Friday, April 30, 2010

It's So Much More Than Just a Score

While out wine tasting one afternoon in Oregon’s awe-inspiring Willamette Valley, I drove past abundant fruit and nut orchards positively bursting with spring life, so much so I could practically feel the innocent white and nearly neon-green colors, full of life and energy, oozing from the dead, brown limbs as the pristine blossoms and brand new leaves took hold, veritably spreading themselves onto the canvas. Even in Oregon (“the Green State”), winter marks the land with a barrenness—empty as an infertile womb— creating a longing for growth which only spring can fill. No matter how many times I drive these same stretches of rolling pavement, the seasonality creates a colorful landscape whose scene is ever-changing, like I’m looking at a whole new painting each time I pass by. I thought to myself, wow, if only everybody, everywhere could see this. Could a photo capture even a hint of the color or a glimmer of this mood?

I recently read something in a comment stream from Palate Press’s article about why people don’t read wine blogs. Jeff Siegel of The Wine Curmudgeon said this: Nobody wants to read about your drive up to the winery.

This remark didn’t really get me stirred up at first—not until the next time I was actually driving up to a winery. Then, I couldn’t escape the voices in my head as they taunted and teased me… Really? No one wants to hear about this stuff? People don’t want to have the scene dramatically set with an intricate depiction of the wineries, their vineyards and the countryside elaborately painted for them using only the power of creative imagery and the written word?

My fear is that next, I’m going to hear someone spouting how no one wants to read about anybody’s personal journeys through wine either.

One of the many things I’ve discovered along my travels thus far is in order to really learn about a wine, you must immerse yourself in more than just the look, smell, taste and score of the fermented fruit beverage. This immersion requires engaging all five senses, visual included of course. But I’m talking beyond what color the wine is in your glass and how viscous or thin it appears. It’s certainly a whole lot more than how that label looks and whether it’s a classic Old World or funky, kitschy or colorful modern design… and it’s clearly more than the shape of the bottle. All these things together though, along with a million other unknown influences as well, do flavor our experience; hence the argument for blind tasting (meaning you cover up the bottle so you can’t see the producer, label, varietal, etc… when you taste it).

This may sound silly to some, but studies have shown that something as simple as the color of the room will flavor your tasting experience. So unless you’re actually blindfolded while tasting that wine, your impression of a wine is even bound to be influenced by where that wine’s consumed. Think about it this way, will that glass of Archery Summit Pinot Noir taste the same if you were to drink it at say Chuck E Cheese’s as it would if it were slowly sipped from fine crystal stemware on the elegantly casual wine country deck perched high atop the Red Hills of Dundee overlooking the fertile Willamette Valley with majestic views of Mt Hood that may very well take your breath away? I doubt it.

The reason a wine sometimes tastes so much better at the winery (perhaps Robert Parker is onto something?) seems obvious, but really it’s not. It’s not simply the color and lighting in the tasting room, or that the wine has been stored properly (at its source) and hasn’t’ traveled by unrefrigerated trucks and then displayed on warm, well-lit shelves for months. It’s not just the emotions evoked when you were driving up to the winery, passed neatly spaced rows of old vineyards dripping with ripening grape clusters or that you’re drinking it with Mr. McSteamy- or Mrs. McDreamy-Winemaker, absorbing some of their passion as they divulge the deepest, darkest secrets about that wine in your glass. For instance, as you remark about the forest floor aromatics you pick up on the wine, the winemaker heartily laughs as he tells you a story about the clumsy Kiwi harvest worker who would tromp around the muddy vineyard each morning measuring the brix and then return to the winery to do punch downs without changing his boots. Well, after slipping and falling into the fermenter twice, they found another job for him, but admitted that vintage seemed very earthy.

All kidding aside, it really must be a combination of the factors I mentioned, and more, because for most, the wine tasting experience is quixotic—involving elements of romance, ideals, impracticality and mysticism that aren’t as much physical as they are mental and psychological, yet all individually unique and precisely unpredictable. And it’s all of these ingredients, which come together to create, and image and construct a more powerful memory of wine, one you’ll sincerely take to heart. Can a blind tasting or numbered score do that?

In article published on Palate Press called Wine Writing in the Time of Technology, Ben Simons of Vinotology eloquently said, "Ultimately, those of us who write about wine are looking for the best way to describe an experience that is inherently personal and subjective." I couldn't agree more. My job, and greatest challenge as the chief and only writer for Sip with Me, is to convey the complete experience to my readers so they can have a genuine appreciation of a producer, help them develop a profound relationship with that wine by understanding the setting, the history, the background, the people, the hardships…, because (and I’m going out on a limb here, though I am firmly braced so bring it) a glass of wine is sometimes more than just a glass of wine and how it tastes blind. Oh shit, Yes, I said it—publicly.

Don’t get me wrong, while I support wine rating systems on most levels, I also feel that taste is always entirely subjective and even a perfectly balanced, well made wine may just not appeal to even the most knowledgeable and/or educated wine drinkers and might even taste and score differently to that same person depending on how green the room was, their own body’s pH level, what they ate for breakfast, who is sitting next to them or what past memories they might bring to the tasting table.

I’m certain there will always be those on either side of the fence; some want analytical reviews while others will seek personal accounts by someone whose passion allows them to explore a deeper, more intimate relationship with wine and values the complexity of information as much as they value the complexity of the wine they imbibe. I write for those looking for personal anecdotes, an escape from the everyday, some interesting historical morsel that makes a wine or winery more relevant or perhaps that sumpin, sumpin that just makes that wine a bit more sexy, because in the end, I believe it’s these genuine connections that enhance the wine tasting experience and make that wine utterly unforgettable.

