On Tasting and Tastings: A Community Practice
March 1, 2018
First and foremost, wine is all about taste. We all know that the way a wine tastes is the reason we drink it. That's the bottom line of wine.
But on another level, perhaps one that is on an even higher plane than our personal palates, wine is about community. It is about joining with people in a process that brings pleasure to all. That is why wine is such a part of our social lives, because it gives us the chance to jointly experience something wonderful as we taste, talk and share wine with others.
But tasting wine, something we do individually, and participating in a wine tasting with others provides us with completely different experiences. Sure, in each we get to see what a given wine tastes like and make our own evaluations. But in the second experience, the group dynamic and the purpose of the wine tasting brings different vibes and knowledge levels to what it is we are trying to accomplish.
There are myriad ways to taste in a group environment, to attend a tasting, if you will. At its simplest, if you buy a bottle of wine to take to friends for dinner and both of you pour a taste, raise it to your lips and then chat a bit about what the wine is, what flavors or aromas you received, then that is, in fact, a wine tasting.
You may join a wine club where everyone throws in $20 to buy the wines and then gets together on a monthly Tuesday night to taste and talk. These can be enormously helpful in learning about different wines, regions and even your own palate. Even easier is to find tasting events at your local wine shops and participate on a regular basis. Many shops host customers to themed tastings for no charge that allow them to experience, say, New Zealand sauvignon blanc or pinot noir of Oregon. Not only do you get to taste the wines, these events allow you to quiz and query the shop experts and others who may be familiar with the wines and the regions.
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A More Involved Event
But a tasting also can be much more purposeful. This past week I attended an extraordinary multi-level tasting event called Premiere Napa Valley. It was hosted by the Napa Valley Vintners at the Greystone Mansion, home of the Culinary Institute of America, in the wine town of St. Helena. For the past 22 years, PNV, as it is called, has brought together wine retailers, restaurateurs, country clubs and wholesalers to an auction of one-off wines that are produced exclusively to benefit the Vintners Association. This year $4.1 million was raised to assist them in their stated mission "to support, to promote, protect and enhance the Napa Valley."
The PNV is a live auction event that gives bidders the chance to buy unreleased and specially blended 2016 vintage wines in 5-, 10- and 20-case lots. The top winemakers in the Napa Valley make many totally unique wines that they will not be selling for any other purpose than this special auction. Prior to the actual auction, bidders and guests have an opportunity to walk through the vast wine halls of the Culinary Institute and talk to the winemakers as they test and taste the wines that will be available as part of the lots.
Think of that for a minute. Not only are the bidders tasting wines that no one except those who made them have tasted before, they are doing so in the shadow of the vines whose grapes produced those wines. And they are able to ask questions of the vintners themselves about the vintage, the techniques used to make the wines and how they think the wines will mature. This all from a vintage that has yet to be released and one that is in its infancy.
The Premiere Napa Valley Auction follows a series of "Perspective Tastings" hosted by major wineries in Napa that allow the bidders to taste different vintages of wines from the valley. One scene Friday, the day before the PNV auction at the Robert Mondavi winery, saw hundreds of wines in carafes with just the grape, lot number and vintage on the beakers. A crowd of tasters — notes, pens and spit cups in hand — moved quickly through the giant hall, sniffing, sipping, spitting and taking notes on each wine.
While different, each of these wine-tasting experiences is all about the same thing: how the wines taste. That is the bottom line of wine.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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