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Posted: Wednesday, 20 September 2017 13:26

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Blog: Wine is about Experience, not Knowledge

Sep 20: Despite better availability and affordable wines in India there are numerous potential drinkers who avoid it as they are overawed due to lack of knowledge, fearing being shown up, with the result that they stick to beer or hard liquor, their propensity to drink to merely get drunk notwithstanding. But one should understand that wine is about experience and not knowledge though the desire for knowledge as you gain experience would automatically increase and can be suitably addressed

Click For Large ViewOne day sometime in the mid 1990s I was invited at a wine tasting organised at the Oberoi Hotel Terrace ( I think Moet Hennessey had hosted it). About 15 recognised producers came from around the world to showcase their wines. Those were the early days but some visionary importers had started doing their homework! The afternoon was a feast for the eye and the palate with several excellent quality wines on offer.

One of the exhibitors was Trefethen Family Vineyard –a highly regarded Napa Valley producer.  I tasted all the wines, mostly Cabernet Sauvignons with the owner John Trefethen and remember loving them without knowing much about wine tasting at the time since used to only drink wine and loved it. Rather bashfully, I said to John, ‘I love your wines a lot but I cannot tell the blackberries and cassis and all those berries and the leather and spices the sommeliers usually talk about in wines (some of the fruits I had never tasted in my life, anyway). He smiled with a wink and said, ‘frankly speaking Subash, neither can I! Let the journalists and writers worry about what they want to write. I like to make the best possible wine that is delicious and people want to drink more of.’

Whether he meant is sincerely or was just being polite, I will never know. But that encounter removed whatever hesitancy I had about wine tasting and experimenting with wines.  I tasted wines from all the producers present that memorable afternoon. It made me want to experience more wines whenever and wherever possible. Although it might not be correct to assume that it was a defining moment but it did encourage me to taste more and more. Around 25,000 wines I may have tasted since then would be a tiny fraction of what most international tasters drink or taste, but I am enjoying the journey and advise people to taste as many different wines as possible to understand the various nuances and enjoy the journey and not worry about knowledge.

Of course, when you experience wines like I recommend, the knowledge is bound to come. In most tastings, one can ask a barrage of questions before the man on the other side of the table gets impatient-and that knowledge builds up the data bank in your brain cells.

This is not to say if I am against formal knowledge or training. Late Dhirubhai Ambani was a success story but he never did an MBA. Yet he made sure his sons study in the best of universities in the US before coming back and finally taking on the mantle.  But for most consumers, the formal knowledge about wines is neither important nor relevant.

 One simple example that ought to relax those of you who are overawed by wine is an analogy with the everyday foods (let me stress again that wine is a food product and a product from food-grapes). You grew up eating paratha, roti or naan with north Indian meals (South Indian readers have their own staple cereals). Do you eat them on the advice of others or your own volition? Is aloo paratha tastier or gobhi/mooli makes better paratha? Did you need a discourse on the benefits of cauliflower or too much starch in the potato? (Though I must admit I have convinced several friends to switch to broccoli for health reasons).

You may like more salt or sugar in your food? Does someone tell you how much you should take? (it’s always ‘salt to taste’- or sugar, according to your choice). What good is the knowledge that some wine has more sugar than the other, or it’s bone dry?  Some people like strong tea while others prefer weaker or lighter tea-not to mention the fact that some do not put sugar or milk at all. You don’t need someone’s knowledge to tell you how much sugar you should have in wine or how much of tannins you ought to take in your red wine. You simply experiment and decide for yourself.  Knowledge through formal or informal means is just a tool to use, if you like.

There is a vast area that encompasses wine and its various aspects including grapes, terroir, prices, and region of origin. Someone likes Chardonnay from Australia while another person may love Chablis. Yet another one may love the oaked Chardonnay from California-they would perhaps all claim what they prefer is the best Chardonnay. I feel they are all very good-provided the liquid in the glass is well made and it depends on my mood and the food I am eating. This comes to us from experience and not necessary knowledge.  You can taste all the different varieties and decide which one you like the best-, then stick with it; don’t let anyone convince you that Chardonnay from Burgundy is the best  for YOU (of course, I presume you would have tried it before deciding for or against it.

A parallel can be drawn with food products made in different styles. Ordinary butter chicken can be made in dozens of different styles. You may be tempted to try it at a particular restaurant because someone tells you (knowledge) but if you don’t really like that style, it won’t work for you. Why should the wine be any different?

Enhancing the experience

Wine drinking is all about enhancing and enriching your experience. Drinking two glasses of Johnny Walker daily is not an experience- it’s is an addiction (based on different definitions it may be termed  alcohol ism). Wine can also become an addiction but generally it stays within the boundary of experience, especially when drunk in moderation and with food.

Wine Tasting as an Experience

Wine tasting could also mean different things for different people. When I go for international competitions, I taste over 300 wines during one trip. I must emphasise we see, swirl, smell, sip and spit wine and mostly blind (the competitions are always blind, we also taste several wines in the wineries and restaurants which are generally  opened in front of us and we never spit but take a couple of sips and discard the wine in a spittoon). My experience of tasting and drinking wine might be different than yours or someone else’s.  

Anyway you look at it, wine is to be enjoyed as an experience. Everyone has different expectations and different outlook. But one thing one needs to comprehend is the single fact that wine should be enjoyable, with or without any wine knowledge-structured or non-structured. More your experience, the better and more discerning you would become- and more you would enjoy wine!

Jai Ho!

Subhash Arora

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