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How does our taste in alcohol change over time?



When I was a young man I didn’t care at all for wine, except for its obvious ability to make a college freshman (me) drunk. Years later, I learned to appreciate and eventually love wine. At first I sought out Cabernet Sauvignon because that was the wine all the critics at that time (the 1980s) said was the most important grape and wine, at least here in California.

At about that time I got my first wine writing job, at Wine Spectator, where they assigned me The Collecting Page, which appeared in every issue. My job was to write articles of interest to wine collectors. I got to know most of the top collectors in America (they all wanted to have their pictures and names in the magazine, so they returned my phone calls and in some cases they sought me out). One thing I learned about these wealthy, white, middle-aged men was that, almost to a person, they had started out with a preference for Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux, then graduated to Pinot Noir/Burgundy. That was my first intuition that our tastes in booze change over time.

Of course it’s well known that many people begin liking sweet wines and only gradually move onto dry table wines, so that’s another calibration in the booze evolutionary scale. With me, a love of Pinot Noir took some time, because there wasn’t very much decent Pinot in California, and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy good Burgundy. But by the mid-1990s there was enough good Pinot, from the likes of Williams Selyem, Rochioli and so on, that I learned to love it. However, I never loved it more than Cabernet. To me, they were separate, but equal.

However now my tastes are definitely changing. I’ve acquired, or I should say re-acquired, a taste for beer—good beer, craft beer, not the watery stuff produced by America’s gigantic brewers. I’m not sure why this has finally happened to me. Beer has an umami quality that I simply crave, especially for my first drink of the late afternoon. Maybe it’s the fizz.

I’ve also acquired a new-found appreciation for liquor, particularly vodka. Again, I can’t say why this is. My favorite is a gimlet: good vodka and freshly-squeezed limes. None of that sweet Rose’s, please, and if you happen to have a basil leaf, feel free to muddle it in, but not too much; the basil should be a subtle background taste.

This isn’t to say I don’t still appreciate wine. I certainly do. I continue to love a good, dry white wine, no matter where it’s from: California, Sancerre, Chablis. It’s in the matter of red wines that I find my bodily tastes changing the most. I can still appreciate a red wine, but it really has to be a very good wine. For me, red wines show their flaws more readily than any other wine; and the chief flaw is a certain heavy blandness that can come with an over-emphasis of fruit. Many, many California red wines suffer from this flaw; a little fruitiness goes a long way, and if the wine is out-of-balance in acids and tannins, the flaw is even more obvious. Another way of putting this is that I can appreciate a good beer, white wine or cocktail by itself, but most red wines are more difficult for me to enjoy unless they’re coupled with the proper food.

It’s funny, though, because I still find myself mentally rating wines, even though it’s going on two years (!!!) since I was a working wine critic. Old habits die hard. Take California Cabernet Sauvignon. There are lots of them I’ll score at 92, 93 points, even though they’re not particularly wines I care to drink, except, as I said, with the right foods. But there’s a twist: most of these big red wines call for beef, and I’m not much of a beef eater. (I think of lamb as a Pinot Noir food. Pigs and Pinot, as we say.) So even though my formal training is in rating and reviewing big red wines, and I’m pretty good at it, those same wines play less and less of a role in my private life.

I’ve also evolved to another more interesting point, at least for me. I’ve cellared wine since, like, forever! But I’m finally at the point where I’m starting to drink my older bottles. I figure, I’m not going to be here forever, and those special occasions I always fancied would justify popping the cork on a 15-year old wine seem to come a lot less frequently than they used to. So why wait? What’s the old saying, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

El Nino is starting to hit us here in California. One storm after another, with a biggie scheduled to roll in on Thursday. But the week beyond that is dry, and our state water officials are warning us, with some urgency, not to stop conserving just because the “monster” El Nino is coming. So we’ll just have to wait and see what January, February, March and April bring.

  1. When I turned 60 a year ago, I made the decision to start planning for the next 30-40 years (one grandmother died at 101) rather than starting to let myself wind down; so I threw a big party, poured id a 12-wine tasting, wiping out my favorite library wines from the late 20th century (those my mate and I hadn’t already worked through in the six months before). I wanted to start clean, acquiring more current wines that I plan to drink in 20 years. That seemed the way to hit 60!

    So I had nothing left older than about 5 years until I couldn’t turn down a case of Beckmen’s 1999 Syrah at its original market price.

    That aside, my wine taste evolution isn’t all that different from yours, but beer was my early drink, not a late one. I grew up on beer the way a Burgundian boy grows up on pinot and chard. As I got older, I noticed it was affecting me badly, so I gradually stopped drinking it other than rarely, and moved through stages of Puerto Rican rum and Cognacs (and Armagnacs!) to a deeper, more intimate connection to wine.

    My major “character arc” over 20 years, therefore, was from mostly pouring down cheaper stuff to mostly sipping good stuff. I drink far less than I did in my 20s, but I drink more often and far better.

    And yes, my wine tastes were initially all about Cabs, and especially Napa Cabs and, after I found them, especially about Rutherford Cabs. Except there was this strange wine called Pinot Noir that somebody poured for me in my early 20s and I remembered I liked it a lot, but never really found much of it around worth drinking after that). And, as you say, that trend changed, too.

    One year a while back, my mate and I noticed that we liked every Pinot Noir we found but they were all so different – we didn’t know “what they were” in the way that we could simply describe a Napa Cab. So we set out to buy and drink every Pinot we could find for about 9 months and concluded that, indeed, Pinot Noir is “sex in a glass,” but only if you’re dating around a lot! It’s still our first choice (especially from South Coast).

    Today, I drink more red than white (especially Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Grenache), but have become newly fascinated with whites, especially the complex Italian whites and, oh, that Aligoté varietal we had last week. Italians and South Coast are my current passion.

    I doubt that the journey is over.

  2. “Take California Cabernet Sauvignon. There are lots of them I’ll score at 92, 93 points, even though they’re not particularly wines I care to drink, except, as I said, with the right foods.”

    Are there any Cabs that you care to drink as “cocktail wines” — unaccompanied by the right food?

    (I would posit that less astringent Zinfandel and later Pinot Noir took off in popularity because they can be consumed as a glass by themselves. No one would say that of mountain fruit Cabs . . . like Dunn.)

  3. From The Wall Street Journal this past Saturday:

    [Online headline — not the print edition headline]

    “Animals Like to Get Drunk, Too”


    “Lightly” edited excerpt:

    Berkeley physiologist Robert Dudley has proposed the “drunken-monkey hypothesis” of human inebriation. He argues that we are descended from largely fruit-eating primate ancestors who were drawn to the ripest, most nutritious fruit by the scent of naturally fermented ethanol. Being able to tolerate ethanol would have given those ancestors a huge dietary advantage.

    Sugars are everywhere in nature, so it is hardly surprising that many primates can handle small quantities of the ethanol that can result. But we humans have far surpassed those howler monkeys (even if we’re no match for treeshrews). Researchers have recently learned that a mutation some 10 million years ago in the alcohol dehydrogenase gene greatly increased alcohol tolerance in the ancestor shared by humans and African apes.

    That enhanced ability to deal with ethanol emerged at a crucial time in human evolution, just as our first apelike, bipedal ancestors were taking their initial upright steps on the ground. The context is particularly suggestive: Ripe fruit drops to the ground and becomes a powerful source of alcohol as it rots — and our ancestors are finally down there to find it. …

    [Guest columnist Dr. Tattersall is a curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, and Dr. DeSalle is a curator of entomology there. They are the co-authors of “A Natural History of Wine,” recently published by Yale University Press.]

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