Join Us June 12th for KJ at the Vineyard featuring Russell Dickerson, Chris Lane, William Beckmann, and Ashley Cooke
Join Us June 12th for KJ at the Vineyard featuring Russell Dickerson, Chris Lane, William Beckmann, and Ashley Cooke

Is Wine Tasting Personal?

About halfway through the Texas Wine Ambassador Certification course we suggest the idea that wine tasting is half “the beverage” and half “us”. Essentially, if we're sharing a bottle of wine, the beverage in the glass is the same - the same color, acidity and tannin levels, and the same chemical make up. But we as humans are each uniquely made, suggesting that when we are wine tasting, what we experience is based on our perception from the irreplicable viewpoint that we have of the world. We may taste the same wine and come up with different flavors and aromas, notice different points of balance in the wine, and of course, have varying preferences. Regardless of these personal variations, the common idea that the wine tasting like “whatever you think it tastes like” can only go so far. There must be concrete factors in a wine as well, for these are what inform us in, say, a blind tasting setting. These concrete "clues" tell us about a wine’s composition, origin, and longevity. To an extent, wine is NOT is crafted from real components that can tell us something factual if we know how to register and read the signs. So, to what extent do we set aside personal reaction to wine when we are in a classroom setting? Can we actually be wrong about detecting an aroma that we sincerely feel that we smell? Or can wine have concrete and personal components at the same time?



Wine is personal, but...

The honest truth is that I teach both concepts at different times. Part of the beauty of wine is that it can trigger memories which are storing taste and smell sense, and these are ultimately personal. In the Texas Wine Ambassador course we celebrate our unique perception and how to tailor our wine experience to that and to others individuality. But when diving into the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) curriculum it is possible to understand how personal wine experience has its limitations. In these certification courses wine tasting is quite structured, and only certain words are given to us to describe wine, all with the goal of extrapolating conclusions about the wine's quality and ideal serving conditions. Whilst when serving wine in a restaurant or tasting room professionals may encourage tasters to share their unique experience of a wine with the promise of "no right answer," WSET courses rely on an individual's ability to come to the same conclusions as the instructor by "calibrating" palates.

The challenge is in reconciling how in one instance wine tasting is your own personal experience, but in drawing solid conclusions all must be in common with the textbooks that tell us that "Mourvèdre tastes like blackberry, smoke, leather, and violets". This conflict of ideas has gone as far as to cause occasional wine-lover-turned-wine-student to feel confusion when they hear me say that the wine in front of you smells or tastes like "a, b, and c". Sometimes the response I get is something like “ but we all smell different things, don't we?” And sometimes, understandably, this response is coupled with defensiveness. Disbelief. Even distrust.



the Big truth

Here's why your instructor is saying "no": While wine has unlimited potential for aroma combinations, there is actually a limit to the type of aromas that fermented grapes can express. Likewise, winemaking choices can only yield certain types of characteristics in a wine. This means that in the classroom an instructor might guide you away from a certain type of aroma that you have stated to be present. For example, the presence of vanilla aroma in a wine for a critical assessment would conclude that the wine had been flavored, or more likely, oak aged. If a student smells vanilla in a quality wine, but it has not been oak aged, it is unlikely that vanilla is the actual aroma being picked up on.

BUT there is a reason why the student's mind is screaming "vanilla!" This is the very personal part of our wine experience: This student's experience with vanilla is stored within their own unique memories. Perhaps their strongest memory of vanilla aroma is in a tropical fruit and vanilla bean custard tart that they used to get as a child every Sunday with their father from the local bakery. Believing that vanilla is present in this wine is the mind's its way of attempting to identify one of several aromas that you feel are related to each other. The real trick of identifying aromas in wine is to first recognize that there are numerous, seemingly unrelated aromas that you have unknowingly associated with each other! In the case described with the fruit tart, the student may not be smelling vanilla in the wine, but they could truthfully say that "this wine reminds me of a vanilla custard tart that I used to have as a child." It may be strong tropical and pastry aromas in the wine that your smell sense has recognized, and your memory is trying to reconcile these signals at the speed of...well...memory.

Essentially, wine is personal not because we all smell and taste different things in wine, but because it taps into our memories to retrieve information that we've stored in different ways. How our assessment of smell comes out is what is unique, but the actual aromatic compounds will be concrete "truths." As explained in March's Mindful Drinking blog post, we store information from multiple senses together, which means our memory is less like a collection of individual smells and more like stored "whole-sensory experiences" that we piece apart for information. When we stick our nose in a glass of wine and say it smells like flowers, we may actually have combined the aroma of certain flowers and strawberry together because our grandma’s purse had a distinct smell from her perfume, blush, and those little strawberry candies. There is no doubt that this is exceptionally personal.



But take this into a classroom and wine assessment can become much more difficult, if not impossible. In formal wine tasting assessment, blind tastings, or in an exam setting the wine has clues that we need to be able to find and identify accurately. These tell us about what a the wine is, where it is from, how the grapes ripened in the year they were harvested, and how the wine was made. Here, wine is still personal, but it is also textbook.

A great wine instructor should be able to hear your assessment of a wine and encourage you to keep digging for the truth as it relates to your past experiences with aroma-memory. And, a great student should keep true to the course, slowly pulling out the individuality of aromas in their memory to strengthen their wine assessment. Thankfully, no amount of studying wine will replace casually sitting with a wine and enjoying the memories and emotions it can call out of you. Remember that the human experience is stored personally, and wine assessment is both more difficult, and more enjoyable because of it.


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