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11.03.2008

Wine and the Flavor of Curiousity

I never tire of looking out an airplane window at the shifting landscape below, mottled with the patchy light of cloud and shadow. The view is always new, fluid and streaming like the same river that we are told we never cross twice.

Wine holds the same fascination for the same reasons, as if that proverbial river was bottled but still moving -- shifting and changing in defiance of its containment. Whenever I have the good fortune to drink older wines, I am reminded that they indeed move and shift in their own time, as if, like dogs and hummingbirds and tortoises, they live at speeds separate and inhuman.

To observe wine, though, is not to gaze upon it from above, studying its topography from afar. Rather, we swim in wine as it swims in us, feeling the currents tug us, feeling the cool liquid in our skins with the aromas that speak memories.

Scent mystifies me. The link between aroma and memory is no more surprising, I guess, than the way that aroma takes the five tastes of the tongue and transforms them into what we know is the difference between orange and mango. Yet when the merest whiff of my glass throws me fifteen years into the past I sometimes reel with astonishment. Nostalgia will certainly always be olfactory to me, even though I haven't read the Proust to prove it.

Writing about wine seems best when it is the most difficult -- when I am gasping at straws to describe something that falls in between a flavor and a feeling. Drinking great wine is the closest I ever get to synesthesia, a feeling that I might describe as experiencing memories that I have yet to acquire -- as if they hang suspended in the space between the wine's swirling surface and the lip of the glass, ready to be plucked.

Each glass holds for me an ephemeral potential for a future memory just as much as it does a concrete and utterly tangible reflection of the past season that created the vintage. These future memories are the tastes and smells of things that I have yet to taste or may never taste. The exotic fruits that ripen uncounted and undiscovered in the rainforest; the spices of a desert people I will never encounter; the perfect combination of sea breeze and tropical flower found only on a certain atoll.

The greatest wines dangle such propositions in front of me, exhilarating even as they are frustratingly hard to pin down. I've spent the last three hours of this plane flight across the country wondering off and on just what that flavor was that I was tasting the other night at a friend's house -- that moment that froze me in a small bubble while the conversation continued around me. It was familiar, while at the same time being exotic and unlike any flavor I had tasted before.

Moments like that, even the memories of them, are more than enough to eclipse moments like the really nice bottle of Chardonnay I brought to dinner with friends on Saturday, only to find it amber-colored and oxidized. They are enough to keep me watching the lightning storm on the horizon from my plane window, thinking about what curiosity tastes like.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.