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Wine Tasting: Reality or Hype?

Sometimes it's hard to buy into wine descriptors. The flavors are explosive in this dense, firm and pure red, with expansive roasted game meat, herb, espresso, hot brick, black tea and mocha notes. Really? How is it humanly possible to detect all these flavors? All I'm getting on my palate is grapes. And what exactly is a "hot brick" anyway, and why would anyone try to eat one?

If that's what you're thinking every time you observe someone swirling, sniffing and spitting with aggressive fanfare, you're not alone. Studies have shown that even industry experts sometimes can't tell the difference between a red wine and a white one, much less a Riesling from a Gewürztraminer. Your sense of taste is actually the weakest of the five, largely aided by your senses of smell and sight (there's a reason why green ketchup failed). Megan Mullally's character Lydia, in the awesome but short-lived show Party Down, may have been close to the truth when she sipped a glass of red and ventured, "I'm tasting sticks … and rope?"

So are wine notes simply a delicious case of the emperor's new clothes? Well, not quite. While it may be admittedly whimsical to use adjectives like "chive flower" or "saddle leather," wine notes are not meant to be taken precisely. Heed them with a grain of salt. One taster might identify "earth," while another will pick up "shiitake mushroom," but what they both mean is this wine's a bit musky. And that's something you might detect as well, only you're not sure how to describe what you're tasting. Wine critics do tend to wax poetic, but the underlying truth is there. The difference between a Pinot Noir and a Petite Sirah is readily apparent, and you're likely to pick up on that yourself after some practice.

Think of it this way: When you learn a new language, it's difficult to express or understand nuance. Your communication is limited to your rudimentary vocabulary, and it can be frustrating to figure out what someone is really saying to you. But as your exposure to the language expands and your experience grows, you build up a vocabulary and things become clearer, more precise. Over time, it becomes easier to sort out the subtleties.

Consider coffee, for example. If you hardly ever drink coffee, all cups of joe likely taste the same to you. You wouldn't be able to pick out flavors, state a preference. But if you're a coffee connoisseur, you'll not only have strong preferences, you're likely to be obnoxiously vocal about them as well. Coffee is widely accepted as having myriad tasting profiles, depending on the type of bean and its care and preparation. It's the same with wine as well.

The next time you drink wine, try writing some notes yourself. Putting your thoughts down on paper is a great way to concentrate on what you're tasting. In addition to identifying flavors, focus on how the wine feels in your mouth – what is its texture and what sensations is it causing? It's also helpful to taste wines side by side, so that there's a reference point. You'll be able to pick up the differences between wines and improve your palate more quickly. That's actually the beauty of Tasting Room's tasting kit, which consists of six sample-size bottles, so you won't have to open up a slew of full-size ones and be stuck drinking them all in just two days … although there are worse fates in life.

Wine tasting is real, and it becomes more real the more you practice. Start honing your own tasting skills, and soon you'll be waxing poetic with the best of them. Just don't let me catch you scribbling "hot brick" on your notepad.