Taste of the Place

At a wine tasting last night (held upstairs at the Corner Club, formerly QI) I discovered that, in fact, I have a curious way of tasting wine indeed, as it actually very often doesn’t involve taste at all, in its conventional sense. Instead, I have a tendency to experience the wine. As a pathetically undereducated and only very informal fan of wine, I certainly enjoy identifying the curious tastes in a glass (a cursory glance through the notes I made last night reveal that I found one to be faintly meaty, another nutty, another simply “sharp”) but what I notice more fiercely is what the drink actually feels like (how it rolls over my tongue, the way it leaves the roof of my mouth), and in fact most of the notes I did make have more to do with tactile impressions than flavors.

I found myself turning to the boy (beside me in a suit, looking almost unfairly dapper), who is of course infinitely more knowledgeable than myself in matters of both viticulture and culinary adventures (I had to ask him what was on my plate at dinner later), and telling him all about what my mouth was experiencing. Trust a girl to always want to talk about her feelings, even when it’s taste on the table, right?

Finally I said: “Actually, most of the time I’m so distracted by what I feel that I don’t even notice most of the flavors,” to which he very kindly replied (I’m including this only because it may add a tiny bit to my credibility here): “That may be, but you do notice flavors I would never be able to point out, and after I’ve seen you write them down that I find myself agreeing completely.”

Sweet indeed; and to be fair to myself, I’m unlikely to enjoy a wine whose flavors I inherently object to. But the discussion came to its zenith after the Syrah was poured; I took a sip, wrinkled my nose and twisted my lips as if I’d just tasted something foul, and was in the process of noting on my paper that I most definitely did not like this one when I discovered that the taste in my mouth was suddenly quite pleasing, and the actual feeling even more so: a kind of warmth spreading through my belly, settling on my tongue and in my head. The aftertaste was soft and buttery and I felt like I might be glowing. I immediately went back for a second (and rather large) sip; and was again confronted with revulsion. “Ugh,” I said out loud, and then felt all warm and fuzzy again, and smacked my lips happily against the creamy taste.

“This one’s like a fickle lover,” I said at first.
The pinstripe suit beside me lowered his glass in surprise. “I’m sorry?” he said.
“Well, that's not the best description. But my first reaction was that I absolutely hated it. And about two seconds later I loved it. It’s got such a nice feeling—all sort of—warm and glowy—and—" I paused, wondering if what I was about to say was even allowed to be uttered out loud, or if someone would come escort me away from the very civilized table for being too crude—“it’s sort of like the feeling of being on the cusp of an orgasm? Only obviously not so intense.”

To the silence beside me I begged, “do you know what I mean?” and got at last a, “yes, I do, actually," and a thoughtful sipping.

“But it’s amazing how extreme the two reactions are," I went on, "and how quickly I switch from the first to the second. It’s almost like…umm...ok, these are probably not official wine-tasting terms, but it’s like someone who you think is a real bastard at first, only he turns out to be absolutely sweet in the end.”
He actually agreed (was it all the sipping?) and then “surely,” he said, “surely we know someone like that?”

(Which is how the Syrah, which they sell, rather wonderfully, by the glass at The Corner Club/QI, came to be called, between the two of us, after a friend of ours.)

Then Mike, the man who had brought all the wine, started speaking about terroir, which he translated roughly as “taste of the place”—an elusive term used, I gathered, to describe the way the components of place (soil, sun, wind, rock: whatever it is that makes one grapegrowing site utterly unlike another) are imparted into the taste of the resulting wine. Apparently new world wines (Australia, Chile, California, for example) have a tendency to lack true terroir, where it is far more apparent in old world wines.

My understanding of the term may be rudimentary at best, but it is interesting to think that there is a word for being able to taste the origins of a wine. Then I started wondering if perhaps the new world wines lack this because the new world itself (being new only in a euro-centric cultural sense, of course) lacks the same sense of roots and identity as the old?

I can say this because I am myself a product of the new world (in other words: I may still offend but you cannot call me crass or unfeeling; I have greatest respect for my roots and my homeland) and the one commonality of my new world, at least, is a sense of confused heritage. I’ve lived somewhere that was settled by the Chumash, taken over by the Spanish and owned by Mexico before it was appropriated again by a young country whose ideological values tended to align more with Western Europe than anywhere else; somewhere that has subsequently been settled by scores of people from all over the planet. You see an old building and it is maybe a hundred years old; what is that compared to the ruins of Stonehenge, the medieval cathedrals of Western Europe, the villages that have existed since written records began? The place itself is old (the soil, the bedrock, the mountains and oceans) but the people who were there first are there no longer, not in any great number—replaced by inhabitants whose roots stretch all the way around the globe, invisible golden strings that run lines back and forth, up and down the earth.

In such places, grapegrowing is a new endeavor (I remember the fields of the Santa Ynez Valley before they were turned into a thousand vineyards, and I am young indeed). No wonder then that you can’t taste the place as well; for the place is still developing itself. Earlier we had sat upstairs with a local restaurant owner talking about California cuisine, which is so wonderfully a product of cultural hybridity, of combination and amalgamation: where else do you get a food culture where fresh is paramount (and, thanks to climate, eminently possible) but where dishes themselves are things which have been influenced by Mexico and South America, the Far East, Europe, and classic American ideals of cuisine? If terroir is about tasting the environment in which a given varietal has been grown, then it would be impossible to taste in new world wines, wouldn't it, where the environment is as mutable as the sky?

for posterity's sake, I should really add that none of the photographs in this post were taken at the event described.