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An Oenophilastic Missive From a Non-Epicure: A Field Guide To Wine

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Wine tasting rooms have wildly diverse aesthetics.

On one end: The palatial estate or museum or ultra-exclusive men’s club vibe:

Expensively appointed, hushed, with docents wearing crepe-soled shoes pouring precisely 230 milliliters of Mourvèdre into a glass custom designed for that varietal from this vineyard.

Modernist art of varying quality on the walls (not for sale – and you couldn’t afford it if it was,) a deck overlooking a breathtaking panorama you can enjoy if you’re willing to cough up a premium, and a noticeable lack of tchotchkes with which to memorialize your visit.

Everyone on the staff is an expert in a similar manner, and there’s a dress code. It’s not a tasting, it’s an evening at the Philharmonic.

Conversely:

You might find a place that’s rug-bought-at-Costco-thrown-down-on-barn-floor primitive.

Where the assistant winemaker in a rubber apron and worn boots extracts juice directly from the cask with a high-school lab experiment-looking glass implement.

All the while encouraging you to taste and swirl and spit, while declaiming knowledgeably about brix; nearby, a dog of indeterminate breed pants in the shade of an olive tree, worrying a thick length of vine stock.

The buzz of conversation rises significantly above a murmur and gets louder the more you and your fellow patrons imbibe.

You eventually feel as if you’re at a friend’s backyard barbecue, and he’s sharing a damn fine GSM he’s unearthed from the bowels of his collection, and what a nice day this turned out to be.

Those are the outliers, however.

The design language of most tasting rooms borrows heavily from Apple Stores:

Sleek and white-ashed, an extensive bar behind which smiling employees answer your questions or flog their wares with just the right mix of enthusiasm and deference.

If you’re part of a group, you might be offered a table, indoors or out, while ‘wine mood rock’ burbles from hidden speakers.

It’s an appointment-only joint. Just like when you have to bring your MacBook Air in because its screen keeps flickering.

Except:

Instead of being in a mall, you’re sitting in the midst of fields of grapevines rolling off into the distance. And instead of a bowl of food court ramen, you sample bespoke charcuterie with your Riesling.

You relax, your mind becomes rubbery, and then the seduction of joining the wine club comes whispering in your ear.

These wine people. They know exactly what they’re doing.

I have a a pretty long history with the grape for someone who can’t figure out how to distinguish ‘wet dirt’ from within a mouthful of Merlot.


I have an idea of what actual soil tastes like. I just can’t find it in wine. I must have an arrested palate, one that hasn’t developed much over the last 30 years. And explains my continued love of Milk Duds and egg salad sandwiches.

“OK, that’s it. Somebody please cancel mt’s Photoshop subscription, stat.”

That said, I drink wine. I enjoy wine. I can, on rare occasions, detect some subtleties in the flavor of wine, but on the whole, I either like it or I don’t based on whether I enjoy the taste of the wine as a, you know, wine, not a melange of forest floor, juniper, and overripe Japanese plum. Yes, I am a philistine.

Thing is, tasting wine involves variables. So many variables.

It’s a roulette wheel of factors, if the wheel had a hundred tiers of a thousand slots each.

If you enjoyed a Denver omelette that morning with a cold glass of orange juice, what you experience when you sniff and taste a glass of wine later that day may differ greatly if you had, say, cinnamon French toast and a two cups of strong coffee for breakfast instead.

Or: Maybe the bottle your sample emerged from was left open for an hour before pouring, instead of fifteen minutes.

You dislike mushrooms, as opposed to your drinking partner, who loathes anise, and as such, your responses to an identical wine diverge dramatically.

Vintages matter. The string of delicious varietals from a particular place one year may cause your palate to take up arms the next. Even someone sipping next to you mentioning she detects a floral component might cause an entire bouquet’s worth of honeysuckle and lavender to manifest in your next mouthful.

The shape of the wine glass has an effect.

  • So does the blend.
  • And the temperature
  • And the season
  • And the health.
  • And the brand of toothpaste, and frame of mind.

The possibilities in a glass of wine are infinite.

Some wine terms decoded for the laypeople in all of us:

  • Vintage:
    When a wine was made; similar to a car’s model year, except without the addition of a decorative hood scoop.
  • Zinfandel:
    A red wine; often shortened to ‘Zin,’ which allows clever marketers to pun away (‘7 Deadly Zins,’ ‘Original Zin,’ ‘Zin and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’).
  • AVA:
    American Viticultural Area; an officially recognized region where wine grapes are grown (i.e., Willamette Valley or West Elks)

The French call these ‘Appellation d’origine contrôlée’, which you should say while looking down the length of your nose; afterwards, suggest the ‘Judgement of Paris’ (wine version) was truqúe.

