It had been a long time since I tuned into Wine Library TV and listened to host Gary Vaynerchuk rant and rave about the wines he tastes on line. The guy really knows how to flash describe things he puts in his mouth and nose, and can be extremely entertaining when he’s not talking about football. I used to watch him religiously.
I also missed Vaynerchuk’s appearances on the Conan O’Brien and Ellen Degeneres shows last year, but caught them recently, on the tv.winelibrary.com site. In both shows, Gary teaches “palate building” by encouraging his hosts to eat grass, dirt, and tobacco and to lick stones soaked in salt water. The results are hilarious, especially with O’Brian, who also sucks on his own dirty sock.
Vaynerchuk’s point in this dirt eating exercise is to help people identify the myriad flavors of wine by going to the sources. Why? It seems that no matter how much people love to eat and identify the flavors of food, they are completely lost when they put wine to their nose.
O’Brien said, “To describe it, they’ll say ‘grass and grapefruit,’ and I don’t even know what that means!”
Oh, sure. He’s never smelled fresh-cut grass nor tasted a grapefruit? Yeah. Right. What he means is that he doesn’t recall the flavors of a grapefruit or the smell of grass when he tastes a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but he would if he engaged his brain.
I hear it all the time, people read a wine review, think it’s a different language, and ask me if that reviewer was just being snobby. I’ll say, yes, he/she’s probably a snob, but what he/she said has basis in fact. The descriptions may sound inaccessible, but Ancient Greek it ain’t.
For instance, oaky means like oak, or wood, from trees that grow in your yard. Grassy means like grass, also grown in your yard. Fruity mean like fruit, a lot of it. That stuff might also be growing in your yard. Earthy means like earth – or dirt – definitely found in your yard.
These are basic descriptors, to be sure, but they are not so elusive when you tap into your sensorial memory bank. After all, when something is described as tinny sounding, you know it sounds like a tin can. A food described as salty you know is full of salt. Velvety soft means soft to the touch, like velvet. Since that’s how discriminations are made about just about everything, why should a tobacco-y wine be such a mystery?
The trick is in the thinking and recalling, and the connections made between different substances. When you close your eyes, tune out noise and sink your nose into a swirling goblet of wine, it’s really not that hard to think about what you smell.
But here is where I differ with Vaynerchuk’s entreaty to eat dirt in order to understand earthiness. All you need to do is smell it. The nose is much more responsible for flavor discernment than the tongue. For instance, when the waiter pours a sample of a newly opened bottle, one inhalation is all it takes to determine corkiness. Sipping only validates sniffing.
Therefore, all one really needs to do to develop one’s palate is go through the day with nostrils wide open. Walk down the street to take in the aroma of petrol (German rieslings), road tar (Rhone reds), the minerality of wet cement (Sancerre), as well as the mustiness of wet cardboard (corked wine). Hike through a park to inhale forest floor (zinfandel), mushrooms (pinot noir), guava trees (chardonnay) rose petals (gewurztraminer), and cedar (cabernet sauvignon). Stroll through the Granville Island public market and breathe in yeastiness (aged champagne), dried meat (syrah), chocolate (Bordeaux) and body sweat (sauvignon blanc). The trick is to remember those smells when you are nosing a wine. It’s that simple.
This is just the beginning of understanding wine, but an ability to identify flavors is the first step to fending off the snobbishness. Most of what I know about wine I smelled right in my own back yard.