How I drink wine

By the gallon.

Har har.

Wine is a splendid beast

I’ve been a fan of it for years, but for the longest time the most I could say was that my drink was either definitely white or definitely red. I bought wine because the label looked cool or because I had seen it in a magazine, and always because the bottle was less than $12.

Like many folks new to the game, my impression of “wine people” was that they held long-stemmed glasses quite gingerly and delicately sniffed with the same noses with which they looked down on the peasantry. We can all crack jokes about high-class tasters: “I detect odors of cherry, leather, and the bleeding forehead of a Dutchman recently accused of adultery by a drunken Welsh sailor in London. Exquisite!”

Tongue and nose

Once I became a wine person, though, and began consorting with other wine people, these stereotypes disappeared. Wine people are simply regular people who happen to have a great time with grapes. I drink wine carefully because I think that there is a lot to deal with in each glass. Smells, tastes, and textures all swirl together to create something that delights the brain.

I visited the St. Supery Winery in Napa Valley some months back with Mark Mann of Denvelopers fame. We were touring with Rick Bakas, who handles St. Supery’s social media bits. He poured out some merlot, gave it a sniff, and remarked:

“Notes of cherry, black pepper [another swirl], vanilla, and…rabbit poop.”

We all laughed out loud. He meant it as a joke, of course, but it highlights an important thing that I’ve learned about tasting wine: There are hundreds of little chemical compounds and shadows of the terroir that can impart interesting nuances in each bottle; we can interpret these tastes and smells quite differently from each other. All of those little pieces of a given wine can make it great, but it can also drive us away from a wine that other folks thing quite highly of.

Am I eccentric, or am I actually getting better at this?

I sometimes get strange looks when describing wines. One that sticks out in my memory was when I described a particular chardonnay as:

“A Scottish grandmother carrying a cart full of oranges, grapefruits, and nickels up a hill. On her back.”

I think the assembled guests believed me to suffer from a rare form of synesthesia. My description was honestly the first thing that leaped into my skull when I tasted the wine. I happen to think that really amazing wines should move beyond simple descriptors like “red fruit”, “leather”, and “spice”, to form real pictures in our heads, like “My oldest uncle sitting in a tall-backed chair in front of a roaring fireplace with a warm brandy in his hand.” Maybe I’m new-fashioned.

In the past three years, though, I really have found myself better able to parse out particular aromas and flavors in my wine. I think the first time that I smelled “licorice” in my glass was super-exciting for me. I’m training myself to detect what’s happening in my drink. And in doing so, I am coming to appreciate and enjoy wine even more. It’s like a fabulous little game.

Location, location, location

I’d like to think that part of my wine-tasting Renaissance is due to my relative proximity to northern California’s wine country. I won’t deny my desire to drive up there every weekend and taste the day away. Luckily, fiscal responsibility prevents such behavior. The cool thing about wine, though, is that you don’t have to be anywhere near where the grapes were produced to enjoy it. You don’t even have to be on the same continent!

I’ve found that all I need to enjoy wine is a clean palate, an open mind (and nose and mouth), and hopefully some good friends. In vino veritas…

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