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BEFRIENDING YOUR PALATE
First you master your instrument. Then you forget all that shit and just play. —Charlie Parker, when asked how one becomes a great jazz musician
You're at home watching TV in the evening. Let's say you're watching a DVD of something you really like. Unless you have some monstrous home-theater system, you're looking at a relatively small screen across the room. You can't help but see all your stuff strewn about. Usually you have a light or two on. You hear ambient noises.
Now pretend you're at the movies. The lights go down, and you're sitting in a dark room with a bright screen encompassing your whole field of vision. Even with others around you, there is a strange, almost trance-like intimacy between these huge, bright images and your emotions. All great directors are acquainted with this spell; it's the essence of cinema. And it arouses a deep, almost precognitive attention from us.
We often think of palate as our physical taste receptor, the mouth itself, and, more saliently, the sense of smell. But a palate is more than what you taste; it is your relationship with what you taste. Palate isn't passive; it is kinetic.
Palate is really two things. First, it is the quality of attention you pay to the signals your taste receptors are sending. Second, it is memory, which arises from experience. A "good palate" is able to summon the cinema type of attention. An ordinary palate—more properly called an indifferent palate—is watching TV with the lights on.
Most of us are born with roughly the same discrete physical sensitivities to taste. (But there are said to be so-called super-tasters who may have a larger number of taste buds than the rest of us do, in which case, lucky them; they're getting bombarded with signals.) What varies is our sensitivity to this ... sensitivity. It seems to be an irreducible aspect of temperament, how the gods arranged the goodies in the box called you.
I remember when I was a wine fledgling being complimented on my palate by people more experienced than I was. It wasn't as gratifying as it may seem. I had no idea what a good palate was supposed to entail. I guess it was good that I had one. Then what?
Later, when I taught wine classes for beginners, I did a little exercise at the beginning, putting four different brands of tortilla chips on numbered plates, and asking the eager wine students (who must have been wondering when their refund checks would be mailed) to taste all four and write down which one they liked best and why. A lively discussion never failed to ensue: "Number three has the deepest corn flavor" or "Number one wasn't salty enough" or "The taste of number four lasts the longest time." When it was all over I'd say, "Okay, guys, now you know everything you need in order to become good wine tasters." Ah, excuse me? But these students tasted variations on a narrow theme; they paid attention because they had to, and they put their impressions into words. They were tasters, and the medium didn't matter.
Yet the approach path to wine seems so fraught (compared to tortilla chips!); there are so damnably many of them, they change all the time, and just when you think you're getting a handle on the whole unruly mess you read about yet another obscure place entering the world wine market with labels that look like anagrams without enough vowels. It's dispiriting; I feel your pain. But you're completely wrong.
When I started my wine life I made the same mistake. I imagined some theoretical point of mastery that lay on the horizon, and I would reach it eventually if I just kept walking. But horizons are funny: they keep moving just as we do. The more urgently you walk, the more they recede. Bastards, mocking me like that; don't they know I'm tryin' here? Sure they know! They're just going to keep frustrating me until I finally get the message: enjoy the journey, and notice your surroundings.
But aside from this corner-store Zen wisdom, here's a practical suggestion: If the sheer cacaphony of wine cows you, just ignore it. For at least three months—ideally even longer—choose two grape varieties, a white and a red, and drink nothing but those. Let's say you chose Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah. First you drink all the Sauv Blanc you can lay your hands on, California, New Zealand, Austria, all the various Loires, Alto Adige, and Friuli; you steep yourself in Sauvignon, seeing how the wines differ and what core qualities they all seem to have. Write each impression down. Do the same with Syrah: Australia, Rhône valley, Languedoc-Roussillon, California. When you start getting antsy for change, that's when you're ready for the next duo. You're getting bored with Sauvignon and Syrah because they aren't surprising you anymore. But boy, do you ever know them. You know them in your bones and dreams. Your very breath smells like old saddles and gooseberries.
Let's say you opt for Pinot Blanc and Cabernet Franc for your next duo. Right away you'll notice the newness of these wines, not only that they are different, but how they are different. You've immersed yourself in those first varieties, and every subsequent variety will automatically be contrasted with them. To know wine, learn its elements deeply and deliberately. Then your knowledge will be durable and your palate's vision will inexorably widen. Trying to skim over hundreds of different wines all at once will only make you cross-eyed.
This is hard for most of us because of all the many wines coming at us. Trust me, though: it's mostly static, and if you really want to learn you'd best find a system, or use mine. It builds your knowledge slowly, but what you build stays built.
