Slow down, pay attention.

October 26, 2010 § 1 Comment

Reprinted from Portland Press Herald October 27, 2010

I wouldn’t be writing about wine if I didn’t think it matters. Choices of how and where to plant, how to vinify, how to ship – all have effects on the wine as well as the world. You have a choice to make, too: how to bring to your experience of a wine the closest possible attention and care. When you do this well, the significance any particular wine fades somewhat, the field of inquiry veers inward. It matters. When you taste attentively, the heart of the event becomes the quality of your attention itself, in relationship with the object of that attention.

Do it this way and wine-buying gets looser, because you’re not trying to get anything “right”. Although more complex wines offer broader fields of inquiry, you can learn much about the tasting process from any wine at all – because any wine is simply the means to practice paying attention at a deeper level than you’re used to.

There’s not much to this, just time and attention. Here are a few simple ways of refining the way you taste in order to intensify your experiences, and your skill at experiencing. If you don’t have time to read everything, here’s the summary: Slow down.


  • Find a shop where you feel comfortable. Feel that the guy/gal there knows you (and your budget) and is curious about your tastes, rather than imposing his or her own.
  • Avoid “wine people” who don’t know anything about food.
  • Ask your wine-shopkeeper to assemble a mixed case or half-case for you, with a price ceiling and one parameter: a region, grape, or profile.
  • When you find something you like, buy an extra bottle and age it 1-3 years.
  • Sometimes, buy a wine with a label you can’t stand.


  • Store wine in the coolest place in your house (down to 50 or so), out of the light.
  • Store opened bottles (even reds) in the fridge.


  • Let it be known by those who might soon give you a gift that good glassware matters. Mention Riedel.
  • Try white wines warmer than you think is right (15 minutes out of the fridge), and reds cooler than you think (15 minutes in the fridge, unless you’ve got climate-controlled 56-degree storage).
  • Open the bottle before you’re ready to taste. Even 10 minutes helps, no matter how cheap the wine. Use a decanter or just let it sit in the glass. Notice any changes from first sip to later in the evening.


  • Use a notebook to record your experience of the wine and anything that comes to you. Don’t judge; feel: You’re not auditioning to be a sommelier or (worse) wine writer.
  • Nose”, once, before tasting. (“Nose” means “smell deeply”.) Wait 30 seconds.
  • For other I’m-an-expert tips on tasting, consult a book.
  • Whatever you do that’s different from an ordinary gulp of water, don’t do it in a way that makes anyone around you uncomfortable. This stuff is inherently ridiculous on one level; be subtle.
  • Taste the wine, slowly, without food. Later, add food. Did or didn’t the taste of the wine enhance the meal? Did you like it more on its own or as companion to the dish? Keep tasting. Drink water, too. If you’re buzzed at bedtime, take two aspirin.
  • Don’t do all this every time you have wine. Some nights are for practice, some are for sheer pleasure when you should forget about learning (which is another way of learning).
  • Every once in a while, take a slightly-more-than-is-comfortable break, to refresh your palate. Whether this should be one night or two weeks, only you can answer.


  • When you find a wine you like, geek on it: Research the varietal, the region, grower, importer, etc.
  • Record the info of wines you like in a useful way: paper scrap in your wallet, photo on your smart-phone, repetitive chant, whatever.
  • Set aside a dollar a week. Every half-year, buy a $26 bottle of wine to reward your refined palate.
  • Remember: it’s not about the wine, it’s about you.

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