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Learning to Taste by Closing Our Eyes

It was Monday morning, and the managing editor approached my desk with a gleam in his eye and what I hope was a smile on his face.

He wasn't waving my Sunday column around, but he might have memorized it.

"I will give you $1,000 if you can really smell and taste all those things you said you found in that wine," he said.

"I hope the check's in the mail," I shot back. "I could use the money."

"Apples and grapes," he harrumphed, ignoring me. "Figs. Coconut. Probably old shoes and wood chips."

About that time his boss strolled by, gave us a look and shook his head.

I think my boss was just kidding. He knows wine himself.

He's got a point, though. The complex aromas and flavors that distinguish fine wine are usually subtle and sometimes almost - but not quite - as elusive as the emperor's legendary new clothes.

It's not hard to learn to recognize these subtleties, but it takes practice, which makes perfect in wine appreciation as it does with just about anything else worth appreciating.

Bordeaux wine maker Alexis Lichine once said the best way to learn wine is by opening bottles.

I'd add that the best way to learn wine quickly and well is by frequently tasting wines "blind," judging comparatively without knowing what's in the glasses until you've made your notes and announced your conclusions.

Nothing concentrates the wine taster's attention quite as intensely as having someone waiting to rib you mercilessly if you can't tell a Chardonnay from a Chenin Blanc.

Gaze under such circumstances at two near-identical glasses of golden Chardonnay, and it won't take long to discern the nuances of gold, bronze and brass, apples, chestnuts, figs and yes, even coconut in the wine.

I rate the wines for this column blind for another reason: Even the most objective judge will be influenced to some degree by knowing what's in the glass. When you're comparing a $20 nectar against a $3 jug wine, it's a lot easier to be honest if you don't know which is which.

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