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Friday Fishwrap
Brain Power Vs. Nose Power

By Stephen Eliot

“If I only knew then what I know now.”

The times I have been visited by that thought are beyond counting, and I know without question that I am not alone. I admit that reflection sometimes comes with a real pang of regret, a wish to redo that which cannot be redone, but as time spent looking back has increased as the years pass and I have more to look back on, retrospection occasionally brings a bit of genuine satisfaction at having actually learned a few things over the years.

Thanks to the wistful and very-worth-reading birthday musings of Ron Washam HMW* earlier this week, Charlie and I were feeling a little introspective ourselves yesterday, and, in between flights of Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, we talked about if and how we were better or worse tasters than we were a generation (or two) ago. We both quickly agreed that “different” was a better word than “better” or “worse”, but “different” with the very positive twist that we both felt that we were “smarter”.

Now, I often wonder if I am as sharp as I was thirty or forty years back and if, as the Hosemaster argues of anyone whose mailboxes are jammed with AARP propaganda , my powers of smell and taste have been significantly diminished by age and use. I, of course do not think so, but then there is simply no way to compare my acuity of then with now. What I am certain of, however, is that I look at wine from a different perspective these days.

Structure, balance, depth and potential have become my concerns where once my tasting notes were comprised of line after line of adjectives about specific fruits, flowers spice and such. Was that a whiff of blueberry or currant? Did it taste of Braeburn apples or Golden delicious? Was is a Bosq Pear? A Bartlett or Anjou, and were those nuances of Star Anise, Fennel, Fenugreek or Wheat Grass lurking off to the side. And, oh, let’s not forget just how important it was to identify the exact source and cooper of every oak barrel.

Oh, I still enjoy the “name that flavor and smell” parlor games that inevitably infects the wine-obsessed, but understanding a wine has become more important than simply describing it in what are necessarily subjective terms, and that is something that, at least for me, came only with experience. To use the baseball analogy, I know that my fastball is nowhere near what it was, but I have learned how to pitch and feel like I have a couple of 20-win seasons left in my arm.

So, Happy Birthday, Ron, and thanks for the inspiration even if I do not think that was your intent. We may have peaked, but we are still on the plateau, and I do not plan on oxidizing anytime soon.


Charlie Olken adds:

Steve somewhat misstates my position. I may or may not have lost some nasal acuity, but I am, in my opinion, a far better taster today. The wine that started this conversation was Ojai Sauvignon Blanc McGinley Vineyard 2010. It is too young to enjoy fully, and yet I loved it for precisely the reasons that Steve enumerated above--structure, balance, depth and potential. It will become a genuine beauty with time in bottle, and that thought struck me quickly and with an ease that would not have been possible during my early years here at CGCW. It is not that we did not understand which wines would age well, or at least thought we did, but the “immediacy of knowing” that the Ojai was bound for glory is something that only comes with experience and passion. Steve may not have said it above, but today, after being in this wine-writing business for over three decades, we still come to the tasting table with big smiles on our faces.


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Sense and Sensibility
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:10/12/2012 11:58:40 AM

Thanks, Steven, for the birthday wishes. And if my silly, self-absorbed, maudlin birthday post inspired you two, then I'm glad. The HoseMaster rarely inspires. I mostly infuriate.

To further your baseball analogy, there just aren't any 60-year-old pitchers in the game, though I'm sure Jamie Moyer still thinks he has a 20 game season left in his arm. But Roger Clemens was still striking out people, though in a league far below where he once was. There could be analogies there too.

I didn't mean my remarks to reflect on any critics in particular, but simply to reflect on a simple truth. Our senses diminish as we age. Yet I almost never see this spoken about when it comes to wine and wine criticism. Believe me, I've judged with people older than me and am convinced they were getting by on guile and experience instead of actual perception. That troubled me a bit. Plus, I don't want to be that guy.

The acuity of our senses is, as you imply, but one aspect of understanding an individual wine. But if we criticize those who have little experience but maybe younger and better senses for their shortcoming, is that fair? Not that I care about fair.


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