Two stories for you today:
1. When Julian first proposed that we write some kind of wine blog together, I wondered if anyone would ever, you know, send us some free stuff. Spoiler: no, not really. I think it happened exactly three times: one, some multinational behemoth sent a free bottle of a $6 Rioja (thank u, next), much later, two, the kind folks at Mollydooker sent a case of wine, including the really good stuff (read: the expensive stuff), which, me being me, I promptly reviewed as thoroughly and honestly as I could – I have vague memories of finally, excitedly opening a bottle of their tête de cuvée and being profoundly disappointed; it was pretty much everything that I despair of in wine in a single beautifully packaged bottle priced well out of my range, and then at some point for reasons that completely escape me, an author – whose name I have stupidly, annoyingly forgotten – send me an advance reading copy of what I believe was a popular science book on the subject of taste, perhaps, or smell. It is to my eternal regret and shame that I did not review it or at least compose a lengthy email to the author thanking him for generously sending me a free book. I do not remember precisely what the topic of the book was, but eventually, having read it and thought about it for a few months… hang on, UPS is here to deliver emergency hair clippers (the barbers have been shut down, alas). Be right back.
Aha! I remember his name. Leonard something… let me check my email… Leonard Mlodinow… who is, holy shit, a physicist at CalTech. OK, I am now utterly mortified that I did not review his book at the time. Leonard, you deserved better, and you certainly deserve better than the following comments, which are based on all of my scientific experience (which would be none: I have a BA from Berkeley, not a BS, and I am in no way qualified to talk about anything scientific other than perhaps Christian Science, if you’ll excuse a terrible joke), a very distant memory of having read his book, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, and what little I learned about olfaction theory from Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, which is a delightful book about Luca Turin, author of Perfumes The Guide and other articles on perfume. Turin is known for a (crackpot? breakthrough? TBD) theory of olfaction that is predicated on the idea that deuterated versions of the same molecule (that is, a version that is similarly shaped, but which vibrates differently) will smell different; that is, it is not the shape of a molecule that determines how it will be perceived by a human, but how it vibrates. One of the parts of Burr’s book that sticks with me is the disappointment Turin experienced when not every human subject in his experimental trials was able to perceive the difference between the two versions of the same molecule; it seems – again, this is from memory – that something else was at play and that no two people seemed to experience smell in precisely the same way, with some being generally better at it then other. (This, I assure you, will come into play when I eventually describe what this wine tasted like to me, and what my husband Dan, who is luckily in possession of a far better sense of smell than I, thought of it.)
Next, then, is some basic experience with the sense of smell (and taste) as thoughtfully demonstrated out in lectures by Prof. Amy Mumma at Central Washington University. CWU is in Ellensburg, Washington, in a relatively dry area of the state at slightly higher elevation to Seattle. I can vouch for personal experience that wines produced in eastern Washington will necessarily taste a bit different once they’re transported over the Cascades; you’re now tasting them at sea level, and the Puget Sound is much more humid than, say, Red Mountain, and that does mix it up a bit as well. Finally, this is only tangentially relevant, but I have eaten the same lunch, a reduced fat Asian chicken salad from Trader Joe’s, at my desk for the last ten years or so, and I can definitely say that it never tastes exactly the same. Some days the soy is a little bit more pronounced, other days the carrots are prominent, yada yada yada. Why? As with perfumes, I suspect that changes in ambient temperature and humidity (and probably changes in mood as well, who knows?), mean that different notes are more prominent under certain circumstances. If the office fridge is running extra cold, it doesn’t taste like much of anything; if it’s warmed up on my desk for a while, it tastes better; on a dry winter day, the onions taste better; on a warm, humid summer day, it’s more umami. Go figure.
In short, the experience of taste – to me, at least – is definitely influenced by genetics as well as by the ambient environment. If you’ve ever been at a winery tasting room and tried to taste wine standing downwind of a ckOne enthusiast, you may have noticed that you couldn’t really taste anything. You may also be fortunate enough to know people whose genetics seem to allow them to pinpoint flavors better, or who seem to sense a wider, more vibrant range of things in wine than you do. At this point in my life, I know for certain that my sense of smell is not particularly good, but that my husband’s is. This is fine. I buy the wine, he enjoys it, all’s well.
