Hi, all!  Well, I came busting out of the gate for blogging in the New Year and then promptly got sick.  It’s nice to feel a bit better.  I made it without a nap today and tomorrow I hope to wear something more attractive than sweatpants.  (It’s important to have goals.)

We have tackled the introduction to wine, which hopefully got your proverbial palate warmed up and we’ve moved smoothly through the sight and sound of wine.  Now we stride onward to the Big Kahuna (it’s a technical term), the Queen of the Wine Senses… taste.  Because when one gets right down to it, ultimately, we all want to drink something that really tastes great.  I mean, no one brings a bottle of wine to the party hoping to see people spit it into the sink as they curse your ancestors.  (Okay, there was this ONE guy I knew in high school who might, but to be fair, he was always a bit twisted.)

When we speak of wine and our enjoyment of this heavenly beverage, it’s usually in terms of taste.  Mind you, a great deal of what we taste is dependent upon what we smell but obviously, that’s another blog.  There is a bewildering amount of information in the world on wine tasting.  I have come to the conclusion that most of it, whether on the internet, in tasting rooms, at your table with a sommelier, in a class or from a book seems to be designed to make the typical wine drinker feel two inches tall and about as knowledgeable as Sarah Palin speaking on foreign policy.  When I talk to people regarding wine the most frequent comment I hear, generally prefacing all other remarks, is, “Well, I don’t know anything about wine, but…”  I take exception to this self deprecation.  Of course, you know something about wine.  You at least know when you drink it what you like or do not like.

I’ve yet to ascertain why so many elements of the wine world indulge in this systematic belittling of the wine drinking fan base.  Still, there is no denying, the intimidation factor looms large.

So, the semantics of snobbery aside, let’s talk about taste.  First and foremost, everyone has their own sense of taste.  Now, there may be some debate amongst individuals as to what qualifies as good taste but remember, it’s all subjective.  There are plenty of reasons why this is such an individual experience.

Most of us know that our tongue is covered with  tiny sensors called taste buds.  The tip of the tongue has sensors concentrated on the salty and sweet flavors while bitters are to the back.  The sides specialize in sour flavors.  There are far fewer taste buds in the center of the tongue.  Did you know that the roof of your mouth also has taste buds?  That’s why someone who is particularly adept at identifying flavors is said to have a developed palate.

As babies we had taste buds all over our mouth and as we grow older we lose some of these.  Also, the proportion of the type of bud : salty, sweet, bitter and sour changes.  These changes in amount and type of sensors explain why our tastes change as we grow older.  Tastes that were overwhelming to a child’s palate become much more pleasant as we age.  Interestingly, women typically have more taste buds than men which at least partially accounts for the discrepancies in a man’s versus a woman’s observations on wine flavors and notes.

There are many factors which can affect your sense of taste.  Head trauma, certain medications, smoking, tumors, and various types of radiation (i.e. for thyroid disease) can drastically change how you process, or do not process, the sensory input from your mouth.  While we spend an amazing amount of our time in pursuit of things that taste delicious,  taste is actually the weakest of the five senses.  (Weird, huh? I would have thought smell but as it turns out, not so.)  Like enjoying art, experiencing wine is a highly subjective and personal experience.  While there may be certain common trends, say black pepper notes in a particular Cabernet Sauvignon or pear in a Pinot Grigio, do not ever feel badly if the person next to you makes an observation and you find yourself shaking your head in disagreement.  We’re each our own little homunculus driving our own unique bodies around this place; we aren’t going to experience things the same way.  Take this quote from the 2004 movie Sideways, it’s exactly what I’m talking about:

Miles: [while tasting wine] It tastes like the back of a f***ing L.A. school bus. Now they probably didn’t de-stem, hoping for some semblance of concentration, crushed it up with leaves and mice, and then wound up with this rancid tar and turpentine bullshit. F***in’ Raid.
Jack: [drinks the same wine] Tastes pretty good to me.

Now that we’ve established that anyone who tries to make you feel bad about what you taste or what you like can take a long walk on short dock, let’s talk wine tasting. Okay?

First off, this should be fun.  Wine tasting should be a pleasant time, hopefully with friends.  Second, be open to learning.  My husband and I have been pretty serious tasters for years now and we’re constantly learning new factoids.  It never stops and it is unlikely you’ll ever become an expert; there’s simply too much.  The process and fresh information gleaned from each tasting adventure should interesting and enjoyable.

