We face each other over two glasses of wine. He asks for my opinion first. My wine repertoire consists of "I like it," or "I don't like it," and maybe a comment on the acid-fruit balance. But this is all he needs—the gauntlet thrown down.
Examining wine is this man's sport and passion. He doesn't just taste, or smell, or see. He views wine as a chessmaster views the board, or a sailor his boat. Every tiny detail is vital, and my opinion is only a catalyst, a challenge that invites him to step closer and lose himself in yet another brief but passionate relationship.
If I say I like it, he looks surprised, as though I couldn't possibly be serious, but bravely he says nothing, going back into the glass to re-examine it dubiously for positive qualities. After a moment he says, "But the phenolics are a bit high, don't you think? And there is a definite brassica component that detracts from the varietal character of the wine."
He peers through his pie plate glasses into the wine with an intensity that causes me to lean away from my glass toward his. His attention pours downward into the tiny maelstrom of swirling wine, as if leaving his body momentarily to become one with the tiny swirling sea of color and aroma.
Placing first one nostril, and then the other as far into the glass as he can, he breathes deeply, drawing individual molecules into his delicate receptors.
"Definite cat piss," he comments on the chardonnay. And of the pinot noir, "A little too much diaper."
Finally he tastes the wine, sipping it distrustfully, not sure how it will affect him. With a sorrowful shake of his head, he says, "The fruit is overripe, caramelized at best. The color is a little muddy, and the aroma is not varietally accurate."
Although the wine tastes wonderful to me, I feel empathy for his sorrow, because the wine he criticizes so cruelly is his own.
Now that he has pointed out these faults, I can indeed detect them. But variations which seem like cumbersome faults to him, are to me only tiny deviations that add character to the wine. If someone calmly says, "I smell smoke," is he referring to burning carpets or a backyard barbecue?
Determined now in his quest to discover a perfect wine, a delicious transmutation from imperfect vineyard lots, the winemaker wanders out to the cellar and returns with some hastily collected barrel samples. He lines up the samples on a table, viewing them seriously, frowning a little, stooped over with his hands folded on his belt.
Again, he smells and tastes each one, searching for elusive details, a Sherlock of the senses. Using a graduated cylinder, he blends the lots in percentages which equal proportionately the amount each vineyard has contributed. But the flavors and aromas do not satisfy him. He sets that blend aside. Next he concocts a blend that represents a more traditional combination of varietals. He finds fault with that as well. In the next trial blend he omits one vineyard entirely, and is pleased with the result, although irritated by the fact that a vineyard lot which tastes delicious on its own can have a polluting effect when combined with other lots.
As the evening wears on, glasses filled with rejected blends are pushed to the edges of the table, and only a few contestants remain at the center of the table and the winemaker's attention. The table looks like the aftermath of an alchemist's experiment, covered with spills, scribbled notes and labels, wine-stained tubes and wine thieves.
In the end, as in the beginning, my opinion is only a mirror and a crystal ball for a winemaker in quest of alchemical perfection. Eventually, we both agree on one final blend which has all the characteristics we admire.
In a wine that tastes superb to me, he will still find some small but endearing fault. But now he is falling in love; passionately consumed by the possibilities and loveliness of this unique, vinous, liquid personality. He savors this one for a while, enjoying its company, allowing it to flirt with his senses.
And finally, he will smile, lift his glass, and admit that his wine is pretty darn good after all.