The First Sip of Wine: Treasure or Trouble?

First Sip

Do you remember your first sip of wine? Many people do. You many even remember your first taste of a particular wine —one that’s become a particular favorite or occupies a special place in your memory.  For anyone lost in the endless search for its precious but all too fleeting rewards, first sips serve as signposts on the pathway to a life of wine.

The impressions made by a first sip, including those formed just before and after it, occupy an outsized place in our wine experiences and become part of our fundamental feelings about wine in general. As we pull the glass expectantly toward our lips, drawing in the heady aroma, we approach the final reckoning. Will this wine deliver the returns we are expecting or will it disappoint? Somehow all our impressions of a particular wine become inseparably distilled into the memory of a first sip.

On a personal level, this kind of memory is understandable and quite useful. When we remember a wine, we conjure up how we expect it to taste the next time we drink it. Since that will begin with a first sip, our memories of the wine tend to fuse with the memories of our first sip. We can all use these memories to motivate us and help us make better choices in the future. But as these memories coalesce, they can blend with a popular image that features a wine connoisseur who takes a sip of wine and then instantly launches into a lengthy and erudite presentation on the characteristics of the wine. This image gives the first sip outsize importance and feeds the widely held, but dangerous, notion that everything you need to know about a wine can be learned from the first sip.

That notion is terribly wrong and doesn’t survive thoughtful analysis, but it’s insidious in many ways. It’s become so widespread and deeply rooted that it leaves people with the wrong impression about many of the wines they drink. It also feeds the cycle of dependency that makes them insecure about their own ability to judge a wine. Without the rather easily acquired skill of tasting wines for themselves, they get caught up in a vicious cycle: first they rely on the opinions of others because they don’t have faith in their own ability; next they start to distrust the opinions of others because they don’t have any context to put them in; ultimately, they become convinced that they have no taste for wine. Since they know they have taste buds, it’s quite logical for them to conclude that they just don’t like wine very much or have preference for something else.  As a result, they stop listening to what anyone says about wine and never quite figure out why it doesn’t seem to make sense to them.

Wine Tasting and the Lengend of El Exigente

In the late 1960s, the Savarin Coffee Company initiated a series of TV commercials featuring El Exigente (“the Demanding One”), a choosy coffee buyer presumably meant to figuratively represent the best interests of North American consumers. Clad in a neatly pressed suit and tie, this legendary figure would enter a coffee plantation and, as the barefoot local villagers crowded around, taste a cup of coffee. When he smiled after the first sip, the villagers would rejoice, honored to have passed the test of this exacting judge.

For a variety of reasons, this image of instantaneous judgment has become embedded popular expectations about wine tasting. It’s inadvertently reinforced by well meaning wine instructors, and vigorously exploited by less well-intentioned people trying to promote various wines or their own credentials as connoisseurs. It’s also fed by mistaken notions about the purpose of the traditional wine “service” at restaurants.

If you’ve ever taken a wine appreciation course or attended a serious wine tasting event (i.e. an event where the focus is actually on tasting the wine), you can appreciate the pressure that’s on the person leading the event to start talking about the wine as soon as the participants start to taste it. Since this presenter already knows what the wine is supposed to taste like (and may in fact have tasted it just before the event), he or she is likely to taste the defining characteristics of the wine sooner than the other participants at the tasting. This advantage makes it natural to assume that the other participants in the only begin to pick up the various characteristics of the wine on the third or fourth sip because they are less knowledgeable.

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Knowledge and experience are only two possible reasons why people might not be able to properly judge a wine after a single sip. There are many more that have nothing to do with how educated a person’s palate has become. Often, people have residual tastes in their mouth that influence the first taste of a wine. It may take several sips before these influences diminish. Likewise, some of the most persistent tastes in a wine come in small quantities. Since these more persistent tastes remain in the mouth after the wine has been swallowed, they have a cumulative effect and can build up to the point where the aftertaste of the wine can be far more pronounced than the taste of the first sip. This is particularly true for some of the  most delicate and sought after flavors, such as the dried fruit flavors that are brought out by aging a wine. It’s also true of some of the most pernicious tastes in wine, as anyone who’s failed to notice the telltale hint of cork taint on the first or second sip of a wine can attest to. One of the reasons that experienced wine drinkers take a bit of time to look for the slight traces of a flaw when they first sip a wine is that it isn’t necessarily obvious right away. By the time it becomes obvious, however, it will have reached the point where the unpleasant taste is extremely hard to get rid of.

