Intriguing Wine

Faces I'm pretty sure there's a big difference between getting to know a wine, being acquainted with wine and simply being introduced to a wine. And the reason I say this is because I've recently had the chance to spend time with a bottle of wine that I thought I knew after having had it but once. But now, upon revisiting it over a number of bottles, I realize I may have only been acquainted with it and actually misjudged it all together.

This tendency is not unique to me I think. In fact, I believe that for those who taste widely and those who also have an astute palate, even they probably don't know a wine as well as they think they do for having spent perhaps a moment, day or week with it.

If this is true, then it might call into question the whole premise behind most forms of wine evaluation, be it casual, professional or even judgmental.

I happen to be one who has tasted widely and I have a fairly decent palate. It's no super palate, but it is educated. About six months ago I had the opportunity to let loose my palate on a sample of 2006 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. It struck me as magnificent. I've been known to over-appreciate wines, particularly when in the company of others I enjoy. But this first encounter was not such a time. I sat at my dining room table, alone, in relative brightness and poured the SC Chard into an appropriate glass.

Its creamy palate feel only arrived after an attack of nice citrusy acidity. This is a great feeling akin to getting past the sugar coated outer layer of a piece of candy only to find a nice sweetishly, slick sour core under the granules.

On the nose I found hints of smoke, lime, pear and apple. I remember the apple distinctly. In the mouth the apple and pear were soaring and little herb rounded it out.

I tasted the same wine about 3 months ago. Same vintage. Same vineyard. Bland, flat, fat ripe apple. That's it. Disappointed.

Two months ago I tasted it again. Bland, flat, fat ripe apple. Disappointing yet again.

I tasted it last night once again.

I figure after these four bottles I've spent a good hour thinking about what this one, single wine has to offer. That includes the 15 minutes last night marveling at its crisp and creamy mouthfeel and the pungent flavor forecast of apple, pear and citrus that came from its aroma.

Here's the thing. I don't think I got bad bottles. I know they were stored in identical fashion. I know they came out of the same case of wine and were likely bottled right after one another from the same tank, with the same filters and the same closures.

The simple fact is that wine is a lot like people. You really don't know what you have in front of you when you meet someone, at least not until you spend a good deal of time with them and sort out those characteristics that are their's, whether they are in a good mood or bad.

As I mentioned before, if this is essentially true of many wines, that they have different personalities under different circumstances and at different times, then I'm just not sure what to think of wines that are reviewed after the reviewer has five minutes (at most) with them. In fact, I don't even want to think about that.

The best lesson my last bottle of the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay taught was that we ought to let people and wines reveal themselves over time, because it might turn out they get even more intriguing over time. And a little bit of intrigue in our lives is a good thing.

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19 Responses

  1. Michael Datta - July 7, 2009

    Tom, great site mate. Once I finally get my wines into the US, I would love you to try them.
    Cheers, Michael
    Michael Datta
    MDV – Eden Valley, South Australia

  2. Charlie Olken - July 7, 2009

    I hope this guy gives you a couple of years to get to know his wines before you comment on them.
    Of course, I agree with you, and if I had my way, we would not review any wine until it had gone through all of its twists and turns, was long off the market, almost all consumed by those who bought it, and then we could comment definitively.
    But, sadly, I have to write about wine while people can still buy it. That means that I, and anybody else, who reviews a young wine after admittedly a short bit of time with it, is giving the readers a snap shot of that wine and maybe a prediction about what it will become.
    If enough readers agree with us enough of the time when they pull the cork on a wine we have reviewed, then possibly, just possibly, they will renew their subscriptions.
    It’s been three decades now and we are still here so apparently a few people have agreed.

  3. Gary "Iron" Chevsky - July 7, 2009

    Tom, sorry for the linkback to my blog, I usually won’t do that, but this sounds exactly like the experience I recorded in a video – I too have become sort of cautious of my conclusions drawn from quick wine tastings. Time and time again I keep re-discovering a wine that I’d dismissed or vice versa. Take a look and let me know if that’s not the darndest thing. In addition, in the very last blog post, I talked about changing my mind about a couple of wines after I had another chance to experience them. Wine truly makes one philosophical! Never say “never” about a wine.

  4. Anneliese - July 8, 2009

    Reminds me of Maya in Sideways,:
    “I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity.”
    Except that your score card on this particular bottle was 1-0-0-1. Not quite the bell curve one might expect, that being, an improvement trend.

  5. Scott - July 8, 2009

    It’s quite revealing to note how few comments have been made on this post, because I think this issue is one of the dark little secrets in our business that nobody really wants to talk about in the light of day.
    There is no question that a taster’s condition in various ways influence the way he perceives any sensory experience, including wine. Mood, how hungry one is or isn’t, the weather at the particular moment etc. have to have an effect on the taster, and therefore the wine. The best tasters are able to fend off and ignore these distractions more than others, but I doubt they can completely isolate themselves from them.
    And, to your point, I agree that the same wine can be actually different at close time intervals that could not be ascribed to bottle age. When it happens, it can be a somewhat uncomfortable idea to swallow for those of us who believe in our own palates to guide consumers in appropriate directions through the world of wine.
    Thanks for having the onions to talk about this, and I’ll say that even when I don’t agree with you I find your blog to be entertaining and interesting.

