Working behind the bar at Santé offers a grand opportunity to talk with folks about wine, and I make my very best effort not to dumb down the descriptions (or, on the other hand, not to sound pompous). It’s my job to make wine accessible and create an environment where people feel comfortable talking about it.
But I still see a lot of uncertainty in folks when it comes to the idea of describing wine. They get tongue-tied and apologetic, saying things like, “I’m sorry, I know what I like, I just don’t know how to tell you what I like.” They seem embarrassed about what they perceive as a lack of education.
I’m here to tell you that some of the mystique surrounding the “language of wine” is a lot of bunk.
Wine is subjective. I can't tell you what you should smell or what you should taste — and especially whether or not you should like it. I’ve said it many times: “You smell what you smell, you taste what you taste, you like what you like.” This rap does seem to put most individuals at ease.
If you lift a glass of cabernet to your nose, take a whiff. If your first thought is “Grandpa’s Cadillac,” then Grandpa’s Cadillac it is. Of course you could take that idea a step further and ask yourself why it smells like Grandpa’s Cadillac. Did he smoke? Was the car equipped with leather seats? What kind of cologne did he wear? Maybe there’s tobacco and leather and spice on the nose of that wine — all very likely, as those are qualities you might find on the nose of a good cabernet sauvignon.
Then there’s the first sip. What happens on the palate? Do you taste spice, fruit and toasted oak? Perhaps you taste some of the same things you tasted this morning when you ate toast with butter and raspberry jam. All of those taste sensations could be present in a California zinfandel, aged in oak barrels.
To help you really experience what’s in the glass, here’s a quick lesson on really tasting wine (yes, there is a difference between tasting and drinking). When you taste, place the stem of the wine glass on a counter, table or bar, and swirl the wine around a bit. This step adds some oxygen to and opens up the wine.
Now, take the glass by the stem and bring it to your nose — really stick your beak deeply into the glass (this is part of the reason glasses are large and the amount of wine in the glass by comparison looks skimpy). Close your eyes, inhale through your mouth and your nose when taking in the aroma. Does an image come to mind? A memory maybe? Break it down. Now you’ve got your “nose” descriptors.
Next, take a sip and really chew the wine. Yes, it looks crazy, but chew it. Let the wine move into every nook and cranny of your mouth. Now, act like you’re going to whistle but suck in instead of blowing out. What happens when air hits the wine? Are there different sensations in different areas of the mouth? Whatever pops into your head is what you’re experiencing and no one, not even them most respected and skilled wine connoisseur, can tell you that it’s not your experience. Remember it’s subjective — you can’t make a mistake. It’s all just exploration. Own it.
Personally, I get a little nutty when I read a description of, say, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc from Marlbourgh (to be specific) that has references to gooseberries and gunflint. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen, smelled or tasted a gooseberry — so how could I possibly describe the wine like that? And as far as gunflint goes I’m happy to say I’ve never been close enough to a gun that’s been fired to know what that might smell like. I’m not sure I even know what that is. Either these folks are running around tasting some strange objects, or they’re making it up as they go along.
So, next time you’re in a situation where there’s an opportunity to talk about wine, just speak from your own knowledge base. You can’t mess up. I’ll say it again, you smell what you smell, you taste what you taste, you like what you like. Stay playful and relaxed. Have your experience. And remember, it’s just wine.
— Carla Baden owns Santé Wine Bar at the Grove Arcade. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.