Tuesday, April 25, 2006


There are some things that I just can't get a feel for. One of them is humidity and the other is the finer points of taste. On the humidity front, I can say it's humid when it's foggy and dry in the desert, but otherwise I can't tell between a dry heat and a humid heat. For me, it's just hot. I say that because people from either Chicago, Montreal, or Paris keep suggesting that it's better or worse in one place or the other because it is more or less humid. I can't tell a difference. For me 32 degrees Fahrenheit is 0 degrees Celcius, that's it.

So when I talk about a lack of sense of taste, I am specifically referring to alcoholic beverages. In my adult life, I have made attempts to become well-versed in wine and scotch. With wine, I bought Wine for Dummies and read it cover to cover a couple times. My goal was to get to know Bordeaux wines in particular. So we would buy a few bottles at a time and drink one over the course of a couple days. It may have been our technique, but for me they all tasted good, but knowing whether it was great eluded me. When wine was served at other places, others would try it and say this is a very good wine, but for me it wasn't any better than another. Of course, I know the differences between the different type such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Cotes du Rhone. But between wines within each category the differences (other than glaring ones) escape me.

Regarding scotch, a friend of mine was a bartender at a bar known for their scotch collection. I would meet up with other friends the night he worked and he made attempts to introduce me to scotch. I bought Mike Jackson's book on scotch, again, read it cover to cover a couple times and even analyzed the summaries in the book for each of the scotches offered by the pub. This one is more citrusy. That one is more salty and smokey. Another is more smooth. Again it eludes me. For me it's hard to see past the sting of the initial sip. It's almost like I was looking for scotch without the sting. Again, some of the more pronounced scotches like Talisker, I was able to see what they were talking about, but the others tasted the same.

That said, there are a couple other beverages that I do have a better feel for. Coffee and beer. Though not on the level of connoisseur. I can taste the difference between the different coffees offered at Starbuts or Second Cup as far as different strength and acidity. It's probably because I have so much experience drinking it. It's not like I have been drinking two or three glasses a day of scotch for the last twenty years. For beer, I love all the different kinds and microbrews up here. We used to smuggle home bottles of Fin du Monde and Maudite before it was offered in Chicago. Sometimes there is not much difference, like between Boreale Rousse and Belle Guelle Rousse. But for the most part the variety of microbrews is impressive. I am making my way through those offered by the local grocery store. Hey, maybe I could be an amateur beer connoisseur!


Blork said...

Frank, I think you are not so different from many people (perhaps even most). I'm quite convinced that most people who claim to have such specific preferences are really just kidding themselves.

One of the banes of our modern times is that everyone seems to feel they are not just entitled to an opinion, but they feel they are obliged to voice it (whether they have one or not). People can't just like wine, or beer, or whiskey. They feel like they need to make proclamations on them, even when they are only half-informed.

So they formulate half-baked opnions based on not much research, and declare that they "adore" this wine, and "detest" that one, or that this single malt is "exquisite" while that blend is "crap."

90% of that is bullshit.

Personally, I prefer to appreciate things for what they are, without (or at least rarely) passing value judgements on them. For example, Martine and I drink, on average, two bottles of wine a week. While we do have a few reliable "reference" wines, we are constantly trying new ones. In the past four years I can think of maybe one or two bottles that I didn't like. Only one or two.

Yes, they all taste different, but why do we need to put "good" or "bad" valuations on them? Why can't we just declare that this valpolicella is "a bit light" or that merlot is "fruity" or whatever? There's a place for all those variations, so why this rush to pass judgement?

It's like when someone says "oh, I hate Pinot Noirs" or "dark beer is too heavy" I just shake my head. I think that many of these people have these opinions because they have such a narrow definition of what "good" is. It's like kids who only like things that are sweet. Anything that isn't sweet is "yucky" because it doesn't fit into their template of "yummy." Open your minds! Learn that "salty" and "sour" and "bitter" are also good things and can add complexity and interest to flavors!

It always cracks me up at the SAQ to see so many people agonizing over their choice of wine. 90% of those people would be completely happy with whatever they picked if they just closed their eyes and grabbed something.

They're all good. Different, yes, but good. While some people can even determine what kinds of wines go best with certain foods or circumstances, very few people are really so particular that making a "wrong" chice will ruin things for them.

Whew! What a rant! Frank, do you realize my comments on your blog are longer than half my blog posts? Stop being so provocative! ;-)

jason palma said...

