How do you describe the flavor of a wine? Gobs of fruit, including some you perhaps have never tasted? Forest floor, flint, stones or other things you would never put in your mouth?
Much of wine's charm is the sheer variety of flavors and sensations it offers. "It tastes like wine" simply doesn't capture vino's veritas. Trying to describe it sometimes makes me feel like a cat chasing a laser pointer. As soon as I grasp an impression, it's gone, only to taunt me again from the other side of my palate.
Yet there are times we need to describe what we like about a wine. This is especially true in a transaction — for example, when we are buying wine at a restaurant. We haven't tasted every wine in the place, so how can we give clues to our tastes that will help a sommelier or waiter recommend a winner?
Too many of us shy away from this transaction. We're reluctant to speak to a waiter about anything other than food, or we hesitate to ask for the attention of a sommelier, either because we don't feel confident talking about wine, or we fear the wine expert will take advantage of us. We may rely instead on our friends' recommendations through social media or an anonymous rating on some smartphone app. Or there may be no one to help us navigate a wine list, leaving us on our own to choose.
We should not be reluctant to discuss our wine preferences. But to make those discussions more fruitful, we should try to speak the lingo. Here are some tips from four sommeliers, shared during a recent Smithsonian Associates program (plus subsequent email exchanges), for diners who want to enjoy a good wine with their meal:
Don't get hung up on flavor.
"We can all taste the same wine and debate flavors like peach or pear," says Taylor Parsons, a sommelier and hospitality consultant in Los Angeles. "But if you tell me you like wines with high acidity, or full body, then I have something to go on."
Amanda Smeltz, sommelier at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud in New York City, also likes to steer customers into a discussion of body and texture of wines they like.
"We need to clarify the vocabulary we use when we talk to each other about wine," she explains. "When someone says 'smooth,' that means no rough edges, no tannin. 'Dry' doesn't tell me much. But body is a great place to start — it's where I meet people."
Pay attention to wines you like.
Be able to describe a wine's characteristics — at least something beyond the obvious.
"People say all the time, 'I like red wine,' " laments Jeff Porter, wine director for the Batali and Bastianich Hospitality Group in New York City. "Great, I have 3,000 reds in my cellar. Know what you don't like," he says. "Talk to the sommeliers — our job is to make you happy."
Parsons says a lot of a sommelier's job is translation. "How can we hear what you're saying and deliver a delicious wine to your glass?" He suggests customers to think of a graph, with "fruity vs. earthy" on one axis, and "light vs. heavy" on the other.
Don't be afraid to engage.
"Why not ask, 'What are you really excited about?' " says Eduardo Porto Carreiro, beverage director of the Ford Fry Restaurant Group in Atlanta. "Be willing to experiment and drink something different. All of us have wines we like to explore, and we're happy to share them."
Parsons and Porto Carreiro had slightly different takes on the effect of technology. "People don't ask about the wine list the way they ask about menus," Parsons says, possibly because they are relying on their smartphones for recommendations instead of their own palates. But Porto Carreiro sees how technology can help facilitate communication as well.
"Thanks to the Internet, social media and mobile devices, guests are showing me photos of wines they have enjoyed recently, or ones their cousins or other friends recommend over Facebook," Porto Carreiro says. "The language may not be changing, but the idea of having technology in one's pocket to shortcut an interaction is very real and has impacted the dining experience."
When in doubt, ask.
"No good sommelier is interested in fleecing you," Parsons says. "They want to put a delicious wine in front of you."