WineInk: A Matter of Taste

Drinking Wine is Personal

Kelly J. Hayes
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“Here, try this,” said the proprietor of a local wine shop as he poured me a taste of Garnacha from a bottle with a label I had never seen before. “It came from a sommelier in San Francisco who brought it to a wedding here in the Valley for a couple from India,” he explained. “Let me know if you like it?”

First of all, the idea of the multi-national nature of this story — Spain, India, San Francisco — was appealing to me, but I realized that all I knew about this wine was the story that I heard from the man who poured it. And that story could perhaps have a greater impact on my perception of the wine than the actual taste of the wine itself. Before I even took my first whiff of what was in the glass, I was predisposed to having a positive experience because I wanted to like it.

That is the thing about wine. It is such a subjective product and our senses — be they visual or tactile — are often influenced by all the other things around us that are part of the tasting.

So often we find ourselves simply pouring wine into a glass and drinking it without really paying attention to it or thinking about it. But if we spend just a moment considering a few things it may well enhance our enjoyment of the wine and give us the kind of pleasure that makes tasting it such a unique and special endeavor.

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The Hawaiians have a phrase, “talk story,” that describes getting together and having a conversation. It’s an expression that suggests a process that goes beyond just a tête-à-tête, but rather, gets to the heart of the matter.

When you open a bottle or order a glass of wine, consider “talking story” about it, even if it’s just a conversation with yourself in your own mind. Take a moment to consider the place where the wine comes from. Visualize the vines, the source of the wine, and think about how that may affect what you’re about to drink. Perhaps you have never been to Spain or even tasted Garnacha, as the case may be. But you may have had a Grenache wine from France or from California. Try to remember that wine that you have enjoyed that is similar to what you are about to taste. It’s a way to make it relatable.


The wine world can be, let’s say, a bit pretentious. And the idea of some guy who writes a wine column telling you “How To Drink Wine” may rank, for many, at the top of the pretentiousness scale.

After all, four words will do the trick, right? “Unscrew, pour, swig, swallow.” Done.

OK, I ‘m kidding. But the point is everyone can, and should, drink wine, under cork or screw cap, sipped or swigged and swallowed in any way that makes them happy. Taste, after all, lies on the tongue of the beholder.

Having consumed my share of wine (most great, some good and some, occasionally, plonk) and having had a chance to taste with winemakers who have made the wines of their passion, with sommeliers who make the study of wines their obsession, and with collectors who drink to gauge the value of their holdings, I have learned a thing or two about the process of drinking. Or tasting, if you will. I have learned to talk story.

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The best advice I ever received on how to drink a glass of wine is the simplest: Pay attention. That’s right, just two words from Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher over a dozen years ago in a wine seminar changed the way I tasted, and looked at, wine.

By paying attention to what I was drinking, by stopping long enough to read the label front and back as I opened a wine, by caring what kind of glass I was using, by being conscious of the temperature of the wine I was pouring, by looking at the color of the wine, by considering where the wine came from as I swirled it, I had a whole world of possibility and engagement open up to me. And that is all before I even put my nose in to inhale the aromas or tilted the glass for the first sip.

Jay’s advice has stayed with me all these years and has become a part of my drinking DNA. I don’t even think about “thinking about it.” Whenever a bottle of wine is opened and I am about to have a glass, my entire being simply pays attention. Even if for just a minute

10,000 HOURS, 10,000 WINES

Writer Malcolm Gladwell espoused a theory once in his book, “Outliers: The Story of Success,” that he called the “10,000 Hour Rule.” Basically, it says — and I am paraphrasing — that if you practice something for 10,000 hours you will master it. There are flaws, of course, and over the last decade other writers have written 10,000 rebukes pointing out those flaws. But as an arbitrary number, my guess is it would come pretty close to the number of glasses of wine I have paid attention to over the course of, say, the last 15 years.

Has it made me an expert? Hardly. I don’t possess the natural palate of some who can decipher and define the myriad smells and tastes found in wines with little more than minor vintage variation. I don’t pretend to have mastered the skills of trained tasters, like the aforementioned Jay Fletcher, who can examine a glass like a lawyer examines a statute and make calculated deductions about the varietal, its place of origin, the person who made it, and the year the grapes that are in the glass were grown.

But today I have a pretty good grasp on the world of wine. I likely know it better than I know anything else in my life, with the possible exception of football. And my deep appreciation for all that wine represents, from geology to geography, from climate to history, and especially sociology, has had a markedly positive impact on my life. All because I have paid attention.

I have a friend, one who is in a position to afford not just good, but really good wines. “After three sips, nobody knows what they are drinking anymore” is his refrain. Though generous with his wine, he is convinced that from Burgundy to the Barossa, from Napa to Naples, all wine is just fermented grape juice. And you know what? He is right. All wine is a natural product that has its origins in grapes. But if you pay attention, the complexity and the diversity and, well, the magic of such a simple product can change the way you feel about wine.

There are no rules. It’s an individual endeavor. However, if you take a moment to stop, look, smell and taste, and give some thought to what you’ve seen, smelled and tasted, chances are you will have a more enjoyable wine experience.

So back to that bottle of Garnacha that I was poured at the beginning of the story. I paid attention, I told myself the story was great, I looked deeply into the glass, took a deep whiff of the wine and took a sip.

Yeeech! Sometimes a wine is just, well, it’s just bad. This was the prime example. I smiled, told my host what I thought and walked away.

That’s my story.


2018 Bodegas Alto Moncayo Garnacha

Now this is Garnacha. Produced in the Campo de Borja Denominación de Origen, a region in the hills of northeastern Spain near Zaragoza. If you like lush dark chocolate, wines that coat your mouth with a rich, regal flavor, then you, like me, will love this product of the gnarly old vines that these wines are sourced from. Grenache, or Garnacha, as they call it in Spain, is a late ripening grape that imparts a bold experience. You can try other examples of the grape, but few express their origin as this wine from Bodegas Alto Moncayo.

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