Racking My Brain About Wine Tasting

Friday, August 22, 2008

"It has a nose of dark chocolate and coffee. Very heavy body too."

I could tell that my answer of, "Strawberries, I think," was a little off the mark.

I've never really been good at wine tasting. I know what I like and don't like, and for someone who works and writes about food, I always hate tasting wine for fear of sounding like an idiot. My wine speak is probably much similar to any adult talking on a Peanuts cartoon, incomprehensible noise.

Thing is, I don't think I have the tongue for it. My tongue is good at many things; for example tasting food, performing Gene Simmons impersonations, making a U-shape, giving the raspberry to bad drivers, and [not blog appropriate]. However, it is not good at tasting wines.

I do have the drinking them part down pat. For tasting though, I must admit, the concept of the spit bucket initially threw me. The first time someone presented it at a wine tasting my reaction was understandable and quite reasonable, "You want me to do what?! Are you batshit looney? It's unseemly! Why on God's good green earth would I spit out wine?!" So yes, the drinking I'm pro at. Still, the tasting seems to thwart my cognitive abilities.

The whole process of deconstructing the flavor profiles of wine is too obtuse for me. Given, I may just not have the education; I only know a dill-like flavor means it was aged in oak barrels and the richer flavors of Riesling can be caused by noble rot, so I know some of this can be learned. However, I'm not sure what I'm exactly tasting with each and every sip.

With food, this obscurity is not present. Shrimp tastes like shrimp. Tarragon tastes like tarragon. If I sense a hint of plums, it's probably because I put some freaking plums in the dish. Wham-bam-thank-you-Sam and the tasting is done. Body? Texture? A simple task to do with food. But wine? Where patience and sobriety (ironic, no?) are required in order to detect subtlety? A different game entirely.

Once in a while I can say cherry or chocolate and feel confident in my one-word dissertation. Other times I feel like anything I say will be WRONG and everyone will know, and the best I can say is "Yum! Has a strong taste of grapes," or "Crappy, but free!" assuming I'm wine tasting for these last examples.

Some people, like my friends Ashley, Liz and Kaiti can really analyze the flavors and understand their influences from weather, year, terroir, aging and berry. I understand that each of these factors ties a thread of subtle nose and taste to each wine which coils and flows over time developing into broader distinctions. Where as I seem to become tangled and tongue tied both in words and in sips, my friends are able to eloquently describe it with such profound assurance, the wine seems to possess them and boast of its body through theirs.

Still, I have found and been informed that the best way to learn about wine is through one singular act. Drinking.

Begrudgingly, I set about my task. Picking up a few wines here or there, having them with dinner or with friends, taking mental notes and learning a few things. I have found a few brands I like, and a few varietals I do not care for (Pinot Blanc I have yet to enjoy, like funky grape juice kept under the radiator).

The whole wine collecting thing seems so unique to me, it's not a static collection. You collect, trade, drink, restock, and so on. Rarely do people seem to buy and then just hold on to forever and ever like one would with baseball cards or Monopoly pieces, and yes I collect Monopoly pieces. Rather it's a hobby that breathes, one that intakes and exhales, revivifying every so often with a new Chardonnay or by finally drinking that one Petit Verdot.

I suppose that's what makes it so intriguing. It's always changing.

I recently found a cheap wine rack for sale. Very much in love. Classic, simple, clean lines, dark wood, and 40% off. Match made in heaven. Plus it helps pull the room together, makes me feel more adult, and gives me a semi-practical reason to buy more wine: so that the other bottles in the rack aren't lonely. Plus, it allows me a few options for what to drink and makes the tasting and learning process a bit more fun. I do so heart World Market.

So I plan to continue to learn about wine, but I plan to learn about sake too. I have the sake serving set, so really it would be a crime not to use it. Yet another task I'll nobley take on for the sake of my culinary education, or would this by enological? Or viticulturally? Or sake bombing-ology?

Same thing.

*P.S. I swear I'm not an alcoholic.


  1. My wine rack is filled with wines of the Charles Schwab variety. I like them cheap and sort of tasty.

  2. Goin through the Daring Bakers new August members lead me here, my intent initially was a Welcome and yes here it is...Welcome to the DB. But the post I stumbled on just made me want to say more.
    Learning wine certainly "ain't" easy but it's a "helluva" lot of fun. Unless you are judging a slew of wines (and getting pai to do so)forego the spit bucket, why waste?
    As for worrying about what you perceive to be a certain taste and it being incorrect, not at all; what YOU taste is what you are tasting!! And when you get to the point of saying "I taste raspberry, truffle or whatever" with the utmost confidence, you will be surprised that many of your fellow tasters will also agree.
    2 great resources are the "Wine Aroma Wheel" and the Wine Tasting Wheel", can find them on the UC Davis bookstore site. Again, welcome to the DB and have fun on your vitriologic journey, the grape truly isn't as "stuffy" as some make it out to be!

