A Game of Blind Tasting

The first time I felt truly immersed in wine came a few nights ago, casually around the cutting board-like table in the kitchen, after half of the WWOOFers had gone to bed. (There are five of us now.) Bottles collected from recent tastings at Gauby and others were finished off, creating a meta mock tasting that informally manifested after dinner. 

Wine might have a pretentious image, stereotyped by pedantic words and insider knowledge, kept in a kind of feudal hierarchy. It's not, though. Wine is deeply personal, and emotional. The people who are teaching me everything I know about wine describe it in feelings and memories. A bold Cabernet Sauvignon can be a woman chasing after you, her arm outstretched to grab hold of you. A Macabeu that takes time to wake up might remind someone of the horse they kept as a child. Wine tasting has this transformative power to bring lost memories back to an almost tangible state. 

Ultimately, you either like it or you don't. This simple fact should only be determined by the emotional experience you just had with the wine--not it's label, its region of origin, nor the year of its vintage. Because of this methodology, the blind tasting is especially exciting, if not all-consuming.

"Jump in the river," as Renaud says. "I want to hear what you think." He is usually the one to emerge from the cellar reserves with bottles wrapped in tin foil, prepared for us to play with. He conducts this grand game of guessing, always the only one to know the right answer. On this particular night, there were three bottles wrapped in foil. One was immediately put in a carafe, as Lim, the most developed palette among us WWOOFers, explained that even the shape of the bottle is a clue to what the wine could be. 

Bottles that already cluttered the table were pushed aside to make room for a few rounds of blind tasting--the most authentic way to experience wine. Renaud serves us each, and the game begins. Everyone takes the first nose, then swirls the wine for the aroma of the second nose. I like to watch Lim go through this process in desperate hopes that some of her wisdom might rub off on me. A part of me still sees wine as grown-up juice; I feel like I'm playing dress-up with my tea cup full of imaginary wonders. But Lim, she "gets it." She'll sit on the second nose, smelling, swirling, smelling again. I could be half way through my glass of wine before she even takes the first sip. The minutes stretch out. It is between the second nose and the first taste that everyone falls to silence, deep in thought. I'm just along for the ride, and am prone to interrupting my own tasting process by snacking on the olives and bread on the table. 

People taste and comment on their initial findings. They debate characteristics for a while, sometimes raising their voices over each other to have their dissenting ideas heard. Each assertion requires another sip to affirm their claims. Is it a Grenache? A Carignan? A Syrah? By now I have decided whether I like the wine or not. I keep drinking regardless. The French starts to take off, and my comprehension nose-dives in a perfect inverse relationship. More than anything, though, these heated debates bring about laughter. Laughter from someone's off-handed opinion; laughter from an apt comparison; laughter from someone's complete dumbfoundedness as to what the wine is. The game momentarily devolves into this beautiful chorus of hollering, but French always carries a beautiful melody, even as you swear over your mother's grave. 

Eventually someone will call for order. "Silence!" Renaud held up an open palm like a judge, and then offer it out to someone at the table. "Lim, your guess?" The game is to guess the region and the year. Going around the circle, people submit their answers to the Commissioner. Sometimes they call on me: "Sheridan, your thoughts?" 

"Probably not a blanc," I submit with a rouge-stained smile. Simplicity is always good for a few laughs. They let is slide and move on with the process. I was just along for the ride.

Everyone nods and mumbles at the guesses; no two are completely alike. 

Renaud lets silence fall over the table before he tentatively reaches for the bottle, and begins to unwrap the foil. Each time he manages to open it so the label is facing him, creating one final moment of suspense before he turns it around in the big reveal. 

Nearly everyone is wrong, either by a few hundred kilometers or half a decade. Some are close: getting the year right, but not the region, or vice versa. Except Lim. Of the three rounds of blind tasting, she got it completely right, twice. We were impressed to say the least, which meant the jokes of her fame became relentless. We mock bowed at her opinions the rest of the night, causing her so much embarrassment she hid her face in her hands. But when it came down to offering an opinion or guessing at the bottle, she had our undivided attention. 

