Along with my wine-allergic girlfriend, Sarah, I own and run the Lady Killigrew Café, in Montague, Massachusetts. Our café attempts to serve interesting wine to folks in an interesting way. This is harder than it initially seems. I really like wine, but do not necessarily like wine culture: how we write about it, talk about it, buy it, consume it. More than any other beverage I know—in fact, more than anything else I can think of besides perhaps yachting and indie rock—wine means pretentiousness. There is no avoiding it, and, believe me, I try day in and day out. To talk about wine is to talk like an asshole.
I attended my first wine tasting at a nerve-rackingly large wine store in Northampton, Massachusetts. This was the summer of 2002. My life was marked by solitude and a sort of Nietzschean angst—immediately post-college, working a few days a week at a used-book store, reading a lot. Alone in my two-room apartment, which overlooked the alleyway of a seedy bar, I fantasized without much irony about a life of cafés and philosopher-writers and wine. Which is to say: I fantasized about the life of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Wine tastings tend to fall into three main genres: educational, commercial, and social. There is a ton of crossover, of course, but essentially they break down thus: commercial wine tastings pit wine professionals against many different wines, of which they will choose the worthy few; educational wine tastings pit a normal person against a wine professional, from whom they are hoping to gain some foothold on wine; and social wine tastings are mostly a good way to get drunk with friends.
So: this nerve-rackingly large wine store hosts a tasting series with different topics each week or so. The class that most attracted me that summer was Wine Tasting 101: An Introduction to Wine. I hoped to add a touch of class and style to my persona. It’s the same impulse that leads high-school boys to wear fedoras, and it seems to be the impulse that drives much of the educational wine-tasting genre. These types of tastings treat wine like foxhunting or ballroom dancing: lots of ceremony and etiquette for an activity any civilized person really should have under their belt.
The group that evening consisted mostly of couples dressed either for white-collar work or for a nice dinner out. It was a small group, 10 people or so, which was good, because the room was a tiny conference room in the back of the store. At the front of the room, a folding table held 14 different wines. Fluorescent lighting abounded.
Our instructor passed around a few handouts during his introductory remarks: two different wine-term glossaries and one worksheet, a grid on which we were to write our own tasting impressions. He then brought around the first wine—a sparkling pink wine called Michel Fréres Brut Rosé 1997—while offering an introduction to the grape and region. The best order for wine-tasting, he explained, is from light- to heavy-bodied. In the wine weight class, this means starting with champagne and ending with dessert wine (the wine equivalent of George Foreman: a former heavyweight who has become just so darn sweet). All the other whites and reds fit somewhere in between. He then swirled his glass, delicately perched his nose above the rim, and took a dramatic sip that involved a lot of aggressive chewing. Looking up, he asked, “So … what is everyone getting here?”
This terrified the whole class, as we each tried in our own way to look as if the answer was right there on our tongue—a lot of looking up at the ceiling and squinting. After a long moment of awkward silence, our instructor asked, “Is anyone getting strawberry here?”—a question that brought a nodding of heads and a lot of relieved sighs. Now that he mentioned it, I was getting strawberry! Indeed, strawberry! Strawberry, but of course!
I wrote “strawberry” on my little worksheet.
He poured our first white wine—Terlan Pinot Grigio 2001. I could be wrong, but it absolutely looked to me like our instructor poured less into my glass than he did into the glasses of my older, more nicely dressed classmates. He seemed to eye me suspiciously: What could the lip-ringed unshaven guy want with wine-tasting? I stared hard at my spit bucket. I told myself to make a big show of pouring most of this wine out.
As he explained it, the first task of wine-tasting is color evaluation. “Wine engages all the senses,” he said. (I assume he didn’t mean hearing, but, of course, I can’t be sure.) I looked at the wine in my glass, tipping it just like the instructor showed us. It looked yellow to me, a description even I knew to be inadequate. I struggled for a more descriptive term and came up with “dusty yellow”; this seemed even more inadequate, especially when the instructor called out “pale straw” and the women in front of me followed with “white corn.” I frowned and wrote “white corn” on my worksheet.
We worked through the white wines. Following color, we tackled smell and taste. The smell of the wine is called the nose, and, like any fifth-grader holding their nose while eating vegetables will tell you, it is smell that contributes most to our sense of taste. Our instructor sniffed powerfully at our third white (Rully 1er Cru “La Pucelle” Jacqueson 1999), literally putting his whole body into it. We all tried to follow suit, but I’ve always felt that very forceful sniffing is, if not inappropriate, then at least completely undesirable. Perhaps this is why all I could muster was that this wine had “a smell that runs away as I try to pull it in,” a description about as helpful as “it looks like something I cannot see.”
