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Category: Philosophy



Senses open. Descriptors flitting and nesting within your brain. Noticing brings meaning and ultimately peace, balm in our hurried world. Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer agrees, and suggests we practice mindfulness, the “simple act of actively noticing things” (more here).

I propose that engaged wine tasting is mindfulness, a means to appreciate the fullness of life. “Ahh, bah humbug.” I hear the calls for sanity. “Wine is wine. You like it or don’t. Stop overanalyzing.”
I refuse to oversimplify our experience. Quality certainly exists, and so does its antithesis. If you like a Slider at White Castle, fine and dandy. It doesn’t make the burger high-quality, however. If you open your senses and mind to the experience of eating that Slider, you will likely agree (1). We consume mindlessly.

The lush life of bud-break wine experiences.
The lush life of bud-break wine experiences.

Noticing improves our life. This is a reason I admire passionate birders, wild foragers, hunters, yogis, rock climbers, golfers, et al. These folks slow the clock and absorb the task at hand. Focused wine tasting can serve this purpose.

I recently finished True Taste: The Seven Essential Wine Words by Matt Kramer. The book asks us, as wine drinkers, to open our minds to a more expansive view of wine tasting and critiquing. Kramer suggests we can use six words to hone our awareness and thinking: harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise, and nuance. These words help us think deeply without wasting time on the frivolous. Can a white wine taste like “Meyer lemon”? Yes. Does “lemon” suffice as a descriptor? Yes. Does the description “aromas of Meyer lemon” tell us anything about quality? Indirectly at best, and most likely no. Herein lies the significance of the six words. Quality wines exhibit many of these six elements. Stellar wines, those that haunt and tickle our memory, define those six words. Of course, antonyms serve well to describe wines lacking significance–discordant, one-dimensional, and iron-fisted, for example.

True Taste by Matt Kramer

I recommend True Taste. Read and you will better understand the subtleties found in each of Kramer’s six words as they apply to wine. Ultimately, the book helps you enjoy wine, and better articulate its. . . layers. This awareness stimulates our bodies and minds, while also helping us better assess the wines we drink.

Savor this world; respect it with your engagement.

1. Mediocre food can, of course, hit the spot. Average, bulk wines also serves this purpose. Conversely, you may personally dislike a medium-rare, well-aged filet mignon, just as you may find a well-prized Chateauneuf du-Pape distasteful.

A Sense of Place

A Sense of Place

A sense of place through honest winemaking and minimal intervention.

Those with a pulse on the wine industry have familiarized themselves with a new additive called Mega Purple, and its brethren Mega “Cherry Shade” and Mega Red. These concentrates are made from the teinturier grape, a lesser known, though massively produced, varietal from the steamy central valley of California. This grape is used to fill portions of bottles under $10 (and often higher priced wine, shhhhh). If your wine provides nothing more specific than “California” as its geographic location, you will be drinking some Teinturier, likely straight juice and concentrate.* 

Mega Purple is not inherently evil, nor is the grape used to make it. For most of us, our simple economic realities will require us to consume some (or even a lot of) Mega Purple. Some evidence suggests that most bottles under $15 use some form of the concentrate. Why? It rounds out the flavor in bottles lacking fruit, adds richer color, smooths bitter tannins from hard press, and, perhaps most important to the industry, provides consistency. Some wineries, especially mega-wineries, want a dependable, repeatable product. All of the benefits and trappings of this industrial model show in the finished wine. Economies of scale—check. A “go-to” bottle under $10—check. Wines using Mega Purple, however, notoriously mask or even eliminate varietal and locational character. The dark-underbelly of this relatively new phenomena* is a loss of place—homogeneity. 

Place matters. Not only in wine. Dr. Woodard, a mentor and professor of mine, spoke eloquently of the grounding nature of our native environment—the oaks in our neighbor’s grove, the Cardinal aggressively hoarding the bird feeder, the tall, fat thunderheads steadily trodding across the prairie. This sense of place is powerful. Energy giving. Life giving.

Swirling and tasting wine in the Columbia Gorge of Oregon

In front of me sits a bottle of 2011 Fourmen Pinot Noir from Vista Hills Vineyard in the storied Dundee Hills of Oregon. I swirl and smell place—bright, candied cherry, hints of earth, and acid. While industrial wine may be an enjoyable reality, or one forced upon us, we all benefit from taking the time to seek out bottles, at least on occasion, that speak of a specific place. With some care, conversation with local wine shop owners, and wise purchasing (case discounts, for example), wines of place can be found at many price points ($12 for my bottle tonight). 

Tonight, I drink to diversity. I drink to place.

Reasonably priced wines of place**:

  • Beaujolais, France 
  • Muscadet, Loire Valley, France
  • Southwest France 
  • Douro, Portugal
  • Toro and Jumilla, Spain
  • Columbia Valley, WA—seek out second label wines from esteemed producers. Example: StoneCap Wines.
  • Occasionally, if patient, even the Dundee Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley 

*For clarity sake, filters and additives have long been used by wine makers. Mega Purple-styled concentrates are, however, relatively new.
**Get to know a knowledgable steward at your local wine shop to find wines that allow the terroir from these regions to speak—not all wines from these locales are produced with fidelity.

Non-Vintage Wines: Broadening the Palate

Non-Vintage Wines: Broadening the Palate

Non-vintage (NV) wine does not resonate widely in our brave, New World wines. This old world technique allows winemakers to blend multiple vintages for added nuance and character, but usually remains a tool of the bubbly and fortified wine makers only–Port and Champagne particularly. Thankfully, J. Bookwalter Winery of Washington has deftly translated this technique to create a dry red blend, Notebook 4NV (their 4th non-vintage Notebook Red). Bookwalter Winery creates this blend to use up their excess juice after crafting their premier wines. However, Bookwalter’s excess is another vigneron’s treasure.

At $15 msrp, and frequently found at $9-$12, Bookwalter has set the bar high at this reasonable price point. Dusty raspberry and blueberry fills the mouth, and a fine layer of tannins rounds together the finish nicely. Upon drinking, you quickly realize something sets this wine apart. Fresh fruit aromatics and dusty gravel road, vibrant youth and raisined age. J. Bookwalter Winery makes the case emphatically for the accessibility and layered complexity of NV blends. This has instantly become a go to wine for me, and I look forward to tasting Notebook 5NV and beyond. Hopefully more wineries will explore NV winemaking, especially boutique wineries tempted to sell off excess juice to the mass-crush facilities for the sake of convenience. Perhaps they are intimidated by this deft execution. I would be.