Taste is a protean monosyllabic word, imbued with senses seemingly unrelated with eachother. One sense denotes a value neutral activity, upon which our lives perhaps depend--a sharp or bitter taste may serve to warn us of a toxic substance. Another sense, the sense that operates within this post, denotes, perhaps, a state of one's character--one develops and cultivates a taste for the finer things in life. And I think that one can develop one’s sense of taste (in the second sense); of course, the second sense surely entails making value judgments, and this upon the highly charged words "good" or "bad". However, the use of these words need not seem either vacuous or histrionic--as is sadly the case for some uses, as Blork pointedly writes. If we recognize and espouse ideas such as terroir, that notion of "thereness" that a wine can capture, then we can make judgments that escape both the charge of vacuosness and the charge of histrionics; this hinges upon an openness, a willingness not simply to sample, swirl, and swallow but also willingness to remember, recall--indeed to re-cognize. But one initially must sample, swirl, and swallow! I suggest doing so systematically by exposing oneself to both a "horizontal" set of wines (a variety of different wines from some given and recognized appelation, say the Mosel, and a given vintage) as well as exposure to a "vertical" set of wines (a variety of vintages from one recognized appelation). I can recall tasting a "horizontal" set of Mosel wines that bore telltale signatures of petrol--a signature characteristic of riesling whose vines are cultivated upon schist, which itself is common in the Mosel; I can also recall tasting a "vertical" set of wines that, in varying degrees, bore a strong family resemblance to eachother. Any deviation from these signatures of "thereness", be it from inept winemaking to outright fraud (and all the subtle shades that rest between the two), can--with some justification--be condemned as bad. Some winemakers might choose to mask any sense of terroir with strong notes of vanilla imparted by new oak barrels, or they might be simply be masking a shoddy product with the oak that the palate of most imbibers demand; in either case one deviates from a given. Other winemakers time and again capture and remain faithful to the terroir, indeed let it speak; they choose not to mask the taste of their wine with oak; they choose not to increase yields so as to maximise possible profits--indeed they choose to restrict the yields of their vines (at considerable cost) so as to concentrate the notes of terroir found in their wines. And such wines, with some justification, can be extolled as good.

All of this, of course, hinges upon recognizing if a wine deviates from or remains faithful to a given terroir, and such recognition rests upon experience and knowledge (all alluded to by Blork); that is to say that one must train one’s sense of taste ( the first sense) so as to cultivate one’s taste (the second sense). I can only encourage you (and others) to try approaching wine with all this this in mind.

Frank said...

Blork, I completely agree with you. I get the impression that so many people feel the need to offer their opinion in regards to taste regardless of whether they have the experience and knowledge to make a real judgement. I lack those two in regards to scotch and wine, but it may also be that I'm a slow learner in that field. Jason pushed several scotches in front of me over the years, but I could't get a feeling for them.

Then those who speak in absolutes really get under my skin. I once asked someone if they like that film you mentioned that made Pinot Noir popular. They emphatically said it was 'the worst' film they had ever seen. I could understand not liking it, but the worst is a stretch. My difficulty with people who speak like that may be due to my desire to see all sides of problems. So I rarely find things extreme. I guess I'm a flip-flopper middle of the road vanilla kinda guy.

Jason, good to hear from you. And on this of all subjects. I agree that it's really knowledge and experience to get to that stage. Passion (which you never lack) in the subject is also necessary. There is something about wine and wine making that is so intriguing. I had a chance to work picking grapes near Bordeaux, but chickened out because I was worried about surviving with my language skills. Maybe someday I'll get back into trying scotches and wines more passionately.

Blork said...

The funny thing is that I really like both wine and scotch. I'm just not quick to praise or condemn them.

With scotch, I love the peaty aroma, and that initial sting of the first sip. I love the heat it creates on the tongue and in the throat, and the deep smoky air that fills the mouth and lungs after a sip.

But they all have that effect. Some more than others, some are more smoky flavored, some more oily flavored, but they're pretty much all good.

Frank said...

Maybe that's an upside of not being a connoisseur. You are less likely to be disappointed.

I do like scotch. I try to pick up a bottle at duty-free when I have the time. Problem is that when I'm there I can never remember which out of the ordinary ones that I want to try.

We also try different sorts of wine. Shiraz is a current favorite, though it seems to have quite a bite to it. We really liked Pommerel or Pomerleau (Bordeau) a while back, but I haven't seen it here yet.

So I guess I'm in the same boat. I have a rough working knowledge, but not to the extent of giving forceful opinions. Glad to hear I'm not the only one.