learning to taste

Camille Pissarro, "Still Life" (1867), oil on canvas
Camille Pissarro, “Still Life” (1867), oil on canvas, 31 7/8 in. x 39 ¼ in., Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1949.6

At some point in the pandemic year, I decided to transform my interest in wine into an intellectual interest. I can’t remember what prompted this decision. Maybe a mixture of boredom and a desire for an escape, a way to have a life larger than our neighborhood, or Manhattan, or even the city itself.

I am trying to remember when, exactly, wine first became an object of interest for me. I try to pull apart the threads—personal memories, on the one hand, and more abstract notions, of wine as a commodity, as a cultural product, as an agricultural product, as an object of intellectual analysis, etc.—but everything goes round and round in spirals.

Irving Penn, Girl behind glass (Jean Patchett), New York, 1949. Gelatin silver print., 39.8 x 38.1 cm (15 5/8 x 15 in)

Did I become interested in wine because, growing up in the Bay Area, I don’t remember a time when wine, vineyards, and Napa weren’t synonymous with each other? Or did I become interested in Napa because I wanted to learn to drink wine? Was this because I went to college in Berkeley? Was it because I desperately wanted to become cultured, and creative, and somehow wine and food and Europe and poetry and a life of writing were all tied up with each other? I can’t seem to pick it apart.

I do remember when it became clear to me that I had an intuitive ability to taste wine, though I lacked any sort of intellectual or analytical apparatus to understand what I was tasting.

I learned this one summer in London. I was dating a man who knew something about wines—he worked for a well-respected London wine merchant for a time, and sat for his WSET certifications. Something about this formal background intimidated me. I’d always drank wine — in California, wine was a part of the landscape, a donnée — but I didn’t really understand it. Wine lists confused me, all those names, vintages, appellations, and I had no idea how to reconcile the wine with its price. I defaulted to simple rules of thumb: white wine with fish, red wine with steak, whites should be cold, dry whites are better than sweet ones, etc.–things that I’d picked up from books or magazines, or from hearsay. Now, here was someone who understood these things. Here, also, was someone who ended up being an excellent, and generous, teacher.

When we first started drinking together, I was effectively tasting blind. None of the words—the names, the appellations, the varietals—meant anything to me. He knew, and liked, French wines, and I knew almost nothing about French wines. So that was where we began. He insisted that we do it with at least a modicum of formal rigor. We tasted in flights—slowly, without food, stopping to consider and describe each wine.

During one of these sessions, he very kindly told me that I had a natural ability to taste. He then went on to tell me, very gently, that this was where my ability to taste ended. My taste, totally untrained, remained purely a latent talent, because I’d never bothered to hone my skills or acquire a body of knowledge. In order to make the most of this natural gift, I needed discipline and training.

What I took from those tasting sessions wasn’t the necessity of training. What I took from those sessions was the revelation of tasting without either fear or excessive intellectualization. Aside from the champagnes — they were his passion—I can’t remember the names of any of the wines that we tasted together, only their colors, their transparency, their impossibly vivid flavors and smells, and my own body as a vibrating instrument, responding to the wines, and my senses sharpened by the necessity to describe each sensation. Before, I’d learned to describe my sensations in terms of florid (and conventional) similes—”this wine is like a bright summer afternoon at a beach on the Ligurian coast”—but he pushed me to describe them in more elemental terms, stripped down, without recourse to showy cultural references. Was the wine acidic? Did i taste alcohol first? Tannins? What did I smell? Was the liquid viscous, did it coat my tongue, or was it thinner, akin to water?

All we had was that summer. Summer came to an end. I went back to New York, and resumed my regular life. I kept going on intuition. Expertise eluded me.

And then the pandemic came, and we were all trapped inside. I decided to pick up Aldo Sohm’s Wine Simple, and a few other books on wine, and discovered that I like to think about wine. I might want to be more than a dilettante. This thinking opened a door, and here I am.

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