Friday, February 24, 2006

24 February 2006 - Oranges and Pinot Noirs...Describing Wine, #1

It's time to rethink how we describe wine. With all due deference to professor Ann Noble (U.C.-Davis) and her aroma wheel, it's time to cut to the chase. Since we do not have vocabulary to describe specific smells and tastes, we look for smells -- real (such as vanilla esters) and imagined ("tastes like chicken") -- that we're familiar with to use in describing the smell and taste of a particular wine. You know the drill -- Pinot Noir smells like cherries (or sometimes raspberry, or other times, strawberry, or even orange peel); Cabernet Sauvignon smells like cassis/bell pepper; Riesling, like flowers/petrol; Sauvignon Blanc, like grass/grapefruit/cat piss. Because -- at least in the case of imagined smells -- these words are mostly approximations and subject to our own personal smell memories, they tend to be less than perfect, often misunderstood, even misleading. They're necessary perhaps for novice wine drinkers, as rough indicators of what rookies should expect when they open a certain bottle. But in the end, wouldn't it be more efficient to coherently develop a smell/taste memory for different grape varieties, with sub-sets based on the different places they're grown and different ways they might be made?

I write wine tasting notes with the hope of giving my customers a rough idea of what to expect when they open a bottle of wine, but I realize how inexact the effort is -- not just in the description itself, but because the description is usually based on a pretty quick taste at a sink behind the bar, without food or other distractions. Not in a vacuum exactly, but certainly not the way most of my customers are going to drink the same wine when they get home. We do, however, share one thing -- both of us, me and my customer, are hoping for the best, that the wine will be good, even delicious. In other words the tasting notes are like thumbnails -- just a glimpse of the big picture.

On Tuesday nights, at our weekly wine tastings, I'm often asked by customers to describe what they are tasting, as in "tell me what I'm tasting." I wonder why they ask. I refuse. I try to explain that describing smell and taste is tricky, since there are no words in our vocabulary to do it, and I use oranges as an example. I ask them to describe the smell and taste of an orange. They probably think, "what an idiot." But they can't do it. I can't either. Of course, an orange tastes like an orange, everyone knows what an orange tastes like. And while they're all citrus fruits, we can all tell the difference between an orange and a lemon and a lime and a grapefruit. That's sort of the way I feel about, say, Riesling, or Sauvignon Blanc, or Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. They're all vinifera grape varieties, but I can tell one from another. So can you. Remembering them, well, that's a bit more tricky. It requires experience. But if you tasted a few dozen different wine made from Sauvignon Blanc, and were paying a little attention, maybe taking a note or two, you would develop a smell and taste memory of Sauvignon Blanc. Repeat that exercise with most any other grape variety, start paying attention to other variables, like where the wine is made, how it's made, who made it, and in a few years or so, you'll know a little bit about wine. Do you have to do any of this to enjoy wine? Not as far as I'm concerned. Pay as little or as much attention as you want, as long as you are enjoying yourself. Selling wine is my job, yes, but anyone who knows me knows how much I enjoy my work. Just don't expect to become an expert overnight. In fact, never expect to become an expert, because it'll never happen. And that is part of the joy of my job. Knowing that every day I do it, I'll learn something new about wine.

I digress -- boy, do I digress. Beyond the fact that describing wine is at best inexact, it can also be slightly deceiving. When I ask you to describe the smell and taste of an orange, I bet many of you can almost taste an orange, just thinking about it. Have you ever thought about a favorite food and notice that your mouth is watering at the mere thought? Smell/taste and memory are so intertwined it is often difficult to separate the thought from the reality. If I tell you what to smell or taste in a wine, and you are willing to believe me, you will most likely smell and taste what I'm describing, because your memory will help fill in the smells/flavors you might have missed in your own attempt at describing the same wine. Not to mention that my own description will have been shaped by my own memory bank of smell/taste experiences. be continued...