It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Why even bother to taste?

When I first started this blog, one of my friends bugged me to, “Please stop your human interest side-stories, and just tell me which wines I should be drinking!”

Following my failure to divine his wine preferences, he moved on like many wine enthusiasts to buying wines “by the numbers,” which included those rated 90+ at retail stores, the four or five-star champs at various wine apps, and social media recommendations. Indeed, why bother to taste wines, when someone else has already done the heavy lifting for you?   

Despite the proliferation of such advice, there are a few with the opinion that tastings, ratings, and reviews of any kind, including even narrative descriptions of a wine’s characteristic aromas and flavors, are nothing but “bullshit.”  Pay no attention they say; they are irrelevant, worthless. But interestingly, there are truths that back up that scatological utterance.

In addition to the inherent weakness that tastings are subjective, there are studies that point to the following: that wine experts couldn’t distinguish a white wine (dyed red) from a true red wine; that well known bottle labels with plonk inside outscore unknown labels with same wine inside: that one’s repeat tastings of the same wine often yield different scores; and tasting context, where and under what circumstances, frequently yields varying results. 

To be sure, professional critics taste, but more importantly assess, for a different reason than the general public does. The former does it to make a profit—to sell subscriptions and/or to help sell wines.  It’s a business, and a very useful one, for it also helps the average wine consumer overcome the uncertainty and angst of buying wine. The ultimate consumer, however, drinks wine (and beer, cola and water!) as a food accompaniment, and often simply as a “mere beverage” to help move the food solids into the digestive track.    

But back to the question posed by the headline. Why bother making an informed opinion on the wine in the stemware?  For this tooth-stained wine enthusiast, the answer is, “To maximize your wine enjoyment.”  Moreover, to fully enjoy and appreciate the benefits and pleasures that wine deliver, you should try going beyond merely relying on “I like it,” or “It tastes good,” or “It’s rated a 95!”  

In the interests of assisting you in becoming an informed taster, let’s review some of the basics of Wine 101.  In the see/swirl/sniff/savor protocol, one must decide if the wine typically and faithfully represents the wine’s underlying grape(s).  Does it look like, smell like, and taste like, for example, a Pinot Noir?  If not, why not?

Implicit in that tasting routine is that you have an awareness of the inherent characteristics of the underlying grape(s); its typical color, aroma, and flavor, plus its normal palate and structural aspects like sweetness, acidity, tannins and body level.  Without that knowledge, you’re stuck in the “tastes good” syndrome. 

If you’re not up to speed in knowing the underlying characteristics of the most popular grapes, then now’s the time.  Numerous Internet web sites are available that will help to quickly bridge that gap.  Moreover, a little reading plus a little drinking is not a bad routine to get into.

Finally, appreciating wine is no different than appreciating classical or jazz music, oil or water color paintings, ballet or modern dance.  One can be involved with focused, mindful attention, and relish in the components and complexities, or one can unwittingly, or even deliberately, let the details slide by without connecting.  I suppose it’s a matter of curiosity, a question of perspective, or ultimately, the importance of even caring.  Are you content with your level of wine appreciation?