Understanding Wine: The Un-Knowing (aka the Importance of Blind Tasting)

If there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that I’m an experiential learner. Everything makes more sense when it’s tested, and the more senses I can use, the better. Somewhere between visual and kinesthetic, it seems I have a particular aversion to textbooks and homework. It’s not that I can’t do that stuff, I just feel trapped in someone else’s mind bubble (usually an ageing Edwardian man), and it’s uncomfortable.

Going through school, subjects I was once passionate about became hell; a good example of this is math, or better yet, science. As a kid, I loved collecting samples, experimenting with the elements, excavating, and playing with light. The funny part is that in high school I nearly failed Geology, dropped out of Biology, argued my way out of Chemistry, but then took AP Physics for which i did extracurricular work and got an A. Why is this? Because through real-life trial and error (using my own body), I could apply theory and test its relevance. This was not only incredibly satisfying, it grounded my understanding of what would have otherwise been very abstract and difficult material.

The same goes for wine. As an infinitely complex subject, it’s easy to get lost in the fluff of overworked, exhausting language, overlapping histories, tasting prerogatives, appellations and vintages. With all the confusion of memorizing this and that, there’s a major gap between reciting the material and KNOWING the wine. Really, don’t forget the basics. Here’s a classic example that gives me anxiety, as quoted from a french wine scholar:

“The textbook indicates that there are 24 Regional AOPs in Bourgogne (plus 44 Communal and 33 Grand Cru for a total of 101). However Appendix A lists only 23, and www.bourgogne-wines.com likewise states that there are 23. What is the missing AOP, or how else does one account for this discrepancy?”

While the scholar is focused on solving the discrepancy between 23 and 24 Burgundy AOPs, a more fruitful discussion might include questions like: what does it take to be labeled an AOP? Is AOP actually important for distinguishing good wines? What makes good wine? Why? And most importantly, if I was poured a [insert Regional AOP Burgundy] Pinot Noir blind in a glass, would I know? It seems that these questions would facilitate independent thinking on the scholar’s part, perhaps even offering solutions to the discrepancy they describe (or better yet, deeper insights that push the scholar past this question all together).

Being a human is complicated. We are often our own worst enemies, and find ourselves hard to understand or connect to. Especially in our modern world, we are trained to operate externally, objectively, and over time we begin to lose our subjective muscles- our sensory perceptions. When you look down at your hands, what do you see? Do you see your hands, or do you feel them? Do you see yourself feeling your hands? Or, does  seeing your hands stimulate your awareness of sense of touch? If you can answer yes to this last question, you are able to connect one sense to another. Bravo!

Connecting our senses is a big part of what makes us humans intelligent. The better we are at understanding ourselves through our minds AND bodies, the better we can process insane amounts of information, share it, and have fun doing it. So instead of lugging around a wine encyclopedia, pick up a glass and give it a whirl without even knowing what it is. Challenge yourself, see how many senses you can use to relate (or not) to the wine. What does the smell remind you of? What does it feel like on your tongue? Does it taste weird? How? Most importantly, do you like it? There are no wrong answers here.

Of course, reading is awesome and everyone should do it. But in order to really absorb written material, make it come to life for YOU. Start with the subject. Get interested, then do research- not the other way around***. Questions that stem from your own curiosity lead to answers that really stick in your mind and your sensory perceptions. Reading about wine with no objective is like sailing at sea with no compass. You will get lost in the doldrums or sink by iceberg. Like anything, it takes a certain amount of conscious re-training of your brain’s habits, but the results will blow your mind.

***BONUS POINTS to teachers and educational programs who choose to adopt this, or already engage their students in this manner.

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