Wine Epiphanies: The Tasting Blindside

by blog on August 20, 2021

In terms of taste epiphanies, being blindsided is the equivalent of being smacked by a two-by-four – a modern version of the Damascene conversion.We have all been taken unawares at some point and discovered a need we didn’t know we had; a need that was instantly satisfied.

This is a tad different to the maxim “tastes change”. It is undoubtedly true that over the course of time our palates become reconfigured, or more-or-conversely-less-accepting of certain smells and flavours.

Leave them wanting more is an excellent maxim for epiphany-seekers.

I knew I didn’t like lobster. I was never going to order or eat it; I had decided that it was not my thing. It was a strangely tribal fixation; like resolving that you are going to be a Conservative for the rest of your life, without considering why. Anyway, I was nervous nineteen in a famous Chinese restaurant in Ebury Street and was offered a taste of crustacean flesh. Momentarily unfocused on my hereditary dislike, I took the white meat in my mouth. Thud went the long plank. If I didn’t actually hear trumpets sounding, I sensed I was eating something that my body craved. I was hungry for a second morsel, but alas the lobster had been consumed. Leave them wanting more is an excellent maxim for epiphany-seekers. And now tasting lobster has become a madeleine-moment.

Taste, it is often said, is about discernment. What about a primal need?

Tim Wildman MW

A Digression Concerning Tim Wildman’s Natural Wine Epiphany:

I often like to imagine the way that the natural wine movement has spread around the world is like series of small stones being dropped into ponds, with the ripples expanding ever outwards. 

Beaujolais to Paris – plop! Paris to London – splosh. London to the world – SPLASH!  A stone drops at Five Bells in New York, Terroirs in London, La Cabane in Hong Kong, the ripples expand out…wash up against the shores of Japan, Australia, Singapore…

It’s a grass roots movement, spread by importers, somms, wine fairs, wine bar owners, bar staff, drinkers, you and I.

This stands in stark contrast to the top down era that preceded it, driven by Parker, Rolland and international varieties.  

A true popular uprising, one bottle at a time, one person at a time, private epiphanies all shared with hushed voices, trembling hands and excitement in dark corners of a bar.  

My own natural wine epiphany happened one dark winters night in 2009 in South London. 

I’d been working with Les Caves de Pyrene for almost a year, and quite frankly, I was struggling.  I’d had a classical wine training, and previously a lot of experience with Australian wine, much of it worthy, but all conventional. 

I was struggling to get my head around the weird, cloudy and sometimes downright funky wines in my new portfolio.  

I’d been out on the road all day and came home cold, tired and crucially hungry.  I put some pasta on and decided to have a drink while I was waiting for it to boil.  To my disappointment, all I had in the house was a sample bottle of Riffault Sancerre in the fridge, a classic example of one the weird, cloudy wines I was struggling with. 

I popped the cork, poured a glass, then BOOM.  

By the time the pasta had boiled I had practically eaten the bottle. 

And that word is important. It wasn’t like I’d drunk it, I’d actually eaten it. 

Being hungry, my body, my stomach, had recognised something alive and nutritious in the wine, and had gobbled it up. 

After that I was a goner. Once you start drinking with your stomach, there’s no going back.  

Over the years I’ve run this theory past many luminaries of the natural wine world, from Alice Feiring to Eric Narioo, and they all recognise and agree with the description. 

You see, here’s the thing. 

We’re all taught, as we go through our early wine journey, to drink with our eyes, nose and mouth. 

We are taught to look at the wine. 

We are taught to smell the wine. 

We are taught to taste the wine, then think about the wine. 

All these activities are “above the neck”. 

If we are really lucky, we may taste a wine that gets the heart racing or gives you goosebumps, but generally it’s all above the neck. 

Once you start drinking with your stomach, in other words, below the neck, your world view changes 180 degrees and you can never go back. 

All those things that were held sacred and holy in your wine knowledge, clarity of colour, cleanliness of aroma, clear varietal expression of the grape – POOF – all out the window. 

Your stomach wants a living wine, a nutritious wine, and that’s all that matters. 

Wine has moved into the same space as food, your body tells you when you need iron or vitamins, we’re not surprised by that, so why not a living wine? 

That dark winters evening in Clapham, when I practically devoured a bottle of Riffault in under fifteen minutes, the genii had been let out of the bottle, there was no going back for me. 

In that moment the scales fell from my eyes, like Neo in the Matrix I could make sense of the code scrolling in front of me that minutes before had been indecipherable.  

Like Dr Doolittle, I could talk to the animals, the crazy hairy, sometimes funky animals in the natural wine world, and I’ve not looked back since. 

—-

Being blindsided by a need that you didn’t know you had, and for that need to overwhelm you and ultimately to change the way you view something might be an archetypal definition of personal epiphany. In Tim’s case it was an almost undifferentiated need. Thirst became a hunger, and the gratification of having that hunger/thirst assuaged gave rise to a deep inner satisfaction, part atavistic, part sensory (as in appreciating new tastes). Out of desire then came enlightenment.

