Wine Tasting and the Metaphorical Imagination

A few weeks ago, a winemaker from Walla Walla named Gino Cuneo gave a presentation at New St. Andrews’ weekly Disputatio. His presentation was excellent — much like his wines actually. The reason I bring this up is that his answer to one of the questions sent my musings off in an unexpected direction, at least unexpected to me. Of course, the most genial Mr. Cuneo is not to be held responsible for any of the following.

I begin by noting that those whose tastes are disciplined, trained, and refined, are people who should be listened to. When a trained sommelier gets his black belt he has to prove himself in objective ways. When such a man tastes different wines blindfolded and can tell you the vineyard and year of each one, then his opinion should be respected. But this is not the same thing as respecting posers who have simply learned to say hmmm while looking at the cork, to swirl the wine in the glass ostentatiously, and mutter, “ahhh, hints of butter and bacon.”Wine

So the issue is not whether we should respect the one with disciplined tastes, but rather how better to understand the nature of the respect we are rendering.

Our sense of flavor is largely dependent upon aroma. So let’s start with a problem that pretty much everyone could probably solve — set up a blind taste test with three cokes and one cherry coke. All kinds of people could pick out the solitary cherry coke. But after they had done so, someone could step out from behind the curtain and say, “Yes, that is the right answer. The one that tasted like cherry is the one we pumped all that cherry syrup into.” There is, in other words, an objective (and right) answer to this problem.

But wine is different. A wine that tastes like cherries doesn’t have any cherries in it. No syrup, no cherries in the vats, and so on. Some of the tastes do have something to do with the history of the wine (e.g. oak from the casks), but some of the tastes are something else entirely. On the safe assumption that large numbers of trained folks can taste the same kind of thing from the same wine — in other words, we are not dealing with posers — we need to ask where this uniformity comes from. The cherry taste is not imaginary, and yet the cherries are.

For example, it is generally accepted that red wines break out between black fruit flavors and red fruit flavors. Cabs might make one think of blueberry, black cherry, black raisins, black raspberries, and so on. A Merlot might make the same man think of red plum, cranberry, strawberry, and more. What is going on?

A wine contains numerous aroma compounds, what scientists call stereoisomers. At room temperature, alcohol is a gas, and lifts sundry stereoisomers to the drinkers’ nose, and the various compounds remind him of things. Wine tasting out at the edges is therefore an exercise of the metaphorical imagination. But by imagination I do not mean imaginary.

Now I assume it is also possible that a stereoisomer from a wine might wind up chemically identical to a stereoisomer that you might get from cherries, in which case we have an all-natural artificial taste, and yet another display of the divine sense of humor.

But when you get out to the edges, you do leave a good deal of room for the aforementioned posers. This is because another variable is the individual nose — the nose of the drinker, not the wine. There is room because, unlike our cherry coke scenario, there is not likely to be a final objective answer. One swirl of the glass may have released something that reminded one drinker of rain on new mown grass and another swirl of the same glass reminds another drinker of a wet doggy blanket. When a dispute breaks out, in other words, there is no ultimate way to settle it.

But if ten blindfolded sommeliers in a row tell you that this wine reminds them of plums, there is no sense telling them that no plums came within ten miles of the vineyard during the whole process. That doesn’t matter. What they are saying is that the aroma compound that they get from this wine is very much like the aroma compound that you would get from something made from actual plums. But “this is like that” is quite different from saying someone put plums in there. The fact that this is an exercise of the metaphorical imagination means that when men have proven themselves, we ought to listen to them and learn from them — just as you like to read authors who are adept with metaphors.

The tastes that come from a good wine are therefore themselves and not at all like themselves at the same time. And this is yet one more testimony to the variegated goodness of God.

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David Price
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David Price

Somm…a documentary on such things…very entertaining. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4zeyuk8hL8. Netflix streamable.

Blake Law
Guest

To add yet another layer, keep in mind that none of these substances (wine, grapes, cherries, stereoisomers) ever cross the blood brain barrier but are discerned entirely through different levels of chemicals already in the brain. Right now, you have the ingredients for the best wine ever tasted, right between your ears.

