What a little dog is teaching me about tasting wine
Some of you know there’s a new addition to the Heimoff family in Gus, a two-year old Chihuahua-Terrier mix I adopted last Sunday from the SPCA.
Gus is the only dog I’ve ever had, which means that the art and science of dog walking is new to me. Who knew it could be so complicated? Turns out you don’t just leash puppy up and hit the streets, where he does his business quickly. No, Gus needs endless sniffing, and I don’t know what he’s going to do and even if he will. The end result, in short, is unpredictable.
So in getting used to this new ritual in my life, I was thinking that the only way to deal with it sanely is to relax, chill, let go and let Gus be in charge. Which is different from the usual way I lead my life. We’re going to have to divide my existence into B.G. and A.G. periods–before Gus and after Gus. Before Gus, I came and went as I felt like. If I was impatient with something, I left it. Walking Gus is completely different. I now realize I have to slow down and let something besides myself be in charge.
So what, you are wondering, does this have to do with wine?
I’m still working this out, but it goes like this. My job as a wine critic is to taste through a bunch of wines and give my immediate impressions. In practical terms, and speaking for myself, that means a few minutes per wine. Sometimes I’ll take longer, if a wine speaks to me in such a way that suggests it has more to say than an immediate impression can convey. Sometimes it takes only a few seconds for me to determine that no matter how long I study it, it’s not going to change my immediate, disappointing impression.
A legitimate criticism of wine reviewing, of the kind I and most wine critics do, is that we don’t spend enough time with the wine, to see how it changes in the glass over time, or how it tastes with different kinds of food. And, after all, normal people drink wine with food. The critics’ reply is that we don’t have the time to spend a vast amount of time with a wine. As long as we’re transparent about this limitation, we’re on safe ground, I think. My reviews are snapshots of wines. They are not extensive explorations of their intricacies, if such exist. I have no problem at all in letting people know that.
But back to Gus!
When I walks Gus I have to slow down. Sometimes that involves looking at things in my neighborhood, on my very block, I’ve walked past for twenty years without every quite noticing. A particular tree trunk, a curb, a hedge. Gus not only notices them, he’s obsessed with them. I can only imagine what he’s smelling.
So I think: What am I missing in the wines I quickly taste that I might appreciate if I spent more time with them?
This is obviously a self-defeating question. It leads to a slippery slope. The answer is that I cannot know what I’m missing, since there’s no practical way to answer the question. All I can do is make the assumption that my immediate impression of a wine is accurate, and no matter how much time I spend pondering it, my final conclusion won’t change.
This is where Gus’s experience of the street, and my experience of wine, is different. Gus needs lots of time to determine if a particular spot is to his liking. I don’t. I have to arrive at quick decisions. But it does trouble me. I wish I could review one wine a day, taking the time to let it develop in the glass, trying it with different foods, letting my mind change. But I can’t. Unlike Gus, I have to limit each wine to its immediate appeal, day after day. I’m not saying that’s the best approach. But it’s what we wine critics have to deal with.