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Thursday Thorns
How Mature Is The American Palate?

By Stephen Eliot

I am no longer easily annoyed when it comes to matters of vinous taste. I have seen my tastes change over the years and am quite comfortable with the notion of “to each his own.” I do not enjoy being told that I am wrong for liking what I like, but such criticisms do not stir righteous indignation in me, and they assuredly do not cause me to lose any sleep. I do, however, worry a bit, as I have commented more than once, at the ways in which the once-congenial conversation about fine wine has become increasingly burdened by diatribe. I suppose that I still believe that the consumer will ultimately be the arbiter of what is good and bad regardless of articulate attacks and defenses regarding “proper” wine styles, and, while I suspect that old hands will be little swayed by polemics, I cannot help but wonder at how all the noise plays with those relatively new to the game.

There is a certain insecurity that comes when first starting out as a wine drinker who knows that there are greater and lesser wines to be had but do not yet have the experience to know for themselves which are which. The simple maxim of “drink what you like” has little validity unless backed up by experience with wines of every type and style. Whether by way of advice from friends and professionals and through extensive reading and tasting, we slowly find those that are most pleasurable and speak to us most clearly.

I recall endless suggestions and enthusiastic endorsements of this or that wine in my formative years, and there was, contrary to current standards, a fair degree of agreement regardless of the source. I do not remember many recommendations whose legitimacy seemed to require nasty asides demeaning other wines. A wine was good because of what it was, not because something else was beneath contempt. I was told by my teachers that the more I tasted, the more would be revealed, and, as is the case with any endeavor that requires a measure of education, that turned out to be true. And, liking or not liking a wine was never a measure of my maturity and worth as a wine drinker.

We have lately heard a good many claims that the American palate has finally “matured”, and that a new golden age of wine appreciation is dawning. More often than not, the assertion is made by those who champion “subtle” and “nuanced” wines of high acid and low alcohol. It sounds very good and rings of a certain sophistication. I mean, really, who does not want to think of themselves as being “mature”. The problem, of course, is that one is summarily regarded as a not-ready-for-prime-time tyro for liking anything else, and it seems to me that the road to this kind of “maturity” necessarily leads to Europe. It is the same monotonous New World versus Old World argument in a shiny new package.

I take umbrage with the notion that there is a defined path to a mature palate other than the meandering one of tasting wine after wine. There is no specific end point, no threshold that once crossed means that real maturity has been reached, and to bestow the mantle of maturity upon those who happen to agree with you is the worst kind of credibility imaginable. Even more, I find the idea that there is an absolute “American palate” to be so simplistic as to be meaningless, and the idea that its maturity or lack thereof can be measured is utter nonsense.

We have long been told with undisguised condescension by the vinous cognoscenti that the American taste is one geared to sweetness, Coca Cola is the usual analogy employed, and that this unfortunate predilection has been played to by winemakers whose appetites for profit led to meritless, overripe wines that they themselves would not drink. Big-name wine critics, we are told, have capitalized on the fact and drove us further off the path to vinous truth by convincing unwitting consumers that bigger is better and betraying all that is noble in fine wine. All the while, of course, diversity is touted as being the great achievement of the 21st century winescape. It is all a bit too much to digest, and I become ever more dyspeptic the longer the debate rages.

If there is, in fact, a maturing of the American palate, it might best be found in finding experience-based confidence that it is okay to like what you like, and, in that, I will accede to a bit of real wisdom taking hold.

I happen to take genuine pleasure in the proliferation of styles. I can revel in richness. I can delight in quiet complexity. Sometimes, simple freshness and buoyancy is all that I could want, and I look forward to the surprise of the next new discovery. When it comes, it needs no damning of what was, and it does not need to adhere to any philosophy or a priori set of rules. I have learned that interesting and satisfying wine with something to say succeeds of itself, and therein lies my own sense of what a “mature” palate really is.


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