The art of wine tasting

As a researcher, my personal experience in tasting wines has been somewhat high jacked by the studies I have read about wine tasting. Evaluating wines is a practice done by professionals, who inform us, amateurs, about the quality of the variety of wines available in the markets.

There are usually two sides in wine tasting – that of the professional evaluator and that of the layman consumer – that somehow, peculiarly, could not be experientially more far away from each other.

For the regular consumer, the main thing is to consume the wine. And here, I use the term consumption in as neutral way as one possibly can: it may be that wine is drunk with different purposes in mind but no matter what the aim is, eventually the wine gets drunk. The quality of wine gets evaluated through the practices of consumption.

For the expert evaluator, the main thing is to spit the wine. There is only one purpose in mind: to be able to perform professional assessment of variety of wines and rate them according to appropriate measures. Here, eventually, the quality of wine gets evaluated through the practice of wine tasting.

So how do 94 points, four stars, or 12 dollars inform the regular consumer? They inform that the wine is worth 94 points, four stars, or 12 dollars, but say nothing about how the wine tastes on a rainy day spent with a good novel, at a dinner party with bunch of friends, in a restaurant accompanying a lunch salad, or in a funeral filled with emotions hard to describe. The practice of evaluating wine as an expert is very far away from the practice of evaluating wine as a layman, or a woman.

To me this does not make any sense. When the expert assesses the shades of the colour, the type of the grape, the time the wine spent in a barrel, and the nuances of the smell and taste, I assess how wine looks in the glass it is poured into, how the wine fits the atmosphere and my feelings in the moment, what my co drinkers think about the wine, the headache or the lack of it the next morning.

We had the pleasure to do some wine tasting while celebrating my husband’s birthday. And this tasting was by far the best I have ever experienced. It made me also re think how we assess the quality of wines.

We spend a night at a lovely bed & breakfast in northern Sonoma. The reason I chose Kelley & Young Wine Garden Inn was because it was one of the few places which had wine tasting and  provided accommodation. Mostly tasting rooms, vineyards, and accommodation are separate places in Sonoma and Napa valleys. I learned that visiting winery does not mean that one gets to visit actual vineyards; it may be that a winery makes wine but does not produce grapes, it buys them. Apparently buying grapes is a common practice for wine makers.

I must admit that it had not even occurred to me that the people who produce grapes don’t make wine, or the other way around.

I learned all this and much more during our tasting at Kelley & Young. The tasting included six wines with six small finger food plates. We did the tasting with two other couples. Our host of the night was lovely Madeline, who not only knew about wines and their production but was also an amazing cook. She toured us around a two-hour, lovely tasting session after which I felt that I knew so much more about not only wine production but also about the life of a wine maker.

What was unique about this tasting was that Madeline made us feel special; she did not rise above as an expert telling what the wine should taste like. She described why she liked the wines, what was the process of wine making like, what kind of blends and combinations of grapes were used and why in that particular way, where did the grapes come from, and what was the history of that particular wine and the name that the wine was carrying.

When someone gives you so much embodied and personified information, it is very hard to assess wine based on the mere qualities invented by the experts.

The Kelley & Young Garden Inn B&B was lovely, and the three course breakfast the next day, cooked by Madeline and served to our table was delicious. Even though the location was somewhat far north from the central Sonoma valley, it was definitely worth a visit.

On the next day we had a tour at Benziger’s biodynamic vineyards. The air was fresh, and the vineyards beautiful. We got to know much about the Benziger family and their story of wine making. The tastings were more traditional, and after our wine tasting with Madeline, it was a rather typical wine tasting experience with description of the qualities that we should be tasting in the wines. The cave tasting room, where our tour took us was beautiful, though there was so little wine in the glasses that I could not turn the wine properly around in my mouth.

The experience we had at Kelley & Young wine tasting changed the way I have started to evaluate and relate to wines. For me, now, the art of wine tasting is all about people who make the wine, places where the wine is grown, and stories about how the wine is made and named.