  3. The one bottle in my house is a fine Martinelli.... the sparkling cider kind of drink :o)

    I cook and read cooking blogs and magazines but, I admit, I've never had an interest in the wine tasting or adding alcohol to my menu. I don't like the smell and I don't like the drunks.

    I do like listening to people try and describe wine though. If I ever pick up the habit I have a long list of wines to avoid. Dill flavored? I don't even like the dill smell in my spice cupboard!

  4. Garrett, I'm with you, I like 3 Blind Moose white wine, cute bottle, lovely wine and less than $10.00 a bottle. I'm old school, I don't spit either :-O

  5. Lol! I so hear you! Every once in a while I think I'm going to get smart and learn wine... yeah... after about 2 or 3 bottles I've had enough trying to identify this or that. :-)

  6. As someone who choses her based on:
    1) price
    2) the picture on the bottle
    I can relate. That said, I spent many years in the restaurant industry selling wines that the supplier described as "buttery" "reminiscent of summers on the cape" or "spicy with undertones of cherry". We used to do wine tastings at work so we could pass on these nuggests of pretension to our guests (!) and I never really got it. I am proud to say I like wine that tastes good to me and I dislike wine that tastes bad to me.

  7. mmmm... yes. My university placement this semester is working with the wine industry (I'm studying tourism). Trying to convince cellar door operators that no one gives a rat's arse how many Halliday stars they have - hell three weeks ago I didn't know what a Halliday star was - they want a nice Sunday drive with their mates, to taste some free stuff, maybe by a bottle or two, and have a cheese and dip platter along the way. If the winemaker doesn't make them feel like a fool, and they can drive past sheep in a field all the better.

    Frankly, they think I'm mad.....

  8. I worked at Scott's seafood for years & every morning we did a wine taste pairing & the questions of what do you get from the wine would always come up. I hated it. I was the jokster & came up with this taste like a lemon jolly ranchers or grapeade. I too cannot pull out all the complex flavors nor do I care to be a wine snob. I like what I like & my palette knows the difference between a good aged wine to it's younger counter part. Whatever. It's grapes.

  9. I'd like to point out that it's easy for you to pick out the flavors in a dish because it's a subject you've become expert in. For instance, now you'll be able to detect the aroma/flavor of wattleseed in a dish -- not something most eaters can do. Similarly, people who have devoted themselves to the study of wine have an easier time isolating the various elements found in a glass of wine: acidity, alcohol, body, aroma, flavor, etc. Music makes for an excellent analogy. I listen to a song and I only hear the whole thing, maybe I isolate the lyrics. My musician friends hear each individual instrument and effect without struggle.

    But you are right, all it takes in each case is practice and the will to learn!


  10. Michelle is right, but another thing that you should remember with wine is that it changes; what you taste now is not what you might taste should you open the same wine in 5 years.

    Also, what you taste in a wine is not necessarily what I taste. For example, a healthy percentage of the population lacks the receptor to pick up the signature flavor in Syrah -- to them, it tastes like a boring cab, or a dark grenache. But you will never know if you are among that group unless you get yourself tested. So do you like Syrah but can taste the black pepper? You might lack the receptor then.

    All this is to say that tasting wine is an idiosyncratic endeavor. Buy lots of wine. Drink many different kinds. Some do go better with certain foods -- lambrusco or vinho verde with batter-fried foods, for example -- but a Napa cab and a Spanish Rioja go equally well with beef.

    Acquire this knowledge and make your own decisions when you serve wine. After all, it's your party...

  11. During the late 70's and early 80's I was a wine steward at several finer restaurants, including the original El Gaucho in Seattle. We were famous for our extensive wine list - noted for mostly well-aged French reds - complimenting the menu dominated by charcoal-grilled prime beef. If you were around at that time you know that wine knowledge and awareness wasn't nearly as extensive as it is today. It wasn't uncommon to have a well-heeled customer order a dry martini while smoking unfiltered cigarettes, then order a Pittsburgh style steak and without batting an eye say the famous phrase "with a bottle of your finest leap-frow-milk." Right away sir. Of course for those who had wine knowledge the list was a playground of delights.

    One day the maitre'd and I made a bet with one another that we could use the same 7 descriptive words to describe any wine to our customers and all we had to do was rearrange them. For example one could describe a wine as having that "big nose with hints of blackberry and tasty spices" and another as a "tasty nose with big spicy flavors and hints of blackberry."

    The bet was a dollar a bottle and the pot would be won by the person who got caught by a customer.

    We called off the bet in about a week. The pot had grown to several hundred dollars and no one caught on. From my experience today with 'most' folks who claim an appreciation for wine - they wouldn't catch on either. So many earnest imbibers have fallen prey to high alcohol and drunk far too early. Oh well. This too shall pass. What's next?

    Hey - it's grape juice. A votre Sante!


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