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Close your eyes, plug your ears and more wine-tasting tips from industry experts.

Jenn Rice
August 21, 2017

Why can tasting wine feel so intimidating? Michael Kennedy, owner of Napa Valley’s Component Wine Company and former head sommelier for Eric Ripert's Blue at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, has a few ideas for demystifying the process, and it starts with getting emotional.

As I tasted Component Wine Company’s 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Kennedy had me close my eyes and reveal what came to mind. The flavors evoked Amarena cherries soaked in syrup, piled atop coconut gelato—a lush dessert I’d recently eaten in Italy. Kennedy said he, too, was taken back in time: to a childhood memory of raking leaves in the yard. Wine tasting—and accessing flavors, in general—has more to do with memory than most people realize.

“It was thrilling, emotional and sad, all in one sniff; I was transported to a memory I didn't even realize I still had,” Kennedy said. “That's the kind of thing wine can do for us when we let our emotions back in—something we need to do more. It's what can separate a good-tasting beverage from something much more powerful.”

We tapped a few Napa Valley insiders from Dunn Vineyards and Red Cap Vineyards to divulge what we should—but more importantly, shouldn’t—be thinking about while sipping wine. It’s going to get a little emotional.

Remember that the language of wine is important, but not really…

Since everyone’s taste buds are different, pinpointing definitive notes can be tricky. “80% of tasting is olfactory and largely related to our individual experiences, memories and, therefore, feelings, which makes it very subjective,” said Ben Hiza, director of sales and marketing at Dunn Vineyards. “This lends itself to the guidance you have been given that there is no right or wrong. The problem with that is that it makes it difficult for professionals to discuss things if everyone is each individually making up their own ‘language.’”

Basically, you do you.

Figure out what you find delicious and what you find unbearable, regardless of other people’s recommendations. “When consuming wines, I'm looking for an expression of the vineyard and the harmony of the wine's alcohol, acidity, tannins and fruit concentration,” said Michael Nguyen, director of marketing at Red Cap Vineyards. “Some people like oak bombs, some people love fruit-driven wines versus fruit-forward wines—at the end of the day, does it taste good to you?” That’s the most important question.

Choose wines that trigger memories.

Kennedy suggests starting with a red wine over $25, as higher quality reds offer more flavor complexity, helping you access memories. “Reds in this category have been aged in oak as well, giving them more spice components that are sure triggers for memories,” he said. “And close your eyes—shutting down more senses like closing your eyes and plugging your ears allows the other senses like taste and smell to become more prominent.”

Don’t get discouraged if you hate a wine you’re supposed to love.

If you find yourself becoming dispirited because you’re not identifying or enjoying the exact flavors listed on the bottle, don’t. Exploration is half the fun of it. “Think about compatibility in a relationship; some wines will resonate better with you than others,” Nguyen said.

Remember, it’s mostly fancy banter.

“The poetic prose that has ensued is nauseating and does nothing but intimidate the wine drinking public and make them feel like they don't belong,” said Hiza—who recommends turning to non-intimidating resources like The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert: Take a Whiff of That, Great Wine Made Simple: Straight Talk from a Master Sommelier and The Wine Bible.

“As sommeliers or winemakers, it's our job to taste methodically,” said Kennedy. “The best part of being a consumer is that it's not your job, you get to be emotional, you get to taste your memories. Don't worry about being wrong, don't worry about not having enough knowledge, because all you need to taste is your nose, your memories and the confidence to say what you smell.”

Ignore cost.

If a wine tastes good, drink it. It’s that simple. “The worthiness of the wine's value may be more important to you than the actual cost or status of the wine,” said Nguyen. The cost of a wine shouldn’t elicit instant respect, which studies have long proven.“That respect should start with the integrity and values of the vintners, winemakers and team members involved with the brand,” he said. Kennedy added, “The ability of a wine to bring back memories, even forgotten memories, is what separates a $5 bottle and a $500 bottle.”