As a wine professional in the mercantile sense, my relationships to the wines I worked with were quite particular.
A few months after the vintage I was there, tasting and tasting, hundreds of wines every day, to determine what I liked enough to want to sell to customers. In that task I was slower than average, as I was often told by all the impatient persons around me, but it was mostly a dance along the surfaces of a zillion wines. And I suck at dancing.
Often I would taste the wines again, at trade events a few months later, eager to see if a second look would vindicate my choices. By then my catalogues were available, and my notes were there in black and white, ready to rebuke me if I’d goofed on a selection. Later I might use a few of the wines in promotional tastings or (better) educational seminars, and while I designed those to be revelatory, I was still tasting.However many exposures I had to this wine or that one, all of them were in the highly particular matrix of tasting.
At times I obtained some of the wines for my own cellar, and when I drank them I found it nearly impossible to escape the need to reassure myself that the selection and the praise that followed were warranted. But once that need was dispatched I could relax, and drink the wine like any other drinker.
It stands to reason that all “tasters” are also drinkers – or so one hopes – but not all drinkers are “tasters.” Some aspire to be, and I’m sure that most people reading this website are both tasters who drink and drinkers who taste. This being so, why am I fussing?
It has to do with an idea that’s nascent just now, prompted by the altered way I am currently “tasting.” Having the wines at home, tasting them really deliberately, living with the bottles for many days until they’re emptied, seems to create a new vector of approach. I find myself wanting very much to be fair to the wines. Perhaps that strikes you as self-evident, but it is new for me. I used to taste in search of a moment of conviction whereby I knew that a wine has “made the cut.” I don’t have to worry about that any more.
Here’s a superb aphorism by the poet Rebecca Lindenberg (from her book The Logan Notebooks): “Getting to know someone is like wearing a headlamp – you won’t see what you don’t shine on.” As a reviewer who is “living with” the wines, I want less to stand apart as a “judge” and more to be part of a relationship. And this involves not only letting a wine come to me but also the nature by which I come to a wine. Think of a friend you have, any friend. If you had to, you could enumerate your friend’s virtues, but that’s just half the equation. Try to explain why you are happy in this friend’s presence. Not so easy! In taking a two-pronged approach to the wines I taste now, I’m certainly deconstructing their flavors, structures, “narrative arcs,” energy levels, all that stuff, but I’m also relaxed enough to want to understand each wine’s ambience. Two questions form: What is the wine like, and what is it like to be with this wine?
And sometimes that means that a wine I have issues with as a taster is a wine I quite enjoy as a drinker, and these things are differently true, perhaps not perfectly equivalent but in a basic way commensurate. From time to time I’ve wondered whether the taster is being entirely fair to the drinker, and if not, who is being served by this whole exercise. Coming back to the wines themselves, I have a growing conviction that I have an obligation to them, to tell as much of their truth (or as many of their truths) as I can. Because I do believe that criticism is necessary, and should be viewed though the widest possible lens. Yes of course, the granular breakdown of a wine’s facets are a first-principle of wine criticism – but should we stop there?
Somewhere in the body of literature by James Hillman there’s a sentence (paraphrasing now) that “I am molting, and when I am molting I am always foolish.” Today, as I slowly shed the skin (and the persona) of the merchant and try on this curious new skin, I am a little betwixt and I know I’m viewing an incompletely formed idea. What might emerge from all this fumbling, we shall see.
The Bründlmayer report is now live, and as always I am deeply grateful to World Of Fine Wines for permitting me to use something originally published on their website. The text is the same, but I used different pictures.