“A BAFFLING, INTOXICATING ORDEAL…” | Tripping Along The Ledge

Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

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Published: Irish Times, July 20 2009

“A BAFFLING, INTOXICATING ORDEAL…”

wine_tasting
IT’S NOT until the Main Crianza 2006 is uncorked that the first note of discord is sounded. “It’s a little bit clumsy,” sniffs one critic. “It’s brassy,” counters another. “No, I find it very oak-y,” ventures a third. The woman seated next to me swirls the dark red liquid briskly before raising the glass to her nostrils.

“It’s a little bramble-y on the nose,” she confides. “Don’t you think?”

I shrug my shoulders. Frankly, I haven’t spent nearly enough time sniffing foliage to venture an opinion.

For the Irish wine retailers, distributors and critics who have come to the Radisson SAS Hotel in Dublin for the Vinos de Madrid summer tasting, this is an opportunity to acquaint themselves with one of Spain’s lesser-known wine-producing regions. For this slightly discombobulated music critic, however, the experience is a baffling, intoxicating ordeal.

In the less genteel world of rock journalism, there’s no ritual equivalent to a wine tasting. Yes, occasionally, when an album by a major artist – U2 or Coldplay, say – is set for release, and there are concerns that it might leak online, the record label will invite us to its offices to hear it. But the reason for those sorts of gatherings is very different. Basically, the labels don’t trust music journalists not to steal their product. So the ambience tends to be a little different. Finger food is very rarely proffered. Valuables lying around tend to be nailed down . . . that sort of thing.

My brief today is to discover whether it is possible for a neophyte to acquire a basic grasp of wine appreciation in one day.

I don’t know much about wine, but I am first and foremost a man. So I don’t borrow money. I don’t ask for directions. And I definitely don’t admit to ignorance on a given topic voluntarily.

In conversation over lunch today, therefore, I confine myself to nodding sagely a lot and murmuring vague agreement.

“Are you familiar with ‘Howya’?” inquires the (slightly inebriated) wine writer across the table. Is he having a dig at me, I wonder? No, as it turns out, he’s referring to Huia, a New Zealand champagne with which he is greatly enamoured. Well, that’s a relief.

Only when I bump into Susan Boyle, a wine adviser with Next Door Off-Licence in Kildare, do I let my guard down. She explains that soil type, grape type, altitude, weather, climate, storage conditions, all contribute to giving each wine its own distinct taste. But wine appreciation, she assures me, boils down to two simple words: “yum” and “yuck”.

That makes it sound very simple. But during the tutored tasting session with Spanish wine specialist John Radford, my most frequent response is an indifferent “m’eh”.

Boyle has tried to convince me that, despite my lack of expertise, my opinion is as valid as anyone else’s. But asking me to express a preference between one obscure Spanish vintage and another is like asking my grandmother to discriminate between the experimental ambient jams of Animal Collective or the grimy electronica of Crystal Castles.

With no frame of reference, it all tastes the same to me. When Boyle draws my attention to the wonderful spicy bouquet of Bodega Senorio de Val Azul’s Fabio 2006 vintage, for example, part of me thinks I know what she’s talking about. But another part knows that she could say it resonates a wonderful musk of Tayto cheese-and-onion crisps, and I’d probably find myself agreeing, too.

Which isn’t to say that wine critics and rock hacks don’t have a thing or two in common. “If I say that a particular wine smells like blackberry brambles after a summer rain,” John Radford tells me, “it means something to me. It won’t necessarily mean anything to someone else. But that doesn’t matter. If you say it with enough authority, people start to believe it. And before you know where you are, you’re earning a living out of it.

“Bullshit”, he insists repeatedly, is the most powerful tool at a writer’s disposal.

Boyle and I make a final tour of the stalls we missed before we leave. By now I’m feeling more than a little tipsy. (Some of the smaller bodegas produce only a few thousand bottles a year, so it seems too cruel to use the spittoons provided.)

At the very last table she asks me what I think of the Tejoneras Alta Seleccion. Emboldened, I decide to see if I can pass off some slightly modified rock-journo clichés as insights.

“It’s the Licinia 2006 meets the Tagonius Crianza 2004 . . . on acid,” I tell her with a straight face. She gives me a funny look.

“I mean, it’s bramble-y,” I hastily correct myself. “Very bramble-y.”

[Appeared last week as part of the Irish Times’ Discomfort Zone series. It wasn’t until after the event that the ‘music critic at wine tasting’ premise was properly explained to me. In truth, I haven’t considered myself a music critic since The Slate wound up six years ago, if I even was one then. And the idea of me being uncomfortable at a complimentary booze event equally a stretch. But spotting this on the newsstands the day after the Connacht Final (note second and third stories below masthead) was alright.

P.S. That bit about how I don’t ever borrow money is also possibly the biggest lie ever committed to print.]

December 7th, 2009.

One Response to ““A BAFFLING, INTOXICATING ORDEAL…””

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