I will admit from the outset that I don’t understand the modern way of appreciating wine. It is now almost universally accepted that today’s wine drinker must be able to catalogue at great length the myriad of tastes and smells that he finds in the glass. Perhaps you’ve heard your friend, “the wine guy,” say something like, “There’s a kind of bing cherry element there…with some overtones of crushed gravel and sweaty beef.” And you think, What the hell is a “bing cherry”? “But on the mid-palate,” he continues, “…a smidge of Fig Newton and—what is that?—crayfish. No! Prawn, beer-battered prawn…” and on like this, and you have no choice but to nod sagely and take another sip while you glance around to see if there’s an oncoming truck to leap under.
This is what I call “The Fruit Salad Method” of tasting wine, after the great British wine critic Hugh Johnson. “Riesling tastes like Riesling,” he once told a lecture audience, “more than it tastes like lemons and apples.” This was turned, the next day, into a London Times story proclaiming that the famous wine writer had declared, “Wine tastes like wine.”
I have worked at a wine shop for more than two years now. I spend most days there tasting wine, talking about wine, listening to other people talk about wine and selling wine. I am routinely asked what a certain wine tastes like and am expected to provide an intelligent answer. “I don’t know,” I usually reply. Sometimes, for a change of pace, I say, “Despair.”
I don’t know how to talk about wine in terms of numerical scores or fruit salad recipes. I rarely taste all of those strange ingredients in the wine, and I don’t see how it would increase my enjoyment if I did. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the palates of those who can divide a mouthful into 100 parts; it’s just that wine means something else to me. It’s bigger than just what’s in the glass.
When I think about wine, I think of elaborate meals my friends and I have put together; outrageous affairs with grandiose, Belle Époque pretensions, obscenely rich food, and overpriced, battered, dusty bottles we have hoarded and dreamed about.
Or simple dinners after a hard day’s work, where my girlfriend cooks, I provide the wine, and both of us feel that the other contributed the better half.
Or local winemakers coming into the wine shop with red-stained hands and opening up an unlabeled bottle of their latest effort, not to try and sell it to us, but to share their craft.
Or cold smelly wineries, rows of vines in the sun, heavy sensuous bunches of ripe grapes…
(I could go on, but I’m getting tears in my 1961 Chateau Margaux.)
Look, wine tastes like wine. But wine covers a lot of ground, from local celebrity winemakers, to the migrant workers who pick the grapes. From wine bars, to private dinners. From development, to tourism, to health, to drunkenness, to history, to the ever-expanding and important local wine industry that is threatening to make bing cherry-loving snobs of us all.
Wine tastes like wine, and I am going to tell you what I know about it.