As promised (because I sometimes keep my promises), here is part 2 of my 465-part series, Wine Baby.
II. Time to Get Your Drink On!
In order to progress from wine baby to wine expert you have to taste the wines. This may seem obvious, but at an honest-to-goodness, up-to-your-eyeballs-in-assholes Napa Valley wine tasting, it is not as much fun as you’d think. This is mainly because the emphasis is on “tasting” rather than “drinking.” I mean, when you put the words “wine” and “tasting” together, it sounds like fun, right? Well, it didn’t take long for the smug attitudes of our wine instructor and fellow wine-tasters to put a major buzz-kill on this pleasant-sounding afternoon activity.
I attended my first wine-tasting at a pretentiously decorated, somewhat cavernous tasting room. For some reason, everyone wore sunglasses even though they were indoors, out of the sun, in a dark and cave-like space. Clearly these West-coasters were not a sharp crowd. I scanned the room and concluded I might be able to hold my own amongst them. The dimly-lit room made it difficult for me to see the price list clearly, and this—along with all those sunglasses which prevented me from looking anyone directly in the eye—made me suspicious about the whole operation.
Our wine-pourer—I had decided not to bestow the title of wine expert on him yet, reserving judgment until I had seen and heard more from him—passed out some worksheets describing the wines we would be tasting and on which we were to write our impressions of the wine samplings. As with most everything I did post-college, I desperately wanted to be a genius at this.
The wine instructor began the session by informing us that true appreciation of wine involved all of the senses: sight, smell, taste, and even mouthfeel. I took this information in, while struggling to understand exactly how hearing would be involved. He waxed poetic about wine. I yawned, and hoped they would fill the glasses a little higher than they usually do. Wine tastings are notoriously stingy that way.
He brought out the first wine, a fruity Viognier, while describing the grape and the region from which it came. We learned that swirling the wine around in the glass oxygenates it, which is necessary to release the full flavor and aromas. He demonstrated the proper technique: wine glass base flat on the table, swirling in a circular manner, never lifting the glass from the table. He guaranteed it would never splash over the sides that way. I’m guessing this information was helpful if only to avoid the dry cleaning bills that could be incurred from over-zealous swirling. Now I understood why they always start with the white wines.
After the swirling, then comes the intense staring at the wine. Yes, you must closely scrutinize the color of the wine before you actually taste it if you want to be taken as a serious wine connoisseur. I imagine we are supposed to be contemplating the complexity of the wine, or the mysteries of the universe, or perhaps just looking for sediment, but I am distracted by the fact that my wine glass is about three-quarters empty. There’s just a splash, barely lubricating the bottom! Maybe the rest of the class were optimists and saw their glasses as one-quarter full, but I am quite the pessimist when faced with a mostly empty glass. Especially when it’s mostly empty of wine that you are paying through the nose to taste.
Speaking of nose, after the wine stare-down, now it’s time to stick your snoot way down into that glass and vigorously sniff at the wine and notice all its subtle aromas. This is what is called the wine’s “nose.” Ha-ha. That sounds funny to me until I notice no one else is laughing.
Our wine instructor then took a slurpy sip that sounded a lot like how I used to drink chocolate milk in kindergarten and started in on some aggressive “chewing” of the wine.
“So, what is everyone getting here?”
No one knew what to say, so we gazed into our wine glasses as if the answer lay somewhere in the liquid, like in some prescient Magic-8 Ball, where the answer might come floating up to the surface: “My sources say fruity.” Or “Ask again when you are sober.”
With complete silence coming from his students, the pourer/instructor threw out this suggestion, asking, “Is anybody getting a hint of grapefruit here?” Everyone nodded in agreement. Yes, definitely—grapefruit! Yes. Thank god. I dutifully wrote “grapefruit” on my worksheet.
