When I took up running after years of playing team sports, I gave myself permission to not be competitive: no races, no time-trials, no slippery-slope to marathons. If I could do an around-the-park loop of 3.5 miles a couple times a week without collapsing like Scarlett O'Hara after a fight with Rhett, I was totally all right with myself.
Then last year, a friend told me about the barefoot running movement. The gist: Human feet evolved over millennia to run barefoot and the relatively recent development of padded shoes and arch support changes our gait for the worse and induces injuries. She recommended Vibram-soled shoes, which simulate barefootedness (complete with side benefit of being way ugly). Being a fan of not having long-term injuries, I bought a pair to try.
Readers! After my first run with them, I could barely walk for three days. I had to hobble up and down subway stairs sideways and shuffle around as if I was using a walker, retirement-home style. But it was a good pain, an I-have-muscles-I-never-knew-about pain. After all these years of running, my technique was apparently terrible. I began to work the shoes into my regular routine—using them for a shorter run once a week to train myself to run on my forefoot instead of my heel and with shorter, quick strides—and soon the pain lessened.
This experience got me thinking: I didn't necessarily want to get better at running, but what about a field where I did, such as wine? Had I reached a comfortable plateau with wine drinking as I had with running around the park and, if so, could some sort of equipment tweak raise my level of "fitness"?
My focus narrowed on glassware. I love the colors of wine-the deep gold of aged white Burgundy, the translucence of Pinot Noir, the brick-colored rim of a Nebbiolo beginning to age. But could I be using color as a crutch for developing tasting skills? Certainly when confronted with an unknown glass of wine, it's easy to make judgments on the body, grape variety and age by color alone (lighter color, lighter body, etc.).
So I bought myself a black wineglass to mask the color of wine, to see what I could discern without falling back on color, and it has been interesting. The enjoyment factor is muted a little, for sure, as there is an element of feeling handicapped, like forgetting you're wearing a wrist cast and trying to type on a computer. (And, yikes, the visual experience is like being in one of Patrick Batemen's favorite Art Deco restaurants or an extra on the set of a Game of Thrones banquet.) But each time I reach to take a sip, I have to remind myself what I'm doing and concentrate on the aromas, the taste and the weight of the wine.
It's too soon to tell if this experiment has made me more "fit" at drinking wine. I can say that it has made me a more mindful wine drinker, which leads to "fitness," I think. Just as I'm forced to pay more attention to the way I run when I wear the barefoot shoes, I pay more attention to what's in the glass when I can't see the color.
Though both provide a sense of making long-term progress, the analogy between the shoes and the wine isn't perfect. The shoes purportedley get a runner closer to the more natural experience of running, while the black glass is imposing a sensory limitation on the wine drinker that can quicken one's learning curve.
I don't advocate drinking this way all the time—as I said, color is an important component of wine, and bringing a black glass to a restaurant or dinner party would be unbearably fussy. As a personal experiment, however, it seems worthwhile.
What do you think? Aside from opening a lot of bottles, are there specific steps that promote "wine fitness"? Have you worked at getting better at tasting wine, and how?
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — October 9, 2012 1:45pm ET
Gregory Kendall — Laurel, MD — October 9, 2012 8:27pm ET
Russell Quong — Sunnyvale, CA — October 10, 2012 9:15pm ET
Kevin Smith — Sunshine State — October 12, 2012 1:47am ET
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