I received this very funny question the other day and I was immediately stumped on how to answer it.
I was in Austin, Texas, to celebrate the birth of my grandson and was shopping in the H-E-B grocery store to pick up some provisions for the family. I chatted away with the wine buyer and told her that I had been selling wine for 42 years and we traded some fun stories about the business.
I had no idea that we were being eavesdropped on by a lovely woman pushing a bulging cart of groceries with her little boy. I excused myself and began to look closely at the quite extensive selection on the shelves when the young woman stopped me and asked me this innocent and earnest question: What is wine supposed to taste like?
Her little family lived close to the store and she was a regular client, but, she confessed to me, she had never in her life tasted "even a sip of any kind of wine" and wondered what she was supposed to experience.
This is a wonderful opportunity for a wine educator and I took a deep breath and tried to encapsulate, in as few and uncomplicated terms as I could, what one might expect in a glass of wine. For some reason, I started and stopped a few times before I got my bearings. I felt a huge responsibility welling inside of me to be as encouraging and forthright as I could.
I do not ever remembering someone asking me what seems to be a very simple question. I have been asked about tastes in specific varietals or growing regions, but never about wine in a global, experiential sense. So, there she stood with her little boy eating a cracker, looking up at me very expectantly as if from somewhere on high I was going to espouse on the magnificence of fermented grapes.
I began, I thought, shrewdly, by circumventing the question rather than responding with a frontal assault. I asked her what kind of cuisine she liked to have with her family and if she prepared or served desserts. It turned out they were huge seafood lovers and ate, essentially, fruit and few sugary treats for dessert.
I began by telling her that wine drinking was best done with cuisine and wines should be chosen with the food in mind. By "cuisine," I meant everything from finger food to full-blown entrées. I spoke about pairing food and cuisine and she stood there nodding. Wine, I said, was there to complement cuisine and cuisine was there to complement the wine; it was, I said, a two-way street, a mutual enrichment of the experience. She admitted that she and her husband were not really into sweet things and asked me to point out a wine for their halibut dinner.
I chose a New Zealand sauvignon blanc and explained to her why. We talked about thirst-quenching flavors, grapefruit and citrus flavors, palate weight and alcohol levels. I told her that the wine would be best chilled, but not iced, to bring out the freshness and the natural acidity of the grape.
She was very grateful for the lesson and shook my hand. It is my hope that the wine met her expectations, and I further told her to visit anywhere a wine steward worked to ask for advice. It was a wonderful 20 minutes, and I felt delighted and honored to have helped her.
Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and still works there part-time. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.