Letter of the Week – How (Not) To Taste Wine

A good general rule (of wine tasting) is to state that the bouquet is better than the taste, and vice versa.

Stephen Potter – One-upsmanship (1952)

Dear ELV,

After tasting the 1996 Oddero Barolo at Carnevino, I decided I needed more. For fun, I read a review of one release, and came across this gem:

“Minty and hugely intense out of the bottle, after being opened for 8 hours, with a touch of underlying chicken broth but big tones of black olive, rust, and fish bones. Absolutely succulent in the mouth with deep. rich fruit and a big hoppy/vegetal/floral tones that leads from the mid-palate to the long finish that really resonates with minerality. Tastes of magnesium and rust with the huge reserves of fruit waiting patiently to reveal their full glory. A great wine in the making with intensity and balance. Give it time. 2012-2025 94pts”

Thank goodness I tasted the wine and bought before reading this. Wouldn’t know what to think otherwise, LOL.

Unpretentiously yours in wine,



Dear Scott,

First of all, ELV wants to know if you waited eight hours at Carnevino before taking your first sip? Otherwise, how in the world could you ever take the full measure of the chicken broth and rust overtones?

What we love about tasting wines with Italians, and French, Spanish and English folks for that matter, is how differently they approach the whole sensual experience of wine.

Americans are infamous for treating wine tasting like a chemistry class. Go to any amateur or professional wine tasting – or read any periodical on the subject – and what you get is a tsunami of similes.

“It’s like wet rocks, laden with peach dew overlain with bramble, asparagus, mint, chocolate, menthol, gunflint and wet leather…” is the type of nonsense you see spewed forth by American wine tasters — who have to treat every olfactory experience like an exam.

Leaving aside the fact that no one but a Revolutionary War soldier knows what gunflint smells like, this emphasis on being able to identify aromas down to the most faint or obscure whiff, misses the whole point of the experience.

History tells us that it was in the 1700’s that wine analysis began – mainly as a way for retailers and drinkers to defend themselves against being duped by unscrupulous sellers trying passing off plonk as the real enchilada.

Up until then, remarks were restricted to smoothness, depth, power, finesse and overall aroma. Only if you’re trying to separate a good Bordeaux from a bad one, is it essential to spot certain leather, pencil lead, tar and tobacco smells – but even with that justification, many pretentious tasters just take it too far.

All wine commentaries are metaphors. It may taste or smell like something, or remind you of something….but ultimately, every wine, even two buck chuck, stands on its own – independent of the descriptors used to analyze it.

So keep your powder dry, Scott, your gunflint sharp, and your palate unencumbered by the drivel foisted upon the wine drinking public by American wine professionals.

Because the more you think, taste and enjoy wine like a European, the better off you (and the wine) will be.

Oenophilically yours,


5 thoughts on “Letter of the Week – How (Not) To Taste Wine

  1. Glad I didn’t wait the full eight hours: I might have choked on the fish bone taste.

    Many thanks to Liz Davar for unpretentiously introducing me to this wonderful wine.

  2. This is a review by David Schildknecht for The Wine Advocate. He has to win the award for most hard to understand reviewer out there. “Sheer material density and searingly high acidity are tamed like the fable unicorn.” You just got to love it. Ps. I’ve had this wine and it was fantastic.

    #10 Scheurebe Trockenbeerenauslese Zwischen den Seen – yes, it’s the third wine this vintage with the same designation – has only 6.5% alcohol and is one of the most amazing elixirs of Scheurebe ever captured in bottle. Pineapple, tangerine, grapefruit, peppermint, honey, distilled black fruits, herbal essences, and sheer ethereal botrytism soar from the glass. In the mouth this is virtually gelatinous – in fact, more like an Esszencia even than the 2003 #1 – with a totally uncanny sense of lift and lightness. Sheer material density and searingly high acidity are tamed like the fable unicorn. Red and black fruit distillates, herbal/floral essences, deep, rich nut oils, generously juicy citrus .. all that and more is in the finish. This combines the sheer essence of Scheurebe found in #5 with some of the transmogrified, mysterious depth of #6, plus the ineffable character of an Esszencia.-Rated 98/100 The Wine Advocate

  3. “Fishbones?” “Transmogrified Unicorns?”

    Ay caramba! Ay dios mio!

    Or as we like to say in ELV’s tasting room: “With hints of horseshit, and loads of cow pie.”

    But we could be starting something here grape geeks.

    Let’s see who can top those.


  4. This one always gives me a good chuckle.

    “Why was this reduced for quick sale? Was it worth enduring the stench of the bottle return area to bring home this wine? Yes, yes it was. It’s almost sad that this wine traveled all the way from Argentina to end up in my bottle return area.

    Big Daddy knows how to make a good cheap wine. Believe it or not, the first attribute of this wine I picked up on was the light hint of bacon. Mmm bacon. Who doesn’t love bacon? Big Daddy loves it, that’s for sure. Look at that belly! On top of the bacon was a strong berry with a leathery taste.

    If you’re looking for a full bodied cheap red wine with a lot of character, give the Big Daddy Merlot a try.”

    I’m actually laughing WITH them here. Even though I’ve become a more sophisticated foodie and oenophile over the years, I guess there’s still enough “trailer trash” in me to appreciate the truly good things in life, like sipping wine that reminds me of BACON! hehe ;-)

  5. Oh, and considering I’m now back in Cali, I may go to TJ’s and buy this just in honor of this thread:

    I’d like to preface this review of Charles Shaw Cabernet with a synopsis of Trader Joe’s. If you have one near you, go there. If not for the wine, then for the thousands of food items that pack the small market. I spent 80 dollars, which sounds like a bit much especially for me. I ended up leaving with 2 cases of wine and enough food for a week. Fresh mozzarella, fresh gnocchi, fresh salsa (notice a pattern?), Guacamole chips, Trader Joe’s Marinara, soups, veggies…. I was in heaven. They have got all kinds of cheeses, breads, meats, micro-brewed beers, and their wine selection was out of this world. What a great store!

    Trader Joe’s is the exclusive retailer of Charles Shaw Wines, better known to most as “Two-buck Chuck”. In California these wines sell for $1.99, which is just amazing. Here in Michigan, though, the price was $2.99.

    Did we like it? Was it worth the trip?

    Hell yes it was! For 3 dollars, I don’t think it could have been any better. The Cabernet was great. At first, I found it to be a little sweet, but looking back, I was actually enjoying the salsa with the wine, which probably wasn’t a great combination. Along with the Cab, I also purchased some of the Shiraz, Merlot, and Chardonnay (reviews coming soon).

    Congrats to Two-Buck-Chuck and Trader Joe’s for achieving the highest rating available here on Cheap Wine Reviews. Hats off to you!

    Mmmm. Salsa y vino! Ay yay yay, me encanta!

    No really, I’ve actually tried “Two-buck Chuck” before and it isn’t really as scary as you’d think… Even if it might make Mr. ELV squirm in horror. :-p

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