  • Cabernet Sauvignon:
    Another red wine; often shortened to ‘Cab’; most reds are richer and heavier than whites and are served at room temperature, so refrain from quaffing in a single gulp.
  • Mouthfeel:
    Exactly what it says; don’t be childish.
  • Barrel:
    A 59-gallon container made by coopers and used to initially age wine; made with American, French, or (more rarely) Hungarian oak; the wood imparts flavor to wine.
  • Chardonnay:
    A white wine; white wines are produced without allowing the grape skins to be part of the process.

Easier to drink than reds. You can, if you wish, slam a glass of Chard down if you’re parched. But why do that when another popular adult beverage was specifically formulated for this very reason? Savor your glass!

Malolactic fermentation: really?

We used to go up to this festival. A wine weekend, up in the Dry Creek Valley, north of Santa Rosa.

We haven’t gone in half a decade because we taste on an ad hoc basis now while being experts at squeezing ourselves into the queue when arriving without a reservation (get the pourer from the place you’re currently at to call ahead for you at the next place is usually an effective strategy.)

The idea of the festival is that 25 or so wineries in the area stage a two-day long bacchanalia of, unsurprisingly, tastings, along with food pairings and some kind of entertainment (bands, cornhole tournaments, raffles, etc.).

It might seem like an enthusiast’s nirvana.

In practice, it’s a slog. Going from winery to winery (admittedly, this Valley is not extensive, so distance traveled is no hardship.

On the other hand, the roads are narrow and winding.

And populated by other folks who either tossed back one too many, drive small buses or large limousines without regard for traffic laws…

… Or are locals in spandex who insist on risking life and limb by refusing to put off their weekly bike rides) and drinking indiscriminately until your purpled tongue no longer operates properly.

The sixth Sauvignon Blanc is five too many. But you paid. And by golly, you’re going to take utter advantage. Even if by three o’clock on Sunday afternoon everything, cheese, candied yams, barbecue potato chips, the sweat on your upper lip, tastes like dishwater.

I’m always trying to convince K. to visit the Santa Ynez Valley, north of Santa Barbara.

It’s partly because the area is purported to produce some of the best Pinot Noir around. But mainly, it’s a chance to walk in the footsteps of Miles Raymond, who featured in the finest California wine-centric movie ever: Sideways.

In the years since it’s been released, I’ve found that one’s enjoyment of Sideways corresponds not to the level of wine knowledge and/or enjoyment you might have, but something more elemental: gender

My anecdotal experience with the film suggests that men love it and women don’t. It’s understandable from the standpoint of dramaturgy: the two main female characters are drawn two-dimensionally (unless you consider felonious assault via motorcycle helmet an augmentative character trait.)

While the male leads, who behave by turns selfishly, despicably, dishonestly, and criminally, are granted a measure of depth.

Miles and Jack end up embodying a kind of universal maleness in all its familiar and ghastly glory.

It’s similar to Beavis and Butthead: puerile and stupid, yes.

But if you were ever a boy in the seventh grade (or a man-child in middle age), chillingly, shamefully, entertainingly accurate.

What can we say about Napa that hasn’t already been said?

As the sun around which all other domestic wine-making regions orbit, the Valley dominates enological discourse across the state, if not the whole country.

It certainly has its charms: the views are spectacular, the restaurants are of the first order, and the wines are epically of the region, loaded with bright, explosive flavor impossible to replicate elsewhere. There are hot springs, and historical points of interest…

… and an annual music festival:

BottleRock: Headlined this year by Stevie Nicks, Pearl Jam, and Ed Sheeran.

Many of the labels are internationally known, and some of the more obscure ones are eagerly sought out by collectors who have bigger trust funds than you and me.

However, like many other world-renowned and popular destinations, it’s become a caricature of itself:

The winemaking version of what an Everest ascent has become in mountaineering circles: expensive, crowded, and dilettante-ish.

I suppose you have to go there so you can say you went, but the experience might be less than the sum of your expectations.

Visit once, enjoy, then head out to a less well-known yet equally interesting Golden State AVA: Paso Robles, perhaps.

