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Speak Up!

July 31, 2015 21 comments

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!

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