We worked our way through the white wines. While sniffing at the wine, I almost wrote what I was actually thinking, which was, “this wine’s aroma reminds me of how my grandmother used to smell,” which was a combination of cigarette smoke, Nina Ricci’s “L’Air du Temps,” and pressed face powder. I wondered: why would this wine remind me of my grandmother, anyway? She was a champion scotch-drinker. I worried this was not an adequate description. And while I probably worry too much about things like this, I now had a new concern. Actually, two.
The first was the spit-bucket. The concept of the spit-bucket escapes me. I have never had wine so awful that I’ve had to spit it out. Well, I have—but it’s just that I hate to part with something I’ve paid for. But I noticed other people had no problem with this. Then I realized they weren’t spitting it out because they didn’t like it; they spat it out because they were actually tasting the wine. These people were serious about learning something. I decided I would use the spit-bucket only enough so as not to arouse suspicion.
Which brings me to my second concern: Wasn’t the point of drinking wine to get a nice buzz on? Weren’t any other folks in the room there for this purpose? Was I the only person there intent on getting drunk? I worried that the wine instructor would see right through this—that I was someone more interested in drinking wine than in tasting it. A philistine!
But I decided—as I had done in similar situations before—that getting tipsy might actually improve the situation. Sad experience has shown that this is usually never the case, but at the time I thought being in this state might sharpen my perceptions about the wines. I rationalized that I would get my money’s worth, and at the same time write much more imaginatively on my “Wine Notes” sheet. This, unfortunately, works out much better with caffeine. But since I have saved my wine tasting sheet as a souvenir, I now can look back proudly on some of my more florid, if not appetizing, descriptions of the wine selections. Here are a few excerpts:
The next wine, a hearty Medoc, I described on my wine-tasting sheet as “combustible.” The red zin, to my palate, had a “baffling, yet intoxicating flavor of burnt rubber with black cherry notes.” The pinot noir, I declared, had “spoiled to perfection and now had the tawny and foul-tasting tang of fear.” I must have liked the Bordeaux, because I wrote: “This wine has overtones of musk, and something I cannot quite put my finger on—is it possum? It has a peaty flavor with complex undertones of Brussels sprouts and sweat. Very earthy!”
Now I admit to being somewhat impaired while writing these descriptions, but upon rereading them later in a more, shall we say, lucid state, I noticed they were not much different from real ones I’ve read. Just leaf through the wine ratings section in Wine Enthusiast if you doubt me.
I went on to create a special list in the margins of my “Wine Notes” (which by now was becoming alarmingly messy and wine-stained, as if some mental patient was scribbling down in a nervous, spiky hand her increasingly incoherent impressions after enjoying ten to twelve partially-filled glasses of wine). I thought that in order for people to discern the difference between a real wine description—the sort done by serious winethusiasts, rather than non-sunglass-wearing impostors who never use the spit bucket—a list like this might come in handy.
Adjectives Not to Be Used In Describing Wine
If you see any of these words in a wine description, you can be reasonably sure the person writing it is either not a real wine connoisseur, or is a little bit drunk. Or perhaps both.
By now you may be wondering if I was accompanied by anyone on this little wine-tasting adventure. Or you might be mildly concerned about how I made it back to my hotel safely after all my wine “research.” I wouldn’t blame you, but you needn’t have worried, although it’s very kind of you. The fact is, I was under the watchful eye and protective custody of my traveling companion and husband, Jim. He was in his full official capacity as designated adult. While he shares my enthusiasm for wine, he has a certain sense of decorum that I sometimes lack, especially when I have been, as I like to call it, “over-served.”
Can I say that? Yes. I think I can. At that particular wine-tasting venue, I can categorically state that I had been over-served. It was the wine pourer’s lack of restraint that led to this sad end, and he should have been held fully accountable for the consequences and repercussions that ensued from his total lack of judgment. If you ever have the opportunity to go to a wine tasting, go to a reputable establishment and make sure your wine-pourer exercises some responsibility.
You will notice that I am NOT referring to him as “wine expert” any more. You may take this as both a sign of disrespect toward this individual, and a pointed reminder of my casual indifference toward traditional wine-tasting rituals that I chose to ignore.
Which, do you suppose, would insult him more?