Speak Up!

wine_in_a_glassThis post is not really a rant, even though it can be classified as one. I would rather see it as a plea – not directed at someone particular, but to anyone who enjoys even an occasional glass of wine.

Wine can be intimidating at times. Heck yes, wine is often intimidating. It has an aureole of mystique. It seems to demand the special knowledge to be enjoyed, the years and years of hard study. And quite often, the “exclusivity” notion is enforced by the very people whose job is to help, to make the wine less intimidating, to make sure that “the customer” will simply enjoy the glass of wine.

True – the wine, as any other discipline, has a great depth of technical knowledge. It is not easy to make a good bottle of wine; it is very difficult to make a great bottle of wine. You need to study for many years almost 24×7, learn the exact names of hundreds of small villages in Germany, to become a Master Sommelier (there are only a few hundreds of them in the world). All of it is true. But not necessarily unique – most of what humans do today in so called “work” requires lots of studying and lots of specialized knowledge.

But wine is yet again different. While it requires knowledge to produce and explain it to others, when it comes to its basic purpose – drinking, it is, whether by itself or with the food – it is very simple. Forget all the nuances of the taste. Forget all the fancy descriptors and ratings. When it comes to the content of your glass, it is really all binary – you either like it or not.

Nobody questions their own ability to decide whether they like the burger or not. Or any other food for that matter – in most of the cases, people have no issues declaring “this is good” or “this is bad”. But when it comes to the wine, majority start second-guessing themselves. People often sheepishly say “but I don’t know much anything about the wine”. This proverbial “luck of knowledge” is used as an excused to keep quiet. People are afraid to state their opinion around wine, as they don’t want to appear disrespectful, or even worse, totally ignorant and not worthy. At the same time, when someone takes a sip, they know immediately whether they like the wine or not.

Now, let me get to the “Speak Up” part. No, I’m not advocating that everyone will start proclaiming “this is crap” or “this is nectar” on the very first sip of the wine in the various situations. For example, if you will open a bottle of young red wine, immediately pour it into a glass and take a sip, your first reaction might be “this is too sweet!”. Give this wine 5 minutes to breathe, and your next sip often will be totally different experience, with earthiness, minerality and acidity. As another example, the first taste of the cold white wine might feel extremely acidic, but the wine will mellow out right after. So, no, “speak up” is not about always declaring your opinion right away.

What is important for me is that if you drink wine even on a semi-regular basis, you know what you like and what you don’t. In case when you don’t like the wine, you also know why is that – too acidic, too sweet, too wimpy, too tannic, doesn’t taste well with food. There can be lots of reasons for not liking the wine. And it is all fine – taste is personal, and two people next to the same bottle don’t have to share the same opinion; there is nothing to speak up about here. With one exception: when the wine is spoiled.

There are many possible issues with wine, which affect its taste – these are called “wine faults”, and the end result is what we call a spoiled wine – the wine which tastes bad. This is not the case “I don’t like it”, this is the case “it is spoiled” – and nobody should drink it. Have you ever tasted spoiled milk, when the sweetness of milk is replaced with the off putting smell and sour taste? What you do with the spoiled milk? Anything but drink it, right? There are many potential faults in wine – brettanomyces (often called “brett” for short), volatile acidity, oxidation, heat damage (so called “cooked wine”), cork taint and many others (in case you want to read more, here is Wikipedia link). Some of the faults are less offensive than the others – for instance, brett is associated with barnyard aromas (so called “funk”) in the wine, which some people love (yours truly would be one of them). But most of the faults really kill the taste of wine; spoiled wine doesn’t deliver any pleasure the wine is supposed to bring.

One of most prominent offenders is the cork taint – typically caused by the cork material which was not cleaned properly – and the result of the cork taint is called a corked wine. What gives it away first of all is an aroma of the old, wet, musty basement – you know that smell, I’m sure you do. But this is not the worst part. On the palate, the corked wine is sharp, bitter, and devoid of fruit – the fruit is nowhere to be found in the corked wine. Sometimes the smell might be very minor, but then the sharp palate will give this fault away. And corked wine is something which you are not supposed to drink. Nor you should let anyone to drink that. This is the case when you have to trust yourself – and speak up.

