When I first started writing this column, the idea was to casually educate The Examiner’s readers by discussing a certain type of wine and make several recommendations every week. With a few exceptions, I’ve stayed to this format, but I realized that the one thing I have not written about in some time is how to taste wine.
As with playing an instrument or learning a language, some people seem to have a natural gift for picking up nuances in greater detail than others. I am often impressed by people not in the food and beverage industry who can describe a wine with the acumen of those who have dedicated their careers to studying enology.
Half the battle is having the vocabulary to discern what you taste, and I think this is what often intimidates people. Taste and smell are subjective, and a lot of our sensitivities are influenced by past experiences. My grandmother used to make chicken soup using ample dill, so I am quick to notice American oak, which often smells like this herb.
How does one become a more skilled taster? I tell people to taste as much as they can, but also to read other people’s tasting notes and background information about wine regions and grapes.
In addition, while cooking, notice what different ingredients smell and taste like, solo and in combination with one another. You can also infuse a fairly neutral wine with distinct foods such as apples, black pepper and rose petals to gain a greater appreciation for aromas.
Tasting with other people helps — you may not have the word to describe what you taste, but someone else might. While taste is a personal thing, certain flavors are universal and will be picked up by many people.
At the end of the bottle, what counts is that you enjoy what you drink, whether it is a chardonnay that tastes like freshly churned cream or a 30-year-old first-growth Bordeaux. Both can offer much pleasure, depending on the person’s taste.
Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.