Monday, September 21, 2015

Wine as psychological fun

I had the pleasure of attending a professional wine tasting earlier this week, and again I remembered Esteemed Colleague's words at Ye Olde Wine Shoppe, ever so long ago. He's the one who had already logged thirty plus years in the industry, retail, wholesale, and crush level, -- the man who had tasted Chateau Petrus before only big-game-hunting orthodontists could afford it, the one who remembered a time before wine "certifications," almost before sommeliers even. He said:

"Folks. Please. It's just wine."

The world is awash in so much wine, it is so soundly made and it may be had so cheaply -- I say it may be had cheaply -- that, when we professionals sit down to "taste and see" as the hymn goes, I can't help noticing that the afternoon quickly becomes a fairly amusing psychological study. Even though we are happily tasting far more than good, sound-but-cheap bottles, there really is very little to be said about them once a half-dozen or so adjectives are used up. The wines will have tannin and acid, fruit and alcohol, and it is salutary to be able to recognize all these. It's nice also to be able to recognize that climate and soil both matter: cool growing areas generally make lighter wines and hot climates make plusher ones, and grape vines prosper in difficult, rocky soil. (Not forgetting something I only just learned from the interwebs: since ancient times, man has had to compel grapes to prosper in poor soil because he needed the good earth for food crops.) Beyond these earthy basics, one can only offer pleasure judgments or food experience references entirely one's own; speedily we use up words like grippy or apple-y or pretty or whatever. My new favorite snark is to say "there's nothing under the hood."

What's left is the psychological fun. There is only one's taste, mine or yours. I think that my perceptions of the wines on the list are exactly right, exactly reflecting what is chemically, physically in the bottle and what the winemaker would say he intended to put there if we had him by the short hairs. But, dear things, my [professional] fatheads -- are you as confident of your perceptions?

We tasted pairs of reds, from California and France.

Ca'Momi Napa cabernet 2012 and Fleur Haut Gaussens Bordeaux Superieur 2010

cedar box                                                                       soap/no scent
 acid!                                                                             much less sugary-spicy
currant jelly                                                                  much chalkier
 -- clove -- cake                                                             acidic 
purple                                            "Classic vintage: cool summer, less fruit, restrained" 
$18                                                                              $12
Frog's Leap Rutherford Merlot 2012 and Chateau Pavie Maquin St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe

slightly green                                                         wood
slightly vanilla perfume                                         wood (aroma)
very soft --                                                              light bodied
slightly prickly --                                                   silky
juicy, not sugary                                                     chewy -- slightly
 light bodied -- a bit plain                                     a bit plain
 $37                                                                          $60

Sterling Napa Diamond Mountain Cabernet 2013 and Chateau Larose Trintauden Medoc 2009

warm                                                                                       fuller
chocolate berries                                                                    juicier
velvety                                                                                    dry dark fruit 
soft tannin                                                                              chewy 
light acid                                                                                         
$20                                                                                                 $20

Mayacamas Mount Veeder 2009            and               Alter Ego de Palmer Margaux 2010

olives                                                                               inky black
barnyard                                                                         cola!
cherry candy                                                                 chewy tannins
acid-prickly                                                                   fruit 
licorice, light tannin                                  *at $90, this reaches Ca'Momi's level  ($18!)
$80                                                                                      $90

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23, 2012      and          Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou St. Julien 2011

burnt toast                                                                              gentle cola 
thick tannin                                                                            elegant 
deep deep baked fruit                                                            gentle tannin 
pie crust                                                                                gentle acid
$200                                                                                      $130                                                                                 

Note how the California column boasts more vivid descriptors, and more of them, than the French column. I'm sure I'm right about it all, but I suspect my [professional] fathead/colleagues lack confidence in their ideas, because the silence, the abashed looks, and the hurried yet limp agreement as soon as anyone says anything about the red liquid in the glass, is all so obvious. Everyone still, still -- and I noticed this even at Ye Olde Wine Shoppe, ever so long ago -- everyone wants to be perceived as having innate, classy, yet malleable and un-snobby taste. We can spot a stereotype, delightfully untrue to form; we can spot a stereotypical disappointment, this time delightfully good. We want to recognize the king instantly and yet be respectful of the peasant. But who knows whether one can?

I suppose all this explains why there are blind tastings. It's informative to eliminate at least one trigger of prejudice or anxiety -- namely, the identity of the wine -- from what should be a simple evaluative process. Better yet, a parlor game.

Of course when it comes to speaking up confidently, I'm as big a fathead as anyone. Scribble my notes and arrange them in columns as freely as I may, do you think I told a soul that "it took a $90 Bordeaux to reach the quality level of an $18 Napa cabernet?" Certainly not. What if I'm wrong? Do you think I told a soul that the two paired merlots, each first class and each bearing a hefty price tag, struck me as interchangeably dull? Certainly, no. Did I throw in a mention of Michael Broadbent and his "global red"? No. And as for the next-to-last sample of the day, the legendary Stag's Leap Cask 23, do you think I raised hell at the pronouncement that "this isn't at all the jammy California fruit bomb we'd expect, is it"? Of course it was, I wanted to raise hell. More than a fruit bomb, it was a Hostess frosted-fruit-pie bomb. I'll bet its residual sugars stand at Apothic Red levels, and I would pair it with no food at all. Too overwhelming. This is a cocktail, and a safe, legendary label to tuck beneath the Christmas tree for your orthodontist father-in-law who Knows a Lot About Wine.

There. "Folks. Please ...." I didn't say that either. But I'm sure I'm right.

Image from


  1. This is my first time stopping by...I came here through a search for the Fleur Haut Gaussens Bordeaux Superieur 2010. I loved reading this! I'm fairly new to red wine; I started drinking it about a year and a half ago after receiving quite a few free bottles of Cabernet sauvignon and merlot from my job. Somewhere along the way I developed a taste for it, and I'm just now starting to get out of my comfort zone and try new things. My last experiment was with a malbec (yum) and now this red Bordeaux. It's pretty good!

    I'll definitely be doing some more exploring around here! Thanks for creating this site!

  2. Glad you stopped by, thanks! Don't you love the kind of job where you get free wine?


Thanks for stopping by ...

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...