A small child was being admonished by his piano teacher, who asked, “Why is it you always forget your homework? I never forget to correct it and bring it to class.” The boy looked the teacher straight in the eye and with a certain amount of awe in his voice replied,”You must have a mind like Santa Claus.” When I tell people that I’m a professional wine taster they often have similar reactions. They assume that I—like Santa is somehow able to determine who’s been naughty and who’s been nice— am blessed with an extraordinary palate, enabling me to detect even the subtlest nuances of taste. The world of wine, it seems, is still shrouded in enough mystery to instill that sense of awe in the layperson.
But professional and nonprofessional alike, we all have a greater capacity to detect and categorize the varied sensory perceptions produced by wine than we are perhaps aware of; we just need to learn to focus on them. Not surprisingly, this ability is intrinsically more developed in individuals who grew up helping their parents in the kitchen.
But how to hone your knowledge? A great source of information are free newsletters like the The 30 Second Wine Advisor (www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor), or Nat Decants (www.nataliemaclean.com). However to master the basics of wine so that “you can swirl, sniff and sip wine like a pro” in the company of others, a good place to start is at Temple University’s master wine class (www.tuj.ac.jp/newsite/main/cont-ed/courses/culture_and_arts/HVW101.html) or another one of the schools which offer an English option, such as the JAL Wine and Sprit Education Trust wine school, Academie du Vin, or Wine Schola.
In the words King Edward VII, “One not only drinks wine, one smells it, observes it, tastes it, sips it and one talks about it.” A good way to put this into practice is through the Tokyo Wine Society (www.tokyowine.org). This organization consists of a group of wine enthusiasts thathold a monthly blind wine tasting, which is open to the public for a fee, at different restaurant venues in Tokyo.
Each month the society typically holds a horizontal tasting (wines from the same vintage and grape variety are tasted side by side) of nine different wines or more. By focusing on a single variety or region, you quickly learn to identify the differences. Most importantly, by tasting many wines you will be able to discover wines you like, so you know what to purchase the next time you go to the store.
J.K. Whelehan is a Tokyo-based wine expert and writer, as well as co-author
of the best-selling book Japanese Dishes for Wine Lovers, published by Kodansha
and available from Amazon.