Perhaps the most interesting event that night though, was the bottle that everyone got wrong. I didn't like it. I was in the majority this time, as the table seemed largely unimpressed with what they were tasting. It was agreed upon that the distinct characteristics of the Bordeaux region were present (and since the region is so famous and large, answers required more specificity: north, south, across some river or another), but insight was universally lacking. Something about it fell flat. No one liked it enough to refill their glass. Lim submitted that it was a 2012 bottle, east Bordeaux. 

This time the reveal caused jaws to drop, eyebrows to skyrocket. A 2002 Saint-Estèphe from Château Cos d'Estournel. The story behind it was that Renaud and Aline originally bought the bottle for Mathys' communion, but that never happened, so it aged away in the cellar for 15 years until tonight. The consensus on the immaturity of the wine was right; Laurie, Aline, and Lim all guessed that bottle was from 2011-2015. Being a decade off in their answer proved that the wine was lacking overall. Everyone was wrong and unimpressed. I didn't understand the shock until Lim leaned over to me, explaining as if it were a secret, that that bottle of Cos d'Estournel was worth at least 500 euros, probably more. It comes from a very old, highly regarded domaine in north Bordeaux. What we just had was a rare experience for the likes of us--or it was supposed to be, had any of us actually enjoyed the wine.

Had it not been a blind tasting, we could have all been tricked into liking it, just from the label and the year, Renaud explained to me. It just goes to show you that good wine is good wine, and when it's not, it's not. 

Experiences like these strip away the pretentious culture of wine, and invite in visceral opinions and emotion. Tasting a wine and not being affected at all by it is just as valid of an response as understanding the nuance and complexity of another. Understanding wine comes from the heart, not the brain. Being surrounded by farmers who have dedicated their lives to making good wine has begun to cultivate this new kind of understanding within myself. Names, years, and vintages mean nothing if the wine doesn't awaken something within the soul, evoke an emotion or memory. The absence of these speak for the wine just as much. 

Olfactory Overload

It took me three days to make it to Perpignan, France, and as I arrived just past 10pm local time, my journey still wasn't over. Grabbing my green Teton backpack off of the convertor belt at the terminal, I was quickly the last one in the lobby as families reunited and left. Standing there, the lost duck that I was, Aline and her eldest son, Matisse, emerged from around the corner to greet me. I probably smelled like a lovely bouquet of stale, sweaty traveler, with a tinge of vomit from the half a dozen times I keeled over in motion sickness on take-off and landing. (Just talking about it now makes my stomach flip; I can hear the jet engines ringing in my ears. I am permanently scared by airplanes.) 

Aline looked lovely and tan in turquoise; her son: just as tall as her, and with a haircut that would have made him one of the cool kids in my old middle school. Que awkward exchange of hellos--I stick out my hand to shake "hello," while Aline simultaneously leans in to kiss my cheek, putting a hand on my shoulder in an almost-hug. My brain couldn't handle the translation. I defaulted to a nervous laugh. "Désolé." 

My bags were tossed into an old European work van, and we were off into the night. Latour-de-France is about 20 minutes away from Perpignan by highway. Aline asked me a few questions, but we rode mostly in silence. The darkness expanded as we drove further away from the city. All I could sense were the smells. 

The air outside was thick, the sea breeze cooked off by the humidity. Inside, the car smelled familiar: straw, dirt, grass, dog breath, poop, animal dander. Farm smells. I had arrived. 

All of Latour is situated on the rolling hills of the Pyrénées-Occidentales region. There is a steep driveway up to the house. Salvia, lavender, basil, and mint line the driveway in various repurposed containers. I could smell them clearly as night cooled the earth. Despite the late hour of my arrival, the French doors in the kitchen were opened out onto a rainbow tiled patio. Aline's husband and her younger son were at the table. True to French hospitality, I was fed fresh bread, local goat cheese, and their homemade, sparkling wine. The first real food I had had in days. Heaven.