If you want to read some mouth-watering poetry, browse the aisles at your local wine store, where the advertising copy and wine reviews all seem to be channeling Walt Whitman. Consider a Rodney's Vineyard Syrah, with its 'gorgeously deep aromatics of black currants, smoke, bacon fat, dried herbs, sweet licorice and white chocolate.' If you're not drooling yet, check out the Fess Parker Pinot Noir with its 'notes of smoked game, black currants, cherries, underbrush and forest floor.' Yup, you read it right. Forest floor.
Welcome to the world of modern wine tasting, where there's an ode for every bottle, a sonnet in every sip.
As a former English major, I have to confess, this stuff gets me every time. My hand's on my wallet faster than you can say 'lush melon and tropical fruit overtones.' But a funny thing happens when I get my bottle of liquid poetry home. I don't taste the forest floor.
Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that about 70% of wine drinkers feel the same way I do: We love wine, life would be dull and dinner parties unbearable without it, and given a choice between a meal and a glass of wine, many of us would be happy to drink dinner.
But we feel privately, painfully insecure about our ability to taste, much less talk about wine. We are the people who watched Sideways and felt ashamed because we like merlot. We yearn to taste chocolate in a cabernet sauvignon or honeysuckle in a Riesling ' but those elusive flavors always seem just beyond our grasp.
There are books and teachers ' and actual wine schools ' that promise to transform any wine novice into a wine master. One of the best-known is Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Wine School in New York City.
The accompanying Windows on the World Complete Wine Tasting Course is one of the best-selling wine books in America. Zraly teaches students to spend a Zen-like 60 seconds in silence after they swallow a wine. And, he tells them exactly what to think about in 15-second increments: sweetness, acidity, balance, weight and finish.
'I think that would ruin it for most people,' says Rachel Dahl, one of the buyers at Steve's Liquors. Dahl, like many other wine purveyors, encourages people to think about wine in terms of a spectrum of style: from crisp and dry to full and rich. Later ' for some of us, much later ' comes the poetry: vanilla, oak leaves, cigar smoke, lilacs, wet stone.
'First of all, those tastes are actually aroma,' says Finn Berge, co-owner of Barriques Wine Cave. 'Eighty percent of what you taste in wine is retro-nasal ' it's the aroma coming up the back of your nasal passage when you swallow.' (I've read that some chemists describe wine as 'a tasteless liquid that is deeply fragrant.')
The human tongue can perceive only four or five tastes ' sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and a fifth, umami, discovered by Japanese scientists. The human nose, on the other hand, can identify more than 2,000 different scents. And wine ' one of the most complex consumable substances in the world ' has more than 200 of its own. (Forest floor, presumably, being one of them.)
So the trick, or at least one of the tricks, to getting more out of your wine is to smell it. A lot. 'Most people simply don't spend enough time' smelling their wine, writes Zraly. But it's one thing to smell something, and quite another to put that scent into words. A rose, as Shakespeare famously suggested, would smell the same without the name. But what, exactly, does a rose smell like? Ummm...a rose.
In the early '90s, wine experts at the University of California-Davis tried to get scientific about the smell of wine. All those imprecise, subjective wine adjectives like 'elegant' and 'fragrant' annoyed them.
A flavor chemist named Ann C. Noble invented the now-famous Wine Aroma Wheel, which categorizes basic wine aromas like 'fruity' or 'vegetative' into dozens of subsets. Under 'vegetative,' on her wheel, you'll find fresh (grassy, stemmy, green, eucalyptus, mint), canned (asparagus, olive, artichoke) and dried (hay, straw, tea, tobacco). The aroma wheel raised awareness of aromatics in the wine trade and considerably enlarged the vocabulary of wine criticism.
Still, finding the language to describe what we smell ' and by extension, taste ' is a profoundly personal experience. Neurologists tell us that smell is the oldest and most primitive of our senses, the one most closely linked to our emotions and to memory.
No two people perceive aroma the same way because no two people share the exact same history. The scent of juniper reminds me of hot summer days and the scratchy bushes next to my grandmother's porch; you, on the other hand, may think of pine forests in midwinter. So a glass of wine, brimming with subtle and beautiful aromas and associations, is really an opportunity to unleash your own inner poet.
Some friends and I opened a couple of bottles the other night ' a 2004 Sebastiani chardonnay from California and a 2005 Verget Macon-Villages from France (both about $14 a bottle). Two very different wines, but made from the exact same grape. We went back and forth between the two, tasting tart, mouth-puckering acid in the French wine, velvety soft, ripe fruit in the Californian.
As we drank, the light outside turned golden, like the wine in our glasses, and time slowed. We sipped and watched our children play in the falling leaves and green grass. Someone commented that the French wine tasted like green apples and someone else said the California chardonnay smelled like apricots.
In my memory, those things are all swirled together now ' the golden wine and the mellow fall light and the sound of children's laughter ' into the taste and feeling of a moment of perfection.
So am I learning how to taste wine or how to taste life? Both, clearly. There's a quotation from St. Catherine of Siena that I've had on my desk for a while, but which has new meaning for me now: 'Chi piu conosce piu ama, piu amando piu gusta.' Who knows more, loves more; and in loving more, tastes more.