Someone mentioned to me the other day how wine is social and personal all at the same time. I thought about it for a while and it really struck me as a profound statement. Then on Sunday we went to a party where there was a lot of wine and over 30 people and I thought about it again. It is a very true statement.
Wine is personal.
The way in which I taste wine and the way you taste wine will differ significantly. We may even go about the tasting in the same way: smell, swirl, smell again, taste, swallow, etc… Sometimes I swish the wine around in my mouth like mouthwash. I’ll even introduce air into my mouth while there’s wine still in there – almost like a natural aerator. (Although some people think it’s rude).
But even if we taste the same way, wine is all about your personal experience. What you taste or smell in the wine differs on your past. We can smell something like 10,000 unique aromas, but can only recall a small percentage of those. It’s even more difficult to recall smells when staring down the inside of a wine glass. Take Merlot for instance, the first time I tasted Merlot I remember thinking of cherries. I still think of cherries today when I drink Merlot, but there’s a lot more to it now – mostly because I’ve had a lot more Merlots in the past few years. Now I’ll get a myriad of spices, cherries (red, dark or even cooked), plums, currants and many more flavors. Part of this is just from tasting lots of wine, but some of it is that I’m better about concentrating while I’m tasting and being able to recall more characteristics.
But if you think about wine from a personal standpoint, you can’t recall a smell that you’ve never experienced. So, when someone said to me, “Do you smell the lychee nut in this Viognier?” I said, “No, I don’t know what that is” (or something like that). I had never smelled or tasted lychee nut and didn’t even know what it was. Turns out it’s actually a fruit and once I smelled and tasted it, I knew exactly what that person was talking about.
Some wines, and these are some of my favorite, can bring back memories. Maybe even some memories you forgot about. For instance, some older wines have a dusty smell and that’s always reminded me of my grandparent’s house. Not because their house was dusty, but it just had this old historic smell to it. Most of the house was built in 1895. That’s some serious history. I have many good memories from that house and it’s wonderful when wine takes me back there.
But then there’s the occasional corked bottle that I open and it reminds me of the times I’ve planned for a (nearly) perfect meal and wine experience just to end up making last-minute changes. Oh well.
In addition to all of this, there is personal preference in wine. Sometimes it comes down to “I like it” or “I really don’t like it”. So at this party we were at, there were at least 30 bottles of wine open and everyone had an opinion about the wine they were tasting. I agreed with some of them and not with others. And the best part was no one was wrong about what they liked or didn’t like.
So, I think you get the idea of how personal wine really is.
Wine is social.
Most wine drinking occurs in pairs or groups. In fact, it’s unlike any other alcohol beverage. Most people won’t think twice about opening a beer or making a mixed drink for themselves, but when it comes to wine it’s usually opened with other people. Maybe that’s because we don’t want any of the wine to go bad? Or maybe it’s because there’s four glasses of wine in a bottle (two for you and two for me)?
I’m sure part of the reason we started drinking wine was because we wanted to feel sophisticated. Plus, how scary is that wine list at your favorite restaurant let alone the one you don’t know? It’s good to know a little about wine just in case.
So, let’s just assume that you generally open wine when other people are present. Does it then become social just because of that? I don’t think so. Lot’s of drinks are consumed with others around. I think the difference lies in the layers of the wine. There is complexity in wine. Not just in where it’s from, but the varietals, type of ageing and so much more. People generally want to talk about the wine. I’ve never heard anyone list off all the aromas and flavors they’re getting from their martini or how well the meal they chose pairs with the Scotch in their glass. Maybe it happens, but certainly not to the extent it happens with wine.
So how is it that something can be so social and so personal at the same time? I guess some questions are destined to remain unanswered. But I’ll continue to open bottles when guests come over (or not), diligently trying to figure it out.