Most of the couples talked quietly to each other in between the tastings, laughing, seeming to have fun. I sat alone and remained mostly silent. As with most everything I did post-college, I intensely wanted to be a genius at wine-tasting, to somehow crack it as if it were a difficult philosophical concept. I thought very hard about each sip, trying to translate the instructor’s words—"strawberry"—to the feeling on my tongue.
After sniffing, the instructor showed us how to hold the wine in our mouths, swishing it around, chewing it, drawing air through it in a strange sort of reverse gargle. This helped us find the body and the taste of the wine, he explained, after which he spit his wine into the bucket in front of him. This sort of wine activity is what folks either love or hate about wine-tasting. For folks who really enjoy doing things right, this sort of slurping and swishing feels cool and accomplished. For others, these little rituals look and sound ridiculous. I used to put Lego together only when using the instructions, so that’s where I tend to fall on these sorts of things. Unfortunately, the slurping did not help me taste with any more acumen. I hopelessly described the taste of the Terlan Pinot Grigio as “elusively sturdy—lays low,” and that of a Chardonnay we tried as “strangely on the tip of the tongue,” which, let’s be clear, is not a flavor. The body of the wines—how the wine feels in the mouth—similarly stymied me. For about three wines in a row, I left that square blank.
By the time our instructor walked around with our second red wine (Shooting Star Pinot Noir 2000), inebriation had begun to hit. I had used the spit buckets only enough to not arouse suspicion. Were other folks in the room getting drunk? I worried that possibly the instructor had pegged me correctly—someone there more interested in drinking than tasting.
I swirled the Pinot Noir around in my glass a little and put it to my nose. My focus had begun to stray. I have never put Lego together while drunk, but I will assume that the instructions get quickly tossed. Rather than try to connect the wine smell in my nose to a word from the worksheet, my slightly buzzed brain connected it to a memory long forgotten: a smell very specific to my grandmother’s makeup. She and my grandfather lived in an older part of Denver in the house where my mother and her sisters grew up. I remember standing on a stool in the guest bathroom asking her about each different cosmetic, trying them out on myself. I don’t remember what I looked like with her makeup on my face, but I remember the smell.
The next few wines we tried elicited similarly free associations: a Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile smelled like “James Dean’s car peeling around the corner,” and tasted like “an old man with an ax—STAY AWAY!” A red wine from the Rhône Valley bottled in 1995 tasted to me like “the Silver Surfer, who turns to water and melts”; the 2000 Bordeaux seemed best described as a “cocaine tunnel.” I wasn’t sharing these descriptions with my classmates, knowing that, if said out loud, they would bring on some pretty awkward silence. I, however, enjoyed them and stared slit-eyed at my worksheet as the instructor approached with the next wine. My wine glass still held a bit of the Bordeaux. I grabbed the glass and bottom-upped the rest of the wine into my mouth, actually tilting my head like a baby bird being fed. He poured me even less than before.
Reflecting on why anyone would participate in wine-tasting, I realized this: the satisfaction of close observation of the senses while slightly drunk. Sure, some folks will want to know exactly which wines have smoky notes, and, sure, you can pay close attention to things whenever you want, but, for me, paying close attention to sensations that a wine is not only producing but also skewing seemed a unique and interesting opportunity.
The final component of wine-tasting, our instructor explained, is called the finish—the experience of a wine’s taste and aroma after you’ve swallowed it; the longer the finish, the higher the quality of the wine. It’s like an immediate memory, and the enjoyment is akin to the enjoyment of echoes. The nose of the Pinot Noir triggered the smell of my grandmother’s makeup and carried that memory through the taste and then through the finish. (With its curtain pushed aside, the bathroom window looked out on my grandparents’ back patio, red ceramic tile covered by a yellow awning. My younger brother was out there crouched with a toy car.) In the Pinot Noir’s finish, my personal memory and the wine’s echo braided into a sublime closed-eye moment.
Class wrapped up unceremoniously. The instructor collected our glasses in one of those commercial-dishwasher glass racks and told us the wine store would be open for 10 more minutes if we were interested in buying any of the wines we had just tried. I did not buy anything on my way out, having already spent more than I could justify on the tasting itself. I drove the 30 minutes home to my apartment. Reconsidering my decision not to buy wine, I stopped at the (not large at all) liquor store across the street from my house and bought a $7 bottle. I do not remember what it was, but I remember that it tasted like the time my younger brother and I left a family vacation early and rode the train home alone so as to make it to a New Year’s Eve party both of us were very keen to attend.