Do you speak wine?

I can still recall the very first time I stepped into a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine. I was new in town, a freshman. My flat was tiny and weary, but I was super proud of it. Because it was MY nest. A bed, a small table, two chairs, and a lamp bought from Ikea. In that tiny apartment, I dreamed of new adventures in the city and learned to cook. When I got my first guest, I thought: people serve wine with dinner, isn’t it? That was not the habit at my childhood home, but I wanted to be like people in my urban surroundings. Hence, I headed to the liquor store.

Lost on the wine isle

Endless rows of bottles greeted me when I entered the store. I had absolutely no idea what to grab. Red, maybe? I navigated into the French section since that was the most obvious connection I could make between wine and a country. There were descriptions written on the price tags. Full-bodied, tannic, juicy… They were meant to be helpful, but to me, their information value was zero. For the same reason, I didn’t want to ask help from the salesperson. They would simply ask me descriptions and I was not able to give those. I had absolutely no idea whether I liked light-bodied or full-bodied wine! Those words didn’t tell me anything. I didn’t speak wine.

Learning about wines is like learning a new language. You need time, patience, curiosity, and practice. At first, you get to know the basic expressions. “Hello, my name is Cabernet Sauvignon. I have tannins.” “Nice to meet you, Cab! I am Chardonnay. Look how lean I am, I don’t have any oak!” Little by little, you get familiar with different voices, varying dialects. Eventually, you start to recognise and appreciate subtleties.

Practice makes perfect?

People who learn a language simply by listening and imitating may develop good enough skills for everyday communication. They master colloquial expressions but they may never learn certain essential grammatical rules. It’s easy to miss variations of nuances and it’s definitely difficult to express oneself in a nuanced way. Me Tarzan, You Jane. That was the level of my German when I moved into this country. Learning a language – or wine – by immersing doesn’t carry you all the way. You may have opened that bottle of wine every Friday evening but you still find the wine isle intimidating. You’ll never go further unless you’re willing to open a book or a website and study. And vice versa, mastering grammar doesn’t right away make you an eloquent speaker in another language. You may have read about dozens of grape varieties but if you have never tasted them you have no idea how they are. One needs long practice before achieving that stage.

Not everyone is willing to go all the way. Many people are happy if they are able to place an order at a restaurant in another language and leave it to that. Similarly, many people prefer just to sip their wine and deem it good and bad without explicating what did they like or not like about it. That’s perfectly fine. But if you’re reading this, I suppose you are one of those who wants to learn to talk wine.

Twenty years from my first visit to a liquor store and I start to be fairly comfortable speaking wine. For long, I relied on the learning by immersion technique until it got more serious. Along came books, trips, courses, certificates. At this point, I know longer want to privately converse with my wine, I want to speak wine with you!

 

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