Tim’s prior mindset in terms of his appreciation of natural wine was a mixture of incomprehension and mistrust. His wine education had taught him to perceive wine as clean product, devoid of faults. Wines that did not measure up to this cultural paradigm could not be drunk with any pleasure, because their entire existence was based on faults/flaws (if you prefer). In one instant, he circumvented his wine education and recalibrated his palate.

—-

The Flip Side – Straining after a gnat

I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Why, so can I, or so can any man,
But will they come when you do call for them?

It is almost facile to say that without the experiencer there would be no experience. The interplay between intellect and emotion determines the nature of that experience.

During the process of wine tasting there is a palpable tension between expectation and fulfilment. Often, I am worried that the wines will not perform to my expectations. Yet as soon as the wine is in my mouth and I feel that it is in a good place, I put aside those expectations and accept it for what it is. The moment of time where expectation, analysis, acceptance and refocus seems to overlap is when the brain is processing perceptions and feelings at an astonishing rate. In Tim’s case, the wine fulfils its function by, in turn, fulfilling a simple craving – to crush a thirst. There is no process of filtering the wine through endless layers of expectation. It is an anti-epiphany epiphany – without any requirement for stars to align.

I once went to a Christmas party where twenty or so bottles were opened. Many of the wines in question enjoyed magnificent reputations. Because of these reputations, collective expectations were high, but, perversely, at the same time, we did not want to be impressed by power and architectural magnificence, instead we wanted to have some delicious and unassuming wine that seems to drink itself without comment.

There is no process of filtering the wine through endless layers of expectation. It is an anti-epiphany epiphany – without any requirement for stars to align.

Profound disappointment can be a fine thing in that it puts the value wine into perspective. What it also suggests is that noisy experiences, a cluttered approach to tasting doesn’t do the wine any favours, because we are straining for the best experience, but opening the wrong wines to achieve that. I would say that this tasting/drink session was one of diminishing returns, in that the contents of each successive bottle opened, gave us less and less pleasure. We wanted to crush a thirst, but were drowning in wine, straining to discover deliciousness, when that is something that is a need rather than an intellectual aspiration.

Restaurants sommeliers sometimes feel that wine needs to be impressive to justify its price tag. Wine doesn’t lock into quality narratives as simply as we might imagine; drinkability, after all, is a two-way process, and the psychology and mood of the customer/drinker has to be taken into account. The sommelier may want you to feel that you have been drinking something memorable and feel gratified by their recommendation, whereas you actually want something for the moment, a wine that taps into your specific needs.

Our taste in wine is largely the combined product of a personal and technical education. I had very little personal education because I was not interested. Wine was something for grown-ups. I never tramped a vineyard in France, nor was given a sneaky beaker of vino rosso by an Italian nonna when I was but a bambino, nor had a beaming artisan farmer offer me a grape to nibble off the vines “to burst Joy’s grape against my palate fine” and create my madeleine moment. My formal wine education was a gateway to information, not so much to enjoyment. I had to learn about wine for my job in the way that you had to learn about a product you use at work.

Before that, all that mattered was gaining the approval of the sommelier to defuse awkward social situations. Somms were not bouncy and tiggerish as they are today, but more like grave divines. I recall taking Melvin Bragg out to dinner to a cheap Italian restaurant in Oxford’s Cornmarket. Being the host, I was given the wine list to survey. I remember my eyes glazing over, as when one confronts an alien language for the first time, and all the letters of each word swim out of focus. I narrowed the choice down to Orvieto and Frascati, which I had vague memories of seeing on supermarket shelves.

The wine list had looked into my soul and found it reassuringly empty.

I took a deep breath, screwed my courage to the sticking point and said Frascati, rolling my rs in the continental way and waving my arms expansively. It was the third wine up; honour was satisfied. The wine list had looked into my soul and found it reassuringly empty.

Even though the wine was a sulphurous excrescence it was deemed good enough and that was more than good enough for me. In my mind, I was drinking the wine of Bacchus himself and that created an inordinate pleasure. What we bring to the table, our flaws and insecurities, our moods and expectations, transforms the humblest fermented grape juice into a mirror that reflects all these aspects of our personalities.

—-

Epiphanies are mood-dependent and also relate to physiological need. Often a break from wine can restore a sense of novelty by renewing one’s thirst. Taste buds, dulled by repetitious and unthinking drinking, are reactivated. Some part of me also craves the real. There is so much that is confected, indigestible and instantly disposable in life, so many things that neither nourish the body nor the soul. And then you taste a wine that is pure, almost essential, linked deeply to its place of birth, everything bound up in the aroma and flavour of juice and the sensation of mineral salts, and you feel nourished. In Tim’s words, you eat the bottle. Wine becomes food. As the bible says: “Take a little wine for thy stomach.”

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