Randal Caparoso Wine & Food Advisory
from the Melting Pot of the Pacific

Seven Ways to Improve Your Wine Life
© Randal Caparoso

My name isn't Dr. Phil, but after 30 years of enjoying, teaching, and making my living out of wine, I can think of a few sensible ways of improving your experiences that are not covered (or else, not fully explained) in most books.

1. Don't hold wine glasses like they do on television or in movies.
I don't know what it is, but almost 100% of the time that glasses of wine are held by your favorite television or movie stars, they're shown holding their wine glass by the bowl rather than stem. This is bad, bad, bad, because not only does this look unsophisticated (such a downer when you really like the actor), it also results in grimy fingerprints all over the glass (especially if you're also touching food - like peanuts, bread, chicken or ribs- with your hands). Ahem, why do you think wine glasses have stems? Holding glasses by the bowl rather than stem also affects the temperature of the wine - you never want to heat up a nicely chilled white wine, or even a red, with the body temperature emanating from your paws.

2. Swirl your wine and smell it before taking a sip.
Assuming you've mastered the art of holding the glass by the stem, the next step is learning how to swirl without feeling self-conscious or pretentious. The important thing is knowing that you must swirl in order to get the wine to touch the sides of the glass, which in turn creates the vapors that you smell, which in turn creates the aromas that the mind and palate perceive as "flavor."

Simply put, when you can't smell, nothing (neither food nor wine) has any taste. And so to accentuate the taste of wine, you swirl. If it feels awkward at first, I suggest moving your glass around in a little circle as it sits on the table. It's no big deal, but practice doesn't hurt if you want to look good doing it next time in public.

3. Sniff, don't snort, your wine.
Have you ever observed a cat analyzing his food dish? He doesn't shove his nose into it, he just takes a few discreet sniffs a little ways from the dish, usually moving his nose around a little bit. When you smell your wine the important thing is not to breathe in as much as possible with the nose, but to open your mind up to what the wine reminds you of. Professional wine tasters, especially those in Europe, are taught to sniff the wine with one nostril (most people have one that's "better" than the other) just around the rim of the glass. When you stick your entire nose into the glass, the tendency for most people is to be distracted from the actual thought process. It is the brain that tells you what a wine smells and tastes like, and even how much or little pleasure you're getting from that experience; and so you need to practice smelling and sipping in a way that best allows you extrapolate your sensory impressions.

A good Chardonnay, for example, reminds most people of apples; and when the Chardonnay is fermented and aged in oak barrels toasted on the inside with an open fire, a Chardonnay retains additional qualities of vanilla, cream or smokiness in the aroma and flavor. Why is this important to recognize? Because if you've spent $25, $50 or more on a bottle, this is the complexity you've paid for. You don't lay down $50 for a concert and then sleep through the first hour, and it doesn't make sense to drink any fine wine just for its alcoholic content (liquor, as Ogden Nash would say, would have been quicker). Discreetly sniff at your wine first.

4. Taste your wine with no preconception.
One of the most common errors made by inexperienced wine tasters is assuming that what you smell (as important as smelling may be) automatically carries through on the palate. A Zinfandel or Syrah, for instance, can be beautifully rich, lush and juicy in the nose, yet unpleasantly rough and grainy on the palate. Aromas define flavor, but they do not necessarily determine how fine or smooth, balanced or harmonious a wine ultimately comes across once it reaches the mouth.

All you really taste on the palate is the tactile feel of body (the weight of a wine, mostly determined by its alcoholic strength), and then the primary sensations of sweetness (or if the wine is dry, lack of sweetness), sourness (in white wines - not so much in reds - determined by level of acidity in wine), and bitterness (in red wines - not so much in whites - contributed mostly by tannins derived from skins and seeds of grapes). These sensations give physical definition to aroma and flavor; and in the finest wines, these sensations are imparted with positively fresh, lively, compelling qualities. In fact, a wine with just a so-so nose but tastes smooth and balanced tends to be more enjoyable than a wine that smells great but is dull, harsh or off-putting in the mouth.

