The Edges of Wine Knowledge



It is an understatement to say that fermented grapes inspire anxiety. Am I doing this right?  Will I know if this wine is good or bad?  What is this salesperson/sommelier trying to push off on me?  Am I paying too much for this?

As a one of the wine folk of the world, I consider it every wine person’s first job to reduce that anxiety – after all, that’s what wine does, in the end.

Toward this task, we earnestly describe grape varieties, wine traditions,  tasting techniques, sulfites, types of soil, food affinities, glassware – to name a few. And we keep it up. And describing and learning more.


But, here’s a fun secret. We don’t know.  Even the Master-est Master of Wine doesn’t and can’t know some things.  These things are unknowable in wine and therefore a taster’s opinion will always remain supreme.


To balance this perspective, sure, we know plenty about grape varieties and verifiable details, but the rest of the influences on perception and value remains a happy cocktail of hypothesis and fashion.


For example, why can’t screwcaps age wine like a cork-stoppered bottle? We don’t know. (There’s a gob of money for whoever figures it out – and synthetic cork producers will tell you they already have…. they are drinking their own kool-aid.)


How do we communicate meaningful scent impressions? We don’t know. (More gobs of money…)


Which glass is best for capital-C Champagne? The fashion today is for the conventional white wine glass, away from the bouquet-numbing flute and not all the way back to the bubble-flattening coupe. Today’s fashion would would scandalize Marie-Antoinette’s admirers.  Try Champagne in a variety of different glasses to see where you prefer it – and let it be warmer to the 55-65 degree range for optimal perceptability.   Riedel’s Oregon Pinot Noir glass has been a personal favorite for years as it has enough volume to really let the wine express itself and enough closure to concentrate the aromas it offers.   I think I heard one of the kids say, it’s pretty woke up?  In language and in taste fashion, there is always more to explore – even when it’s done awkwardly.  In wine as in so much else, opinion and fashion have shelf-life.


Teaching people the pathways to finding their own taste preferences, I find it common to not trust one’s own opinion.  We want to bounce it off other’s like echolocation.  A recurring student at a wine class cleared it up for me one night. I told him I was surprised to have him attend as he had been to so many classes before. He said it was reassuring to hear it again.


Ok, I get that.  Hearing a familiar song or watching a familiar play on a new production remains a fine way to make sure your key still fits the lock.   We all play a little bit of Doubting Thomas when it comes to our own wine knowledge.


Take heart if you can’t recall all the grapes and their min/max percentages allowed in Morellino di Scansano. Or, why you would (probably) like it better than Chianti with grilled Beef Ribeye…


To this end of education and explanation, your questions give good sommeliers job security.  Genuinely curious tasters and diners offer that in return for the informed guidance.   Second, the recommendations with food are all fashion or fashion with a solid dose of nostalgia.  They live, however, as fashion we know, fashion sommeliers represent in context not mere recitation.


Away from fashion, back to the edges of wine knowledge, why do grapes taste like the place they grew?  Not one of the world’s wine-folk knows for sure – but everyone agrees it does.


Relax, enjoy the wine. Have another glass and talk about it. It will taste even better. Maybe, we get to know more about the wine, but we absolutely get to know more about each other – and I know that’s really the point.

Author: Eric Cook

In the space of a few decades, there has come a fascination with connecting people through taste, words and images. I like being in that movement. I look forward to connecting.

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