  6. Charlie Olken - July 8, 2009

    Like so many things about Sideways, Maya was just a little off-base. Wine does not change from day to day–brilliant on Thursday, crap next Wednesday.
    Gary Chevsky’s story about Lagrein, in his blog, is closer to my perception of the truth. The only ways that wine changes quickly is either letting it sit open for days, not minutes, or eating it with cheese.
    We know that wine changes over time, and we know that it goes through cycles, but these are not daily rhythms. They are longer in duration than that. And we also know that most dull and boring wine remains dull and boring–unless eaten with cheese.
    I don’t see how these are dirty little secrets known only to those who also know the secret handshake. I am much more sympathetic with Tom’s point that one needs to taste a single wine over a long period of time to truly get to know it. We can do that with a few wines, but that admirable trick is not available to most of us for most of the wine we taste or even most of the wine we buy.

  7. Tom Wark - July 8, 2009

    I think wines must naturally be reviewed as long as we are a people who value creativity. The evaluation process is every bit as important to what’s being created as the creative process, at least where those consuming the product are concerned.
    The fact that only a snapshot of a wine can be garnered is a fact of life. It’s a fact of life with book and movie reviewers too. This is why I think it will always be the case that the most experienced consumers (by that I mean those that actually spend time with wine) will always be likely to be our best surrogates in the evaluation process.

  8. Morton Leslie - July 8, 2009

    I remember a visit to Portugal 40 years ago and having an epiphany over a meal accompanied by vino verde. I brought a few bottles home along with a few bottles of piri piri. Not only did I find the wines lacking at the dinner table, I have never really enjoyed a bottle of v.v. since. And I still have the piri piri.
    Once I was served Barolo Chinato in a highly intellectual and sophisticated setting. It was so chic served in little aperitif glasses. So I bought a case. That was 25 years ago. I still have a bottle or two which I will open when a certain Italian friend comes to dinner and who will not only swallow the bitter concoction, but will take the remaining wine home with him.
    Sometimes you feel like a nut… sometimes you don’t!

  9. Charlie Olken - July 8, 2009

    I have had a 40-year (well, probably 35) year love affair with BV G. Latour 1970. I bought up two boxes of it at $8, some of which I found in Boulder, CO, and lugged home. I know that wine like the back of my hand, and now that it is getting long in the tooth, I am sad for my old friend. But, I still have eight bottles of it, and both of us are getting old together and enjoying it.
    That said, one cannot know even the BV 1971 by knowing about the 1970, let alone the 1974 which was supposed to be the next great BV PriRes but fell apart at ten years of age.
    It is one thing to know a wine intimately, but I am guessing that neither you nor I ever get to do that with hundreds and hundreds of wines, let alone the thousands we taste each year. So, we rely on snapshots, and our experience, to judge a wine in the hope that we and the people who listen to us will be steered straight.
    It’s a tough life, this snapshot business, but somebody’s got to do it.
    And, Morton, you did not get the wines wrong on your first snapshot. You just forgot to focus the camera.

  10. Thomas Pellechia - July 8, 2009

    I think you mistake the focus. It isn’t so much that wine changes (it does, but as you say, it changes slowly).
    As Morton’s post illuminates: it’s we who change. Our moods, our situations, our receptivity, our head colds, our desire to be seduced, our desire not to be seduced, our overall inability to be consistent, not to mention our inability to be unaffected by our surroundings–and its various distractions.
    How many of us took that marvelous trip to wine country, brought back some bottles and when opening them tasted a few that made us wonder what we were thinking when we bought them?

  11. Charlie Olken - July 8, 2009

    I am absolutely in agreement with you about context. That was what I meant by the camera being out of focus. The focus is always different on the spot, with good people, having fun, with food.
    But, I did think that Tom was making a slightly different point–at least to some degree. I read him as talking about the wine and its twists and turns, and he makes an excellent point that we only really know a wine when we have experienced it over time and in various settings. Context can change how much we enjoy the wine; it cannot change the wine’s inherent character (see my comments about dull and boring wine taken with cheese). So, I think we probably do agree in the final analysis. It may be that the analogies are getting in the way.

  12. Thomas Pellechia - July 8, 2009

    To be sure, context cannot change the wine’s inherent character. I think that our problem is determining how much of those ‘various settings’ play a role in our perception of the wine’s ‘inherent character at each successive sitting with it. In other words, can we even figure out when the changes are from the wine or from our brains?
    A set of lab equipment can determine what’s in a wine; a palate can only perceive; a trained palate may be better at self-deception than at perception… 😉

  13. Charlie Olken - July 8, 2009

    We seem to be taking up a lot of Tom Wark’s space, but I can’t let that last bit pass without comment. “A trained palate may be better at self-deception “.
    How does that square with the famous Alexander Pope quotation (I had to look it up to know whose it was), “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”

  14. Thomas Pellechia - July 8, 2009

    Hah! I love it.
    Pope was also the guy who wrote one of my favorite lines about humans: “Placed on this isthmus of a middle state, a being darkly wise and rudely great.”
    Don’t worry about taking up Tom’s space–he loves that…

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