The Roller Coaster

My pal/sidekick Mole always tells me the truth. One day last week, he leaned into me and, in a soothing voice, said, “Sleut’” — he calls me Sleuth, it’s an honor and I dig it — “youse gots a tulip jones.”

He’s right; I do have a little problem with tulips. Every year, at the end of tulip season, I get the bulb blues. Doesn’t matter that the ’lips fade just as irises burst into bloom. It’s a form of mania — I crave those pure colors, those delicate shapes. I’m not alone, though that’s no comfort.

In the 17th century, tulip mania struck Europe, particularly the Netherlands. Fortunes were made and lost as demand for tulips raged — until the bubble burst in 1637. Was this proof that people, including investors, are irrational, prone to emotional outbursts, fads and crazes? Ideologues of free-market capitalism hate this idea; it runs counter to their fondly held belief in the rational investor.

Silly argument, no? Most of us know that if we ask ourselves whether human beings are rational, reasonable creatures or, rather, emotion-ridden, the proper answer is clear: Yes. We’re both, but emotions, whatever those are, rule. What does this have to do with wine?

Well, everything. Alan Mitchell of Territorial Vineyards put it bluntly: “It’s a roller coaster.” One year, consumers demand rafts of big, buttery chardonnays; next season, they want white zinfandel. “Last year, it was white pinot noir,” Mitchell says. This year, who knows? (See our discussion of emerging chardonnays in EW’s special “Uncorked” section in last week’s issue, May 7.)

It might be un-oaked chardonnay, like the delicious Chehalem 2012 INOX Willamette Valley Chardonnay ($17), stainless-steel fermented; the back label notes that “no oak was harmed in the making of this wine.” We have here just pure chard flavors — actually, more flavors than chard usually yields: apples, pears, ginger, white flowers (no tulips). It’s a crisp, balanced wine to pour with fish, fowl, salads, whatever.

Mitchell’s Territorial label will soon release their 2013 Chardonnay ($28, available only in the tasting room and certain restaurants). It spent some time in neutral oak and some French oak, “a little bit new,” just to give it some polish and depth of flavor; Mitchell, who tastes tropical fruits and honeycomb, says: “It just makes me laugh, it’s so good.” They only made 28 cases of this beauty. Not reasonable, sure, but that was all the juice they had from a tricky vintage.

Reason demands that we admit the French know a bit about wine-making, have had some success over a couple thousand years of experimenting with vines the Italians (Romans) planted in their lands. In France’s Burgundy region, they vinify chardonnay into a wine called “white Burgundy,” but each section’s vintners shape their chards into distinctive styles. 

But on the back label of Joseph Drouhin 2012 Chardonnay “Laforêt” ($14.50), the talented Véronique Drouhin claims “we created this wine like a perfume: with the freshness of the Chablisien, the fruitiness of the Maconnais and all the elegance of the Cote d’Or. Within are gentle citrus aromas, then vanilla and honey notes.” Am I going to argue with Véronique Drouhin? Do I look crazy? (Mole just nods.) Reason aside, this is fine chardonnay.

Personal preferences — all matters of “taste” — are emotional. Tulip mania makes no sense. Fads in wine make no sense. Love makes no sense. Mole says: “Life is funny. Tulips make youse smile? Dat’s okay. Gotta getcher yucks.”

Now, that seems reasonable, at least until the next tulip season.

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