March 21, 2013

Do you like this?

Half of wine-tasting is 80 percent smell, to abuse a quote from Yogi Berra. Discussing wine means discussing smell, and our sense of smell through the ages has served both to please and to warn.

It is probable that wine-tasting was originally not so much about pleasing us as it was about warning us. In the olden days (which includes the era from the Enlightenment to the early part of my adult life), getting a hold of a spoiled, damaged bottle of wine was not uncommon. These days, better storage, refrigerated shipping, cleaner winemaking and global competition have all contributed to consistent quality, most noticeably in the past 20 years.

But caution is still important—it pays to look at wine and smell it before drinking. Knocking back two-and-a-half ounces of a badly-oxidized or spoiled wine has the same punch as a mouthful of clabbered milk: Once you do it you will make bold efforts not to do it again.

So assuming Wine Caution has been with us since the dawn of man, when was the birth of Wine Appreciation? That is, when was that moment when people suddenly stood around with their wine glasses in hand and looked at each other and went “wow”?  

We know that Wine Appreciation existed at the time of Christ, because it is right there in John 2: 1-11: When Jesus turned several urns of water into wine at the wedding in Cana, the head steward commented to the host that the quality of Jesus’s batch was noticeably, maybe incredibly, better than the previous wine that had been served. He also complimented the host for saving the best for last.

It is evident then, that when they served Jesus’s wine at the wedding, biblical people experienced wine appreciation: They stood in a circle and swirled their wine and looked at each other and went “wow,” or its Aramaic equivalent.   

The biblical account is not the first. This next tale dates back to at least the eighth century B.C.:

After the one-eyed giant imprisoned the Greeks in his cave and then dined on two of Odysseus’ sailors, Odysseus informed the Cyclops that the purpose of his visit had been to exchange wine for information and assistance and that the Cyclops had been an unsatisfactory host. The Cyclops said he would do better (he didn’t) and took a large bowl of wine from Odysseus and drank it down, proclaiming it “delightful,” and acknowledged that the quality of the Greeks’ wine was far better than his own: “Among us Cyclopes the fertile earth produces rich grape clusters, and Zeus’ rain swells them; but this is a taste from a stream of ambrosia and nectar.”

The Cyclops proceeded to toss back three more of the large bowls of wine, got drunk, threw up and passed out. Then Odysseus put out the Cyclops’ eye with a wooden stake.

For many, wine descriptions such as “wow” and “delightful” do not cut it. Nor does “sublime,” “wonderful,’ or “luscious.” The culinary experience, unfortunately, is necessarily described in emotional terms because taste and smell have a very limited vocabulary.

In the movie “Pulp Fiction” there is a scene where Samuel Jackson conducts what can only be generously described as a “hamburger tasting.” He picks up a burger, asks where it came from (it was a Big Kahuna burger), comments on its overall appearance, describes what he sees, smells it, takes a very appreciative bite and then passes judgment, saying something like, “Mmmm … Now that is one tasty burger!”

Then he asks to borrow a tasty beverage to wash it down, recites scripture and then, like Odysseus, dispatches the enemy. But before the gratuitous violence, the moment is pure Hamburger Appreciation.


March 21, 2013

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