In our final installment, Susan Thomas reveals what wines light her fire and other germane thoughts about the industry. Considering her demanding business and travel schedule, I feel fortunate to have had time with her and appreciate her generosity in sharing her wisdom about a subject we collectively so love.
Tell me about your favorite wine regions.
I like Côte de Nuits. I like red Burgundy from Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanée, and Morey Saint-Denis. So that’s number one. Burgundy is a challenging region to navigate so I think Gary Glass is right when it comes to figuring out what’s best: go with producer, vineyard, and vintage, in that order. I pretty much think every Grand Cru vineyard deserves to be a Grand Cru. For reds there are 28 Grand Cru vineyards and over 500 Premier Cru vineyards.
Okay – second region. I like the very greatest Piemonte [known as Piedmont in America, located in the northwest area of Italy] and I much prefer Barolo to Barbaresco.
What about Barolo compared to Brunello [di Montalcino]?
I don’t like Sangiovese as much compared to Nebbiolo. For me, Piemonte Barolo and Barbaresco are the closest thing in the world to really great Burgundy.
What’s the connection between Piemonte and Burgundy?
They are both very terroir driven and they soften and give all these secondary flavors and aromas with age. But like Château Pavie in Bordeaux, there are some producers in Piemonte that have realized that they can’t sell their wine that well if it’s not going to be drinkable for 30 years, so they fatten them up. And then it’s wrong because when you fatten Nebbiolo it still has tannins so there’s this big fight between all this fruit and the tannins and it’s just not very good. But really great and old Barolo is fantastic from producers going back to the 60s and 70s. They mellow out and get more like Burgundy [we also discussed a 1947 Barolo that we both drank at a Brian Owens wine event – amazing and drinking so well even today]. I used to like Super Tuscan and Brunello the best but in the pantheon of grapes, now I wouldn’t put Sangiovese in the top group.
And I like Chardonnay from everywhere. To me, a really great Marcassin Chardonnay is one of the best wines in the world even though they’re totally different than Burgundy. And there’s the Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay [Margaret River Australia], which is great – there’s a lot of terrific Chardonnay. But there are a lot of really bad ones too. I also like some categories of white wines from Venezia Gialla north of Venice, and things like Tocai and Malvasia; some of those wines are really, really cool. Italian Merlot at the top end like, Le Macchiole Messorio, Masseto, and Redigaffi, those are my favorite Merlots and honestly I’d rather drink those than Château Pétrus.
Well some wines like Pétrus might get hyped a lot by critics and then there are some that just have such small production and availability that they’re difficult to find and very expensive, like Château Le Pin or DRC/DRC [Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from its monopole vineyard of the same name].
But there are certainly wine estates with smaller output than DRC/DRC. Leroy Richebourg and Romanée St Vivant have tiny production and are much harder to get. If you wanted Leroy Richebourg in a certain vintage, it can be almost impossible to find. So they have a certain amount of ‘Hermes Birkin Bag’ in them, like DRC, right?
And then there’s Champagne. I didn’t always like Champagne and only started to like it in the last couple of years. Now I think it’s good with so much food and there’s a lot to it. I generally like the Blanc de Blanc [made with 100% Chardonnay] better than Pinot Noir based or Rosé Champagne and I probably should get more into it as a collector.
I guess that’s it . . .Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Chardonnay are my three favorite grapes.
There are a number of women in wine that have made contributions to winemaking. Do you find anything influential there or do you particularly seek out wine made by women?
Well in general, I’ve noticed there aren’t very many women into collecting wine the way I am. However women love wine just as much as men and there are certainly a lot of fantastic female wine makers.
I think between men and women there is something biological about the ability to detect or prefer different chemicals in different quantities. Women hear higher frequencies better than men so why not analogous differences with olfactory senses? There are some great women winemakers but I don’t think women will eclipse men in winemaking just because I think literally, men and women don’t exactly like the same kinds of wine. I think women will make the kind of wine they like best and will intellectually say, ‘I know I need to make it a little less soft and a little more robust’ and men will say, ‘I can’t push these bass notes so much, I need to move it over here’ and that’s sort of the magic about it. Still I don’t think of them as being rock stars.
