Wine: Facing the Fear

I am often asked why I don’t write about wine more on this blog, considering the fact that I drink so much of the stuff. Well, that’s because I only drink wine to get pissed.

Only kidding. In the past year or so I’ve been making a real effort to tackle the vast topic head-on but in doing so found something rather unexpected waiting for me: fear. I had identified the problem as akin to standing on the edge of a huge cliff, looking out into a vast sea of information; the bit I already knew was a little speck on the distant horizon. When I came down to the real business of it though, I felt a different kind of intimidation: a fear of the ‘wine world’ in general. There seems to me to be a lot of old guff surrounding rituals of opening, tasting and being ‘qualified’ to even talk about wine, like some of the people involved are trying really hard to make the subject more complicated than it is, with the apparent aim of making themselves feel a bit more important. Are you getting the impression this annoys me yet? Yes it does.

In the past year or so however, I’ve met people who have the exact opposite intentions, who are trying to make wine more accessible, as it should be. These people include my friends Kate Thal, owner of Green and Blue Wines; Dan Coward from Bibendum; Rob McIntosh from the Wine Conversation; Ryan and Gabriella Opaz from Catavino and the other wine lovers you’ll find on my blogroll, including Andrew Barrow, who invited me down to Brightwell Vineyard for my first foray into the world of English wines.

These people also encouraged me to attend the recent European Wine Bloggers’ Conference, in Lisbon. Now that’s what I call throwing yourself in at the deep end. As I set off on my adventure, I counted my lucky stars that a few weeks beforehand, a group of us had a tutoring session on the basics at Bibendum, where I’d stocked up on a few points of reference from the bigger picture. It’s all very well tasting wines from a certain region but if you don’t have any knowledge base to slot them into then you are pretty much screwed. Since then I’ve been tasting, tasting, tasting and feeling slightly more confident that I could take something useful away from the conference.

I’ve decided to use this post to record a few things I’ve learnt. Hopefully this might be useful to someone else out there who finds themselves in the same position. Writing it has also had a remarkably cathartic effect for me. So here we have it, 10 things I’ve realised about wine…

1. Swirling the wine around in the glass before tasting is purely to get more air in contact with more surface area of wine and therefore increase your chances of picking up any subtleties.  Examining the behaviour of the wine on the sides of the glass after doing so, or attempting to assess its ‘legs’ is mostly of no value, except perhaps to get an idea of the alcohol content. More alcohol = more viscous wine. You can of course, hold it up or against something like a white tablecloth, to get a good eyeful of the colour.

2. Just because someone else can pick up a certain flavour or aroma from a wine, it doesn’t mean you have to (and vice versa). We’ve all been there – the person next to you is all, “I’m definitely getting petrol on the nose” and you sniff and sniff, desperately searching for a hint of forecourt only to conclude that your nostrils are Neanderthals. It’s all subjective. I wouldn’t doubt myself when tasting food for example, regardless of whether anyone else is getting a finish of Stilton from the fat on their rib-eye; I know what I taste. Believe.

3. Don’t be afraid to have a good old chew on it once you’ve got it in your gob. Some people do that sucking thing, the idea of which is to coat as much of your tongue as possible to enhance your tasting experience. I’ve developed a sort of half suck, half chew, swilling it around in there as much as I can and generally trying not to worry about what other people are thinking.

4. Smelling the cork is a complete waste of time.

5. I have discovered that I can tell when a wine is corked. It basically smells like walking into a damp basement; a bit musty. Sometimes it smells only slightly musty, and this is when it is only slightly corked. Ta da!

6. Palate fatigue can be a problem. After tasting 18 wines for example, as we did on one occasion at EWBC, the untrained palate simply gets tired out and gives up. Everything starts to taste the same. It is at this point that a person needs bubbles; a person needs beer. There’s a damn good reason we drank so much Bock.

7. You I need to face up to the fact that spitting wine out is part of tasting.

8. Charles Metcalfe is a famous wine critic (and a thoroughly charming chap), who is also famous for enjoying a little sing. I honestly had no idea. Here is a (very bad quality) video of him singing at the EWBC. I think this is a must-know fact, personally…

9. If you work in the world of wine, be nice and don’t take yourself too seriously. See above.

10. EWBC is definitely worth the trip if you are a blogger at any stage of your wine adventures. Ryan and Gabriella Opaz and Rob McIntosh put a huge amount of work into organising the event and I think they should be congratulated on its success.

