Ramblings: missive from Dookie

I’m at the Dookie Agricultural College at the moment, enjoying a week-long residential session as part of my studies. As with the last session, I’ve had ample opportunity to taste many average wines and indulge in some navel gazing. There are certainly some very experienced palates amongst my fellow students, which is both enlightening and enjoyable. Several group tastings, and more than a few conversations, lead me to make the following random observations.

Palate variation is astonishing. We often talk about bottle variation and, as real as that is, I’ve been more interested this week in how different people perceive wine so very differently. On several occasions, I’ve been struck by how differently I have seen a wine from some, and how similarly to others. This certainly gives credence to the idea that one ought to align to critics whose palates are sympathetic to one’s own, but more interestingly it highlights both the (perhaps beautiful) futility of writing tasting notes altogether, and the uselessness of blood sport tasting.

On blood sport tasting — by this I mean an attitude to wine tasting characterised by a repellent competitiveness at the expense of almost everything else (enjoyment, propriety, humanity) — I find my tolerance to have diminished to almost zero.  I like to think I’m fairly accommodating of others’ views, but on this topic I am satisfyingly inflexible. As a lover of wine, to me wine is about enjoyment, quality of life, beauty, generosity. Anything else is just missing the point.

Which leads me to average wines. I realise that many, if not all, of our tastings this week were pedagogical in intent, and that great wines don’t necessarily assist with learning. As a selective taster who generally chooses wines I actually want to drink, however, it has been rather soul-destroying. I don’t know how wine judges do it.

A parade of average wines also raises the question of benchmarking. It’s clear that, amongst my fellow students, there’s a large range of tasting experiences, some at the lower end and some at the extreme high end. I find I sit somewhere in the middle, having regularly tasted local premium and decent international wines, without often having scaled the heights of vinous stardom. This would be neither here nor there, except that my fellow students and I are, in theory at least, studying to become vignerons. I suggest in this case that exposure to top wines becomes of critical importance, and wonder what might happen if we collectively fail to benchmark our palates and winemaking efforts in a meaningful way.

7 thoughts on “Ramblings: missive from Dookie

  1. It has certainly had a slightly different dynamic this week here at Dookie.

    Personally, and it may well just be the marketer in me talking, but I find that deciphering exactly what makes a wine attractive or unattractive (to me or others) is the cornerstone to understanding wine itself. In the same vein, alternative viewpoints can often help to point out characters that I may have missed, or elements that should be taken into account when examining a wine.

    For other people to then dismiss these opinions is a closed-minded folly, often reflective of plain insecurity and a lack of knowledge (as well as arrogance).

    A folly repeated all too frequently this week perhaps?

    • Yes – I completely agree with you, as you know. Good wine – as with good criticism – is often about bringing something to life from a particular point of view. And having a considered reaction to a wine pushes your taste forward because you are forced to try and understand what it is about that wine you like or don’t like.

      So, quite apart from the lovely social aspect to wine, and the learnings that come through shared tastings, I consider wine — and this is perhaps ironic for someone who is sufficiently exhibitionistic to write a blog it — fundamentally to be intensely personal endeavour.

  2. It’s interesting how quite a few winemakers have little ‘real’ interest in wine and continue to have little experience of it while they make it. Tradesmen rather than artisans, perhaps.

    • Funny you should mention that, GW, as a similar observation in conversation last week was the seed for part of my post above. I completely understand that for many people, winemaking is a “just a job,” and I don’t devalue the skill and effort associated with getting a good wine out the door. Having said that, my own experience of working tells me that passion and deep engagement with what you’re doing is often a prerequisite to achieving something special.

  3. Good analogy GW. Trade vs craft, art vs science, occupation vs calling. Arguably the key difference is passion.

    Surely though there are easier ways to make a dollar than the wine game? The pay is crap, hours are long and unpaid work is a given. It’s just a love of wine that can sustain.

    Or am I missing something?

  4. Hi Julian.

    I agree with your comments on benchmarking, or giving definition to one’s palate.

    Perhaps it’s analogous to a musician exposing their ears and minds to a diverse array of music – though many don’t.

    Eventually you uncover your taste, interests, style, and talent, and hopefully work toward producing something unique in that area – and ideally avoid being too derivative of other’s work.

    • The whole process of creating a worthwhile wine (style) really interests me – I’m not of the “let the wine make itself” camp, at least not in the extreme sense. So the input of the grape grower and winemaker, even if that input is a decision to “do nothing,” is something that’s worthwhile tracing back through the experiences that led to each decision.

      I’ve wanked on at length about one view of the process here.

      I guess the question for me is: can you arrive at something original and of a certain quality without tasting widely? This post and my replies to it might suggest I think the answer is “no” but I’m actually not so sure.

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