In the June 1992 issue of Decanter magazine, Hugh Johnson, OBE (a world-renowned wine authority and longtime writer for this heralded publication), expressed his view of wine tastings. “Wine is not only for tasting, nor analysis (let alone scoring). It is for living with, discussing and drinking.”
Propelled by a new generation of wine drinkers and a growing international audience, this decades-old statement could not be truer today.
While many view formal tastings as the true expression of “wine snobbery,” they are also acknowledged by the trade, press, collectors and knowledgeable consumers as a necessary component of appraising wines for their appeal, value and quality. Wine tastings are an important vehicle for the evaluation of wines both professionally and personally.
I sample between 1,200 and 1,500 wines each year for education, critical assessment and personal pleasure. The knowledge gained from these tasting experiences is essential to my understanding of the wines, their place of origin, history and role in the market.
A social wine tasting should never be intimidating but always geared to expanding the tasters’ knowledge and stimulating their sense of adventure in a relaxed atmosphere. Yet tastings on their own — whether professional or social — are not the true function of wine in our society. Wine is also about fun, camaraderie, enhancing a meal and enjoying the moment.
So while the tasting process is important to wine professionals and serious consumers, there is far more to wine than merely the tasting.
Following Johnson’s thought on the role of wine in society, let’s keep in mind that we can look beyond just tasting. Wine has a history that dates back through the millennia and across cultures. It has been an important part of mankind as long as civilization itself and a focal point for many personal experiences in our daily lives.
This observation may seem fairly esoteric, yet it has become the centerpiece of numerous conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues over a casual dinner and a bottle of wine. While talking about the wine, we often reminisce about memories of the vintage and the producer. And frequently, the conversation turns to wine’s multifaceted role throughout history and its continuing impact on our culture today.
The world’s first known winery dates to 4000 B.C. in the Armenian Highlands. And 3,000 years before there is evidence of the world’s oldest fermented beverage (rice wine made with honey and fruit) detected on pottery shards in northern China.
Since its early days and across the globe, wine has held a position of respect and admiration among many of the world’s religious and nonreligious societies, sanctifying their most important holidays and rituals. And of course, many secular communities also use wine in celebration of important festivities and meaningful moments. Champagne, for example, has long been used to toast newlyweds, usher in a new year and christen countless ships. Important business and international agreements have been sealed with a memorable bottle, and that’s not to mention the day-to-day role wine plays in simply making the meal a bit more special.
The sheer pleasure of wine is expressed around the dinner table with family and friends. Whether drawn from a collector’s cellar or just purchased that day, wine has become a far more common companion to mealtime enjoyment in the New World as it has been for centuries in the Old World.
An old English custom was to purchase a pipe of port (an elongated tapered barrel containing about 60 cases in volume) to celebrate the birth of a child and to consume over many years. A more modern tradition both here and abroad is to acquire and cellar “birth year” wines to enjoy for the 21st birthday. And often we’ll hold a singular bottle for a special time not realizing that just enjoying that particular bottle can be its own special occasion.
So, yes, while tasting is an important part of the wine experience, its true value is just as Johnson said more than 30 years ago: “It is for living with, discussing and drinking.”