Next time you open a bottle, pay attention to the evocative sound of the cork pop, listening to the age and the passage of time as it slowly leaks from the bottle. Pour yourself a glass, both watching and hearing the wine as it splashes against the bottom and begins to fill the glass. Hear the thick glug, glug, glug sound change in pitch and timbre as the glass fills up, triggering a sense of excited anticipation. (Mmm, did I just see you lick your lips?) If you perceive any of these things when you open a bottle, you can certainly relate to and must appreciate the enchantment each and every glass conjures up; just a little something to think about. Until we sip again…

Cheers!

14 comments:

  1. You are such a talented writer. I usually don't have time to read lengthy pieces like this, but I actually read this twice. I love your imagery and word usage. Very well done, Tamara!

    I for one, love reading about the journey of the wine AND the journey up the road to the winery.

    Josh

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  2. Tamara,
    Your word craft is amazing, although you only have one writer and editor, you are in great hands.

    I agree that wine can't be reduced down to a number and scores seem cold and objective, even though they aren't.

    Your blog is definitely a 100pointer in my book.

    Thanks for reminding us to stop and "smell the roses" so to speak. It is those little nuances that make the experience. I love that Pop! Glug, glug, glug as the wine splashes into the glass.

    Cheers to you, and may your blog continue to flow and weave us a great vision of the wine experience.

    Brian

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  3. more pictures.. less wine minutia!!

    ( just kidding.. sort of )

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  4. Some people have a gift for writing. It's part of their identity. If one has a written outlet for something they love and the gift to illustrate it unlike anyone else, it's essentially their duty to employ all of their craft in the process.

    Yes, saying "me and Joe sang Journey at the top of our lungs while we drove up to the winery" is entirely unnecessary, but if no one before you had committed the unique atmosphere of a hidden secret of a winery buried deep in the countryside of an overlooked wine region to writing before, you can and should describe it the way only you can.

    The people who complain about literary excess are the same bitter husks who bitch about the lack of personality, relevance, and context in wine reviews. It's best to tune it out and do what you do best.

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  5. Josh, thanks for putting up with me, I know it was a bit verbose. Huge thanks for your continued support and kind words, you set the bar pretty high!

    Brian, wow and thanks (even though that doesn't quite cover it). Your comment gave me chills and I'm utterly humbled. I will return to read these words often.

    Todd, I love you, you're awesome and always put a smile on my face. Thank you and I'll try to rant less and post more photos next time, promise!!

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  6. Joshua, very well said and so right on. Actually the rest of Mr. Wine Curmudgeon's comment was in fact a bitch about the fact that there's not enough top quality writing but then says that articles are too long (guilty) and usually about the wrong thing (probably guilty again), whatever that means. Is there a right thing to write about? I write about whatever inspires me and hope to touch someone else in doing so. Thanks for the perspective and the very sage advice, I will surely take it to heart!

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  7. You're doing a wonderful thing! Plus, I love your PHOTOS too. People are dumb sometimes (as in often :-).

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  8. Thank you Cindy, good to see your voice here. The photos have been tricky in the winter (I know you can relate to that!). I think too much about all the photos I've missed, thanks for reminding me to appreciate what I've done. And yes, there are far too many morons in the world, and they usually have the most to say in the loudest voice.

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  9. Tamara,
    I could not agree more with you-and the Chuck E Cheese analogy really puts things in perspective. I started DOWNpour as a forum to encourage people (my friends mostly!) to explore Oregon wine country for themselves. After several years and hundreds of "wine dates" later, I realized how many people enjoy wine, Oregon wines especially-yet have no real concept of how, when and where. Visiting wineries and tasting rooms in our gorgeous state is something that does in fact make the wine in your glass taste that much better.

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  10. Amy, thank you so much for your comment, it's really good to know there are other like minds. Thanks for gettin' it!

    Samantha my dear, I can't believe you stopped by to see me. I am both honored and excited by your presence. I do however wish it wasn't on a day I was standing on my soapbox and hope you read some of my more creative stuff. I know you'd like this one…

    http://sipwithme.blogspot.com/2010/03/glimpse-at-lost-loves-or-really-bad.html

    Please come visit again soon and often!! xoxo

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  11. Tamara, I LOVE the details you weave into your wine tasting epics. You're a writer: it's your duty to show us the process.

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  12. I commented in that same Palate Press string that I thought "most wine reviews were boring" (paraphrased). I imagine that irritated some of the wine-review-types, but I think you're right when you say that there's a voice and an audience for everyone. To me, there are some reviews that are great, because they skew away from the analytical and focus more on the experience associated with the wine or winery in question.

    There will always be the technical reviews, and there will always be a readership for them. Conversely, there will be the ones who want to try to craft an incredible experience into words. I think you do a marvelous job with that, and your readership appreciates it.

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  13. Thank you Rachel, I can only aspire to be the master story weaver you've become!!

    Joe: Thanks for your very thoughtful and appreciated comments. It's always fun to irritate a few of those wine-review types and I think it's great there's something for everyone. While my readership reflects a clear interest in experiencial writing, those quick reviews bring in at least 10 times the amount of followers. Sometimes, it's not always clear which side of that fence I should really be sitting on.

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