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Put It In Your Mouth

By Craig Camp
Friday, August 29, 2003

WHERE DO you start? Start at the beginning. Look before you leap as they say.

If you want to learn about wine you have to start at the beginning. So where is that? The beginning is the same for all things that are about taste. It's your mouth. To learn about wine you need to put a lot of wine in your mouth. Not all at once, but as many types and styles as often as you can: this is a tough class.

However it is not enough to put the wine in your mouth. You have to wake up that mouth and its close friend your nose to begin to comprehend why people like me can bore to death other humans at dinner by talking for hours about what's in the glass. By the way, I'm free for dinner tonight.

In order to understand what you have put in your mouth you need a sense of heightened perception. In other word, you have to pay attention. You have to take some time. Tasting is all about time and attention. As amazing at it may seem most people don't pay that much attention to the wine they just tasted. They don't go beyond a kind of vague pleasant fruity flavor before lurching back into that fascinating conversation they were having. This helps explain the success of Kendall Jackson.

It sounds easy right? You just have to pay attention. Yet it seems one of the hardest things to do. The first step in paying attention and really starting to learn about wine is taking notes. You have to write it down. Writing tasting notes forces you to focus on the tastes, textures and aromas of wine. There is no one way to take notes. Some anal-retentive types keep a database (hey, I think it works great), others keep drawers full of crumpled napkins with their notes in between the stains. I still have my first tasting notes book and boy is it cute. When I look at in now it reminds me of some school project kids bring home to their mothers on Mother's Day. I took a photo album with paper pages then soaked off the label of each bottle, pasted them in the book and wrote my notes next to them. The point is not the format, but the act itself. This alone will teach you more about wine and your own palate than any other technique.

Notes need not be complicated, but you will want to record a few things:

1. Name and vintage of the wine. If it is imported write down the name of the importer because if you find an importer you like looking for their label can lead you to many new wines.

2. Color: Red, white or rose? Dark or light? Try to describe the color: Scarlet or ruby? Green or gold? Brilliant, dull or cloudy?

3. Aroma: Spend the most time here as what we call taste is actually mostly smell. Here is where you get to be creative and search for words that describe what you smell. Is that boysenberry or black cherry? The most important thing is to use your own words and associations. Just because everyone says syrah smells like black pepper and nebbiolo smells like tar and roses does not mean those will be your associations. Other aspects to note: Are the smells are strong or weak? Is alcohol evident? Over ripe or under ripe fruit? Sulfur?

4. Taste and Texture: Here is another opportunity for flowery prose. Stretch a bit to find the right words to describe the flavors you taste. Remember there is no "right" answer. Taste is personal and what you are writing down is how it tastes to you. Make sure you note the textures of the wine: astringent, soft, light or heavy -- or a combination textures. If you sense a little alcohol burn, note it here. Pay attention to acidity and tannins. Acidity is the tart taste on the tongue. In very high acid wines you almost have the impression of bubbles on your tongue. Tannins are for all practical purposes a red wine thing. Tannin is that drying taste you get in a cup of strong un-sweetened tea. It leaves a dry taste in your mouth.

5. Food: Describe how well the wine matches with the food you are eating.

6. Give the wine some sort of score. You need a personal reference point. Some use the 100 points scale others use grades like they use in school: A+, B-, C and so on.

The notetaking process can be as short and quick as you want or as the situation permits. For instance I do not recommend taking long detailed notes while on a first date or while enjoying your 20th wedding anniversary with your spouse and to answer your question, yes I'm divorced.

Now that you're taking notes it's time to wake up that palate even more and to do some comparative tastings. In the beginning, I would not suggest setting up side by side comparative tastings of wines to determine which wine is the best, but as a method to learn the flavors of wines by tasting wines with diverse characteristics in relation to each other. Get a sweet, a medium sweet and a dry white wine and compare them. Get chardonnays from Australia, California, South American and France and try to discern the stylistic differences. Try a zinfandel, a syrah and a cabernet sauvignon from California and look for the distinct varietal flavors. The possible combinations are endless. Be sure when you are comparing wines in this way, to learn their basic characteristics, that the wines should be of the same vintage, similar price and the whites should be the youngest vintage available. These kinds of tastings are great excuses for dinner parties.

Keep an eye out for tastings hosted by restaurants and wine retailers as they are a great opportunity to taste many wines at reasonable (hopefully) prices. I am always amazed that the vast majority of people that attend these events take no notes at all. Take the time to write down even very brief comments at these events. You will be astonished at how much more you remember.

Okay, now you are tasting, taking notes, and comparing different wines and that palate of yours is finally getting out of bed. What's next?

What's next is a good book or two. Normally people think you should start with a book, but for wine novices I think it is a good idea to taste a bit first so you have some idea of what the heck the author is talking about. In the very beginning it is more important to find a local wine merchant that you can trust. A good wine merchant can get you started in a way no wine book can and with wines that are available in your market. Too often wine books talk about wines that are not available in every market. Ask your wine merchant to help you put together the types of tasting listed above. Often small wine shops are a great place to learn because of the individual attention you receive and are worth a little extra driving time.

Finding the right book to start with is almost as hard as buying wine. Often novices are put off when they go to the book store and see the long, dry tomes that fill the wine section shelves. Then there are the books for morons. If you are not a moron or a geologist whose hobby happens to be wine most of these books don't seem to fill the bill. What wine novices need is an Avenger: someone to protect them from getting ripped off and to help make wine fun to drink and buy. Fortunately for us there is such a force. The Wine Avenger lives and he is Willie Gluckstern, the opinionated and cantankerous New York based importer of good wines with funny labels -- that happen to be excellent values. Gluckstern has put together probably the best book in the market for wine beginners. His book The Wine Avenger debunks many of the myths that scare people away from wine and steers readers to wines of great value. For more information on The Wine Avenger visit his web site at: www.winesforfood.com. If you get the wine bug badly enough after reading Willie's book there is a long list of excellent wine books to strain your book shelves.

If you take notes, attend tastings, find a good wine merchant and read The Wine Avenger before you know it you will be held in high regard by all your friends as a wine expert and when you enter the largest wine shop or open the thickest wine list you will be able to select wine with confidence.

There remains one more talent you need to acquire on your way to becoming a wine expert. You must learn how to spit. Get a glass of water, go to the sink, pucker up and practice. No notes required.