We drink wine in a variety of situations. Almost all wine drinkers drink wine to accompany meals, loosen inhibitions at a party, relax after work or to savor while cooking dinner. Many share wines with family and friends, visit wineries on weekends or attend tastings where education is part of the agenda. Some wine lovers study a wine and savor it over several hours; others taste wine professionally. In most cases there is something else going on when the wine is poured; distracted drinking is unavoidable.
Given this diversity of situations in which wine is consumed, we need a variety of approaches to wine tasting in order for our level of attention to fit the situation. In fact for many people, their wine drinking is stuck at one of these levels.
It seems to me there are 6 such categories that organize our level of attention and type of focus.
Background tasting involves tasting when there is something else going on that requires your nearly full attention. At best you can occasionally steal a moment to taste and think about the wine, but your attentiveness to the wine dips in and out and you can find yourself consuming a glass without ever having focused on it. Dinner parties, if you’re the conversational type, usually require background tasting. People who drink wine out of habit or because it’s there may never taste any other way.
In whimsical tasting there is some opportunity and willingness to savor but our attention to the wine consists of intermittent moments of seeking aroma notes or enjoying the finish. We taste whatever we feel like, with attention bouncing around like a jar fly, but there is no attempt to organize our experience or gather thoughts about the wine. I would imagine this category to be typical of most wine drinkers who are neither connoisseurs, students of wine, nor industry people
In this category one sees wine appreciation as something to aspire to and the taster may have learned a bit about varietals or wine regions. But the focus is on what is widely accepted and discussed as something to be noticed about a wine. There is searching behavior going on as the taster tries to identify aroma or flavor notes but at best only isolated parts of the wine are identified without attending to how they fit together or what they mean. In some cases this kind of tasting experience may be more about appearing sophisticated or hip with no effort to genuinely comprehend the wine. But usually this is just an early stage in acquiring genuine expertise. Focusing on what other people say is part of learning how to taste.
The narcissistic taster is a genuine connoisseur with experience and good taste. But her response to the wine never gets beyond I like or I don’t like it. There is no attempt to understand why the wine is good or bad or to communicate reasons for her judgments based on features of the wine. The wine itself is seldom the focus of attention—the attention is directed at her own reactions.
Prisms reveal the complexity of light by refracting light rays that display colors not seem without the prism. There is a kind of wine tasting experience that functions like a prism. No one can engage all the features of a wine at once. Wines are too complex for one-off sampling and only a series of tastes over time, with attention systematically focused on various dimensions of the wine, will get the whole wine into view. For instance, you can’t seek obscure aroma notes while at the same time allowing the wine to induce an imaginative state. The former act of attention requires intense focus while the imaginative state requires relaxed, diffuse focus. Yet, like a prism, that search for aromas can put you in an imaginative state. It can send the mind on a journey enabling you to think of metaphorical attributions that help get the whole wine into view. This is where we get wine descriptors like “brooding”, “a street walker”, or “the parry and thrust of acidity”. Unfortunately, there are many in the industry who think prismatic tasting should not exist.
This is the kind of tasting required to pass difficult certification exams and used by professionals to converse about wine. It is the self-conscious scrutiny of aroma notes and structural characteristics, a narrow field of attention compared to prismatic tasting, which aims to objectively and accurately identify features of the wine that have a bearing on quality and typicity.
The question of which of these types of tasting experiences are genuine aesthetic experiences is important but will have to wait for another day.
This taxonomy was inspired by the taxonomy of listening experiences developed by John T. Lysaker in his very fine book entitled Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. The term “prismatic listening” was coined by him.