The first evaluation system I encountered when I was starting out in wine was the 20-point system. Essentially various aspects of the wine were awarded a certain number of points out of 20. Color got X points, Body got Y points, flavor got Z points and so on.
The problem was, I’d often get to the end, add up the scores, and discover I’d just given 19 points to a lifeless wine I didn’t even like. At first, I figured I was doing something wrong.
Later, the 20-point system was supplanted by a systematic approach to tasting comprised of a checklist or grid of what to look for. I found myself writing things like: “Pale straw color, medium to low acidity, good body, light apple and lemon flavors, no oak, short to medium finish.” Within a month, I could barely remember the wine.
I still felt I must be doing something wrong. The checklists were helpful as a sort of tasting discipline. But something important—or somethings—were missing.
I’ve come to see that one of those missing links is emotion. How a wine makes us feel—the emotional level on which we experience it—is never taken into consideration by checklists. Here, it’s helpful to consider how the brain works. It used to be thought that the brain operated as a system of three separate parts. There was the “lizard brain” that directed instincts, drives, and appetites; the limbic system that enabled emotions, and the cortex which operated “higher functions” –reason, analytical thinking, language and so on. But neuroscientists today say the brain is not neatly divided like this. The brain is hyper interconnected. So smell for example (a lizard brain activity) creates and evokes memories in the cortex, and memories and smell can pull you right into an emotion.
For the past year or so, I’ve been tasting wine in a different way than I’ve ever done before. First, I intentionally try not to think about it analytically, but just sit and sense it. I try not to start writing down descriptors immediately, but instead, imagine the wine as something sentient. Does it have an energy? Does it have a lit-from-within quality? Does it have a personality? Is it trying to “tell me something” about the place it’s from or the years it’s seen?
I’ve found this new approach harder than I thought. And a whole lot more revealing. I’ve come to see that with wine, learning means experiencing emotionally. Everything else is just information.