And this leads me to what I believe I eventually came to feel about Dr. Mlodinow’s book: that yes, chance is all well and good, but I do not believe that it’s fair to say that the wine writers’ assignation of scores is strictly aleatoric. Sadly, I cannot find the book in my house; I assume it’s actually here, just shelved somewhere that I cannot find at the moment. Reading the kind email that Dr. Mlodinow sent back in 2008, it sounds like he likely pointed out the inanity of Parker-style wine reviews, in which every review is reduced to a score and in which we all of course obviously know what the fuck the difference between an 89 point and a 90 point wine is. I think I remember feeling that Dr. Mlodinow was perhaps not a wine drinker, just someone who felt that wine scoring was bullshit – which it is! – and yet part of wanted to say but that’s not the entire point of all of this. Good wine writing isn’t filling out an Excel spreadsheet and awarding points based on whether or not the wine’s murky or clear, funky or tame; good wine writing should hopefully give you some idea of what the wine is like, why it might be interesting, and ultimately if you’re very lucky it’ll be amusing or challenging or what have you.
So, Dr. Mlodinow: thank you again for sending me a review copy of your book! To sum up: taste is tricky, there are genetic differences between different people, taste depends on the environment (humidity, temperature, ambient noise, smells, etc.), taste is also culturally determined and can be learned (see also: Germans who think American root beer smells like toothpaste, Americans who think ripe Camembert smells like jock itch), wine scoring is indeed bullshit, bottle variation is a thing (cork especially, some synthetic closures as well), and all of this cannot be reduced to mere chance.
2. In The Current Situation, my days are starting to all look more or less the same: Wake up at 7 am, make a pot of tea (today’s tea: Mariage Frères French Breakfast), have toast (or muesli, or Weetabix, or whatever), change into work clothes (OK, sweatpants, don’t judge), and log on to all of my work’s systems by 8 am (Microsoft Teams, Cisco Jabber, all that fun stuff). I then spend the day writing knowledgebase articles, working with customers to renew expired certificates, configure IV infusion pumps, all of the usual stuff. Lunch is at noon, which means I make sandwiches, typically. Then it’s back to work until about 2 pm, when things slow down as most of our customers are in the Eastern time zone, which gives me enough time to sneak out for a walk in the park as long as it remains open. Finally, at 5 pm, I log out of everything, shut the computer down, and make dinner. Today was Thursday, though, which means that Eat My Box delivered supper, so all I had to do was warm that up and plate it. Rigatoni, charred broccoli, olives, and lemon, so… white wine, anyone? I went with a Bodega Colomé Torrontes 2019 from Argentina… wait, aren’t they all from Argentina? Huh. Well, time for another cheat code… time to whip out that huge Wine Grapes book that I never read all of because. Let’s see what Robinson et al have to say… yup, Argentina only. Surprise, it’s a naturally occurring hybrid of Muscat of Alexandria and Listán Prieto, so there you go, mystery solved. Never one of my favorites, this wine always tasted like some kind of lemon cleaning product, the fancy kind from Whole Foods, but with a bitter, tannic edge to it. Of course, my husband Dan took one sip and said ‘uh, is this Muscat or something?’, once again proving that he’s better at the blind tasting game than I am. Dammit.
This is the first time I’d drunk anything from Colomé, and it’s slightly more expensive at $12 than usual cheap Torrontes I’ve seen, and it seems to me that it was well worth the extra couple bucks – and I am not surprised the Wine Grapes calls out this producer as a stand-out example of Torrontes Riojana. Not at all sweet, but with good texture and that love it or hate it lemon Pledge-with-an-edge, this is a classic example of the style. Damn the back label, though, for suggesting oysters because I sure as heck am not going to be able to eat oysters any time soon as the border with Mexico is closed.