For over 22 years I have been involved in the wine industry, always on the retailing side. This has afforded me the opportunity to observe a vast array of consumer approaches to wine and its enjoyment. The questions, attitudes, tastes, and interests communicated over the years have been as diverse as the individuals behind them. But I have noted threads of continuity among their various reactions, and these will form the starting points for my personal perspectives on the appreciation of wine.
My first topic deals with the difference between the absolute and the relative in understanding wine. The only thing absolute about a particular wine is a scientific chemical analysis of its component parts. Alcohol, pH, residual sugar, titrates, phenolics, sulfites are measured, and it doesn’t matter who is taking the readings. The circle is just drawn around the bottle of wine, and everything inside of the circle is analyzed.
Wine appreciation, however, is relative. The attributes of the person tasting are as important as the attributes of the wine. The circle is drawn around the taster and the wine together. And here is my main point: the successful wine merchant should not only know about the wine, but he should also profile the tastes and palate of the customer to make the best possible recommendations. This requires of the merchant four parts listening to one part talking, which I think is rare in our industry.
All of us have at least slightly different palates, taste buds, olfactory sensitivity, chemicals in our mouths, and receptors in our brains. So what I experience with a given wine will be at least a little different than what you may experience with the same wine. Often, I hope, it is a similar experience, but sometimes the difference can be great. It has been my observation that women have a more acute sense of taste and smell than men, and they often pick up more flavors, positive and negative, than I do. Then I have to start asking questions: what have you eaten or drunk recently, were you chewing gum, are you hungry, tired, did you just put on some perfume…? Mint is death to all wine appreciation, and Altoids can kill your palate for hours. There is a saying in our industry: buy on bread, sell on cheese. This is because strong flavors in what you are eating can mask imperfections in wine. Not that I ever try to sell an imperfect wine by offering cheese first! But if you have just had a cup of coffee, a little piece of cheese may help bring your palate back to reality.
These missteps leading up to tasting wine are things that are easily avoided if you are aware of them. There is, however, a longer term re-training of the palate which is possible with the right guidance that helps you “listen harder” to the flavors in a wine. This will be the subject of my next perspective.