Blind Spots

Every car has one. So does every palate
Blind Spots
Matt Kramer confesses his wine-tasting blind spots. (Jon Moe)
Nov 15, 2016

Let me be blunt: There's no such thing as a universal palate. I have never met a taster who, in my opinion anyway, can taste every wine from everywhere with equal insight.

Mind you, I'm not talking here about mere technical tasting. All good tasters are adept at what might be called the basic surgery of tasting: identifying and assessing such things as tannins, acidity, fruit intensity and so forth. That's no big deal once you've had even just a bit of experience—and if you care to take an analytical approach. (Not everyone does, you know. Many tasters prefer an "I like it/I don't like it" approach and call it good.)

What's much more important, and substantive, is insightful tasting. This is when you or I are tasting a wine and have both a real understanding of what a certain type of wine could and should be as well as—and this is vital, I believe—a certain sympathy, an emotional affinity.

How many times have you met somebody who clearly knows her or his way around fine wine yet, upon tasting something that you know to be special just doesn't get it? That the problem is not just a matter of mere taste preference but rather a real blind spot?

I've seen this many times, even among wine lovers with superb and experienced palates. What's more, and here's the kicker, I've also seen it in myself. I sometimes have a distinct sense that I've somehow missed it. That the wine in hand truly is special yet I can't see it. In short, a blind spot.

Let me tell you about a recent conversation I had with a European importer who specializes in so-called “natural” wines. I've written before about natural wines, about how conflicted I am about their admirable ambition to achieve a particular sort of wine purity while simultaneously dismayed by a too-frequent presence of technical flaws such as microbial instability, excessive oxidation, or the odor of invasive brett (a type of yeast infection).

These flaws, as I see them, appear in varying degrees ranging from the barely detectable to the flagrantly obvious.

Anyway, this importer was someone deserving of respect. I, for my part, sincerely wish to understand what it is about natural wines that is so attractive to so many passionate wine lovers.

So I was frank. I expressed my reservations and asked where I was going wrong—if indeed I was going wrong. I suggested that I might have a blind spot.

The importer was generous. "I don't think it's a blind spot, so much as it's a matter of a different way of looking at wine," he said. "Myself, I once sold only wines that you or I would have considered well-made. Clean. Even impeccable. But I slowly came to the conclusion that they were boring. These wines lacked soul.

"It was then that I slowly saw the beauty of natural wines," he added, "That's the thing. What you see as flaws—that bit of brett, maybe a little cloudiness or a touch of oxidation—I and others have come to see as part of the beauty of wine, even the reality of wine. You see, it's the very imperfection that we see as a form of beauty, rather than a flaw or detriment."

This was, for me, as compelling an explanation as any I've heard on the subject of natural wine. It didn't change my mind so much as opened it. I still can't get past what I consider obvious flaws. But I can now better understand how, and why, others might find an attraction in the less-than-perfect, like lovers not minding—or actually finding attractive, even arousing—a whiff of body odor.

We all have blind spots. I frequently see one such blind spot among fanciers of Cabernet Sauvignon who just can't wrap their heads, and thus their palates, around the particular beauty of Pinot Noir. Devoted to Pinot Noir as I am, I can't see how they could possibly miss it. But they do.

Indeed, I increasingly meet fanciers of California Pinot Noir, especially those wines with lush, intense fruit, actively rejecting red Burgundies as being too thin, too light and too acidic. Talk about a blind spot.

Myself, I struggle with Sherry as I simply don't care for oxidized wines. Yet obviously oxidation is part of the very particularity and beauty of Sherry. It's one of my biggest blind spots, I know.

And yours? Surely someone has handed you, say, a great Barolo—which is certainly a particular, even peculiar, red wine of formidable tannins and acidity, as well as unusual flavors—and you found yourself saying, "I'm sure it's great wine. But I don't get it."

Or maybe it's the tart, grapefruit-y zing of certain New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs which many tasters love (count me in) but others find unpleasantly screechy. Another possibility might be—brace yourself—wines with high alcohol. Some tasters, no matter how hard they try, cannot get past that one element. Yet others practically swoon with pleasure and admiration, accepting or even embracing that same high alcohol level as part of the very beauty of the wine, or at least not a detraction.

It's too easy to write off all these examples as merely matters of taste. Each to his or her own and all that. But I think that misses what's really happening.

We do have blind spots that make us miss real beauty. I'll bet that you have some. Care to share?


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