Getting "good" at wine is not necessarily just about being good at tasting wine. A lot of non-drinking homework is involved too. And the crazy volume of places, names and vintages tends to reward those with a good memory for facts (or those who work at memorizing facts).
It's probably no accident many folk in the wine trade have deep knowledge of sports, music or film. Being knowledgeable in those fields seems require the same kind of memory skills as wine—what I refer to as the "baseball card" type of memory. Runs batted in, home runs and batting averages are not so far from blending percentages, months in new oak and harvest conditions.
I am, unfortunately, terrible at this kind of memorization. Judging by the number of stories I hear from sommeliers or wine retailers about customers asking for "that bottle they had before with the green label and a name that started with either a 'C' or 'T,'" I know I'm not alone.
Isn't it enough to just focus on the immediacy of the wine drinking experience? Or isn't remembering the tastes of a given wine the most important thing? Yes, and no. It may seem like nerdy esoterica when a sommelier is rattling off details of how the south-facing Mosel vineyards fared in 2002, but these are the tiny bones that form a skeleton of knowledge. Without these facts, you don't have the framework to hold up the taste memories—to get a working knowledge of what 15 months in oak taste like, or to recognize that most wines from 2007 in Barolo have a particular character.
But is it possible to get better at remembering data? Certainly, suggests author Joshua Foer, in his 2011 book Walking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, which chronicles his rise from regular guy to winner of the 2006 U.S.A. Memory Championships. His experience shows that we all have the ability to improve our memory, with effort.
I called Foer to see if he had any memory tips regarding wine specifically. Below are three of his suggestions.
To memorize the name of a wine, create an outlandish image (that is different from the label)
"All of the memory tricks that go back to antiquity depend on using your visual memory to come up with an image that you can tie to whatever it is you're trying to memorize to make it more memorable," said Foer. I flipped open the October issue of Wine Spectator and picked out the Bodega Norton Mendoza Privada 2009 as a test case. The tasting note mentioned that it was a blend of three grapes: Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Foer walked me through his process of creating a new image: "I would do an image that ties all of those pieces of information together. For Bodega Norton, I would have Ed Norton, the actor. I would want to remember there were three kinds of grapes, so I would imagine him hobbling around on one foot with a grape in three appendages. For Privada, maybe it's about his private parts. Picture Ed Norton: He's naked, on one foot and there's a grape in each hand and one under a foot …" Foer continued, adding details to make it more vivid, but you get the picture: "That is a really bizarre image. If I come back and ask you six weeks from now, that image will hopefully be accessible. Those cue your ability to remember these other facts."
Think about wine as geography (and then imagine what it looks like)
"The best way to remember information is for it to have meaning and context," said Foer when I asked him how to memorize appellation maps. "What we did with the Norton was to create an image that had context for information that previously had none. A map, however, has real context."
Foer suggested that beyond just memorizing a map, however, one might do well to conjure actual images of the place: "One thing you might try is if you could actually have a picture in your mind of what Mendoza is like—that's another layer of meaning."
Turn numbers into a picture
Between vintage dates and blending percentages, wine stats tend to be heavy on numbers. "I use a trick for memorizing numbers that goes back to the 17th century [called the Major System]," said Foer. "It works by translating numbers into words. For example, if I want to remember a wine is from 1974, I would picture an image of a car, because '74 translates to "C" and "R" or "car." And you can do that with any number. It truly takes all of five minutes [to master the system]. Once you have that, it's a way of taking information like numbers, which tend not to have meaning or context, and giving them a context in your memory."
Do you have any other good tips on memorizing wine facts? How do you keep track of all the wines you've tasted? Leave your suggestions in the comments.
Robert Leblanc — Edmonton, AB - Canada — October 3, 2012 11:56pm ET
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