Should you swallow your gum before you taste wine?
Whenever I conduct a wine tasting, I invite the participants to ask questions. In order to make the guests feel comfortable about speaking out in public, I try a little humour. I say, “Please feel free to ask questions at any point. Remember, there are no dumb questions about wine … (pause) … apart from one. I was once asked, ‘Should I swallow my gum before I taste?”’
Now, there is no real answer to that one, except perhaps, “Stick it behind your ear. Why break the habit of a lifetime.” But the point is that we wine writers are generally guilty of a presumption of knowledge on the part of our audience — a failing of most academics who have spent years studying their particular discipline and developed a coded vocabulary that excludes the uninitiated. We tend to assume basic information when faced by an enthusiastic audience who is willing to absorb not only the wines in front of them, but what we have to say about those wines.
When we declare with authority that we can smell aromas of peach and green pineapple in the bouquet of this Chardonnay, it’s not too far-fetched for someone, if they are brave enough, to put up their hand and ask, “Do winemakers really add peaches and pineapples to their wine?” This is not an unreasonable question from someone who has never visited a winery or seen how wine is made.
As wine writers we have an obligation to communicate on various levels to wine lovers, whether they’re attending their very first tasting or have a wine cellar that we would envy. Not everyone reads Wine Spectator, Decanter and Quench from cover to cover. There are degrees of enthusiasm for the fermented grape and we, as educators, must keep telling ourselves that not everyone is a future candidate for Master of Wine studies. Some just want to find a tasty wine that will be delicious with the roast chicken they’re having that night.
I don’t think of myself as a wine critic, rather as a wine evangelist. I want to share my passion for wine, which I believe to be the most civilized and civilizing of beverages that not only has health-giving benefits and sensory delights but can elevate the flavour of food as it elevates the conversation around the dinner table.
Ultimately, it all comes down to one’s ability to communicate that passion.
My colleague and friend Tim Hanni, who is a trained chef as well as being the co-first American Master of Wine (the other was Joel Butler), is also a master communicator. While his peers might turn their noses up at White Zinfandel, Tim championed this pink confection since it introduced a generation to wine just as Mateus Rosé and Liebfraumilch had done before it.
Tim recognized the fact that when people tasted a wine for the first time they either liked it or they didn’t. They might not be able to parse its bouquet and deconstruct its flavours, but they had a definite opinion. So he coined the terms “Yum” and “Yuck” — a thumbs-up or thumbs-down — as a tasting response.
This may seem overly simplistic but it allowed the consumer to express a personal judgement on the wine without having to justify that opinion in the language of wine magazines which they did not understand. (Sometimes I’m flummoxed by some critics’ descriptors.)
I am not saying that we should dumb down wine writing, but for those of us who care about wine appreciation this elementary approach is a start, even if the questions may make you roll your eyes.
On that score, I’m reminded of one that I heard second-hand from Inniskillin’s long-time public relations manager, Debi Pratt. She was once asked by a visitor to the winery: “When does the self-guided tour start?”