How many of you ever been in the situation when you tasted the wine (or just smelled it) and said to yourself “this is corked”? And then, even when you are 100% convinced it is corked, you just kept quiet – you didn’t want to offend the host, you thought “ahh, may be something is wrong with me”, “but people already had been drinking the wine from this bottle for a while, how it can be corked”? Been there, done that? It’s okay, this blog is truly a non-judgement zone, please share your experiences. But I’m seriously telling you, if I may – I insist – speak up. Trust yourself and speak up.

I’ve done this many times in many different settings. Sometimes, the corked bottle is one and only, and all you can do is just to dump it or put it aside to return to the wine store (please note – most of the reputable wine stores will take the corked wine back and refund your money – they are not losing anything either, as they also will return the wine to the producer). But the best case is when the other bottle of the same wine can be open instead – and it shows all the beautiful aromas and fruit the wine was supposed to have. This is the best learning experience, of course – but even if you didn’t have that experience, you still have to speak up.

You need to understand that by keeping silent, you are not doing anyone any favors. If you keep silent, you drink the wine which tastes bad. You let others drink the wine which tastes bad. You letting down the winemaker as well. In many (most) cases, the corked wine is not even producer’s fault. And if you and others end up drinking bad tasting wine, you might say to yourself “I will never buy this wine again” – and trust me, this is not what the winemaker had in mind when the wine was produced with love and care.

You have to speak up – and you got nothing to lose. If you are wrong, and the wine is not corked but simply need the time to breathe – so be it. But I’m sure that once you experienced the corked wine, you will be able to identify it again, so if you think the wine is corked, there is a very good chance that it actually is. Trust yourself and speak up. When the next bottle is open, and everybody sigh with relief and pleasure, your host will be the first to thank you. And if you will feel happy, leave me a comment too. Cheers!

  1. July 31, 2015 at 9:05 am

    I think this is really important when it comes to wine–speaking up is good, but striking the right balance and knowing when to do so is key too. Years ago I was at the New Haven Barcelona and a glass of wine that had been poured for me tasted really off, so I asked the bartender if he wouldn’t mind trying it to see if it was me or not, and lo and behold he dumped the glass and gave me a fresh one. Good restaurants and wine shops do not want to be guilty of selling bad product!

    • talkavino
      July 31, 2015 at 7:33 pm

      Well, when I said “speak up”, I didn’t mean to throw a tantrum :). Your case is a perfect example – you voiced your concern to the bartender, and he took care of the issue. That is all there is to it.

  2. July 31, 2015 at 9:47 am

    Agreed! I also speak up when a wine pairing is off at a restaurant — which is not always appreciated. I don’t care if the sommelier knows obscure German villages, he should taste the wine and the dish together before presenting the wine as a pairing.

    • talkavino
      July 31, 2015 at 7:34 pm

      wine pairing in the restaurants and sommeliers is a whole other issue in itself…

      • July 31, 2015 at 10:53 pm

        Material for a sequel post?

        • talkavino
          August 3, 2015 at 4:09 pm

          Not sure I have enough of my personal experience for such a post. I only had paired dinners a few times, and when I had, I was always happy. Care to write a guest post? 🙂

        • August 3, 2015 at 4:50 pm

          I have paired dinners all the time. Most of the times it is OK with only some bad pairings. Sometimes it is really bad. And sometimes it is really good, but that is the exception. A guest post might be an interesting idea…

  3. July 31, 2015 at 11:30 am

    I very much agree with what you are saying. And, I think it’s a shame that people feel they need to be some kind of experts on the subject to speak up. I think this attitude around wine actually keeps people from getting more into it. Encouraging people to trust in their own taste is a great thing and I try to bring that up whenever I have a conversation with someone “less experienced” (I am not THAT experienced myself) about wine. I am hoping all the wine enthusiasts, hobbyists and experts will do the same.

