A question of taste

Taste is a very personal thing, and not just in wine. One man’s Marilyn is another man’s Mrs. Brown. There is a long list of ladies whom I would have thought were quite lovely during my formative years as a hopelessly romantic teenager. Alas, they didn’t feel the same and to relate it to the theme of this article, they had what I like to call bad taste.

Taste is a very personal thing, and not just in wine. One man’s Marilyn is another man’s Mrs. Brown. There is a long list of ladies whom I would have thought were quite lovely during my formative years as a hopelessly romantic teenager. Alas, they didn’t feel the same and to relate it to the theme of this article, they had what I like to call bad taste.

I appreciate that I have contradicted myself in the first paragraph. How can someone have bad taste, if taste is a subjective and very personal thing? How can people buy the sugar and chemical laden mass market branded wines that are the architects of so many seismic hangovers and then proclaim to love wine? As the old song goes, ‘I know its crazy, but its true’. I should say that some mass market wines, while not exciting are technically well made and do not fall into this group.

I am rereading a brilliant book about wine called ‘The Accidental Connoisseur’ by Lawrence Osborne, a truly unique author who embraces his novice introduction to wine with great gusto. That is a polite way of saying he wanders around the world drunk as a skunk ‘researching’ his book. He also meets some of the world’s great winemakers (and a few wine dictators) along the way.

The book opens with a chapter called ‘A Matter of Taste’, so hence the inspiration for the article. He talks about the insecurity associated with trusting your taste in wines. This is why people trust brands and advertising so much. The notes tell us what we are supposed to taste but it doesn’t tell us how we can appropriate that experience for ourselves. The book is a subtle balance of high brow and low brow.

I think that this insecurity is important to understand as a wine merchant. Most of the time people know what they want but find it difficult to articulate so talking it through with them can eliminate 80% of wines within seconds. This is a great advantage I have over the supermarkets – as the Spice Girls sang, ‘Tell me what you want, what you really really want”.

The book also quotes one of my favourite winemakers, the enigmatic Aimé Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac. “For millennia wine was the centre of Western Civilization. It has always been a mystery. Today it has been transformed into a commodity”. This fear of taste has contributed to this, albeit with a helping hand from globalization and capitalism.

I like Mr. Osborne’s summation about acquiring taste – it is not a result of study, but a ‘talent for living’. You have to try new things and taste new wines to acquire your taste. Wine shows are great for that in the professional world but you should all go to consumer tastings and you will get a good feel for what suits you and doesn’t suit your palate. Our Christmas tasting is always a good one to get a flavour of what’s on offer.

The word taste apparently comes from the old French word ‘taster’, which means ‘to feel’. This descends from the Latin ‘taxare’ which means to evaluate or handle. If you go back further to the Latin ‘tangere’, it means to touch. Taste, as a notion only arrived in the middle of the 18th century. As the Bourgeois created fashion trends, so did they invent the notion of taste.

Some people are more adept at tasting than others, such as US critic Robert Parker and his amazing skills. However, when you break it down, past the twenty long cells, with a tiny hair projecting out of each of them to the surface of the tongue through a pore, the taste buds can only taste four elementary things – sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness.

Mr. Osborne decided that books and science could not aid him in his quest to discover his taste. He decided to ‘go into the world of wine and drink’. His idea was that taste could only be developed by action – ‘by pleasure itself’. The book then takes that theory around the world in a very funny and self indulgent journey. Like I said, I highly recommend the book.

As I finished this article, I was listening to the radio, and a piece about Ireland being the second lowest in the EU in terms of granting loans to SMEs. Considering all of the very positive advertising from the banks and the government, I was very surprised by this!

It gave me an idea for a possible future article that would explain the cash cycles of modern vineyards. I’m not sure how I could find any humour in this article however. I am sure most Irish farmers would attest to this as they desperately try to get the corn in at the moment.

The article could be an exploration of how the cash is recycled and how vineyards need help during the lean times of the year until the harvest brings their bounty. The wine business tends to be a cyclical seasonal business at all ends of it.

Don’t forget to get your Loyalty card in the shop. The scheme has proven a huge success and many people have availed of the free wine on the back of their purchases. Every €25 spent gets a sticker on the Silver card, and after 10 you get free wine and an upgrade to the Gold card. The same process gets you even more wine and the much coveted Platinum card.

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“Life is much too short to drink bad wine”