SHOPPING FOR WINE IS THIRSTY WORK, so sipping an ounce or two while you scan the shelves mulling over varietals and vintages can only make an already pleasant task more enjoyable. At least that’s how it seems to us.
On Fridays and Saturdays when I’m on the floor at Central Bottle we almost always have a few bottles open for guests to taste.
In addition to being a hospitable gesture, offering a sample of this and that is useful when trying to home in on the taste of someone you don’t yet know well enough to guide. A stop at the tasting table is often the surest way to read the GPS coordinates of a guest’s likes and dislikes. Sampling wines side by side one after another is generally the most instructive way to taste, since it’s in a flight (sequence) that their similarities and contrasts are most apparent. But tasting with guests week after week has taught me that this approach has a few drawbacks, too.
A stop at the tasting table is often the surest way to read a guest’s likes and dislikes. I know from my own experience that wine bought on the strength of its showing alongside other wines has occasionally been disappointing when the time came to down a glass or two with supper. To begin with, since it’s the customary role of wine to serve as an accompaniment to food, tasting wine in the context of more wine doesn’t make an ideal scenario for judging its suitability for the table.
When a customer offers the opinion that such and such a wine is “too dry” or “too lean” or “too tannic” I’m apt to ask “Too [fill in the blank] for what?” ”Think of the application,” I urge. Next to a fatty, succulent short rib that sinewy, tannic red may be just the thing — though it takes a bit of experience (and some imagination) to know it.
Sipping a sequence of wines seems to stir up the competitive instincts. It’s often not enough to weigh their individual features; we consider it our duty to see winners named and losers shamed. Infusing more or less ordinary activities with the drama of the tournament (or the jury room) may be a characteristically American preoccupation. I admit to finding the impulse almost irresistible. I’m just not sure the competitive approach is very helpful, particularly since the character traits that make a wine seem exciting — and its peers nondescript by comparison — are not infrequently the very things that with more familiarity prove insufferably fatiguing. I’ve had this experience with people, haven’t you?
Which leads to a final reservation: Tasting isn’t drinking. A sip or two of wine over a few minutes’ time can’t provide anything more than a snapshot, a knothole-view of a progressive event whose outcome we can only guess at. Your guess may be a good one – we tend to get better at this – but as the guy standing at the table all afternoon as guests come and go, I can tell you that wines morph, shift, and alter themselves in all kinds of ways, sometimes blatantly, sometimes subtly, sometimes in ways that can only be called sneaky. To get to know how a wine evolves takes time. You have to drink it.
This is not to diss the sip — which is sometimes the best you can do and is in all cases better than no wine at all — but to suggest that ‘wine tasting’ as typically constituted necessarily falls short in some respects. At best tasting gives us only a glance of something that will in a few minutes be something different, minus the contextualizing presence of a meal. It’s a little unsettling to know that tasting notes from volume tasters like Jancis Robinson, Steven Tanzer, and Robert Parker are all compiled this way – but it’s hard to know how it could be otherwise.
For me, the weekly antidote to this kind of tasting is Central Bottle’s Thursday Night Wine Bar. Full pours (not sips!) of four interesting wines, an array of small plates designed to let each wine shine, and all the time you need (between 5 and 9 p.m.) to acquaint yourself with and savor both. Another plus: plenty of other tasters to slip into conversation with – including me.
I’ll be the guy hunched over a laptop, still busy registering the GPS coordinates of his own taste after all these years. Hope to see you there.