The palate is an instrument played by the taster, and you're practicing and doing your exercises until you become facile. When that finally happens you think you've attained your goal, but you're still in a primitive zone of merely demonstrating the mastery you have obtained by practice and repetition. Eventually, if the gods consent, you stop worrying about how and start worrying about what. You forget about playing your horn (or your ax in my own mangy case) and just start to play the music.
You go to a party in a house you've never been to, and they have a really cool dog. You like dogs. But this particular dog is introverted or bashful, and the more you approach, the more he backs away. All you want to do is scritch him! But looks like it isn't happening, so you merge back into the throng and forget about Towser. Later you're sitting talking with some fetching young thing and suddenly you feel something cold and wet on the back of your hand. Well, look who's there: it's old Towser, sniffing you, checking you out. Now you can scritch his handsome head all you want. Scritch away—what a good boy! You go back to complaining to your friend about how no matter how much you study wine, it doesn't seem to get any easier....
Wine is like a shy dog. Lunge for it and it backs away. Just sit still and it draws nearer. Wine is less about what you can grasp than about how you can receive. You grasp it more firmly if you grab it less tightly. It will resist you if you insist on subduing it. You can accumulate only so much knowledge in quantifiable bits, but you accumulate understanding if you learn to relax. Wine doesn't like being dominated. It prefers being loved and wondered about. It will do anything for you if you're curious and grateful.
I learned this the hard way, and so will you, if you don't already know it. I made quite an ass of myself strutting with my sexy-pants wine knowledge, and I wasted far too much time arguing with other wine geeks to prove my alpha cred. Learn from my sad past! The first hint I can offer is to try to distinguish between true complexity and mere complicatedness. The latter is usually frustrating, but the former is usually wonderful. You have to direct a beam of mind to pick a way through complicatedness. You set your jaw and grind your teeth until you've prevailed. You've nailed the flavors, quantified and named every nuance, and decided precisely how much you liked the wine on whatever scale they told you to use. But complexity asks the opposite. It is an immediate sense of something you can't know, something you won't be able to isolate or explain. Complexity is quiet; complicatedness is noisy. With complexity you have to relax your mind and see what happens. I can't promise this mental state is available to most of us, unless you are the Dalai Lama, until you reach a certain ... ahem ... age. It has been years since I worked at wine. I work with it, of course, and it's fun work, but I'm sure that after a certain point, the more we work at our pleasures (we say we "pursue" our pleasures, tellingly), the more they'll back away from us. Show me someone who "plays hard" and I'll show you someone who has forgotten how to play at all.
Of course, it is play, for many of us, to deconstruct and describe all of a wine's elements. But to the extent that they can be detected, what we're describing is intricacy, not (necessarily) complexity. A wine is complex when it suggests something that can't be seen or even known, but it is definitely, and hauntingly, there. A complex wine seems to channel the very complexity of living. A complicated wine is just a mosaic we piece together with our senses.
Here's what I think you're after: a point of utter receptivity in which you're seeing only the wine instead of seeing yourself seeing the wine. Oh, it does sound very Zen. But I'm persuaded it's the way to pleasure and sanity. If you don't see past your own discrete palate, you can't get past What am I getting from the wine? It starts and stops with "I." What am I getting, what do I think, how many points will I give it—all I can say is, if you drink wine this way, I sure hope you don't make love this way, because your partner's bored.
I know how it is; you're trying to get a handle on wine, and so you grasp for a handhold. If you're drinking a wine you like and someone tells you it was fermented with cultured yeast, the lightbulb goes on over your head: Aha! Cultured yeast = wine I like, thus I must posit the theorem that better wines are made from cultured yeast. Innocent enough. The problem arises when you cling to your belief despite any new evidence. It's tempting to add knowledge nuggets to your basket, and discouraging to chuck them away. But you have to; wine will force you to. It will lie in wait the minute you get certain about something, and trip you up in front of your friends, your sommelier, and the date you hoped to score with. Not that this has ever happened to me personally....
It's actually best when you make a mistake. And the easiest mistake is thinking you've got it aced, because now you're not asking questions anymore, you're waiting for each wine to confirm your conclusions. Yet wine will contrive to confuse your assumptions in order to force you to still your ego and listen. If you hold wine too tightly, it can't dance with you. Hold it just right and it will glide over the floor with you as if you were a single body.