Is food an important element to have with wine?
Sometimes you can sit and drink wine like we are now and they’re really great by themselves but of course when you hit the right combination of food and wine, it brings it all up to another level. What’s interesting is, let’s take foie gras – it’s a food I’ve had that’s exceptionally awesome with a relatively non-fruity Pinot Noir. And then you can have foie gras with Sauternes and it’s just over the top. What’s so interesting is that wines with such different characteristics can bring out different positive aspects of food.
Honestly, I start with wine and then add food around it; I don’t start with food and see what I have that might go with it. We are so blessed that we have this confluence of people that like wine and all of these incredible chefs in Austin, and many are friends of ours. We’re very lucky.
Is there any one thing you would fix about the wine industry if you could wave a wand?
Oh lord! First and foremost I would fix the problem of wine distributors making a bunch of money and giving it to politicians, just so they can protect and preserve their market with all sorts of restrictions to everyone else. That’s criminal. It’s a joke! If you don’t think we have a plutocracy or an oligarchy in America you’re kidding yourself. What we really need is to have access to all wine, and to have different people that make different wine in different places be able to get it to us at a reasonable price. But that’s not how it is. So that’s number one.
Number two is wine critics. There’s too much reliance on them.
What do we replace that with?
We are gradually replacing reliance on “experts” with the social networking “I like it” approach. I’m not sure how this will evolve but kids these days that are brought up in the social networking environment are hard wired differently. It’s natural selection and the tempo has really picked up but we’ll see how it goes. CellarTracker is a good start down the path of “group criticism” but I still think that there is a place, albeit a diminished one, for qualified people that are really good at looking at something and narrowing down what’s quality and what’s not. Humans are extraordinarily subjective and also we can’t be on our game all the time. Furthermore, wine critics can be likened to athletes in the sense that they have only a window of competency.
There are so many wine choices today and how do you cut through it all to find good wine? It used to be you could go to your neighborhood shop and the guy there would tell you what was really good. Now, when you or I walk into a shop the person giving us advice doesn’t have a fraction of the knowledge needed so we go elsewhere. Additionally, because wine has become so popular in our culture there’s just way too much wine that’s the same, so do you want there to be a winnowing out process?
Yes I do. Right now it’s estimated that there are over 200,000 wines available to buy in the world at any given moment and that’s a conservative estimate. The wine wall is so huge these days and I have no idea why anyone would want to make even larger by opening a winery.
Ego?!?! ‘Hi. I’m Joe Montana. I’m a famous quarterback. I like wine. I have the money. What the hell? People love me – they’ll buy my wine.’ (laughing).
Last question. Three people living or not, and you could have dinner with them. Who would it be?
Well, I think I would choose Edward O. Wilson. He’s an expert in natural selection and a socio-biologist. He’s basically an entomologist but his studies and work have looked at how we got to where we are from an evolutionary point of view. Then I’d have to choose some religious figure to come at the question another way like Gautama, the Buddha.
So you want to start a fight at your dinner?
No! I think science is also a kind of religion. Put another way, all of science is built on mathematics and all mathematics is based on us using our brains to help figure out some model or metaphor for the way things work. Religion creates a metaphor, so do philosophy and science. In my opinion we have no idea what’s going on. Okay number three . . . Teddy Roosevelt. Back in his day people had a whole different way of approaching the world. He seemed capable of doing anything, and what was it that drove him to be an incredible naturalist and a military leader and then President? What makes somebody have that amount of energy?
Thank you Susan, for letting us have a glimpse into your life and for sharing your wealth of wine knowledge and experience. These interviews are very valuable to me because they can often illuminate things I hadn’t thought of, or provide a substantive case for thinking about something in a different way. Ultimately learning wine, I would argue, is probably more about experience than book knowledge although I certainly don’t want to denigrate the value of understanding wine from an academic perspective. During the great journey though, it is experience that counts.
Photo: Susan Thomas at Austin Wine Salon event