Lessons in Pretension

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, June 11, 2006

Recently someone tried to teach me how to drink wine properly. There is much sniffing and swirling and sipping, but you're not allowed to swallow until you perform various gymnastics with your tongue while breathing, wheezing, gasping and coughing the wine all over the furniture.

But the hardest part, I find, is learning to talk about wine pretentiously. Everyone nowadays tries to imitate Robert Parker, the great wine critic. He's the "Wine Advocate," the man with the million-dollar nose, the most influential critic in the world. He has olfactory superpowers. He once told me during an interview that, walking down the street, he can smell more than 100 distinctive odors. He has a big head. At one point I asked him to stick out his tongue; the thing that emerged was like something you'd see wrapped in cellophane at the supermarket: beef tongue.

And it had this astonishing crevice down the middle. Parker compared it to the Grand Canyon. His tongue was something that, by itself, could have earned him membership in the X-Men.

He told me that, in a blind tasting, he can routinely tell not only the grape varietal, the country of origin and the region, but also the exact vintage, even the chateau. His sensory talents allow him to write with confidence in a manner that, coming from most normal mortals, would sound absurd. Listen to him describe the 1990 Montrose St.-Estephe bordeaux:

"The wine is remarkably rich, with a distinctive nose of sweet, jammy fruit, liquefied minerals, new saddle leather, and grilled steak. In the mouth, the enormous concentration, extract, high glycerin, and sweet tannin slide across the palate with considerable ease. It is a huge, corpulent, awesomely endowed wine that is still relatively approachable, as it has not yet begun to shut down and lose its baby fat."

Other wines have flavors of "damp earth" and "underbrush." When Parker doesn't like a wine, as in the case of a certain '79 cabernet, he'll write that it has an"intense vegetative, barnyard aroma."

This is all so impressive to me, since, blindfolded, I could not tell a '61 Chateau Lafite bordeaux from an '03 Goofy Grape Kool-Aid.

Unfortunately, many restaurants have wine lists that try to sound like Parker. Here's one from a typical mid-level American restaurant.

Today's Wines

All wines available by the glass in 4-oz. and 7-oz. servings, or by the bottle or carton. Prices, quantities, vintages, grape varietals subject to change without notice at sommelier's discretion.

Brut, Stigmata Opus V "Champagne" Our sweetest, densest, cheapest sparkling wine. The bubbles sit in the glass in a lazy, decadent stupor. Often mistaken for gelatin.

Casa de Tulsa Chardonnay Fat, porcine, bloated. A jiggly, obscene wine. From the famed vineyards of eastern Oklahoma, this has notes of corn, hay and soybean. Available in our con-venient "to go" tumbler.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company