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Talkin’ and thinkin’ about tasting

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I think a lot of people feel the same way as Louise Saunders. She writes that, after pretending to like wine for 30 years, she finally realized that she really doesn’t.

I have friends who don’t like wine, for various reasons. They’re not against it morally, but it doesn’t sit well with them. Some of them love spirits and beer, but there’s something about wine they just don’t get.

Personally, I love wine. I don’t see how somebody could be a wine writer and not love wine (although I know at least one winemaker who’s a teetotaler). There are wines that stun, amaze and delight me, and I couldn’t imagine living without that experience. Of course, the buzz is nice–let’s get that on the record and out of the way. But I’ve learned to hold my alcohol pretty well, and I know my limit, so you’ll never see me drunk.

There is some danger, if you’re in the wine, beer or spirits business, of drinking too much. We’re surrounded by these glorious beverages all day (and night) and can always tell ourselves that drinking is part of our job. I joke about it, but it’s true: I get paid to drink. But I know exactly how much alcohol my body can tolerate or, to put it more precisely, my body knows how much alcohol it can tolerate, and when I’m approaching that point, it sends my brain a warning signal.

How much is okay for me? Around three-quarters of a bottle a day. I suppose that, by some estimates, that’s too much, but I think we’re all built differently, and I can handle that amount. When I was in my teens, I was a binge drinker. I was away from home for the first time, at college in New England, and fell in with a boozy, druggy crowd. There were days we’d start drinking by 10 a.m. (horrible sweet stuff, like Bali Hai) and still be going strong twelve hours later. That period, fortunately, didn’t last long, because some instinct told me in a strong way that it was unhealthy and I’d better stop doing it, so I did.

Until fairly recently, I could handle big tastings, of 50-75 wines at one sitting, but I don’t think I’m going to do that anymore. Galloni once told me he can taste hundreds of wines at a sitting, and feel stronger and more refreshed at the end. I cannot say I can do the same. I’m comfortable tasting my 15 wines a day, on average. I like it, the routine is comfortable for me, I’ve done it for a long time, and my body and mind are in tune with it. I suppose I could do thirty if I had to (and I’m sure there will be occasions when I will), but it’s not my preference. I want to pay more, and longer, attention to what I’m tasting these days, not less. I don’t want to become a digital tasting machine: like, don’t like, like, like, don’t like. That’s not why I got into wine and I refuse to let it happen

It’s hard to describe the process of tasting to someone who doesn’t understand it. People always smile when I tell them what I do for a living. It’s the same smile, I suspect, they’d make if they thought I get paid for having sex. But really, tasting wine has little or nothing to do with imbibing alcohol. It’s intensely mental. It begins with physical sensations: visual, aromatic, taste, texture. But the experience occurs, not in the nose or the mouth, but in the brain. I think all day long (don’t you?), and usually my thoughts are just monkey thoughts that flit from one thing to another with no coherence, rhyme or reason. (I try to meditate, but have never been very good at it.) There are a few times during the day when I can focus my thinking. Writing is one; tasting wine is another. I like it when I focus my thinking. It makes me feel useful and proper and in line with the universe. Since both writing and tasting focus my thinking, imagine my pleasure at being able to write about wine tasting! I’ll begin a sentence, then realize I haven’t quite got the right adjective, and stare at the computer screen, mind empty on one level but actively searching on another, until the correct word comes. It always does. I suppose that’s a form of meditation. The same concept can be expressed in an infinite number of ways in the English language. You can say “There’s not much alcohol” or “There’s hardly any alcohol” or “There’s scarcely any alcohol” or, moving to different structures, “Alcohol barely shows up” or “As for alcohol, it’s pretty low,” and on and on. Each way of phrasing has its strengths and limitations. I try on phrases the way some people try on shoes at the shoe store, until I find the one I like the best. Then the review is written, and I’m on to tasting the next wine. And so it goes.

  1. Steve,

    I’m presuming (and maybe incorrectly) that some of the wines you schedule for (pure) tasting will, at times, end up on the dinner table with food.

    To what extent, if any, do you find that your assessment of wines are modified by the food?

    Also, are there some “tasting” wines that really don’t go well with food but generate great numbers?

  2. Tom: (1) I don’t review wines with food (except maybe a little bread or cracker). (2) I never met a wine that didn’t drink well with something! I, personally, am not as fussy with my wine and food pairings as some other people are.

  3. Zachary says:

    As a physician and knowing the basic physiology of tasting, I’d say that Galloni probably doesn’t know his own limits. You cannot trust someone to “know their own body.” Very few people are actually that perceptive and while he may well feel “energized” by all these tastings, his actual tasting apparatus is probably numbed by the time he’s through 20 wines just like the rest of us.

    I doubt he’d let us test him, but I’m put a lot of money that his accuracy would wane the more he drinks. People are notorious bad at predicting accuracy even without the effect of alcohol (dr’s included).

  4. Steve,

    Rather than how much wine you can take in at one of those large tastings, I wonder how in those 50-75 tastings your palate can hold up. Back in the late 80′s, early 90′s, I was on the restaurant end of the business. I remember going to those large tastings and by the end, not being able to tell one wine from the next. Inevitably, it would be a couple of wines I tasted early that stood out.

  5. I ran into a well known wine writer in the Post Office a few years back and he mentioned he no longer wrote about wine. I asked why. He said one day he was staring at the computer screen trying to come up with tasting notes for another Cabernet, something he’d done a thousand times, and he realized he just couldn’t do it any more. I could totally understand…drinking wine is fun, tasting is hard work, and particularly hard if you have to be creative in writing a description and communicating the experience.

  6. Steve,
    I really enjoyed this post – more than most. It reflects some introspection and I appreciate a glimpse into the mind of a professional. I can’t process too many wines in a tasting – never have been able to – so I admire that you ever could.
    I tend to express my reactions a lot when tasting, where others remain quiet, and then wonder if I should have been quiet too. I guess it is a personality issue. It’s sort of like you reviewing your tasting notes, but I have done it out loud and I cannot cross it out and start over!
    Thanks for your words!

  7. Dear Wine Wench, thank you for reading me.

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