soothing. I think you have to account for your mood as well when you're choosing wine.

A good wine experience also has a lot to do with environment. One of the most interesting things about opening up Estela has been the exposure to lower price point wines that are truly brilliant and that you can get at a wine shop for like $15. When I was working at other places, like Blue Hill and Le Bernadin, I was exposed to a lot of great wines. But when suppliers presented their portfolios to me, they were mostly high-end bottles. You're dealing predominantly dealing with upper, upper price points.

Recently, I was at a dinner with a bunch of wine collectors, and we were drinking really traditional wines, like 1975 Dom Perignon Rosé. 1975 Petrus. I have to say, the experience of those wines in any situation is beautiful—but I've had equally moving experiences with less glamorous wines.

How you interpret quality can be determined by your surroundings. Is it a different experience to enjoy wine at home with someone you have really great conversations with and feel really comfortable with? Absolutely.

For everyday, I like simple country Italian wines. The structure of food at Estela is very similar to the wine that I'm drawn to. It's grounded in the character of whatever ingredient you're using. It's very bright, lifted food. That's what I'm looking for—purity.

Putting the science aside, I'm really looking for stuff that has nerves, that's exciting, that's going to taste great, that's approachable, that's honest. You're seeking out character, just like you would with people.

That said, there's a lot of excitement about natural wines, like there is a focus on local vegetables, but there's the good and the bad. If I buy local carrots and they taste like shit, I'm going to go get carrots somewhere else.

And just because a wine is biodynamic doesn't mean that it's going to be delicious. You don't have to like it just because you're told to, or because it falls under some umbrella.

I look at wine under the same terms as anything else, books or music or art, and how you interpret this media really depends on your perspective. It's a very, very subjective subject matter, but there is a very objective way to look at it.

Being in New York City, or around New York, we have really great wine shops. When I was younger and got musical advice, it was always at the hands of someone at a record store. I'd buy one thing, I'd like it, I'd move on to the next. Wine shops are the same thing. You go in, develop a relationship. Someone gets a bearing for your palate. Then you develop a dialogue.

The only thing I am against is the industrialization. I want to know that a farmer or a winemaker is producing it in a responsible way. Besides that, in a lot of cases, anything goes depending on your taste.

The music I listen to depends on my night. My main thing is jazz. There's a large variation within that. At night, when it's quiet, I like earlier stuff that has a lot of blues influence. But Cat Power is great too, like The Greatest album. And I've got to say, I'm a sucker for Mazzy Star.

The older I get, the more quiet I want everything to be whether it's writing, art, music, or fashion. Food, especially, food. The simpler the food is, the more you can really reflect the ingredients and let everything speak for itself. I love when flavors coalesce but are also very etched. And there's a time and a place for loud, bright craziness too.