Those of us who read about wine have likely read a number of experts offer this confusing bon mot: That the only thing that matters in choosing and enjoying a wine is if you like it.
That advice usually comes from writers that taste the best wines the world’s vintners have to offer. It’s from oenophiles whose dreams consist of oak barrels, corkscrews and any wine once in Thomas Jefferson’s cellar.
To prove this point, said writers site blind tastings that use wine experts as well as “typical” wine drinkers. These tastings have sometimes shown that cheap wines outscore expensive wines at those tastings.
We’re also told that tastings where tasters are told the price of a given wine tend to give the more expensive wine much higher scores.
Digesting these facts, one might be justified in saying that wine world is full of it. “Pass me that box of wine from the local bait shop and spare me the pretence,” you might say, with justification.
My problem with this approach is that it makes it fun for wine writers to be charmingly self-deprecating about their expertise by dumbing down a topic that’s sometimes thought of as elitist. (Which isn’t true, because wine has been the drink of common folk for thousands of years.) “Elitist is as elitist does,” as Forrest Gump’s mother might have said.
It’s tempting to jump on that counter-intuitive bus and head down the gonzo highway, where men are men and wine is grape juice gone bad. But I can’t – I’m afraid of driving headlong into a bottle of mass-market plonk that tastes of cat urine and sweaty shoes worn by a teenage boy who took an algebra test he for which he didn’t study. (I was that boy.)
So let’s banish that bit of patronizing faux-egalitarianism and talk about another way to judge a wine. I’d like to stake out a middle ground, or at least a row of ripening Cabernet Sauvignon vines that are eventually made into a bottle of the nectar of the gods.
There are terrible wines, good wines, very good wines, and wines that taste like the most wonderful thing you’ve ever ingested, save for your nana’s homemade nut rolls.
A terrible wine is one so bad you’d spit it out (and not at a tasting), but it is, after all, your class reunion, and you, like the wine, need fortification, so you man up and swallow the plonk and then go talk to the guy who punched you in the gut in gym class because it seemed like the right thing for him to do at the time. That wine goes well with talking to that guy.
A good wine is what the Europeans have traditionally referred to as a “table wine.” You use it as a relaxant in and around dinnertime (or lunch, if you’re really in Europe), and to perk up your taste buds for the oncoming bread and cheese. It’s got some, if not a lot of complexity; it compliments your food and doesn’t kick your butt down the street afterward. That wine goes well with a dinner that doesn’t precede coaching soccer afterwards.
A very good wine has flavors that begin to become visceral, poetic, and that you can actually explain with words like vanilla, pepper, strawberries, loamy earth, cocoa and you-fill-in-the-blank. It makes good food much better. A very good wine caresses your sensory memory, but doesn’t jar it. That wine goes well with special food, as well as special friends or family.
A great wine, as well as tasting unmistakably wonderful, transports you to one of the other dimensions the string-theorists talk about – the one where life is perfect. (Just don’t forget to come back.) That wine goes well with living in wine paradise for a few precious moments.
That’s why, when tasting wine, it’s worth swirling the glass, allowing its aromas to seduce (or bore, or assault) your senses when you sniff it; then taste it slowly, and with the appreciation for the thousands of years that have gone into the art of making wine, of helping you enjoy food and life a little more.
So back to those wine writers’ advice that a good wine is one you like: It’s a little like saying that in choosing a great suit, the only thing that matters is if it’s comfortable. If that were the case, your favorite pair of old jeans and the flannel shirt handed down by your dad would count as a fine suit.
You know the difference there, right? Nothing wrong with those comfortable clothes – they’re great for everyday wear, just like a good table wine is terrific for most occasions. For those special wine occasions, or to transport yourself somewhere new, trust your senses.
But here’s the key: In order to really trust your senses, you have to really use them. I wouldn’t call it “working” at tasting wine – that puts all the pressure on you. I think of it as “allowing” wine to tell you about itself. All you have to do is listen.
Scott Lax is an award-winning journalist, novelist, and film maker. He and his fiancé, Lydia, had Scott’s first child – and Lydia’s third – in January 2011 and call Cleveland, OH, home. Learn more at Scott’s blog.