Or El Dorado.


I had a nice red blend yesterday with dinner.

It had a pleasant, fruity nose and felt silky on the tongue without too much of a bite as I swallowed.

I liked it. I had another half a glassful. Delicious.

That, at its core, is all there really is to wine tasting.

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JJ Live At Leeds
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February 28, 2024 5:46 am

As excellent and entertaining as ever. I’m with you in the philistine camp – except when it comes to that sandwich which is all kinds of wrong.

I have an aversion to red but I do drink white wine. I’ve got the same approach, I either like it or I don’t and I don’t appear to have a cultured enough palette to explain or detect the floral / oakey/ smoky bouquet. I laugh in the face of the guidance that says this is best enjoyed with fish, white meat, etc. None of them ever say its best enjoyed slobbing out on the sofa on a Saturday night, watching a film and eating crisps (chips to you).

I’ve done a couple of wine tours. First in South Africa around Stellenbosh and Franschoek. The scenery was stunning, the wine was plentiful, they were friendlier and happy to let us drink as much as we wanted. Which was a lot, everyone was smashed by noon. By mid afternoon everyone on the minibus was asleep on the journey to the final vineyard. I hope that they switched the itinerary from day to day cos that last vineyard didn’t see anyone at their best.

Hunter Valley in Australia was more controlled and formal. The volume of wine available was strictly limited. It wasn’t nearly as much fun.

Phylum of Alexandria
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February 28, 2024 6:39 am

People have run studies on blind wine tasting, and the available evidence suggests that people–including experts–are bad at knowing what they’re drinking just from the taste. This article goes into the general topic. Its title is hyperbole, but it’s interesting. I wouldn’t say “junk science” because there is not a tremendous amount of research on the topic, but I am willing to say “probably a faith based position.”

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/jun/23/wine-tasting-junk-science-analysis

That said, I am a believer. But much more so when I’m believing somewhere in France.

Great write-up, gs.

mjevon6296
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February 28, 2024 4:16 pm

In reference to the column and the blind wine tasting, I recommend one of my favorite Bob’s Burgers episodes called “The Kids Rob A Train.” It’s a wine train and Bob gets involved in a blind “wine-off”. (You can find it on Hulu.)

mt58
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February 28, 2024 7:57 am

For various health protocol reasons, I’m on a three month-or-so wine embargo. But Stobgopper had me pining for a glass of anything whilst running the layout for his fun piece last night. I literally dreamt overnight of drinking a glass of red wine!

Just a parenthetical note to the group: I know that we often skew towards music as a baseline, and have tremendous fun with it.

But always remember that slice-of-life, listicle, factoid and general “interesting stuff” topics such as this are always most graciously welcome.

I suspect that you all enjoy the variety as much as I do.

Virgindog
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February 28, 2024 9:19 am

My parents made wine as hobbyists for many years. They give me a case on almost every visit and I’ll probably inherit a lot of the 400 bottles in their basement. Here’s the thing though: I can’t drink wine with food because it gives me heartburn. I’ll might have half a glass after dinner.

So stobgopper and anyone else, stop by help me drink this stuff. I can’t do it all myself. I’m only one man!

Nice job, sg, I found this article to be tasty yet unassuming with hints of oatmeal.

Phylum of Alexandria
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February 28, 2024 9:36 am
Reply to  Virgindog

When I was a kid, my family had a muscat grapevine in our backyard. My parents would sometimes let a church friend come by and collect grapes for wine making, but I never got to sample the result. So for me it was just a decent source of snacks.

Heady rush of nostalgia, sweet and sticky supporting notes, and a hint of roads not taken.

rollerboogie
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February 28, 2024 11:44 am

Muscat love?

sorry

LinkCrawford
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February 28, 2024 12:38 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie



mt58
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February 28, 2024 1:05 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

I’m sorry.

Captain-and-Tennile-Muscatel-Love
rollerboogie
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February 28, 2024 2:00 pm
Reply to  mt58

Wow, amazing find!

Pauly Steyreen
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February 28, 2024 10:34 am

Mrs Pauly and I have spent some time in the Napa / Sonoma area. Don’t love the vibe, but we do love a good wine. What do you recommend as an affordable, everyday type of wine? We usually keep Bogle Merlot around for that purpose, but curious about other ideas in this vein.

rollerboogie
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February 28, 2024 2:03 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

A Boggle Merlot would be a dangerous combination for me.