    • talkavino
      July 31, 2015 at 7:34 pm


  4. July 31, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    Let’s face it–we are a part of the problem that you are hoping to eradicate. We post articles about wine in which we say there is so much more to wine than “it’s good” or “it stinks” so people who start getting into wine realize that they “should” be finding more there than just a simple thumbs up or down. Why? Well, the “experts” tell them that all the time. Food is not shrouded in the same kind of mystique–and besides, most of us have been eating all our lives and have developed a very strong personal idea of what we like….

    • talkavino
      July 31, 2015 at 7:50 pm

      we eat because we have to, and we drink wine because we want to. Food can be as complicated as wine, as long as the “consumer” is passionate about it – talk to the burger or pizza connoisseurs, for instance.
      In this blog, I make an effort to make wine less intimidating and to convince people that taste is personal, and only they know what is good and what is bad – for them, of course. Whether I’m successful or not, I will let readers to decide.

  5. August 1, 2015 at 2:22 am

    Great post! I enjoy being able to compare the wine with the fault against the same wine that is fault free, helps to learn about what to look for next time! In my opinion, wine is a journey (a life long one) that is best shared with friends and a big part is the opportunity to learn. Speaking up and asking questions is a big part of the journey, not doing so just means that you are not going to have an enjoyable one.

    • talkavino
      August 3, 2015 at 4:06 pm

      Agreed! Wine is a journey, and learning never stops!

  6. August 1, 2015 at 9:33 am

    I red an article a few months ago which said that more than half of all corked wine served to customers in Germany does not get returned. An alarming figure in my opinion. These customers are afraid, because of their inexperience with wine, to bring their corked bottles back to the wine store or to inform their waiter that the bottle corked.
    I even heard stories of sommeliers taking the risk of serving corked wine to customers at otherwise high quality restaurants, especially when the bottle is expensive, because the inexperienced wine drinker will most likely be afraid to speak up.

    • talkavino
      August 3, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      This is totally wrong and this is very sad. And this is why people have to speak up, and such sommeliers should lose their jobs…

  7. August 1, 2015 at 11:09 am

    Maybe I’m not as much of a wine connoisseur, but I’ve never had a bad wine recommended by a sommelier, and when it comes to wine paired with food for a prix fixe meal, I’ve never been disappointed. Maybe Stefan has a better palate, but I’m glad I’ve always been happy! I will keep a lookout and a tasteout for bad corked wines! Another reason I’m kind of liking these screwtops!!! Great post!

    • talkavino
      August 3, 2015 at 4:12 pm

      Wine pairing is yet a different paradigm, probably Stefan’s experience is different. Wine under screw top can be also spoiled – even though most likely it will not be corked. But in any case, I believe wine drinkers should speak up and they think something is wrong with the wine.

  8. August 1, 2015 at 5:16 pm

    Great posy Anatoli, so much to comment about!! I have returned many bottles of corked/cooked and other wise tainted wines in restaurants. My actions have not always been well received, I think because there are many people who just pour wine and do not have an understanding themselves. Most Australian wines are now sealed under stelvin caps which has significantly reduced the number of bad bottles I encounter. There is a fabulous book about wine appreciation called “Yum and Yuck” by Australia’s Max Allen that I can recommend, it’s whole premise is personal taste!

    • talkavino
      August 3, 2015 at 4:19 pm

      Thank you Sandra! I’m glad you spoke up in the restaurants, even if your actions were not well received – this is the right thing to do.
      I tried to look for the Yum and Yuck book you mentioned – there are many reference coming up in the search, but none of them are for the wine book 🙂 Will have to wait until I will make it to Australia to find it 🙂

  9. August 3, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    Interesting post! The author has provided a lot his own ideas about the wine. And I especially love the part that what affects the tasting. Thank you for sharing with us!

    Stella Pan
    The Wine Elite

    • talkavino
      August 3, 2015 at 4:05 pm

      Thank you for the comment.

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