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A Wine Lover’s Dilemma

david darlington

Thank you for seeing me, Doctor.

What seems to be the problem?

Well, I can’t get over the feeling that I’m … a bad wine taster.

What do you mean, “bad”?

I have a poor palate.

What makes you say that?

When I taste wine, I don’t pick up on the kinds of things that I see in wine reviews.

What kinds of things are you talking about?

Flavors; smells. Fruits, mostly.

You mean grapes?

No! That’s the point. It seems I should be tasting different fruits from the ones that wines are actually made of.

Oh — you mean things like plums or cherries or apples?

Duh. I get those — it’s the subcategories I can’t seem to get a handle on.


Dried plums. Black cherries. Crab apples.

You don’t know what crab apples taste like?

No! The last time I bit one, I was 7 years old! I’ve never eaten a dried plum; I’ve eaten a lot of cherries, but apparently not enough to remember the difference between black and Bing.

What about berries?

Raspberries, no problem. Blackberries, sometimes. But huckleberries? Lingonberries? Olallaberries? Boysenberries? Do you know what those taste like?

No, but I’m not a wine nut — I’m a psychologist.

Taste is psychological, though, isn’t it?


And subjective?


I mean, smelling or tasting something isn’t like looking at a painting and picking out blue or red or yellow.

Maybe more like mauve or chartreuse or vermilion?

Usually if a critic says a wine is ocher, I just think it’s yellow.

Perhaps the description isn’t meant to be taken literally. Maybe these are subjective impressions intended to provide a conceptual idea of what a wine tastes like.

Like when they say that some burgundy “brings to mind a back road in Beaune, stopping by a strawberry patch to plunge your fingers into the earth and lift a fistful of decomposed seashells to your nostrils”?


But I’ve never been to Beaune.

You can go there in your mind. Or your mouth, it would seem.

That reminds me of something else. Whenever they recommend what food to eat with a wine, it’s always something I’ve never eaten before — or something I don’t have time to make.


“Try this with rabbit-and-chorizo paella.” “Decant this one with roasted sweetbreads.” “Uncork this with a plate of just-shucked oysters.” I don’t live near the ocean, Doctor — and even if I did, shucking oysters is a pain in the ass.

So you feel that this advice is impractical.

Not just that … it makes me feel inadequate.

How so?

Because, when I compare my life with these wine reviewers’, the world seems to be passing me by.

Because they eat things that you don’t eat?

And go places I don’t go, and experience smells and flavors I don’t experience.

How do you describe wine?

Well, for ones that I like, I use words like focused, polished, balanced, deep, rich, round, dense, crisp, complex, floral and refreshing. For wines I don’t like — thin, soft, flat, dull, simple, pruny, woody, stinky …

Those seem fairly descriptive.

One time I met this guy David Lett, who pioneered the production of pinot noir in Oregon. You’d expect a guy like that to be fairly knowledgeable about wine, right?


He told me that he had only two descriptors — thumbs up and thumbs down.

Do you think he was exaggerating to seem like a regular person?


So why are you so concerned about your purported lack of talent? Do you think it means that you don’t truly appreciate wine?

I love wine!

What do you love about it?

Well, I love the flavors of the different grapes, even when they don’t remind me of other fruits. I love knowing where a wine comes from and what its background is, even if I haven’t been there and don’t perceive anything specifically attributable to the place where it was made. I love the sensation of a well-crafted wine in my mouth, and I especially love it when all the different elements — flavor, aroma, ripeness, texture and history come together in an experience that’s physical, intellectual and emotional all at the same time — derived from the earth, but structured by civilization. I love the loose, ruminative feeling that wine gives me after a long day, and the jovial atmosphere it engenders in a group of friends.

So in the end, none of these things that you think you’re missing really matter — unless you were to decide that you wanted to be, say, a wine writer.

But that’s the problem, Doctor.


I am a wine writer!

This week’s Soapbox contributor, David Darlington, is the author of five books, most recently “An Ideal Wine,” just published by HarperCollins. A special correspondent for Wine & Spirits, he won the 2008 James Beard Foundation Award for magazine wine writing. He lives in Northern California.

Photo: David Darlington. Credit: Richard Brown