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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I have an extensive wine collection and enjoy it immensely. Unfortunately, I do not have the imagination to describe the flavors (dirt, tobacco, pineapple, etc.) that "experts" do. What's wrong with me?
—Joseph F., Venice, Calif.
There's nothing wrong with you. You're correct that it takes a bit of imagination to describe wine. It also takes training, a vocabulary to express yourself, and a willingness to pay attention to these nuances. Start by reading more tasting notes to get familiar with the vocabulary that's commonly used. Practice by describing—not just wine, but everything you put in your mouth, so that you become more comfortable scrutinizing your experiences. For example, do you prefer Coke to Pepsi because you think Pepsi is too sweet, and you prefer the spiciness of Coke? Do you like the rustic chewiness of a strip steak or the soft tenderness of a filet mignon? Do you prefer coffee that's bold, acidic, earthy, fruity, or mellow? Become more curious about the way things smell and taste. Never pass up an opportunity to taste or smell something new or unfamiliar.
Open your mind to these distinctions, and then look at your wine more carefully. You might want to try two wines side by side, to compare and contrast them. In addition to flavors (I usually jump to fruit flavors first when I taste wine), think of ways to describe the acidity, weight or body, tannins, sweetness, finish, balance, complexity and personality of a wine. Experiment with taking notes in a way that helps you remember which wines you like and why. Above all, trust your instincts and use descriptors that make sense to you.
Learn from the experts and get the most out of each sip. Take one of our online courses or take them all—from the ABCs of Tasting to in-depth seminars on Food Pairing, California Cabernet, Bordeaux, Tuscany, Sensory Evaluation and more.