Tag Archives: wine tasting

When Ignorance is Bliss

Can your taste buds really detect the difference between a $10 bottle of wine and a $100 or a $1,000 bottle of wine? I’ve had this conversation endless times with family and friends. Most people agree that there’s some difference between the cheapest bottle of wine on a menu and something a little better, but when you start getting into the stratospheric levels, it’s really not worth it, they say.

My take is that you can tell the difference. Good wine is silkier, less rough on the tongue, has more body, more complexity.

Turns out we’re both right. According to the publication “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” from the American Association of Wine Economists published in the Journal of Wine Economics, Vol. 3, No. 1, it depends on who is doing the tasting. Regular folks can’t tell the difference between expensive and cheap wines. It’s really not worth it for them to blow $400 on a bottle of wine when a $40 or a $15 bottle would have done.

But the wine snobs, oh, they can tell. It’s both a blessing and a curse. Obviously it’s nice to be able to know that your tongue distinguishes between the best of the best and the cheap Two Buck Chuck.

Then again, you make for an expensive date.

I love this little essay in the Freakonomics blog on the New York Times about how Steven Levitt was always miffed that he was offered expensive wines when at Harvard’s Society of Fellows when just the cash would have sufficed. His advice:

No matter what, do not let yourself become a wine expert who can tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines. When it comes to your pocketbook and wine, ignorance is bliss.

The one thing Levitt missed is that neuroeconomics studies have found that people drinking expensive wine actually physiologically enjoy the pricey wine better (when they know the price, of course). In other words, your brain is actually tricked into thinking the expensive stuff is tastier and you can see it in the reward centers. So it’s not of much use if you’re doing a blind tasting, but if you’re treating yourself to a nice bottle of wine, you’ll at least enjoy it more, even if your pocketbook doesn’t.

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Posted by on July 17, 2008 in Uncategorized


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Learn and laugh as you watch this wine guy

Wine tasting, buying and collecting is considered by many to be stuffy, elitist and boring.

I wish they would watch Gary Vaynerchuk’s video podcasts (Wine Library TV).

You’ll laugh so hard out loud that people around you may wonder whether you’re insane. You’ll giggle at his facial expressions, chuckle at his descriptions of wine (he compared the smell of one wine to powdered lemonade) and tears will be coming out of your eyes by the time you’re finished with the show.

Oh, yeah, and you’ll learn about wine. He knows his stuff and isn’t afraid to share it with ya.

I just watched an episode where he compares Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio (which are made from the same grape — just in different styles) and found myself learning a thing or two. Plus, he rates the wines he tastes and talks you through the ratings, which helps you understand why a wine got a certain score (for example, an expensive wine with an “eh” taste rates lower than a cheaper wine that tastes the same).

If you’re on the path to wine snobdom, forget the stuffy wine mags, you’ve got to watch this guy.

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Posted by on May 20, 2008 in Wine


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Becoming a wine snob: step three

For those just joining the blog, check out steps one and two before reading on!

You’re the envy of your friends at the restaurant table when you knowingly pick the perfect Viogner, others look to you with awe as you describe the nose of a Malbec. Now it’s time to learn some vineyard, winery and tasting lingo. Throw these words around next time you go wine tasting with your friends in Napa and you’ll be the star of the tour:

Clone – No, not a science-fiction term, although grape clones do result from weird mutations. Wine grapes are known to spontaneously mutate in the vineyard. The result is a very, very close relative of the grape type (or varietal) called a clone. Some clones are given numbers (for instance, “777” is a clone of Pinot Noir) while others are given names based on their history (the “Swan” clone was taken from Joseph Swan’s vineyard) Many wines are a blend of a bunch of different clones. Many wineries are now offering “clonal tastings” where you can taste the clones before they are blended.

Finish – The lingering effect of wine in your mouth. The longer the length, the better. If the wine is acidic, you might describe the finish as “edgy,” while a creamy finish would be better described as “smooth,” or “silky.”

