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Charles Antin shares his best tips on how you can improve your wine memory.
You’re at dinner. You’re not concentrating too hard. You have a wine you like. How do you remember, a week later, what you drank?
The biggest wine complaint I hear from my friends (normal, functioning members of society, most of them, with normal memories) is that they can’t remember this one bottle they loved. Because I work in the wine business, I often field the questions: “I had it at this new restaurant. It was white. Maybe from Italy? Do you know it?” My friends also can’t ever quite remember why they liked the wine—whatever it was—either. Was it the flavor? The finesse? The way the wine went with the food?
But that’s how it happens. You’re at dinner. You’re not concentrating too hard. You’re possibly a little bit buzzed. How do you remember, a week later in a wine shop, what you were drinking?
Gerard Basset, a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier, ran into a version of this problem when he was studying for the Best Sommelier of the World competition. His answer was to enlist the help of Dominic O’Brien. O’Brien is a memory champion; he’s a Guinness World Record holder for his recall skills—for instance, remembering 2,808 playing cards (54 decks) in order after seeing each card only once. Basset needed help memorizing confusing sake terms, so what O’Brien did was teach him to assign visually arresting images to phrases he needed to remember. Yamada Nishiki, for instance, is a type of rice. For Basset, it became a motorcycle (Yamaha) being ridden by a scantily clad (cheeky) woman. Whether that means Basset has a fondness for Harley-riding girls in bikinis is beside the point; the image worked and helped him win the contest.
Basset was studying for an exam where the goal was to memorize an encyclopedia of wine terms, not exactly an everyday pursuit. But the same approach can work for anyone. I love German wines, but the names are usually long and extremely consonant heavy. Half the time I can’t recall them at all. So I sat down with Stephen Bitterolf, an importer who more or less specializes in hard-to-pronounce wines. For me, his Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher—hard enough to pronounce, much less remember—ended up as a go-kart (kart) zooming in circles around a gingerbread house (häus) with David Hasselhoff (hof) driving it. Bingo: Karthäuserhof. It was a visually arresting, memorable image, and it came to me quickly, like a wine Rorschach. This tactic works just as well for more straightforward wines. Suppose you want to remember a Jolivet Sancerre you had. Maybe the image would be a laughing guy in army fatigues: a jolly vet(eran). Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay? Picture a life-size Ken doll standing next to Michael Jackson (you have to admit, it’s an unforgettable image).
But simply remembering the name of the wine may not be enough. How do you remember the taste of a wine? How do you lock it in your head, so you know what to ask for later?
To answer this question, I decided to test my parents. Like many people, they’re a little nervous and skeptical about their wine knowledge, or lack thereof. If they enjoy a wine in a restaurant, they want to be able to remember the name of the wine, but even more than that they want to remember what it was they liked about it. And yet they long ago gave up on this feat as being beyond them. So I decided that would be my challenge: to train my parents to remember wine in such a way that their enjoyment of it would actually increase, too.
I chose three wines for us to taste, all Sauvignon Blancs: a 2013 Napa Cellars from Napa Valley, a 2013 Momo from Marlborough, New Zealand, and a 2013 François Chidaine Sauvignon de Touraine, from France. None was more than $20, and all, I hoped, would show certain characteristics of their home countries.
My parents were surprised by how different the three wines were, and even more surprised by how easy it was to tell the difference tasting them side by side. I recommended that they concentrate on first impressions, regardless of what those might be. For my mother, the Chidaine suggested grapefruit. For my father, the New Zealand wine had a fishy component. (NB: I’m pretty sure the wine didn’t have a fishy component, but for the purposes of this experiment, I encouraged it.) I also encouraged them to link the taste of the wine to its name. My mother felt the Momo smelled of flowers, specifically lavender. Since Momo, to her, sounded like kimono, it made her think of a lavender-print kimono she had as a kid, which she’d loved. Nothing complicated—just an image to go with the wine, to cement the memory of its aroma (lavender) and name (Momo) in her mind. It came to her on the fly, and it stuck.
A day later, I had my parents taste the same three wines, but without letting them know which was which. And they both, much to their (and my) delight, correctly identified all three, specifically because of the images they’d filed away to go with them.
“The verbalization helped and forced me to remember,” said my mother. My father agreed. And then, he exclaimed—actually exclaimed—“I’m so impressed with myself!”
Not only did they nail the wines based on descriptors they remembered, but they were also able to link these flavors to the names and regions of the wines. The Chidaine wine had the highest acidity, which my father perceived as an obvious lime component. The Napa Cellars, on the other hand, riper, softer and more melony, wasn’t to his taste. He now had the language to say, “I enjoy Sauvignon Blanc from Touraine more than from Napa.”
They agreed, too, that the trick I’d taught them was remarkably useful. If, for instance, my mother enjoyed a wine in a restaurant, she knew now to link her first impressions of that wine both to the event—why she was at the dinner—and also to the name on the bottle. At the same time, using these memories didn’t require much ingrained knowledge. Before going in, for example, neither of my parents knew that Touraine is in the Loire Valley. Yet, by remembering the wine, they could say that they enjoyed a Touraine, even without knowing whether “Touraine” was a producer, a region or a grape.
The most intriguing thing may be how long these memories last. About four months after our experiment, I got a text from my dad. He was out with my mother for dinner, and he’d blind-tasted her on two white wines. She nailed them both—a Sauvignon Blanc from Touraine, and one from New Zealand. I pointed out to him that not only was she able to remember them, but he was, too: He’d looked at the restaurant’s wine list, and of all the wines on it, those were the two he ordered. He knew that both he and my mother would enjoy the flavors and qualities of French and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
Take this thinking too far and you might fall into a philosophical argument about what learning is and how the idea of it has changed over time—or how much of learning about wine is training your memory to retain names, regions and grapes, and then deciding where your taste allegiances lie within those memories. Or you could put those questions aside, taste a wine and simply tie it in your mind to something you’ll never forget, like the memory of a lavender-print kimono you got as a gift when you were a child.
Charles Antin auctions wine for Christie’s and writes about wine and beer for various publications.