Here are some practical hints for wine tasting:

  • Take your time. Yes, the waiter may be watching you or the pourer in the tasting room.  Let them.  You aren’t doing tequila shots in college anymore. (I know, evidence of a misspent youth, don’t let me digress.)
  • Do not over fill your glass.  A good guideline is about a third full.  That way you can swirl your wine and allow it to react with air.  As it does so the wine will open up and you’ll start picking up more flavors.
  • Speaking of swirling, invariably there will be someone nearby that will be expertly swirling their wine around like they’re twirling a baton one-handed.  I can do this, too, uh, until I’ve had my first glass.  Then I’m likely to spill red wine all over my neighbor.  Oops.  So, I fake it.  Just put your glass on to the table and make itty-bitty circles with it.  Your wine will swirl like a pro’s and no sweaters will be harmed in the process.
  • Tilt your glass at a 45 degree angle against a light source or a pale background and enjoy the color.
  • Bend your glass toward your face and stick your nose in its bowl. No, I mean it, really get in there and breathe the wine.  You’ll love it.  As my friend Wendy would say, “Bow-chicka-waa-waa”. (And stay tuned, the Smell-o-vision blog is coming soon to a computer or iPad near you.)
  • Next, it’s time to taste the wine.  Pay attention to the flavor, and the finish.  The finish is that last hint of wine after you swallow it.  A stronger finish lingers longer that a weaker one.  Don’t be surprised if the finish is quite different from the wine’s first taste.

In the serious wine tasting world there are two widely accepted methods of tasting your wine.  The first is to swish it around.  This would be similar to what you do with mouthwash.  The idea is that it emphasizes the alcohol qualities of the wine.  Sadly, this actually works but I don’t like my wine quite so, well, alcoholicky. (I think I just made that up, err, the spelling, I mean.)  The second method some swear by is to intensely suck air into your mouth.  It’s the one that makes all the funny noises.  Boy howdy, what a choking hazard that one is!  The odds, at least for moi, of something going down the wrong pipe are really, really good.  Of course, I often have choking fits on my own saliva, so I’ve got that genetic quirk going for me.

Long story short, what do I do?  I sip my wine.  I’m not going to judge any contests, award any medals, no one is going to pay me for my opinions but I can, usually, insure my sweater avoids stains and I don’t choke to death while having my wine.  Oh, and another thing, I don’t spit out my wine, usually.  There have been a few even I couldn’t drink.

One fun, depending on one’s viewpoint, aspect of wine tasting is the opportunity to compare notes with your friends on the various wines you’ve tried.  I should emphasize this is not a test.  Please review the first part of this blog if you still have questions.  There are no wrong answers.  Just call them like you see them.  That being said, I can’t promise that some uber-helpful person isn’t going to try to fancy up your wine language.  Don’t feel bad, it happens to the best of us, and by the best of us, I mean Eric and me, ha-ha.  For example:

  • I called a wine “zippy” and was gently admonished that I meant “peppery”.
  • Eric said, “something about the wine tastes like I just licked the street”, at which point the winemaker frowned and said stiffly, “Those would be notes of tar, sir.”
  • Syrup-y equals “jammy”.
  • FYI, if you say your wine is “dirty” you’ll be steered to the adjective “earthy”.
  • My bestest wine tasting pal Cindy and I were at a barrel tasting of a really yummy old vine Mouvedre and we both got weak in the knees, mumbling “Hum-min-nah, hum-min-nah, hum-min-nah” over and over again.  We were frowned upon and told, “that would be ‘full-bodied”. Yeah, whatever, my way is more fun.
  • “Sweet” or “Sugary” translates in wine to “fruity”.
  • And “there’s a party in my mouth” actually is an indication of high acidity in your wine.  Seems like a waste of a lot of dirty (I mean “earthy”) jokes to me on that one.

Luckily, there are a plethora of wines and amazing wine makers on this wonderful earth.  My all time favorite wine maker?  Easy, I don’t even need to think about it, Tom Lane in Paso Robles at Bianchi Winery.  Their link is on my blog- on the left-hand side, just click on “Good Wine Here”, A-MA-…wait for it…-ZING.  And, if you ever have time I’d love to sit and chat with you about my many, many ties for second place… over a nice glass of Barbera, of course.

Now, having said all of this, remember, this was just my humble opinion.  To other people wine is serious business and who am I to say they’re wrong?  Besides, if it wasn’t for the wine snobs, the palate geniuses, and those for whom their highest aim on earth is to better last year’s vintage the world would not be full of so many delightful wines.  So, as you drink your next glass, secure in your right to like the wine no one else does and call it “dirty” just because that’s what you think it tastes like, be sure to raise a toast to the wine snobs of the universe.  Bless ’em!

Yummy food, awesome friends and that ambrosia of the gods: Tom Lane's wines