Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Taste What's in the Glass

Perception is a curiously influencing factor in the wide world of fermented beverage. Last weekend I was pouring wine for a few hours in a not unbiased way, that is to say, as a sales representative for LVDH Vignobles at Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits, hoping to make a few sales. Though I was there in a sales capacity (man’s gotta eat) I wanted to make sure that those people who were tasting enjoyed these new wines or were, at the very least, able to glean a little knowledge. It was fun conversing with people about what I was pouring and other wines they enjoyed - although hearing one customer talk about his experience with southern French reds and 8 hour lamb was sufficient to cause great hunger. The wine was an everyday, easy drinking sort of fare for those looking for a casual Saturday afternoon tasting.  Stylistically each bottle was straightforward and relatively mainstream; Chateau du Barail Bordeaux Blanc, Piqnique sauvignon blanc from California, Estacion cabernet sauvignon of Chile, and Lionel Osmin’s Cahors malbec were the culprits there to lubricate conversation and relax the afternoon.

What gave me second thoughts before even pulling any of the corks was the malbec. Malbec is most popularly from Argentina and at best falls into one of two categories: cheap, fruity, and easy or full bodied and well structured. Although frequently the focus is lost between the two and the wine is done in a heavy handed, over-oaked and rather coarse sort of way; the most egregious southern hemisphere example of the wine that I have found was improved by the addition of Pabst Blue Ribbon in roughly equal proportions to ameliorate the quality of the wine. Now, that is not to say Argentina lacks the ability to produce great wine, it is only to suggest that the ever ambiguous notion of ‘terroir’ seems to have yet be realized.

Though I think it would be a wise idea to return to my original thought.

The malbec I was pouring was from the town of Cahors in the Lot department of France, a town where malbec has played a role for most likely hundreds of years, but has served as a verifiable base grape for the region from at least the early 1970’s. So in trying to inform, I mentioned to the customers that Cahors, and more specifically France, was home to the malbec that was now so famously from Argentina. In doing so I began to wonder if I was enhancing their wine drinking experience or detracting from it.

By saying the wine is malbec I am drawing on their experience with malbec, both positive and negative, and creating a bias. By then telling them it is French it creates another bias. Does this person already have a firmly formed opinion about the wines of France? Do they already think they hate all malbec? Do they hate malbec, but love French wine thus creating a confusing prejudice? Even as a professional I am not above bias. If there are two chardonnays placed in front of me and I find that one is Californian and one is Burgundian I already have an inclination away from the Californian bottle based on the inexhaustible number of experiences I’ve had with terrible chardonnay from California, but I will do my best to keep an open mind. This also means I will be a little more lenient with the Burgundian bottle as far as quality to price goes.

Is this preconception fair? No. But acknowledging it is a step in the right direction to allowing myself potentially more enjoyment of the wine before me. Retailers, sommeliers, and serious wine fans everywhere hear all too frequently preconceptions (and misconceptions) like, “All riesling (or rose) is sweet,” or “All French wine is expensive,” or “They don’t have any laws in ::insert any foreign country here:: and they can put anything into their wine.”

So I return to the best advice I have ever heard, “Taste what’s in the glass, not in your head.” Step back for a moment and don’t think about what you already think you know, think about what you are trying right then and there. I’ll try to do the same.

Credit might be owed to Paul Grieco on that quote, I can’t quite remember, either way it is good advice.

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