Wine Tasting: Lessons I’ve Learned
by Michael Pinkus
I have talked in the past about a couple of rules I live my life by when it comes to wine tasting abroad and at my local winery: 1) wine always tastes better in the country that made it (if you are in Italy, Italian wines taste better), and 2) wine always tastes better in the presence of the winemaker. Now, these aren’t proven facts, but they are good rules to keep in mind when tasting.
I always tell friends that go wine touring with me that, “You had better really like that wine, because it will never taste better than it does today—right here, right now.” You see, wine is not only about the taste, but also about the mood, your surroundings, who you’re with and what you’re doing at the time.
For example, I have had the same wine with the same pizza two weeks apart and have found that, in the first instance, it was a match made in heaven. The second time—not so heavenly. The wine was the same, the pizza an exact match, but my mood was different and, thus, so was the experience. The same can be said about with whom you are sharing your wine; good friends make any bottle of wine taste better and a bad environment can spoil even the greatest bottle.
When you are winery hopping you are in a great mood and you are with people you want to be with because, 1) you’d rarely go alone and, 2) you’d rarely take people along that you can’t stand to be with. “Jovial” just seems to best describe the mood of a wine tasting outing with friends. As the day progresses, more wine disappears down your gullet and your critical judgment begins to evaporate. Everything tastes “good,” “great” or “awesome,” so let’s stop and talk about a few things to keep in mind when visiting wineries and purchasing wines, besides the obvious like having a designated driver and not making an absolute fool of yourself by getting totally blitzed.
- Buy early. The best time to purchase the wines you like are at the first few wineries you visit. I have no idea how many wineries are on your agenda. For myself, if I don’t hit at least six, I feel like I’ve wasted my day. However, your judgment is best at those first few and you’ll most likely enjoy those wines more when you open them up back home. I have a story about this that dates to quite a few years, and a few brain cells, back when I was in university. A buddy and I drove from London, Ontario, to wine country for the day, hit a good 8 to 10 wineries and, at the last one, spent more money than we should have on wines we thought were the best of the day. Weeks later, we got together to open a bottle or two and were not only disappointed in the wines, but also in ourselves. We had bought some real swill! So, Rule Number one is: always buy ‘em early.
- Don’t feel that you have to buy. I have a friend who, to this day, buys at least one bottle from every winery he visits. When, one day, I asked him why, his response was, “I feel that I have to.” If you’re like my friend, stop that way of thinking. If you don’t like a wine, nobody is forcing you to take it home and have it languish on a shelf or serve when the in-laws come over (to encourage them not to come over again). Not all people like the same wine. That’s why they make so many different kinds, in so many different ways, in so many different countries. When people say to me, “I don’t like red wine,” I tell them it’s because they haven’t found their red wine yet. That day, and that wine, will come. This leads us right into Rule Number 3.
- Buy for yourself, not for others. Don’t assume that your tastes match up with someone else’s. I have got into more trouble than I can say buying wines that I thought someone else would like. Sometimes I’m right, and that’s one for the wine column, and sometimes I’m wrong, and that means I’m stuck with something I’m not totally thrilled with. So, buy to please your own palate.
- Don’t begrudge tasting fees. This is one of those controversial issues that I always hear about and that people seem to put a lot of hateful thoughts into. You may not like them, but tasting fees are a necessary evil of the industry. If you live by Rule Number 2 (Don’t feel that you have to buy), then you can’t begrudge tasting fees. They are usually less than what you’d pay for a bottle and it helps the winery recoup some of the cost of the bottle(s) they opened and poured for your benefit. That being said, tasting fees are not an absolute. Your server can waive them, so be pleasant and show interest; surly and angry pays, whereas pleasant, happy and interested have an outside shot of walking away with their money still in their pocket.
This brings me back to one of my first rules on wine tasting—the one about the country and the winemaker. That outlook of mine worries me because of some of the wines that I’ve purchased during my own trips abroad and elsewhere. Just holding one of those bottles can bring back memories, be it dining on a rainy evening in Tuscany at Palazzo Vecchio while “mama” cooked dinner in the adjacent kitchen, or on a rather rowdy night in Oporto with cigars and port overlooking the Douro. I’ll try to relive those memories when I pop the corks, but it’s impossible. So, my advice? Forget what you did, forget what you know, open the bottle for its own occasion, not to invoke the memory of days gone by but, instead, for the exciting events that are happening right now.