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Wine Ink: How to drink wine

Kelly J. Hayes
WineInk
Nestled in a winter's snow are three different pinot noir wines. Each comes from a different California growing region, each is made by a different winemaker and each reflects a different style. But all three of these pinots are the product of one company, the Duckhorn Wine Company. Try each and, if you pay attention, you will unlock different flavors, and yes, stories.
Kelly J. Hayes

Maybe you find the wine world to be a bit pretentious. And maybe the idea of some guy who writes a wine column telling you “how to drink wine” ranks for you at the top of the pretentious 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.

But 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.

And 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 thought about, 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 of 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.

Writer Malcolm Gladwell espoused a theory once in his book “Outliers: The Story of Success” that he called the “10,000 Hour Rule.” It basically 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 past 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 the law 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 New Zealand, all wine is just fermented grape juice. And you know what, he is correct. 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.

Back to the start. How should you drink wine? There are no rules. It’s an individual endeavor. But 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.

Just pay attention.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.


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