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. 


I'm finding my Zen in this tiny town with more vines than people. The rhythm of life here is slower than I expected. Farm work is especially removed from the demanding pace of capitalist markets. An hour of my time is worthy in its own right, whether it's applied to work in the vineyard, the cellar, in making a meal, or taking a siesta. There are fewer boundaries. Idle time has its own element of productivity, just as work has a peacefulness about it. The summer heat melts existence into this one hazy day dream, where the value of a dollar is lost to me (even more so when I try to do the euro/dollar conversion rate mentally). 

Sure, waking up before dawn is almost painful (my job before this was working in a bar), but that feeling evaporates the second I hop in the Renault work van and it shuffles us down the gravel roads to the vineyards. Two dogs, Donne et Picasso, and three geese come with us. Donne is the veteran: she stands in the car at its side opening--no van door--and sticks her head in the wind as we drive. Last week she hopped out while we passed through a roundabout; we stopped in the middle of it until she jumped back in. Back home in the states, geese are like devil chickens. All they do is poop and steal. Aline's three geese are different. They're domesticated like cats: still independent, but they prefer to follow her around at the heels. By some feat, Aline has trained them not to eat the grapes while we work. Instead they milll around her in a loose line, eating weeds. 

I've seen six sunrises so far; a true rarity for a freshly minted college graduate. The sight is the stuff of fairytales. We go to work in the fading dark, the sky still a sapphire hue. Lately, the moon has been up just as early. Then over the far mountain peaks the blue gradient gives way to purples, pinks, oranges. A sorbet of color washes down over the valley, bringing Wednesday to the small villages nestled in its crooks. The vines are on hill slopes, creating dramatic shadows until the sun climbs high enough to cook everything evenly. All shades of green are added to the mix. The dogs sleep in the shade. The vista before me is in full focus by 8 am, with wild and tamed land patchworked all throughout the valley until they are met with the vertical walls of the surrounding stone mountains.

Aline and I work in silence, only occasionally calling to each other to check in. I usually get a single song verse stuck in my head for the day. It repeats in my head over and over like a mantra echoing my actions: turning the vines over and over. Wrapping and rewrapping branches and Kendrick choruses. 

The counter-intuitive principle to working outside is: the bigger the insect, the more gentle its nature.
— Aline, paraphrased

In the heat, the bugs wake up. The counter-intuitive principle to working outside is: the bigger the insect, the more gentle its nature. There is a large grasshopper-like creature that made me scream the first time I saw one. It's called a patagane, which is a Catalan word. It moseys around the vines without making much noise. Its bloated belly is striped black and white, and it doesn't jump very far. It's about the size of my palm, and is content to rest there if you pick it up. This is the most gentle creature in the vineyard. Well, those, and the cicadas, which you can hold and pet--if you're so inclined. I'm not. Once the cicadas wake up, silence in the valley is gone for the day. Colonies of large, black ants will bite my ankles if they find themselves walking across my shoes. The wasp sting from last week was the fourth different bug that has feasted on me here. Flies and mosquitoes go about their usual deviousness.

Thanks to my aversion to blind pain, my paranoia has listened carefully to every sound each of these creepy crawlies make. The hum of the fly is higher pitched than the buzz of the carpenter bee. The carpenter bee has a laziness about its flight path, making its hum slow and consistent; while wasps have a quicker buzz about them that almost pulses. Cicadas are too loud to mistake for anything else. Beetles have a similarly heavy beat to their wings, but they only fly in short bursts from place to place. 

Today the cicadas stayed back in the trees. A single carpenter bee kept me company, milling up and down whatever row of vines I was working on. I only I bit once, and I killed the ant that did it. 

A breeze kept the heat from piling up on the back of my neck and shoulders. It was 80 degrees Fahrenheit by 10 am. We don't leave until the work is done. On our way back up the footpaths to the van, I always turn around and look back and the field just completed: neat and orderly, glowing emerald in the high noon sun. A sense of accomplishment at the "real work" done beads up around my hairline and mixes with the sweat dripping down my face. I've earned another day here in this peaceful homestead.