Remember, your palate isn't a thing you possess; it is part of you. You don't taste with this thing; you taste with your whole self. Some years ago there was a story about a so-called Robotongue the Japanese had developed, a machine that could be programmed to identify wines based on predictable markers (acidity, sweetness, and tannin, among others) and that was able to "perform" with uncanny accuracy. So the actual physiochemical reception of flavor can be bettered by a machine, which can register and catalog what it "tastes." But does it actually taste? We are entire human beings tasting wine; we bring our memories and longings and anticipations to every glass.
Each of us relates to our palates based on our temperament: a geek will have a geeky relationship with his palate, a right-brainer will have an elliptical and inferential relationship with his palate, and a linear, cataloguing person will organize his palate like a well-oiled machine. No single system is "best"; it's important to have the relationship that comes naturally. If you try to force it, you'll be doomed to frustration.
These relationships change over time. In a wine lover's early days, he's usually (and usefully) an obsessive note-taker. Notes help hone his powers of concentration and help him remember what he has tasted. My closets are laden with dusty old notebooks so full of entirely tedious tasting notes that my wife's running out of space for her shoes. She's right, I probably ought to chuck 'em. I hardly write notes anymore unless the wine is seriously moving. And I'm confident I can deconstruct a wine's flavor if I have to. In the early days I wasn't, none of us is, but like every muscle, this one got stronger the more I used it.
The greatest wines are the ones you can't write notes about because you're weeping, overcome with their loveliness. This happened to me in a restaurant in Paris one evening; the waiter must have thought my wife had just told me she didn't love me anymore and was absconding with the plumber. Nah, it was just the damned Jurançon. This, like all wine experiences, will jump out of the darkness at you, but it's okay, it's part of the spell. Don't fear the weeper.
There's no need to posture with your palate. Unless you publish tasting notes for a living, no one knows what you think or feel about the wines you drink except you. So don't play games. Don't grope for extravagant language, don't confuse what you admire or find interesting with what you spontaneously like, and please, if the wine smells like roses, it doesn't make you a better taster if you find some esoteric flower like buddleia to compare it to. Trust any impulse that emerges spontaneously, as these are most authentically you. Some wines intrigue with their mosaiclike arrangement of nuances, and it's fun to root around and glean the intricacy of the design. Other wines seem to be pure image. If you're at all in the synesthesia continuum you'll find color images come to you immediately. I definitely receive some wines as "green" or "orange" or "purple," and while some of this is reassuringly literal—purple as aromas of irises, wisteria, lavender, violets, for example—other times I have no idea why a wine seems "silvery" or why it might play in a "major" key. I just know the image makes sense even if I can't make sense of it. Your notes should help you remember not only how the wine tasted, but what it was like to drink it.
And what of the notorious practice of blind tasting? What, indeed.
For some people it is the sine qua non of wine knowledge. Many of the exams for various wine titles (Master of Wine, famously) require proficiency at blind tasting. Why, I don't know. Once a guy can bench-press three hundred pounds, he needs a way to employ that strength; otherwise, he can show off his irrelevant prowess only on the bench. Blind tasting as such is hardly a skill that will be put to use in a wine career, unless you plan to make a living playing parlor games with wine. Importer and author Kermit Lynch said it best: "Blind tastings are to wine what strip poker is to love."
Let's come back to the musical instrument metaphor. The palate is an instrument played by the taster. As you learn your instrument, you practice exercises and repetitions until you are skilled. Then it comes naturally. You don't get on a stage and play your exercises in front of an audience, and blind tasting is the equivalent of playing scales: valuable, necessary, but not to be confused with playing music or tasting wine.
When Keith Jarrett recorded The Melody at Night, with You, he was recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome. He couldn't play concerts; sometimes he could barely even sit at the piano for more than a few minutes. The CD is a recital of standards and folk melodies, played very straight, with little embellishment or technical bravura. The result is nearly sublime, tender, deliberate, caressing, essential, and pure. One time I answered the phone while the disc was playing, and as I walked back into the room I realized that if I'd been listening casually, I might have thought it was merely cocktail-lounge piano. Knowing the artist, his history, and the conditions under which the recording had been made gave it resonance and meaning.
What, then, is the value of reducing wine to a thing without context? What game is this we're insisting wine play along with? What's the good of tasting blind? Where's the silver lining of experiencing wine in a vacuum? Yes, it can train us to focus our palates and hone our powers of concentration. Then we can discard it! It has served its purpose. If we persist in tasting blind we run a grave risk—because it is homicidal to a wine's context, and wine without context is bereft of meaning, and the experience of meaning is too rare to be squandered.
Excerpted from Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise. Copyright © 2011 Terry Theise. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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