LinkCrawford
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February 28, 2024 11:18 am

I don’t drink.

LinkCrawford
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February 28, 2024 11:21 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Anything. I don’t consume liquids. Solids and gasses only for me.

Virgindog
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February 28, 2024 11:22 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Put wine in a humidifier. Problem solved.

mt58
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February 28, 2024 1:08 pm
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Phylum of Alexandria
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February 28, 2024 11:31 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Nothing beats the feeling of refrigerated wine on one’s teeth.

LinkCrawford
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February 28, 2024 11:35 am

I was going to mention how much I appreciate that some wines are enjoyed at room temperature. 🙂

LinkCrawford
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February 28, 2024 11:32 am

I have zero experience with wine, but I can see why folks like trying different kinds, and enjoy studying the nuances of different kinds. But if I did drink wine, I totally think that I would be put off by stuffy, hoity-toity wines and their promoters. Then again, critics and audiophiles love Steely Dan, and I suppose that famous, high vintage wines are loved the way Aja is loved…but I love Aja and Steely Dan. So maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Or maybe my metaphor between sophistipop and expensive alcohol breaks down somewhere along the line.

But I could read any article by stobgopper and enjoy it. Even one about wall paper paste.

rollerboogie
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February 28, 2024 11:56 am

You might find a place that’s rug-bought-at-Costco-thrown-down-on-barn-floor primitive…nearby, a dog of indeterminate breed pants in the shade of an olive tree

My wife and I were vacationing in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois years ago, and checked out some local wineries. I remember one that fit the above description, but instead of just a dog, it was a cat beating the living crap out of a dog on the gravel driveway.

I’m not a big wine guy, but we do like to do tastings on vacations when available and our lack of discerning taste or snobbery has allowed us to enjoy wines from lots of different locales that aficionados would probably reject out of hand. The best wine I experienced was in Italy, no surprise. Even the table wine was way, way better than anything I’d ever had.

I liked the movie Sideways, despite the fact that I found Thomas Haden Church’s character a big turn-off, for the reasons you described.

lovethisconcept
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February 28, 2024 3:12 pm

I am not a wine drinker. Fun rum drinks only for me, thank you. That said, I have never been able to keep from laughing at the “hints of cucumber sandwich” and “top notes of langostino mousse” and a “finish of Charlie Chaplin’s boot” descriptions on the bottles of wine that I buy for my husband, who is a wine drinker. For me, they all have hints of “rotten grapes” with top notes of “more rotten grapes” and a finish of “still more rotten grapes”. I’m not sure if there is a genetic link to how wine tastes to a person, as there is with cilantro. Perhaps I just have an unsophisticated palate. Or, more likely, my palate was completely ruined by the swill that I imbibed as a teenager seeking to get drunk quickly and cheaply, taste not a consideration. Mad Dog 20/20, anyone?

Aaron3000
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February 28, 2024 7:10 pm

I can’t tell wine from Shinola (seriously, I tend toward Sangria, heretic that I am), but my former roommate was a wine connoisseur for a bit, and I’d usually have glass at dinner just to be sociable. For birthdays and Christmas I’d gift him a bottle, and I’d always try to find the most outlandish name possible in the store, taste-be-damned. My favorite: Horse’s Ass.

Speaking of, here’s a few that I never encountered in the wild:

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.dailynews.com/2018/01/11/here-are-20-offensive-ugly-or-just-plain-weird-wine-labels-you-might-have-run-across/amp/

Zeusaphone
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February 28, 2024 10:02 pm

I quit drinking long ago

mt58
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February 29, 2024 9:18 pm
Reply to  stobgopper

I sometimes worry that I do not possess a proper amount of self-control.

My fears were allayed when I aborted the bright idea to link the very infamous Orson Wells tirades that live within the outtake reels of his Paul Masson wine commercials.

It is astounding to hear how he absolutely loses it over things like direction, script approval, and the like.

I will humblebrag and say that I erred on the side of good taste, and did not include them in the comments section.

But, you know, I mean, if anybody wanted to dig them up and let ‘em rip…

Aaron3000
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March 3, 2024 4:44 pm
Reply to  mt58

Well, nobody’s ever accused me of having taste, but I’ll make it SFW by presenting the Pinky & The Brain version of Welles’s frozen pea commercial outtakes:

https://youtu.be/7uWW–w4SRs?si=rDwE-t3VBwXEoRLS

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