John T. Meche III
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This is the best post about Donald Trump yet.

jigawatt
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jigawatt

“Donald Trump cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry.”

insanitybytes22
Member

He does have a very boxed wine feel about him, doesn’t he?

katie
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katie

Let’s not insult boxed wine, please. Some of our hearts are gladdened with it just fine, thank you.

Jane
Member

Oh, yes, of course, a Bordeaux is a claret!

Gavin Willis
Guest

But if Trump is interested in trying Amontillado, I have a cask of the stuff in my cellar…

Jane
Member

For the love of God, Gavin!

jesuguru
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jesuguru

This post has wine coming out of its eyes, wine coming out of its…whatever.

jigawatt
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jigawatt

When someone uses “poser” three times in one article, it makes one wonder if he’s about to get all Goth or Emo on us. If Doug busts out “conformist”, I’m leaving.

Christopher Taylor
Member

I have a terrible taster. I can’t begin to imagine what I’m tasting. So I’m profoundly amazed at my in-laws when they shut their eyes and begin conjuring up all sorts of wild things that are in the glass. I’m amazed because as soon as they point out this or that feature, I can taste it distinctly and identify it as true.

insanitybytes22
Member

We call that the collective unconsciousness of wine. ;)

insanitybytes22
Member

“The fact that this is an exercise of the metaphorical imagination means
that when men have proven themselves, we ought to listen to them and
learn from them — just as you like to read authors who are adept with
metaphors.”

Ha! This is also the reason why men should listen to their wives, not listen as in obey without question, but listen as in she just might have a different set of eyes and something to teach you. Often men don’t, which does not surprise me, since they aren’t very good at listening to each other, either.

jesuguru
Guest
jesuguru

But sometimes men keep things bottled up, as their wives tell them to stick a cork in it.

insanitybytes22
Member

I know, right? But what that often reveals is our true dependency on men, our vulnerability and inability to deal with the possibility that you may be human. Put a cork in it, I cannot deal with the fact that you are not Batman. ;)

gerv
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gerv

All true :-) Except for one small issue: a stereoisomer is not an aroma compound. Two chemicals are stereoisomeric to each other if they have the same chemical formula but a different arrangement in 3D space such that one cannot be twisted to look exactly like the other. (A real world example would be your left hand and your right hand – same parts in the same order, but not identical results.) They can be any sort of chemicals; they don’t have to smell of anything.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereoisomerism

All of that of course, is mostly beside the point :-)

David Trounce
Guest

But well worth the read, as was the post.

bethyada
Member

gerv is right. I suggest you replace “stereoisomer” here

Now I assume it is also possible that a stereoisomer from a wine might wind up chemically identical to a stereoisomer that you might get from cherries

with “aromatic compound” (which often smell) or even just “phytochemical”. Ironically, stereoisomers of the same chemical often smell quite different.

Nathan Smith
Member

Wait… what is the wine with hints of butter and bacon?

jesuguru
Guest
jesuguru

Right? Why can’t they make one with fudge brownie and whipped cream overtones.

Rob Steele
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Rob Steele

I have friends who are like that with beer. It all tastes like Juicy Fruit to me.

jesuguru
Guest
jesuguru

Buy gum, you’re right!

jigawatt
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jigawatt

Sparkling Muscatel – one of the finest wines of Idaho: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-kuOu_PSME

From back in the days when The Muppets were allowed to imbibe.

Andrew Lohr
Member

I’ll grant that some tastes, in many fields not just wine, are better informed than others, but is it not the duty of the better tasters, if they want to bring followers up somewhat closer to their own high level, to lead them up in a loving way rather than an arrogant way, and often in a step-by-step way they can follow rather than by demanding a leap of faith? (Our proud rulers have brought Mr Trump upon them, and upon us, by failing in both; and their pride does not prove any real height.) Jonathan Musselman introduced me to… Read more »

Fr. Bill
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Fr. Bill

Interesting – you did ~not~ go down a path I expected, insofar as you didn’t acknowledge two things which are required if one is ever to achieve a disciplined taste for evaluating wines. One of these is a breadth of experience, a life that has included a wide variety of flavors/aromas. If you actually grew up eating nothing but pinto beans and corn bread (as my Mom and her siblings did, impoverished Depression-era children that they were), then you’re going to go into adulthood collaterally impoverished as to what flavors can appear happily on your tongue. Wine will, therefore likely… Read more »