Malolactic Fermentation – This jargony term refers to a bacterial process that takes place in the wine. Yep, bacteria! These little guys turn the acetic acid in wine (which has an apple-y flavor) into lactic acid (the same acid found in milk). The result is that you get a creamy, rich wine when it has gone through malolactic or “ML” fermentation.

Punchdown – A technique during fermentation that mixes up the juice and skins. I spent a good chunk of the summer of 2007 doing punchdowns. Pinot Noir and Syrah have to be punched down three times a day. The winery where I worked had 20 tanks and each took anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. You do the math to determine the amount of manual labor this took!

Check out this cool video from that shows you how the punchdowns are done:

Brix – A measure for determining sugar levels in wine (specifically, the ratio of dissolved sugar to water).

Residual Sugars – Also known as “RS” (you’ll hear this term thrown around by really stuffy wine snobs), RS refers to unfermented grape sugar that remains in wine after the fermentation process.

Vertical Tasting – You’ll see these offered at some wineries. A vertical tasting refers to tasting several vintages of the same wine: you’ll taste the 2003, 2004 and 2005 vintages and compare.

For more wine lingo, check out this great glossary over at Fine Cooking that demystifies other wine terms. Learn them all and impress your friends.

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Posted by on April 17, 2008 in Wine


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Becoming a Wine Snob: Step One

Have you ever gone out to dinner with a wine snob? After a careful swirl, she’ll plunge her nose into a wine glass and emerge, raving about “a bouquet of Fijian kiwi flowers, wet granite, Meyer lemons, and freshly cut grass.”

“Fijian kiwi flowers? Meyer lemons? Granite? Grass?” you say. “Dude, to me, it smells like, well, wine.”

How do those snobs come up with all those flavors? An active imagination?

You’re right. It’s that — and a well-trained nose.

So how to train your nose? Start by paying attention to the foods you eat. Next time you’re eating a peach, stop and take a good whiff. Running by a field of freshly cut grass? Stop and smell. About to down a glass of lemonade? Take note of what that smells like.

Smart marketers sell those wine-tasting kits that come with a bunch of bottled smells, but go the cheap way by taking out a bunch of spices and fruits with you to the table when wine tasting. Sniff a freshly sliced apple. Do you detect it in the Sauvignon Blanc? Waft ground cocoa, pepper, coffee. Do you find any of those smells in your Malbec or Syrah?

And when wine tasting with your friends, don’t forget that active imagination. It’s sure to impress 🙂

Check out Steps Two and Three here!

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Posted by on April 12, 2008 in Wine


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Wet Dog Aroma

One morning, while working at a winery in Sonoma, JM, the assistant winemaker called me over.

“Michelle, I’d like you to smell this,” he said, pointing to a bottle of opened wine.

s_pouring-red-wine.jpgTasting and smelling were a regular part of the job (the day we tasted several brands of Champagne to compare it to ours was a delightfully memorable one). I leaned over enthusiastically.

A trickle of nail polish remover odor met my nose, followed by a peculiar smell. I searched my memory carefully to place it. It smelled damp, flat and like… well, wet dog.

There was no question about it: this wine was corked.

Every wine lover will at some point in her or his life encounter a corked bottle. Industry experts estimate that about 3 to 5 percent of all wine bottles are corked. While novices might wonder if it’s the wine itself that has gone bad, it’s not the doing of the grapes. As the name implies, it’s a problem with the cork. For me, the smell is that of a wet pooch. Others liken it to a wet newspaper or a damp basement.

I’ve never personally sent back a bottle of wine at a restaurant, but knowing the characteristic sign of corked wine, I wouldn’t hesitate to do so if I came across one. Nervous about doing it yourself? I’ve heard that a good way to do it is to tell the waiter that you think something’s off in the wine and ask him or her to taste it. A good waiter will agree with you and replace the bottle.

For other things that can go wrong with wine, I found this great article in the Chicago Tribune by Bill Daley that explains the intricacies of spoiled wine. One mistake I often see people do is keep wines in a place that is too hot, which can cook it. If you’re going shopping for wine and running errands afterward, park in the shade and leave the windows slightly cracked so that your nice wine purchased isn’t ruined by the time you get home.

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Posted by on March 12, 2008 in Wine


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