When I find someone I respect writing about an edgy, nervous wine that dithered in the glass, I cringe. When I hear someone I don’t respect talking about an austere, unforgiving wine, I turn a bit austere and unforgiving myself. When I come across stuff like that and remember about the figs and bananas, I want to snigger uneasily. You can call a wine red, and dry, and strong, and pleasant. After that, watch out….
While I am thankful for all of the great wine reviews out there, many written by my fellow bloggers, the above quote demonstrates why I do not post all that many of my own. It is not because I doubt the ability of my palate, it is sufficient, nor my ability to come up with a string of words that will make at least a few folks open a bottle, nor even my ability to bullshit well enough to fill a page when I have little to say. Most people that know me doubt that last one most of all. No, what I doubt is that my perceptions have all that much bearing when related to anyone else’s perceptions.
Sure, when I find something that I like I tend to write about it. However, my reason for doing so is not that I consider myself a wine critic, I typically reserve my critiques for other topics, but mainly to share something that I think is good with our readers. While I am sure that some of my reviews, such as they are, would have made Mr. Amis cringe, or much more likely, snigger uneasily, I do try and take his advice to heart.
Those of us who are driven by our passion for wine to delve as deeply into its seemingly mystical complexities as we possibly can, have a lexicon of descriptors for the aromas and flavors found in our favorite obsession. Just like those actual aromas and flavors, however, that lexicon is not limitless. There are only so many ways to describe wine. The quest to find new ways is what leads even the best writers to sometimes write the type of descriptions that we all love to simultaneously cringe and snigger at.
We all have the ability to taste, but our capability to do so varies. Even the same person’s ability to percieve smells and flavors can fluctuate from day to day or even moment to moment. While the average person has around 10,000 tastebuds, I have read that humans can have anywhere between 11 to 1100 per square inch in their mouths, making the average a nearly useless number.
Aside from those variations we all have a lot of other factors that enter into how we perceive flavor. Many factors go into making a baseline for our own personal ability to discern how something tastes. Viruses can not only cause a cold which temporarily alters our ability to taste, but they can make permanent changes. What we eat can as well. Repeated scaldings, or eating a lot of spicy food, can make changes over time, but just a single time will move your baseline temporarily. Age also plays a factor. What tastes great to a person at 9 may taste terrible at 40, and vice versa. This baseline is crucial in determining what we like, and how we can discern those items that bring us pleasure.
Amy believes that I am much better at tasting than she is. The truth is probably the complete opposite. Some people believe that women are better equipped to judge the nuances of aroma and flavor from a biological standpoint, so she probably starts off with a leg up on me. She has never smoked, and I picked up my first cigarette at age 9 and smoked like a fiend into my mid 30’s. Back in my wilder days a bar fight ended with me having two crushed sinuses, which can cause my perception of aromas to fluctuate from one minute to the next. A lifelong love of very spicy foods is probably our one shared handicap to our palates, although I would submit that even there, I take it more extreme levels than she does.
In my opinion, what gives Amy the impression that I am better at tasting things than she is, or than most people are, is that I navel gaze about flavors and about my own personal baseline, while she just uses her abilities to search out new things and enjoy what she likes. ‘This is good and I like it’ is all of the review most people will ever need. Some of us, however, have a compulsion to take it much further. We need to know why we like and dislike certain things. We need to break things down into flavor profiles. Aromas have to be dissected and analyzed so that we can discover the mysteries contained within. In other words, we are experience and flavor geeks.
So, I have a pretty good idea of what my baseline is. After enough of the aforementioned navel gazing, the mystery of taste has begun to unfold for me. I have, at the least, a semi-educated palate. Does that make me qualified to decide that one wine is better than another? Perhaps to some degree it does. On the other hand, I have my own standards for what is good, and I also have my own personal preferences. I also know that those standards and preferences are malleable.
Recently we have bought up as much Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2007 as we can get our greedy little hands on. This is a wine that we always enjoy, but the 2007 ended up being something extra special. I have tasted it repeatedly over the last month, and have learned a valuable lesson from it. Despite enjoying it every single time, it has not been a consistent experience. The wine has been the same each time, of that I am sure, but the experience has been different.
On one occasion it was just very good, however, on another it seemed that I could get everything that the wine had to offer with every sip. Had I reviewed the wine on both of those days the write-ups would have been considerably different. The first instance that I mention would have been a strong recommendation to try an excellent wine at a remarkable price. That would have been an honest accounting of my tasting experience that evening.
The second review would have been dripping with over the top descriptions and probably all kinds of semi-mystical nonsense about the transcendent qualities that had transported me to a hilltop in Sonoma where I became one with the magical soil of the region, etc. In other words, another honest account of my experience drinking the very same wine.
So, when you read something I write about a wine on here, please keep in mind that even if it looks like a review, it probably is not. At the very least, take it as an accounting of a moment in time that I thought might be worth talking about. At best, and what I hope is there for you to take, is that one friend just told another about something that they found worthwhile enough that they had to share it.