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.”
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.