5. Do not use the "geekspeak."
In James Thurber's classic cartoon, the wine snob sits at the table with his guests and pontificates, "It's a naïve domestic burgundy, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption." Unless your family and friends are forgiving, pretentious wine chatter is never an endearing form of behavior.

What are some of the more painful words used by so-called wine experts? Well, I like complexity in wine, but the word "complex" sounds elitist. If a wine is smooth and rich, is wonderfully full or amazingly light, or has multiple flavors of fruit, flowers, earth and wood, then go ahead explicate that. But lay off the c-word.

"Acidity," like complexity, is very desirable in wine, but not desirable in conversation. If a wine has good acidity, talk about its crispness, it freshness, or its zesty, tart, sharp or even steely edge ("sour" is not so flattering, unless the wine actually is as unpleasant as that). But "acidity" sounds sterile, "high acid" even more solemn; and this is wine, not church.

Wine experts often talk about "finish" - the tactile impressions left in the mouth after a wine is swallowed. Now who likes people who talk about the taste of wine after it's already swallowed? Sip your wine, take another bite of food, and maybe throw in a little sigh; but then be done with it. No talking of "finish" at the dinner table!

"Legs" is a popular word, referring to the visible rivulets of wine as it slides down a glass. Generally speaking, the higher the alcohol in wine (creating greater surface tension inside of the glass) and deeper the intensity of color (especially for reds), the more visible the legs. Higher alcohol and deeper colors in wine, however, are not signs of a better wine. German Rieslings, for instance, are usually extremely low in alcohol, yet are among the finest white wines in the world. Red wines made from the Sangiovese and Pinot Noir grapes tend to be lighter in color than other red wines (like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon), but are also certainly among the finest in the world. In fact, emphatically leggy, overly alcoholic table wines often leave a horrid, "hot" taste on the palate. My advice: leave "legs" alone.

"Breathing." We are often asked, especially in expensive restaurants: "Shall we open your bottle ahead of time to let it breathe?" Well, there are few things as silly as the notion that exposure of less than a square inch of wine at the neck of the bottle to the beneficial qualities of oxygen will result in increased quality of the wine therein. Not a chance.

Then there are the sommeliers who offer to "decant" your wine - pouring it from the bottle and into an open glass container - under the assumption that even more dramatic exposure to air will increase overall quality. If you ask me, another myth of the wine world. If anything, a wine - even a thick, heavy, youthful red wine - loses some of its freshness in the nose and flavor when allowed to "breathe" in a decanter.

Yet there are many experts (including esteemed colleagues) who absolutely swear by the benefits of breathing, especially after hours in decanters. If you ask me again, I think it's because the mind becomes more alerted to sharpening sensations over time (as well it should), not because a wine actually changes for the better. To wit: in one recent Decanter magazine, a report done on a blind taste-test involving some of the UK's most discriminating wine judges, who could not tell the difference or even establish a pattern of preference or quality level in wines that were decanted minutes before tasting, hours before tasting, or simply popped, poured, and tasted immediately.

I would concur: decanted wines are no likely to be better than undecanted wines. Then again, if you have a beautiful decanter and you like using it to serve your guests, by all means use it. Quality of wine being such a state of mind, anything you do to make the perception of a wine experience a more positive one can only be good. As long as you understand the mythical nature of "breathing," which makes the word itself illogical and thus to be avoided.

6. Don't scrimp on glasses!

Here's the ultimate alternative to "breathing": drink the damned thing in good, spacious wine glasses.

Everyone knows that wine glasses properly come with a stem, are crystal clear for visual pleasure, and are curved inward to allow the nose to better enjoy the aromas collecting just below the rim. But size and shape also matter. Generally speaking, white wines taste best in 12 to 14 ounce glasses in the graceful shape of a tulip. But for red wines, you can use the same 12 ounce tulip as you do for whites, but they won't taste nearly as good as in a bigger, 16, 18, 25 or even 30 ounce glass.

