I recently learned that the lemming scene in the 1958 Disney film, White Wilderness, consisting of lemmings diving over a cliff to their splattered fate, was actually staged. It turns out that lemmings really don’t like jumping off cliffs, but to make the story more interesting, Disney staged the dive by herding lemmings towards the cliff. The image has now become a common metaphor to describe humanity’s need to conform. The lemming mentality is said to explain why Coca-Cola is so popular, and why each summer there are only one or two Popular Music hits loved by everyone. Our desire to be deep within the pack, rather than isolated along the edge, is a result of group pressure and not individual choice. And for better, or for worse, the need to part of a group is more important than the negative results incurred by blindly following the leader.
For me, this describes wine and its culture. Back when sugar was as rare commodity, so rare that only the rich could afford to buy it, the sweetest wines were the most coveted and sought after. Today, with sugar being easier to find than fresh air, the wine consumers plead for a sophisticated dry wine for dinner, sugar no longer symbolizing wealth. But it’s not dry wine people want, but the appearance of sophistication that is currently associated with it. Don’t we all want that? I remember back in college when the weekend arrived instead of my grabbing a six pack of beer or a fifth of vodka, I reached for a 1.5L of Vendage Merlot. Having tried the majority of bottom-shelf wines, looking for a beverage that would fit my student budget, I thought I had found the ultimate value. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was shopping for a decidedly more sophisticated wine that I happened upon this old friend. I bought the bottle out of both curiosity and nostalgia, discovering that tastes change. But it wasn’t until the pasta sauce now infused with said wine was fully simmering on the stove that I realized my desire to look sophisticated in college was a powerful influence on what I liked. In this case, I was trying not to be a lemming by choosing wine over other drinks, but at the same time, it was my rebelling against the “norm” that led me to purchase this wine.
One’s desire to either follow the crowd, or rebel against it, can lead us to do things that we might not necessarily do normally. Therefore, as a result of peer pressure, we sometimes find ourselves drinking wines that don’t fit in the flavor profile we typically gravitate to, or visa versa.
So I come to my friend Sherry. This wine keeps getting a bad rap. Any wine geek knows of it, but for too long, it’s been a drink associated with geriatric Brits. Like the barrels laced with cobwebs in the cellars where these fine wines are made, sherry’s image has gotten progressively more dusty and faded. One cause of its demise, are the myths surrounding its name. There are more myths and biases surrounding sherry than any other wine I’ve come across, including:
Ah, it’s too sweet.
Oh, it’s too dry.
Oxidized wines are hard to like
The funny part is that Sherry is so diverse that to make a generalization to Sherry as a wine, is in effect, telling a lie. Let’s take a look at the range of styles Sherry can be made in. PX is considered on the sweet end, while Fino is at times described as austere and Oloroso can be either sweet or dry, not to mention Palo Cortado, Amontillado, Cream, and a few other gems. For someone like myself who has tried a fair amount of Sherry, even I can’t get a firm grasp on a set style or a flavor. Every time I taste Sherry, I find myself discovering something entirely new. Unfortunately, these mistruths as to Sherry’s “sweetness” or “dryness” has pushed it outside of the social wine trend, outside of the lemming limelight.
This past weekend, we decided to push the lemming principle and invite some friends, aged in their late twenties and early thirties, over for a sherry tasting. Unbeknownst to us, one of our friends had never even tried sherry before. And guess what? TShe liked it! We tried 4 styles and 4 flavors, all different and unique in their own way. Each of them found a sherry they loved, a few they liked, and they all would happily do another sherry tasting again. Hopefully even buy a bottle sometime for the fun of it!
I wonder what real lemmings in the wild are like? Maybe the metaphor we’ve used for so long is better applied to man? I wonder if lemmings secretly say to their young, “Don’t run off with your friends like a herd of Humans” as we dive headlong into pools of commercial wines, drowning our taste buds in banality. What happened to the desire to taste not what you had last night but what you didn’t.
The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for.
Maureen Dowd, in ‘New York Times’
Wine is supposed to be an adventure, full of discovery and flavors, but alas, it seems that we’ve settled for much less. This settling for simple one dimensional wines has led to an overabundance of wines that aren’t more than liquid backgrounds to our weekend nights. If the wine doesn’t make us think, we are happy, content to have something that doesn’t distract from the movie we’re watching or the book we’re reading. When was the last time you paused a movie to comment on the wine you were sipping? When was the last time you quit with the neighborhood gossip to stare in awe at the color in your glass?
The biggest wine crime I can possibly think of is when an individual buys a new wine/style/grape to try, and after one sip/glass/bottle states with an emphatic tone, “I do not like this wine”. Sherry suffers from this. With 4 main styles and infinite other variations, to taste one type and then cast the net of general dislike over all others is not only ignorant, but cruel. I’m not saying that you will find a sherry that you like, but I am saying that you will never know unless you keep tasting new sherries.
I’m sure this all has been said before, but I thought it worth repeating. We may all be blind, crowd-following humans, but we still have free will to break from the pack. Enjoy the middle road, but make sure to take detours now and again. You never know what you will find.