Kit helps couple develop taste for wine

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

CONCORD, N.H. -- The suggestion that we hold our own wine tasting party was tempting, even romantic.

Our heads filled with images of glamorous friends gathered in our equally glamorous dining room, clinking fine crystal, quaffing spirits and uttering lines such as, "It's a bit precocious, but the chocolate and fig undertones are exquisite."

The box made it sound so easy, promising to contain everything needed. It assured us we would "develop a connoisseur's palate, and have fun doing it."

Fun? Sure. The connoisseur's palate? Not entirely.

The ability to divine that from the experience probably was lost shortly after guests violated the "taste, don't drink" rule.

The challenge had arrived not long before as a review copy of Wine Spectator magazine's "Complete Wine Tasting Kit," a burgundy-colored box that claims to contain enough information and supplies to cater up to 25 tastings.

Clearly aimed at wine lovers still developing their love, the kit includes two books, a pocket guide to wines from around the world, and the more extensive "Essentials of Wine," with chapters on how to taste and what to taste for.

It also has a slew of testing sheets, checklists for the wine illiterate that explain when to "see, sniff and sip," and what to look for at each of the stages. They even offer flavor and aroma suggestions, such as cherry, oak and charred wood.

Charred wood?

As my wife and I skimmed through the books in preparation for our party, we realized we prefer to drink wine rather than to read about it. We skipped ahead to the "Quick Guide to Tasting."

This was more our speed. Like the three couples we invited, we enjoy wine and drink a couple of bottles a week. We don't "know" wine, though we know what we like. We certainly don't "speak" wine.

"Legs" to us are what we use to move from the table to the wine rack to get another bottle. We had certainly never tasted anything, wine or otherwise, that suggested charred wood. Nor would we want to.

We decided on a "blind tasting" party. This means the bottles are covered (handy bags for this are included in the box) and everyone samples and rates each wine at the same time. We also decided to stick to reds, though we didn't limit the geographic origin of the wines as the guide suggested.

The rules were simple. Each couple was to bring a $15 bottle. To make it more interesting, and to potentially prove just how little we know about wine, we provided three bottles -- a $3 merlot from the grocery store, a very respectable $15 Chianti and a $40 Italian red table wine.

The night of the party, our dining room was no more glamorous than any other evening. The glasses had devolved into anything that would hold liquid. We realized we didn't have enough "fine crystal" to supply everyone with six glasses.

With the bottles bagged and the glasses numbered to correspond with each wine, the tasting commenced.

Bottle 1 (later identified as the $3 merlot):

Not a hit. Not even close. Maybe we did know something about wine... The comments started out restrained; no one knew who brought which wine. That quickly faded.

"It just tastes like bad grape juice," one tester muttered.

Then there were the forms. Though initially admired for providing suggestions about what we were seeing and tasting that admiration faded, too. The forms turned drinking wine into an experience about as pleasurable as filling out a 1040A tax form.

"I don't want to put down the wrong answers," one woman whispered to her husband.

"Tar? Why is tar a flavor?"

Bottle 2 (a $10 Beaujolais):

Better. Bad, but better. Nobody liked the smell of this one, but the forms don't give unpleasant options. The terms they suggest range from various berries to chocolate, with numerous meats and spices in between.

"Everything is burning my tongue," a tester commented.

By now we also were learning about "legs," the streaks of wine left on the inner sides of the glass when you swirl it. Directions for doing this without spilling would be a nice touch.

Bottle 3 (a $15 rose):

"Like old perfume" was the consensus on this sticky sweet one.

The guide book advises against eating before a tasting -- a protocol we won't be repeating. By this time, we'd all consumed about two glasses on empty stomachs. It wasn't hard to tell.

"I'm smelling bacon and burned toast," one guest volunteered. "This reminds me of a bad breakfast."

Bottle 4 (a $15 Chianti):

"Wow! Now that's what I'm talking about," said a relieved guest.

Of course, by now we were starting to question whether the wines were improving, or if our tastes (and increasingly our brains) were numb.

"I'm happy now," exclaimed a previous complainer.

Here's another trick we learned that we doubt ever will be published in any wine-tasting book. There always will be one person who, no matter how bad the wine, loves it. Find that person to save yourself from drinking too much bad wine.

Bottle 5 ($40 Italian red):

This was a disappointment. Not the wine. That was terrific. Better than terrific. It was the first over-$20 bottle any of us ever had tried. We were in love.

The disappointment was my wife. She liked it. A lot. She also knew right off it was the $40 bottle. Never again would I be able to bring home cheap wine.

Bottle 6 (yet another $15 Italian red):

"I like it," my wife said. "I also liked No. 2, but I really can't remember it."

"I liked No. 4, too. But that's just a guess. I don't remember what 5 and 6 tasted like," said another connoisseur in the making.

Editor's note: Wine Spectator's Complete Wine Tasting Kit is published by Running Press and retails for $40.

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