November 7, 2011

Life of the vine

The subtle strategies of wine tasting can be applied to our education.

The classroom transformed itself into a banquet hall sometime between the hours of 2 and 3 p.m. The room, which greeted me and my classmates with 16 plates of cheese, empty wine glasses, and a smiling Frenchman, was nearly unrecognizable. I was so overwhelmed by all of this that I could remember the names of only two out of five cheeses (chèvre and Liverot) and none of the wines by the time the tasting was over. I’m not upset. A person’s first wine tasting isn’t meant to let him show off his (un)refined palate: It’s less about judging immediately and more about learning what sorts of criteria are commonly considered.

For example, “wine tasting” is a bit of a misnomer; in addition to taste, the temperature, scent, and look of wine are very important. Our host explained to us how to hold the glass up to the light, wedge its base between our thumbs and the lengths of our index fingers, and then swirl around the wine inside in order to let it breathe. As I swished and swirled, general facts about wine floated into my ears. Wine leaves a residue on the sides of the glass when the cup is moved in a circular motion; the more noticeable the ring of residue, the higher the alcohol content of the wine. Wine glasses are shaped in a certain way so as to allow the wine’s scent to carry directly to the nose. Heavier wines have deeper colors.

Not all the lessons were verbal. As my classmates and I sipped through five different glasses of wine—some white, some red—we watched our host spit out every single drop he put into his mouth.

He would swish the wine around inside his mouth, slightly more gently than he would a mouthwash, then take a giant bucket—or spittoon; I’m not sure what the proper terminology is—and spit the wine into the bucket. Despite the fact that wine is a drink, at no point did he actually drink it. Yet, somehow, he was getting more out of those swishes and spits than any of us were by drinking. Without ever actually swallowing any wine, our host consumed qualities of the wine in a way that made his own experience much more meaningful than our own.

Whenever you consume something, you aren’t really looking to consume the thing itself. You are trying to consume particular qualities of the thing. If you eat a bowl of chili during the winter, you aren’t just consuming a bowl of chili. You’re consuming the heat of the chili, as well as, maybe, memories of childhood, winter, sledding, and the pleasant contrast of cold weather and heat inside your mouth. You savor it; you don’t gulp. I maintain that the best reason to hold yourself to the twenty-chews-before-you-swallow rule is not to make sure your food is properly digested, but rather to confirm that you have actually tasted and appreciated it.

Consuming the qualities of things rather than the things themselves isn’t limited to edibles. The same thing is possible with knowledge. When you listen to a lecture or read a book, why are you learning a particular thing? Is it because you have to? From a practical standpoint, it makes sense—as much as eating three pizza pies (in one sitting, without vomiting, no time constraint) for $1,000 does. Reading in order to cram every extra bit of useless knowledge into your brain—“useless” here denoting the kind of knowledge you aren’t interested in, but which you know will allow you to make more money in the future—is equivalent to shoving too much pizza down your throat for a mediocre payoff. At least try to get a taste of it while it’s on the way down.

Naturally, at some, if not all, points during your college career, you will be forced to read things you aren’t interested in. These are the anchovies and the sauerkrauts of life. They are the acquired tastes that may never be acquired no matter how many times you’ve eaten them. Your mother could force-feed you nothing but sauerkraut until you were 26-years -old, and you still wouldn’t like the taste of it. Fortunately, you’re in college—why not find something that does appeal to you? One way to do this is by holding figurative wine tastings with your friends of different majors. Ask them to teach you the basics of something with no pressure to do anything but be there and listen. The parts you like will stick with you. Maybe you’ll never mention the subject again, or maybe you’ll find yourself so inspired that you’ll pick up the subject yourself, whether as a career or simply an interest. Our host’s career started with a wine tasting: Will yours?

Chris Stavitsky is a third-year in the College studying abroad in Paris.