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Wine as “Thou” or “It”?


I had a nice email yesterday from a guy who runs the wine section at a Trader Joe’s. He said he wants to bring more seriousness to the way TJ’s communicates to customers about its wines (great idea), and he specifically wanted to know what I think about Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel

He asked, “When you taste a Dry Creek Zin, what are you looking for in the wine?”

Interesting question, one that brought up all kinds of considerations.

I could certainly say things about Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, which I happen to like very much. But his question wasn’t “How would you describe classic Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel?” If it had been, I would have said something about wild berry flavors, a brambly, briary mouthfeel and tons of dusty spices. Instead, Matt’s question was “When you taste a Dry Creek Zin, what are you looking for?”

That’s a horse of a different color.

I told him that when I taste a wine, I’m not looking for anything. I’m opening myself to whatever the wine wants to say to me. I don’t mean to anthropomorphise wine, but wine is a living thing that expresses itself in complex ways. And just as in a human interaction, the more I lay down an expectation about what I’m looking for, the less able I am to truly hear what the wine, or person, is actually saying.

In my own relationships with people, I’ve grown more aware that I have a tendency to not really see or hear them as they truly are. I see somebody coming toward me down the street. Am I seeing them as they are right now, in this moment, or am I seeing the sum-total of all the parts, good and bad, of someone I’ve known and experienced in multiple ways over time?  We meet; the person is speaking. Am I really listening, or just waiting to get my two cents in? The ideal human interaction ought to be Buber’s “I-Thou,” not “I-It.” But too often, I reduce the other person to an “it.”

The premise of the guy’s question, then, is how I deal with wine: As an “It” or a “Thou.” I want to let every wine speak to me and tell me what it is and wants to be. But this raises complexities, as I’m sure you know. We all make judgments about the things we encounter. We may know we shouldn’t be judging others (since we wouldn’t want to be judged by them), but we judge them anyway. It’s human nature to assign value to things. (We can argue later whether this value is objective or subjective.) That includes wine. I can say I’ll let the wine speak to me and not impose any expectations on it, but that doesn’t mean I have to appreciate any old thing the wine says. It may say something I don’t like. That happens, more often than not. When it does, I usually feel obliged to give the wine a second chance–kind of like saying to it, “I beg your pardon? Did you really say what I thought I heard you say?” This Miss Manners approach serves the dual function of (a) letting the wine dial back the offensive thing it said and (b) letting me feel as though I went out of my way to be polite to it.

Of course, sometimes the wine doesn’t have the sense to dial back what it said, but merely repeats the same offensive thing. That’s when I feel like it’s okay to come down on it. I listened to it with an open mind; I gave it a second chance; it still says something stupid. That makes it the wine’s problem, not mine.

I think the reason this openness to wine is important is because some people do come to wine with expectations so heavy, they’re unable to even taste what’s in their glass. It’s like they’re experiencing, not the actual wine, but their own thoughts, in liquid form. This is why some people criticize wines with high alcohol. They have an expectation that a wine should have low alcohol, so when a high alcohol wine comes along that’s actually beautiful and delicious, they can’t even see it. Same with people. My tattoo artist, Philip, is heavily tatted. He has piercings, too. He once told me he sees people looking at him but not seeing him–being afraid of him without having the slightest inkling of who he really is. That’s sad, to judge people like that.

  1. Hey Steve, thanks for answering my question and I really like today’s posting. It really got to the heart of what I’ve been thinking about when I taste wine lately – am I looking for typical/indicative characteristics of a varietal/terrior or consistency so much it’s blocking uniqueness? It’s a fine line.

    If anyone is curious, I’ve started a wine blog about the wines from Trader Joe’s. I’d love more peoples’ input on the wines!

    Thanks again Steve!


  2. “He once told me he sees people looking at him but not seeing him–being afraid of him without having the slightest inkling of who he really is.”

    Inkling? Please tell me you deliberately chose that word; that is too perfect!

    I think you’ve described a great approach. When I’m tasting a new wine at a dinner or party or something, I try to avoid looking at the label until I’ve tasted it so that I don’t pre-judge it.

    Of course most times I can’t resist taking a peek. But I try.


  3. Graham, the word “inkling” was totally unconscious. Just shows how the creative process works — in mysterious ways!

  4. Hi Steve,
    Love the post today…It is so tough to not have preconceived notions about wine before tasting. I admit, I usually have an expectation of variety or place with variety, ie. Dry Creek Zin.
    I love the occasional surprise in a bottle, unfortunately I just don’t taste too many surprises.
    I’m going to try to lower my expectations…oops no, I don’t mean that! I mean I’m going to try to enjoy each wine I taste now for it’s own message.

    Anna Marie

  5. Reminds me of the adage that experts often say – the neophyte taster actually can sometimes be *more* keyed-in to what is really going on in a wine precisely because they are NOT bringing baggage to the tasting table (applies similarly to many other endevours besides wine I’m sure). Cheers!

  6. Steve,
    Loved today’s post, so revealing about you, in relationship to life as well as wine. Preconceptions and expectations certainly can doom a relationship, never thought that it can do the same for tasting a wine. Then I thought about ‘zin’ – tell me a wine is a zin and I’m almost certain not going to like it. Yet let the wine share with me its treasures, a delight is possible. So how do we remove our expectations about a wine? I guess the philosophers might say ‘be in the now.’

  7. In the now, Sondra. Sounds like a good plan for everything doesn’t it.


  1. The Week of Zinfandel « Trader Joe's Wine Notes - [...] (Click here for the entire posting) [...]

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