Indeed, the misconceptions many people have about the role of the traditional wine service are traceable directly to their unrealistic expectations about what can be gleaned from a first sip. When the wine server offers a first sip before filling the glasses at a restaurant, most people realize that they’re not expected to be judging the wine for its quality, just checking it for flaws. But they’re often sheepish about taking enough time to do this properly. They feel they’re expected to be able to glean everything they need to now about a wine the instant they first sip it, so if they don’t approve or reject it right away they think they’ll look ignorant. In fact, true connoisseurs know that it’s often hard to spot even the most pernicious flaws after only one sip. So if you take your time, you’ll not only look more like one, you’ll actually be more like one. 

Wine Reviews in On-line Videos

As on-line sales of wine have mushroomed over the past decade, many wine merchants have made use of technology to post short videos that show featured wines being tasted by one of their buyers or someone else whose palate is expected to be respected. When I shop for wine on-line, I do it to save time, so I’m not likely to be in the mood for these videos. Although I’ve found the few I’ve watched to be reasonably entertaining, they don’t replace the enjoyment I get from bantering back and forth with a live wine merchant.  Of course, these videos would be even less entertaining if I had to watch the presenter slowly savor an entire glass before he or she said anything about the wine. So what the presenter presumably does is taste the wine and make notes earlier. These notes are then used as a basis for the comments that are made after what appears to be the first sip. It’s an understandable accommodation to the medium, but of course it tends to perpetuate the El Exigente image of the wine taster.

For obvious reasons, the taster never finds much fault with the wines they are trying to sell, just as the Savarin commercials never showed a cup of coffee that was rejected. In fact, I can remember only seeing only a handful of video images in documentaries, movies or TV shows that actually show someone tasting a wine and finding it bad, and those images were usually outlandish caricatures. When you think about it, it isn’t easy to teach people about wine through visual imagery, so as folks come to rely less and less on the written word for their communications, it seems inevitable that the El Exigente image will be reinforced rather than discarded.

What’s Wrong with Snap Judgments About Wine?

The notion that we should be able to judge a wine after the first sip has serious consequences in practice. To begin with, it creates anxieties that shouldn’t exist. Since they don’t realize that they should drink at least a full glass of a wine before they make a judgment about it, many people conclude that they just don’t have the equipment necessary to properly judge a wine. That makes them more likely to rely on a rating or a recommendation than their own palate. But without any sense of what they themselves enjoy in a wine, how can they possibly evaluate whether what someone else says is going to be helpful to them or not?  Indeed it’s hard to figure out how they would even start a conversation about the subject.

This inevitably leads to a situation where the tail wags the dog. Consumers who don’t trust their own judgments will rely on someone else’s word that a wine is worth drinking. Consequently, they give those wines the second chance that they should be giving to every wine. When they conclude that the highly recommended wine does indeed have more to offer than they first thought, they’re likely to conclude that they should rely even more on other people’s recommendations when they choose a wine, instead of realizing that they should give other wines a second chance too. Eventually, when they find that even some of the wines that are being recommended to them aren’t quite measuring up to expectations, they’re likely to blame wines in general or conclude that their own ability to appreciate them is their own fault, something perhaps baked into their DNA.

Once they lose confidence in their ability to taste wine, people naturally become less likely to express their own opinions about a particular wine and discuss them with others.  Yet professional tasters rarely rely solely on their own judgments. It’s rare to find companies who rely on professional tasters for quality control using a single taster. Rather, producers of everything from whisky to water rely on panels of tasters or, at the very least, a senior taster who forms his or her own opinion after consultation with an “apprentice”. The main difference between tasting wine and tasting these products is that we generally expect a higher level of consistency in the taste of these products than we do in the taste of wines.

We expect to find diversity in wines, even to the extent of finding that the same type of wine made by the same producer will have a unique taste if the grapes come from a different vineyard or were grown in a different year. The only people who could possibly all these wine in groups are the consumers themselves. Herein lies the origin of wine reviews and ratings. They were initially used as a way to share opinions about wines among the many professionals who needed to choose wines for restaurants and wine shops, because they couldn’t get together to taste them as a group.  Even though many consumers would also read these reviews, those who wrote them always assumed that their select group of readers would be able to put them in the context of their own judgments.

