October 25, 2011

Just relax and it will all taste better

I have a case of 2002 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon in my cellar.  I bought it purely as an attempt to recreate a moment from the past. The passion of wine, you see, hit me like an unruly Champagne cork on December 18th 1996, and the wine that day also happened to be a bottle of Far Niente, though of the 1991 vintage.  I can count on one hand the number of bottles of wine ever consumed on my part prior to that date, so my perception is somewhat partial.  In search of a keepsake, I’ve spent several years hunting for a second bottle of the 1991 and in late 2009 my quest came to a successful conclusion.  I’ll never drink the replacement, how could I?  What if it lets me down?  All things considered, that could be crushing.  Instead, the ‘91 remains a permanent fixture in my cellar and a reminder of what caused all this commotion in the first place.

The case of 2002 on the other hand, continues to provide enlightening proof of the suggestion that wine is actually half drink and half atmosphere. I’ll explain:  In my cellar, this particular case is designated as an environmental experiment, a test of taste versus human stress factors, if you will.   I’ll start by saying that we have two small children, 8 and 6 years of age and that they are without a doubt the centre of my universe.  Don’t think for a moment however, that a $140 bottle of wine tastes anything above that of red wine vinegar as these two clowns expel bodily gas at the dinner table!  Oddly, the same wine tasted while out for the evening disguised as a couple with only a 9 to 5 level of responsibility is a wonderful experience. 

The obvious explanation, other than to teach my kids some table manners, is that bottle variation is the culprit, and I might buy into that idea if I didn’t have a whole case of the 2002 vintage to compare.  Modern technology has significantly reduced the risk and frequency of a bad bottle so I’m hesitant to fault the producer, but of the 12 original bottles, only 2 remain and the trend of delightful vs. vinaigrette is rather overwhelming.  The kids are certainly not to blame; that would be a poor excuse on my part but I will conclude that when we dress a good bottle up and take it out for dinner or even order an expensive label off the wine list, our expectations are suddenly elevated.  Depending on the dining establishment, the combination of a relaxed atmosphere and momentarily alleviation of tension does appear to create a positive tasting experience – at least in my case.  A theory also exists that one expects a bottle to taste superior simply because it cost more and thus we tend to convince ourselves that the wine is actually better that it really is. 
Perhaps I’m just too conscious of this phenomenon and therefore I set myself up for disappointment but of the 10 bottles of 2002 Far Niente opened so far, the five consumed while out of for a fancy dinner with my mind at ease were all exceptional.  Conversely, the five opened during crowd control and hoopla at the dining room table (I’m exaggerating, it’s not really that bad) were all good but certainly no better than a $20 bottle from the same region. 

Ask yourself the next time a bottle seems slightly out of sorts: Is it just your imagination?  Are you the only one at the table not enjoying the wine?  It might not be the wine at all. Perhaps your perception is simply a product of the environment in which you have chosen to taste.

“This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear.  
You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that.  You lose the taste.”

Count Mippipopolous in the Sun always Rises
by Ernest Hemingway 1926


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. What a good way to remind me the most important element of drinking wine: the people we share it with.

    My best wine experiences have occurred because I was enjoying the evening with dear friends. I have forgotten what I was drinking, but I remember the evening.

    Thanks for your post.

  3. Agreed pc. When conditions are 'just right', it is the memory of the event that will last, not the specific details. Cheers! T

  4. A glass of 2002 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon sounds mighty good right now! Alas, I'll have to settle for a brand-new 2009 Borra Vineyards Lodi Finesse that I'm typing notes for. Excellent! Thanks for the invitation to join you for a glass! Cheers!

  5. Nicely said Tyler, I also find that a simple act of cellaring your wine increases the expectation and subsequently the enjoyment. CHeers my friend.


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Tyler is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada and the Guild of Sommeliers. He writes about and reviews wine both online and via a variety of circulating publications. In 2009 Tyler founded North of 9 Fine Wine, a free public wine education resource where he publishes his Thoughts, Theory, and Recommendations. For additional vinous related information and learning, follow on Twitter @TylerOnWine