I would  like to thank all of them for putting up with an ignorant food blogger who is trying her best to learn. I would also like to say a huge thank you to Dan from Bibendum who had provided some amazing tastings for bloggers, and never tires of encouraging us to get involved. Cheers!

Category: Wine | Tags: , , , , 21 comments »

21 Responses to “Wine: Facing the Fear”

  1. Fiona Beckett

    Great post. Very good straightforward principles. Foodies should realise that they already know a good deal about combining ingredients successfully so wine should hold no fear for them. I’ve never done a wine class in my life and learnt all I know by drinking (er, tasting . . . )

  2. Vicky Wine

    “Smelling the cork is a perfect waste of time”.. ahah, I always wondered why some were doing it!

  3. LexEat

    THANKYOU! for this post!
    I try so hard to taste gooseberries and can never smell/taste anything! I was at the Bibbendum tasting and was desperately seeking “farm yard” but to no avail.

    I like you’re numbered points – extremely helpful.


  4. Nora

    Great post! I keep meaning to get into wine properly and learn all about it, but I’ve always found it rather intimidating for those exact reasons that you mentioned. But I’m most heartened to hear that not everyone who’s into wine is snobbish and pretentious, which is how I always imagine them, not to mention that not everyone can taste the same stuff!

  5. Andrew

    I think you have summed up ‘wine’ perfectly. Glad I help(ed) out a little on the journey – I am sure we shall have you smelling petrol/gooseberries et al in no time! ;-)

  6. Essex Eating

    Great post Helen smashing through the whole mystery and snobbery of wine tasting and breaking it down with some simple rules to follow, really enjoyed reading this.

  7. Gary Green

    Love this post… for all the reasons mentioned above. I have snobby wine friends and they bug the hell out of me.

  8. ginandcrumpets


  9. Ollie

    Terrific post. Love that video of Charlie M.

  10. shayma

    Helen, so true, i cant understand the concept of spitting the wine out- how dreadfully tragic is that? smelling the cork? so flash.

    this is a really lovely and informative post. my fave photo is the first one. brill. x

  11. gastrogeek

    Excellent, I’ve always felt like an utter charlatan when I try to sound knowledgeable about wine, this is exactly the sort of info I need. And that video is just utterly surreal….

  12. Wendy

    “Well, that’s because I only drink wine to get pissed.” – Just laughed so hard at that the wine I was in the middle of drinking came of my nose!

    Love this post. A wine-buff friend took me to dinner one night and tried to teach me much of the above. Unfortunately, I drank too much wine during the explanation and remembered nothing. Much of what you said in this post is vaguely familiar… So glad you wrote this. :)

  13. them apples

    I have similar fears of wine, exacerbated enormously by the presence of a brother-in-law who’s ex-Berry Brothers and who now runs the online wine operation of a very posh and well known supermarket chain. It’s fair to say that he knows his stuff.

    I stick to writing about beer, because said brother in law doesn’t know as much about that….

  14. The Graphic Foodie

    Great pointers on starting out, I had been put off in the past. Thanks!

  15. Wild Boar

    Nice little guide on wine tasting and especially nice to know I don’t necessarily have to smell/taste what other peolpe do. I know what wines I like but the subtleties are often lost on me.

    Seems a shame to have to spit it out though…

  16. Jenn AKA The Leftover Queen

    This is a great post, Helen! I too have a fear about tasting wines/ and or talking about it, because of the stigma. But I have been trying to learn more about it, and with this education, I have become a little less intimidated!

  17. Martin

    Brilliant summary of why wine is not an impenetrable fug of pretension, love it.

    I sympathise with point 7, I have the same reticence when being told to spit it, muscle memory I guess…

  18. Lizzie

    On the Sunday at EWBC was the first time I’d spat wine. Sob. It was hard times.

  19. Robert (thirstforwine)

    great post – I’m so glad to see all the stuff you have learned over the last year since we started this little exploration together … now I just need to learn to cook!

    thanks so much for helping to give the EWBC real perspective on how to reach people outside the trade

    look forward to your future thoughts on wine too :)


  20. Dan Coward

    Go forth and tell the world about wine! Yes! Yes! Yes!

    *a little tear*

  21. foodrambler

    Loving your wine tips. And thanks to Dan from Bibendum for bringing wine into my life!

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