When Everyone Else is Talking, it’s Harder to Hear Your Own Voice

Today, however, more and more people are taking a serious interest in wine and new media outlets have opened channels for legions of bloggers, twitterers and other commentators to pass along their impressions about various wines they’ve tasted. Some, seeing so many other people who don’t have confidence in their native ability to taste wines, naively believe that the ability to taste wine is an exceptional gift. Surely, for the lucky few who have it, fame and fortune will come as soon as they can find a broader audience. Others, a growing band of Wine Wizards of Oz, shrewdly exploit the El Exigente image, and use it to flog mediocre and exceptional wines alike, simply adding to the confusion for ordinary consumers and increasing their sense that, even though they can taste everything else, they can’t taste wine.

One need only look at the excitement with which many young people have embraced craft beers to see that the El Exigente image of wine tasting has taken the fun out of wine. People who are fortunate enough to see through this image and learn to trust their own instincts generally become more and more open minded about wine as they learn more about it. Through trial and error, they come to realize that what a wine tastes like depends on the circumstances (something ratings and recommendations aren’t particularly good at taking into account) and they begin to enjoy a wider and wider range of wines in increasingly diverse ways. By contrast, since they can’t place the recommendations they receive in a proper context, those who don’t learn to trust their own instincts become increasingly closed minded about it, sticking to a limited group of wines they’ve become familiar enough with that they at least appreciate the familiarity of the first sip, even if what they’ve chosen isn’t ultimately the best choice for the occasion. When they taste a wine that seems unusual and hasn’t been blessed by an eminent authority, they tend to write it off, often assuming incorrectly that, because it’s not well known, highly touted or terribly expensive, it must be bad.

How to Overcome Your Preconceptions about a Wine

Preconceptions play a part in what you taste. Once you’ve written off a wine as bad, you aren’t likely to pay much attention to it, whether you continue to drink it or not. You may not even realize that the wine is starting to taste pretty good, because you assume that the improvement in taste is just a by-product of the relaxed mood that sets in after you’ve had a few sips, rather than a natural consequence of becoming more familiar with the wine. For similar reasons, what you remember about a wine you’re already familiar with (or have been told about a wine that you’re not familiar with) is also likely to dominate your ultimate impression of a wine, whether your expectations are fulfilled or not. People often enjoy highly rated wines simply because they give them the second chance other wines never get.

In order to fully understand what a wine can do for you, you have to put aside the notion that you can learn all you need to know about it from the first sip. Many people fail to appreciate that each sip of a wine is a little bit different. So our lasting impression of the taste of a wine should be more of a composite image than one that’s captured instantly. In The Persistent Observer’s Guide to Wine, I take pains to point out that the experts who seem to extract so much from a single slurp are drawing as much or more on a vast store of accumulated knowledge as they are on a gifted palate. I also show how easy it is for you to taste a wine for yourself, using skills you already have, once you understand the basic structure of wine.

The experts may be able to pick up a host of subtle flavors and nuances that you might not see right away, but those differences aren’t the ones that make the most difference in determining whether you’ll enjoy a wine or not. If wines weren’t super flexible at pleasing us, they wouldn’t stand up to our demanding expectations of them. To get the most out of wine, all you really need to do is pay attention to obvious things, like body and texture and dominant tastes. In less than an hour, anyone can learn how to assess these characteristics and begin to put them to best use by matching them to their own personal preferences, which is something they should know better than anyone else.  Those preferences are certainly something reviewers and raters hundreds or thousands of miles away will know very little about, no matter how quickly they can pick up “a soupçon of asparagus” in a wine.

Whenever you take the first sip of a wine your not familiar with, try not to judge it too hastily. Be aware of the different impressions the wine gives you as you continue to drink it. Let those blend in to form an overall impression that includes what you experience in your last sip and especially the tastes that persist afterward. I like to think of the first sip as “the sip that starts the conversation” with a wine.  Imagine it saying: “I could be something special for you. Are you curious about me?” That should help you give it the second chance it deserves. Ultimately, the magic of a first sip is in its promise —its ability to show that the wine has more to give.

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