I am the type of guy who can’t even throw a curve on a bowling lane. Straightforward and up front are two cardinal virtues in my world. To bring this rectitude to wine, I have spent the bulk of my professional hours studying, tasting, selling and enlivening meals for myself and others with the happy conveyance of wine. I like bringing comprehension to a few principles that illuminate more about wine than the memory they require. Just enough people regard me as their “wine guy” that I accept the regard as a happy responsibility by striving to live up to it. But wine has an irritating frustration that has that has plagued my career.
Truth. There are precious few true principles, or Universal Truths, in wine.
I first learned this as a novice wine server at a local country club. I displayed an aptitude for wine service as well as an interest in the subject, so a local wine distributor invited me to join a fairly routine sales luncheon for a local winery. At the time, I believed I was hitting it big – an unsolicited invitation to a private wine luncheon – I must be famous. At the appointed day, we were led into the mahogany-lined and naturally lit room at the upscale restaurant. I sported the only tie I owned and made pleasant hellos with the dozen other attendees. I happened to be seated to the left of a large man in his 60’s, he wore a black wool vest and patent leather shoes that mirrored his imposing quiet; I thought his solemnity for this tasting and lunch were appropriate so I masked my un-vested role as rube with attentive nods to conversation around the table. The first wines were poured and, having some familiarity with the process of analytical tasting, I looked at the first wine, swirled it around and put my nose squarely inside the glass, as was my habit, and did my level best to intelligently sniff the Chardonnay. My elder neighbor did the same. I sipped the wine and let the 1/2oz. sit on my tongue for a few seconds to really grab every flavor it offered.
My elder neighbor did not do this. Instead, he had brought the glass down to his lap, where he believed no one could see, placed his index finger in the glass and brought it out with just enough wine to rub on his thumb. He was literally “feeling” the wine. Glancing around, no one else was doing this or paying attention to his clandestine technique. He never once took wine in his mouth. No one appeared to notice this either. The winemaker addressed him often, deferring to his expertise in wine, restaurants and the quality of the lunch. While he offered opinions, I cannot recall a one as I was too busy putting my glass below the table and rubbing wine between my fingers. That day, I learned Universal Wine Truth #1, wine is wet.
However, I was convinced the secret edge of expertise for this gentleman was through the doorway of touch; in visiting his restaurant, I noted he had a plaque on the wall declaring him a certificate holder of wine expertise. I was convinced that if I could translate this secret, I could leapfrog to wine expert in no time at all. It would be glorious.
It took me just over six months to stop fingering my wine.
In the meantime, I looked for examples of the significance of touching wine from other sources, articles that would justify the value of wine’s tangible viscosity to the quality of the wine. I even quietly mentioned it to a few other wine folks who looked at me as if I were trying to trick them into fingering their wine too.
In retrospect, what I really learned was that there is much misinformation in the world of wine, especially if one guesses the answer instead of asks the question. (Some wine does “feel” different than other wine – but usually because it is so sweet.) As it turned out, one other person had seen this behavior from my lunch companion on other occasions, and had confidence that it was a relic of the man’s truce with alcohol. For reasons known to him, he did not consume alcohol: the only way he would sense the wine’s texture was to feel it between his fingers. He had been doing it for years; maybe it did offer him some kind of illustrative comparison after so much time. I did not have the time to keep hiding my glass under the table.
However, this learning led me to Universal Wine Truth #2: wine’s half-truths and myths are far more numerous and entertaining than its absolutes. The Society of Wine Educators and the Court of Master Sommeliers have “theory” exams so rigorous that an average 85% of attempts fail. These are designed to weed out the erroneous, the ignorant, the untrue and the downright mythical misinformation that circulates the arena of wine appreciation. Common wine myths include, but are by no means limited to: “bottles in a cellar need to be turned regularly”, or “dangling silver spoons in Champagne bottles maintains the wine’s effervescence.”, or “sediment that stains your hand from the bottom of the cork means the wine has turned bad.” These and many others have compiled a Hurt Locker of misinformation most often offered as helpful insight. God bless them for trying. The most entertaining one of late is the Napa Valley winery website promoting the science that swirling one’s wine clockwise accentuates the fruit component in the wine while swirling it counter-clockwise brings out the voices of the oak barrels and winery treatments. I wonder if that is opposite in the Southern Hemisphere. Half-truths may be less noxious, but in this age of “alternative facts” it behooves people of wine to be as transparently accurate as vinifera grapes are to the place they are grown. Some familiar partial truths include: “good wines have corks”, “strong legs down the glass mean the wine is excellent”, “it’s expensive, it must be good” or perhaps worst of all, “it’s supposed to taste like that.”
Through it all, through every embarrassing or enlightening moment has emerged Universal Wine Truth #3: the Magnificent Power of Suggestion wields massive influence in the appreciation of wine. It forms both the road to understanding and the path of confusion. It is the Jedi Power of Sommeliers, slashing it around dining rooms, bouncing it off egos and corporate credit cards with shameless aplomb. In defense, if a guest even so much as believes that we are trying to to get him or her to finger their wine irresponsibly, they will give us the finger. The distrust we have of our own taste is a trait that only diminishes with familiarity; it never actually goes away. The older gentleman putting fingers in his wine had a reason for his technique. Had I asked the question instead of running amok with the suggestion that there was a secret door to wine knowledge, I would have saved myself some time and probably headed off other hazards of the profession as well. Old crusty Somms have learned that perceptive guests are equally good teachers if we keep our ears tuned to learning. As humans, we see what we are primed to see and what we see is what we get. The same principle works in all avenues of our experience from love to politics to taste. Suggesting New Zealand Sauvignon’s more feral qualities either repulses its detractors or attracts its aficionados – same for Riesling’s petroleum-esque impressions. If it does not make them more delicious, at least it offers honesty. Wine is complex, but it is not complicated. The suggestion that everyone can taste raises the bar of experience for guests and for the educators, the retailers, the service staff. I suggest we do better. I suggest that open curiosity serves us better than suspicious fingerings.