“It’s wine tasting, not wine drinking.”
Wine expert from Rick Steves’ “Burgundy”
I like to think I’ve grown since my days in France (of all places), when the extent of my knowledge about wine was, as I unfortunately confessed one night while attending a petit dégustation at my friend Marie’s house in the countryside near Lyon, “it’s red or it’s white.” For shame and all that. I was too young.
I am not sure my palate is much more refined now. The difference today, though, is that I’m curious. I have no interest in becoming a wine sniffer (my former red-or-white-days sobriquet for a sommelier). But having spent a long weekend in Sonoma, it’s difficult not to appreciate the art and science of wine making — and tasting. It is fascinating — from the swirling to the sniffing to the chewing to the talking.
As a lover of words and a writer, what most fascinated me in the wine country was the language of wine, with its hints of this, and its laced with thats, its mouthfeel and rich finishes and, oh my god, the complexity. I’m not making fun. But after a while it wasn’t any wonder to me that onology and oenology are homonyms.
I wanted to know how to talk about what I like — was it heavy or light? A lot of acid or a little? Crisp? Buttery? Oakey? How do I describe what I want to drink with dinner? Most often at restaurants I ask the server what he or she thinks I should drink based on what I want to eat. I listen. I try new things. And in Sonoma, I took notes. I jotted down what people said, I read countless tasting menus and copied down descriptions, and I asked a lot of questions.
One of the things I wondered about was the difference between viticulture and viniculture, which would have been easy enough to look up in a dictionary (and turns out some would argue they are synonyms), but it was so much more satisfying to hear these things explained by an expert. (Much like gouache, which I saw over and over again in the Picasso Drawings exhibit at the NGA this weekend; I was tempted to look it up on my phone, but it was more fun to ask my artist friend what it meant and hear her talk about it, as someone who has actually worked with it before; I don’t know, it’s the little things.) Anyway, the guy in the tasting salon at Audelssa explained that one is the science or study of the farming (growing grapes, grape cultivation) while the other is the science or study of wine making (turning the grapes into something delicious). Makes sense to me.
The more notes I took, the more I began to study the words that were being used to describe the seemingly endless vintages produced by the wineries that dot the valley. And the more I studied them the more I started to anthropomorphize wines. They started to sound like people. Like what was being described might not be something I was about to
drink taste, but maybe someone I was about to meet. Like I was reading an online profile.
Rich and silky
Intense and balanced (can a wine, like some people, be mellow and imbalanced? I’m guessing so)
Crisp without being sharp
Generous (or rich or dark) aromas
Round and warm
Fruit forward (ha!)
Lush, nutty, and rich
And, of course and always, complex
I love how flexible and creative wine vocabulary can be. I mean, you can basically make up any sort of shit and use it to describe a wine. It’s fabulous. So versatile! For instance, there can be hints, touches, notes, and layers of just about any fruit you can imagine: black cherry, black berry, black plum (any black fruit really), blueberry, red berry, clementine, apricot, peach, strawberry, lychee, lime leaf, or lemon zest. There can be dustings of coffee or cocoa powder, laces of spice and smoke, tobacco, nutmeg, vanilla, pepper, dried violets or rose petals, even “bits of flinty minerality.” All of which lead to an excellent length, a rich-textured entry, “a restrained horizontal entry with a nice mid-body,” a long smooth finish, a chewy finish, a honey tinged finish, a velvety grip, a lush mouthfeel. As my friend Jan might say, stupendous!
As we wandered and bicycled through the valley, tasting wines and chatting with vintners and (me at least) taking copious notes, we bought several bottles of wine that are, along with our prized bottle of Figcello di Sonoma, currently en route chez nous. To enjoy them once they arrive, we’ve batted around the idea of hosting a small gathering of friends who appreciate wine, who might enjoy hearing our stories about our time in the wine country, and sharing their own. We’ll prepare some complementary foods to enjoy, and we’ll do more than taste these fun and exciting vintages. Apart from the food and the wine, though, the idea that keeps begging for a bit of space, the one that keeps gnawing at my theme-party-resistant-gene, is the one where I ask our guests to write brief bios of themselves that they bring to the party. Short autobiographical sketches where they introduce themselves to each other. Concise statements, a paragraph at most, where they describe themselves using only the elusive and colorful language of the vine.
It probably won’t happen, but nevertheless it’s been fun thinking about my own wine bio. I haven’t thought the whole thing through, and maybe I never will, but what is certain is that it would include what has got to be the best wine phrase I’ve discovered yet, the one I could easily adapt to proclaim my own well integrated acidity.
If you had a wine bio, what would you write? I’d love to know. I’d also love to know if you have any favorite wine-oriented websites or blogs you like. Here are a few I stumbled upon while preparing this post. Share yours in the comments, and happy tasting!