Don’t tell me what I’m tasting!

I made a comment in the last blog post that created quite a furor. Or, it could have if I had any readers. In regards to not describing all the characteristics of a specific wine, what I was saying is that as a wine “expert” or a wine “journalist”, it is not my duty to tell people what I’m tasting in wine. In actually, I believe this to be somewhat of a hindrance to any wine lover’s palate development. This is counter-intuitive to everything you may understand about the wine industry, and wine media, as a whole. Am I a jerk? Maybe. Wait . . . no. Read on.

What they really mean.We all know the wine magazines. And the wine blogs. And all these wine “experts”. And so on. They all want to tell you what you’ll be tasting in a particular wine. “Oh, you’ll be tasting essence of morning glory with hints of betel leaves, washes of kerosene, finishing with a load of horse dung.” Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not deriding these wine professionals. I function on the same level as all these people. I have experience in wholesale and retail. I’ve trained with a large, international wine guild, and I’ve tasted thousands of wines. Tasting is important in assessing the wines out there for quality and consistency.

Now where this goes wrong is when reviews are used as a someone else’s road map. If wine is supposed to be an enjoyable personal exploration, then putting any credence into reviews is like taking a vacation without ever leaving behind the guidebook. Or touring art museums with those headphone things on as it shuttles you through the ropes describing what you’re already seeing. Or reading the spoilers for a movie before seeing it. You only end up trying to enjoy someone else’s experience.

Let’s take this scenario. I’m going to a winery and stepping up to the tasting bar. There is someone at the wine bar with a well-rehearsed spiel about all the wines there on the table. “Here’s our Pinot Noir. You’ll notice firm earthy tones with a heady blackberry—” and that’s where I just want to say “Stop!”. There are plenty of psychological studies that indicate that ideas can be implanted. You just told me I’ll be tasting blackberries. Now there’s nothing I can do to not be looking to be tasting blackberries, and so I’ll probably taste them in there, even if I wouldn’t have without the suggestion. My own assessment of the wine has been altered.

Now take, for example, the back labels of wines. There’s all that “Imported by . . .” and “Don’t drink while pregnant and driving heavy machinery into health problems . . .” stuff nobody pays attention to. The rest of the space is a repository for any winery’s marketing genius. This is the area where they try to sell you the wine. If you can read it, you’re probably already holding it, so they got you halfway there.

I don’t mind the “Our winery was founded, blah, blah, blah . . .” or the poetic ramblings that make it sound like this wine saved the immortal souls of mythical creatures. But when it starts rattling off flavors like it’s a shopping list for how to create your own wine with household ingredients, that gets irritating. Let me decide for myself what things I’ll be tasting. Besides, with all the things that can happen to a wine before, during and after a bottling, chances are the labels aren’t accurate unless the wine was tasted and label created a good few months after bottling.

Recently I read a wine blog where someone had written the opposite opinion of these back labels. Their theory was for those who wanted to know what to expect out of the bottle when you don’t know what you’re shopping for. I can grant you that for those who are wine novices, or buying for others, some description is helpful. But you can do that without ruining the experience. How about something like “Medium bodied” or “Drink with roasted meats and game” or “Best for an evening with chocolate and a lover” or “Only drink while already drunk”. None of these will give away what should be a pleasant, or unpleasant, surprise and leave to your own senses what should be a good exercise in assessing the wines for yourself.

But tasting and assessing shouldn’t be just a personal experience; It should be a social one! This is learning and sharing and should be fun. Get together with a group of friends or colleagues or professional wine tasting classes and groups. Taste that wine together and discuss what you’re experiencing. You may get blackberries, but I may get red currants. Your friend over there may not have ever eaten a red currant and so may get hibiscus flowers. And if you’re new to wine tasting, the only aroma and flavor you might get for a few years is simply “grape”. It could be that you will never taste those blackberries in that Pinot Noir at the tasting bar. But don’t let someone else tell you that you do.

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2 Responses to Don’t tell me what I’m tasting!

  1. G says:

    M!! Glad to see you’re back to blogging. Consider yourself bookmarked. After struggling to find German reds that rise above plonk, it’s good to be back in PDX, and reading about good wine buys. Another wine guy here in town is a champion of the E.A.R.L. Burle (France) box, and IIRC, it was pretty damn good a couple years back when I had it last.

  2. Mike says:

    Hey! Yeah, I read on your blog you guys were back in town. I imagine you mean Bruce at Vino as the guy with the love of the Burle. He’s got a few more boxed selections handy, now.

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