We live in distracted times. We multi-task constantly. I’m as guilty as the next person. I never watch a football game without a lot of other things going on. I’m playing guitar. I’m eating and drinking. I’m chatting with friends. I’m checking email. Wherever you may find yourself – at a concert, a movie, a party – there’s a lot going on. And if there’s a bottle of wine in the picture, it’s easy for it to be overlooked.
Even when drinking wine at home, distractions abound. There is really just one surefire way to enjoy and appreciate a glass of fine wine. But there are many ways to miss the best possible experience. Here are common distractions that can diminish your enjoyment, no matter how great the wine may be. So ask yourself – am I missing out?
1) It was opened too soon. It may be in bottle shock having recently been bottled, or shipped, or shaken up in some way. Bottle shock is a sort of numbing of the wine. It’s not a bad taste or a flaw, it’s the wine shutting down for a period of rest. For that reason I always wait two to three weeks before opening any wine that has been shipped to me. You should do the same.
2) It was opened too late. This is the result of the “special bottle” syndrome. You have a special bottle set aside for some future occasion. The longer it lingers unopened, the more the likelihood that it will have suffered or decayed in the interim. I’ve seen excellent bottles that languished on someone’s kitchen shelf for decades. The best that can be hoped is that the wine will be drinkable. But it won’t be great unless you are very lucky. Most old wines taste like… old wine. Details and particular assets fade away. Best not to wait too long for the ‘perfect’ time to drink any wine. As some sage once observed, better to drink it a year early than a day late.
3) Partay! At social events wines get pounded down and never actually tasted. In the midst of conversations they get poured and drunk without any attention being paid. For any quality wine, this takes away 90% of the possible pleasure. Maybe a party is the wrong time to open a really nice bottle. But if it happens, ask yourself if you are giving this wine focused attention? Are you taking a moment to examine the whole sensory spectrum on display, from the first sniff to the last lingering aftertaste? Are you waiting until the last of its finishing flavors have completely faded before taking the next sip? If you jump too soon into the next sip, you’re cutting off the end notes, attenuating the finish.
4) It’s all too easy to finish off an entire bottle before it has had a chance to completely open up. This is especially true for young, newly released wines. It’s well worthwhile to slow down your drinking and let the wine evolve. I taste wines – young and old –over periods of hours and days, not minutes. They need time to aerate, and that applies to white wines as well as red. Even older wines from the cellar will usually require some time to breathe open. They’ve been shuttered for years, like Rip Van Winkle. They may need an hour or two, sometimes even more, to fully open.
5) It’s quite valuable to learn how to identify the most basic, common wine flaws. Because the less you know, the more likely it is that slight, undetected flaws will affect your conclusions about the wine. In the case of a corked wine, you may not even realize that it is suffering from TCA. But you may decide you don’t like the wine and never try it again.
6) We are all limited, and sometimes blinded, by our own preferences. We all want to drink what we like. And there is nothing wrong with making decisions about your own preferences. But it’s important for each of us to jump over our own fences once in awhile. You may think you hate Chardonnay or Merlot. I will wager that with a little experimentation you could find examples that would bring you pleasure. Or you may limit your drinking to tried-and-true varieties, rather than taking a chance with something new. But if you don’t experiment on occasion, you’re writing off a chance to find more – not less – enjoyment.
7) It’s not always easy to know if a wine has been poorly stored and possibly damaged before you acquired it. Even short exposure to below freezing temps or direct sunlight can ruin a bottle. Do you know the provenance of the wines you buy? Have you checked your own storage conditions carefully? Are there any signs of damage from a leaky cork? Stained label? Low fill?
8) There is no point to drinking good wines out of bad glasses. Whether they’re too small, too thick, tinted some odd shade of purple or whatever, poor wine glasses can and will dramatically limit a wine’s scents and flavors. You need not spend a lot of money, nor do you need an armada of wine glasses with a different style for every type of wine. One style for white and sparkling, one for red is enough. But do a little research and spend a little time and money to find the right stems for you. It’s the cheapest investment you can make to enhance the pleasure of your wine tasting. You can find good stems for around $8 – $10 and believe me it’s well worth it.
9) As I said, it’s all too easy to be distracted by noise, music, conversation, media, cooking smells, perfumes, floral arrangements, whatever steals your concentration. But if you really want to experience all your wine has to offer, give it a generous five uninterrupted minutes of focused, undistracted tasting.
10) There are many products that claim to aerate, preserve or somehow enhance the flavor of the wine. They are much more likely to emasculate it than to improve it. The best way to experience a wine completely is to leave it alone. If it needs to breathe, decant it. Forget about all the gadgets designed to beat up your wine. Wine has a gentle soul. Give it time and space to do its thing. It wants to please. Give it that chance, and it will give you its very best.