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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.

  1. So first you approve my comments (which criticize you) and then delete them?

  2. Okay. While I’m no professional reviewer, though I am in the business, I do get…and often use analogies like this when I write and think about wine. There is not a one size fits all approach to wine in my opinion. If someone wants to reduce it down or simply see it as a thing, I’m fine with that I just don’t see the point or purpose of going after the others of us that do in fact react in a more emotional way. Getting a bit weary of all the bickering and back biting, it’s wine people, rather unifying and civil stuff…when you let it be. I like the post Steve.

  3. harvey posert says:

    steve — i learned from my dogs that some smells are worth a sniff but some are worth more than a moment. you’ve identified the issue and gus is encouraging you to adjust a little. this is what we learn.

  4. I love the notion that dogs are particular about where they do their business as though we are not. And have you ever tried to poop while you’re on a leash? Trust me, it’s brutal.

    Wine scores are snapshots and therein lies their curse. Once a wine is an 89, it is forever an 89. It’s an 89 that moment, and it’s an 89 five years later, and it’s an 89 no matter what. Snapshots don’t change, except to turn yellow, but wines certainly do.

    By the way, my dog hates wine. She may be right.

    And, you know, STEVE!, I just wish you’d adopted a Poodle.

  5. Walking Spike for my daughter Lyla has brought me the same understandings… which is why I knew that your life with Gus would be enriched 10 fold for every feeling you have toward Gus, with his devotion back to you.

    By the way, I read a long time ago that when a dog is sniffing the spots that s/he’s chosen, they’re reading the news of who arrived before then. It’s their Facebook, Twitter, social media group.

    Nice of you to give it up to and for Gus!

  6. Your New Daddy story is adorable, Steve…its all so true.
    One thing you need to know about your new life is that its not divided between B.G. and A.G…..Its divided between B.D. and A.D.
    …before doody and after doody….plus pee in your case with a male dog….HA HA HA Have fun ~ SYBIL

  7. Thank you Sybil! Dog walking is the gift that keeps on giving.

  8. We like the old Walk the Invisible Dog dealio…. jus sayin : )

  9. I came to similar conclusions for pieces I wrote on 1WD and for Uncorked about dogs teaching us skills applicable to wine appreciation. Now, if you wanna see a DOG, then check out the new addition to our household. Talk about “giving” when you walk him… 😉

  10. Congrats on the new addition to your family…my Vinodogs approve!

  11. maybe gus will show the world that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks?!

  12. I don’t know Steve Heimoff (Hope this isn’t too presumptuous), but it seems that having a blog does allow for that “one wine a day” review, while giving less attention to other “assembly-line” wine tasting duties he has with Wine Enthusiast or whatever is his employment obligations are; what’s needed (My thought) is with all the wines he has only minutes to judge, just maybe there is that one wine which Steve can embrace and comment on.
    After all, there is a blog called: 2daysperbottle

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