In college I had what is arguably one of the best part-time jobs ever, I worked at a winery. Located just a few miles from the historic core of Williamsburg, Virginia is the Williamsburg Winery. It was there in the tasting room that I learned not only a lot about wine, but how people tour wineries and some of the ridiculous pretension involved in the process.
I love visiting farms, wineries and general agricultural sites when I travel. It’s a great way to learn about a different side of the destination and frankly it’s nice to slow down and be in a beautiful, pastoral setting. Some people resist visiting wineries though and I can only assume it’s because of the intimidating cultural barriers.
True wine connoisseurs have developed a vernacular around the art and science that is wine. The production of this remarkable drink truly is a delicate blend of the scientific and the creative. A good wine maker has to have a rich background in both in order to be truly successful. However, in order to enjoy wine you do not need to have this background and this is where I take issue with self-righteous wine aficionados.
According to popular tradition, there is indeed a proper way to taste wine. The first thing one does is to look at it, notice the color when held up to the light. Then one swirls it lightly so that the wine can flow around the sides of the glass. This is done for two reasons, the first is to aerate the wine. The molecules in wine break up when aerated, unleashing a more robust smell. Observing the wine flow from the sides of the glass is to examine the ‘legs’ of the wine, to see the level of viscosity present in the wine. Viscosity is resistance to flow, and one expects certain levels of it depending on the wine. Finally, it’s time to taste. Ideally, a small amount of wine is held in the mouth while one runs air over the top of the tongue. Once again, this aerates the wine unleashing those molecules and creating an explosion of taste. How a wine finishes, the aftertaste, is also critical and a few moments should be spent determining what it tastes like and whether or not you like it. In a wine tasting environment, this is repeated for each new wine.
This is the standard way to try new wines and it’s fine, but it’s kind of complicated and I’d be willing to wager most people don’t know every step. It’s this fear of not knowing how to conduct oneself through a tasting that is the problem, it keeps certain people from visiting although they may end up loving, and buying, the wine.
I’m not even sure all of these steps are necessary. I like aerating the wine because it does indeed result in an explosion of taste. But determining viscosity? Trying to detect sometimes nonexistent ‘notes’? This is ridiculous and turns out there’s some research to prove that over zealous wine nuts are, well, nuts.
Numerous studies have been done around the world testing the abilities of wine ‘experts’ to not just name a label blindfolded, that’s impossible, but to even determine the difference between white and red wines while blindfolded. You guessed it, they were miserable failures. These same experts who tell us that we can only have red with steak and who pick up notes of berries are usually making it all up, to everyone’s detriment.
For years, the world of wine was for the privileged and a cult of wine knowledge was built within the leisure class. When wine really hit the mainstream, many tried to introduce this library of oenological knowledge along with the Two-Buck-Chuck, but it didn’t stick. People quickly, and accurately, saw through this vast reservoir of imaginary knowledge as being almost completely without merit.
I love wine, wineries and the entire wine industry, I think it celebrates a rich history and tradition. That’s why I want to encourage more people to get out there and visit wineries, even if it’s to see how it’s made in person. Wine is not for the elite or the initiated, it’s a delightful accompaniment to daily life and has been for millennia.
The best advice I ever received was from one of the executives at the winery where I worked. We were discussing this very topic and he said, “Matt, it really doesn’t matter what anyone says. The best way to enjoy wine is to pick something you like and eat it with what ever you want. Everything else is crap.” Well said.