Monday, January 30, 2012

The HoseMaster's Basics of Wine Appreciation

With education in mind, I’ve been asked to begin a series of columns devoted to the basics of wine knowledge. OK, basically I asked myself. You're never too old to learn. What qualifies me for this daunting task, you may well ask. Like I care what you think. Like anybody reads blogs. Like I wouldn’t exaggerate my qualifications just like you did when you applied for that miserable job you’re doing now in this crappy economy that’s about to collapse like a travel agent school. But since you asked, for nineteen years I was a sommelier. You can ask any other sommelier--I know everything there is to know about wine. Ask renowned sommelier, Rajat Parr (if he has a stroke, is he then Rajat Bogey?) I combine the absolute authority of Wikipedia with the brilliant insight of Glenn Beck. Only I would think to compare wine tasting groups to Hitler Youth. After all, both grow up to assign numbers.

Let us begin with the basics. When this occasional series ends, you too will be a wine expert. Just what the world needs.

What are grapes?

Grapes are the berries produced by grapevines for the purpose of spreading their reproductive seeds via the intestinal tracts of animals. This is detectable on the nose of many wines. Grapevines are self-pollinating, and often embarrassed when caught at it. Interestingly, it’s those grapes caught self-pollinating that go on to make Blush wine.

How many different varieties of grapes are there?

Most authorities agree that there are at least two. Red and white. This ignores the most popular grape among wines that score fewer than 89 points--sour. OK, all kidding aside, there are approximately 6000 different varieties of Vitis vinifera made into wine in the world. Vitis vinifera is the botanical name for the European grape species that the great wines of the world are produced from. Literally translated, “Vitis vinifera” means “I’m vine, how are you?”

When was wine first “discovered?”

Scientists recently discovered a winery in Armenia that was 6000 years old. Surprisingly, a few amphorae of one of the original vintages were still intact and for sale. The “Reserve” had Cher’s picture on it.

Why do you swirl the wine in the glass?

Wine needs exposure to oxygen in order to release its aromatics. Sort of like a flasher. Swirling the wine in your cheap stemware is basically unzipping.

Blowing off bad aromas
What are you looking for when you smell the wine?

Well, that’s a nice mixed metaphor. Who wrote these questions? Sheesh. OK, first of all, you are smelling the wine to see if it displays any noticeable flaws that would keep you from putting it in your mouth—corkiness, sulfur issues, it smells like Marvin Shanken in a Speedo… We’ll get to wine flaws in a later volume of “Wine Basics.” If no flaws are detected, you are probably not qualified to be a wine taster. Virtually every wine these days is flawed in one way or another. (Sure, they seem gorgeous and hold a lot of promise, but, underneath, they’re poison, they’ll make you gag and leave a bitter taste for the rest of your life! Oh. Sorry. I was talking about my ex. Never mind.) It’s the wine expert’s job to uncover that flaw and ruin everyone else’s enjoyment of the wine by declaring that the wine is “Undrinkable!” in a loud, inebriated, sports talk radio voice. Remember, in today’s world, volume conveys authority. Always better to be loud than right.

What about specific aromas you detect?

OK, here’s the problem. Humans can’t detect specific aromas in wine. Nor can anyone else, like wine critics. Come on, raspberries?! Really? Cherries, cola, vanilla, cedar? Get over it. Essentially what happens is wine experts memorize fruit that supposedly goes with a variety. Chardonnay = peach, pear, pineapple. So you stick your nose in a glass of Chardonnay and you say, “I get pears, maybe some pineapple, is that vanilla?” Voila, you’re a wine judge! Or you can make up outrageous aromas and get everyone else to agree those aromas are present. “You know what I smell? You know when you eat fruit cocktail off a naked Japanese woman? Yeah, that.” I guarantee people will nod their heads and say you nailed it. The aroma, I mean.

Don’t most wines smell about the same?

All 89 point wines smell like other 89 point wines. They smell like failure.

After you’re done smelling the wine, then what?

Pour it down your pants and pretend you’re on “Glee.”

You taste it, numbskull.

What is the proper method to critically taste and evaluate a wine?

Take a sip. Don’t be in a big hurry. Slosh the wine around in your mouth. Most experts actually slurp the wine, inhaling air through pursed lips and making sounds like Kim Kardashian sitting on Naugahyde. This doesn’t do anything to help taste the wine, but it sounds cool.

Try to taste the different components of the wine to see if they are in balance. The basic components are alcohol, acidity, tannin, fruit, oak, and WD-40. Does any one of those components stand out? If a wine is balanced, they should all work in harmony, like the Flying Wallendas. If it isn’t balanced, it’s like Flying Wallendas on unforgiving pavement. A Wallenda omelette. This is not good in a fine wine.

Why do we spit?

You don’t have taste buds in your throat any more than Chaz Bono has an Adam’s apple. Expectorating means you can taste more wines and not become inebriated, and that’s the purpose of tasting. If you’re nervous about spitting, practice at home. Use water and practice spitting into a cup, preferably your spouse’s. Eventually, use the method professionals prefer. Go to YouTube and search for “Danny Thomas Spit Take.” That’s the way Robert Parker does it.


Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
Um, what the hell are you doing?! Trying to put us professionals out of work?! What, you're advocating that people can, and should be able to tell what's good and what's not? You're just going to hand over the tools/tricks of the trade to just anyone? I mean letting them behind the curtain and telling them about one of the single most treasured secrets of the professional wine taster, the "Make shit up and people will agree with you" bit? Dammit man..

In other news, I don't I will ever be able to taste wine while sitting on Naugahyde again.
I love you!

Marcia Macomber said...

He may be giving up all the secrets, but he left one out: the gargling before the spitting!

I'm a little surprised the photo is so PG. Of course, this isn't Ms. Dugan's blog. It would be too tame for Sans Dosage.

Looking forward to the next lesson. Still trying to find out what a lychee nut smells and tastes like.... (Sigh.)

Samantha Dugan said...

Oh great, one shot of my cleavage, one time and now I'm the R rated one?! Sigh....

Anonymous said...

Hosemaster, Sir!

Thank you for the illuminating posting...
Having attended last weekend's ZAP event, I think in addition to WD-40, lots of those Lodi Zindelfingers tasted like Chocolate. I wondered whether or not Forrest Gump was a winemaker out in Woodbridge and environs.
Didn't I see a blogger's tasting note posted on the web regarding that 6000 year old Armenian wine? I think he said it needed another couple of months of Amphora-aging to really come around.
Swirl? Yes: "To Air is Human" I think is the popular mantra.
Spit? Yes, "Spit Happens" is another popular phrase in wine these days.


Thomas said...

Danny Thomas?

How many of your six readers know the name?

winebookgirl said...

I'll join you on lychee and add in gooseberry.

SUAMW said...

Lychee smells very much like Gewurz. Gooseberries grow wild in cooler areas of CA.
So do currants (white, red, and black).
As for that Cher line. I could swear I saw that joke before....

Ron Washam, HMW said...

OK, the big news, Anonymous 1 finally shows up!! I had to wade through a lot of idiot Anonymii until now. Great to have you back!

In other news, when it comes to lychee. It's a little known fact that blowhard James Suckling crossed a lychee with a blood orange, so we now have Blood Suckling Lychee!

Even I hate that joke.

SUAMW said...

Are Ron and Tim Fish the same person?

PaulG said...

"You can ask any other sommelier--I know everything there is to know about wine. Ask renowned sommelier, Rajat Parr (if he has a stroke, is he then Rajat Bogey?)"

More to the point, if he recovers from a stroke, he is Rajat Birdie. Now, about that photo... did you photoshop in the underwear???

Ron Washam, HMW said...


No, if he recovers from a stroke he's Dick Clark.

Do I seem like a guy who knows how to photoshop? My computer is run by gerbils on treadmills. Nah, I stole that photo from some lingerie company. I just liked the reaction of the old guys on the bench.

Samantha Dugan said...

Anyone else freaked out by Paul's floating head picture? Just checking...

Anonymous said...

Gerbils on treadmills....I'll take Bordeaux for $200 Alex.


Ron Washam, HMW said...

Wow, even Anon2 has returned. What is that expression about "the scene of the crime?"


This is one of those throwaway posts you like to toss up every week or so. One that doesn't actually have an idea behind it. It's just a series of lame jokes told to an imaginary interviewer. Stale stuff. I'm going to go on Twitter and remind everyone that you are not actually funny. And I have a LOT of followers, like more than a thousand! I have influence! I damn near brought down Egypt singlehandedly. So when I say you're not that funny, watch out. You saw what happened to Mubarak.

Why do I bother to read you? Never funny at all.

Art said...

I think that Paul wants you, or your gerbils, to photoshop OUT the underwear. Shame on him!

Ron Washam, HMW said...


Yes, when you photoshop IN underwear, it leaves a really nasty skidmark.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Paul's floating head seems like an homage to one of my favorite films, Zardoz

Ron Washam, HMW said...

That's a classic, Alfonso! You may have just given Paul a new nickname. I like it. Zardoz!!

John said...

Thank you for:

"Don’t most wines smell about the same?

All 89 point wines smell like other 89 point wines. They smell like failure."

It's funny because it's true.

I'm so happy that your have returned to writing here.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Most folks pay lip service to the notion that all wines are different--but they give them one of about twenty numbers, lumping them together. But you know that when marketing people see that their winery received an 89, the wine will forever smell like failure.

Thanks, John, you've always been a loyal supporter. Now go have your head examined.

Andrea Wilson said...

I officially have to stop reading your blog at work because people are staring at me. I can't stop laughing. Jesus, Ron, where do you come up with this stuff? And will you be my mentor? Seriously. Your writing style is delicious.

Ron Washam, HMW said...


Mighty kind words, and welcome to my strange little wine world. It may seem apparent, but I'm not the mentoring kind, unless you want to get out of the business.

I don't think my writing style has ever been called "delicious." But I'll take it, thank you. Please come by often and chime in--it's a really interesting group of humans around here.