Why? Red wines, being denser and heavier than white wines, need a larger surface area to create the vapors (through swirling) that increase aromatic qualities. And the more aromas you smell, the more flavors you taste on the palate. If you doubt it, do a side-by-side comparison - tasting a red in a small glass next to the same in a large glass -- at home or in the next fine restaurant you go to. I guarantee you'll taste the difference.

Although elongated tulip shapes at least 16 ounce in size do well for most reds, a lot of red wine lovers go even further, preferring round, bowl shaped glasses (the classic "Burgundy" shape), which tend to have even larger surface areas for vapors to work off of. What the bowl shape also does is allow red wine to enter the palate closer to the tip of the tongue (as opposed to the center), and it's at the tip of the tongue where most of your taste buds sensitive to sensations of sweetness are located. So with bowl shapes, your red wines end up tasting softer and fruitier; especially good if you're drinking more expensive, heavy red wines that are loaded down with hard, even bitter, tannins. The idea is to be able to taste a big red's fruitiness before its tannins.

Riedel Crystal was a pioneer of many of these variations of oversized glasses (Riedel's Vinum series 23 ounce "Syrah" and 24 ounce "Pinot" are two of my favorites). But you don't have to spend $15 to $65 per glass by crystal specialists like Riedel, Spiegelau, Ravenscroft or Schott Zwiesel. There are plenty of other good sized, economically priced alternatives available online and many kitchen supply stores.

Bottom line: life's too short for lousy wine glasses!

7. Serve at proper temperatures.
Aside from inadequate glassware, the second most common way that wine drinkers abuse themselves is by serving wines at the wrong temperature.

White, pink and sparkling wines are best served chilled (38 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit). Simple enough -- a couple of hours in the fridge will do it (or half an hour in the freezer if you're in a hurry). Cooler temperatures tend to accentuate aromas and flavors of fruit and the sensation of freshness, which is what these types of wines are all about.

Red wines are a little trickier. Most red wines are not at their best served well chilled like white wines because their higher tannin and weight lock in aroma and flavor at lower temperatures. So books and back labels recommend "room temperature" for reds. But keep in mind that ideal room temperature for wines is not the same as for human beings; ideally, it is somewhere between 60 and 68 degrees -- significantly cooler than a typical summer day, or even where many of us set our thermostats during the winter.

Softer, fruit driven red wines, such as Beaujolais from France and many Pinot Noirs, are probably best enjoyed even closer to 60 degrees. If starting from 70 to 75 degree room temperatures, 45 to 60 minutes in the refrigerator will get you there. Appreciation of fruit qualities being just as important for reds as it is for whites, a slight chill gives softer styles of red wine the perception of being juicier or "sweeter."

Heavier red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and red Zinfandels are usually best around 65 degrees (or about 30 minutes in the fridge). If anything, it's important to remember that heavy red wines are not enjoyable at all if served too warm (80 degrees or higher). "Hot" temperatures tend to accentuate a big red's alcohol and tannin, making the wine taste coarse or rough, and detracting from the natural fruit qualities and complexities winemakers try so hard to produce.

The ideal situation, of course, is to bring a red wine out from a room or cellar kept at an ideal aging temperature (55 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit), with an optimal level of 75% humidity. Once brought into normal room temperature, an ideal serving temperature for most reds is attained within minutes while just sitting on the table, begging to be drunk.

But most of us do not have an ideal wine cellar. The vast majority of wine in the U.S. is consumed within four hours from purchase in a local supermarket. Nothing wrong with that. As long as you understand the serving temperatures that get you the greatest amount of pleasure.

Isn't that what all this rigamarole is about?

March 2006

To contact Randy Caparoso, write him at randycaparoso@earthlink.net.

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