Wine School Chalk

Each month New York Times critic Eric Asimov is conducting a wine lesson for his readers. Our writer Sara Ivry is participating and writing about the experience for VinePair.

The facts of life these past few weeks have not been conducive to wine drinking. My grandmother died. My 17-month-old son caught a bug that caused him to vomit, his eyes to fill with puss, his nose to run, his body to break out intermittently in hives, and to wake every two and a half hours at best. Just as his eyes cleared up, I felt a distinct, ominous tickle in the back of my throat and soon it was so sore, it hurt to swallow, my ears clogged, and I suffered constant nausea, with extra strong waves of it nearly flattening me every time I did any heavy lifting. Of course, as a single parent the heavy lifting (“Up. Up. Up,” a near constant refrain in my household) is mine alone.

I share this information not to elicit pity — happily, we are all now well again, sleeping mostly through the night (but for 5:30 wake ups that don’t bother me as we zoom toward summer with its early daybreaks), but to explain why wine drinking this month was not the leisurely pursuit I fantasize about. There is little more stressful than completing an assignment under duress. And this month, my assignment was to assess Beaujolais.

To me, the name alone suggests levity — the jolais conjures “jolly,” though I know the words are unrelated. And the beau–well, it means good or handsome. How can you lose?

Saturday night, my child was sound asleep, I had a dinner before me (a color green salad with peppers, hearts of palm, cucumbers and chicken in it), got out my bottle from the fridge, where a friend advised me to chill it. I found my favorite bottle opener, a beloved hand-me-down marked “Ferrari Quality Wines” on one side and on the other: Soave Valpolicella Bardolino Rose Del Garda, and pushed through the red wax seal concealing the cork. With hunger and fatigue I stuck my nose in my glass, failed to register any distinct aroma and took a sip. The wine was sweet, not overly so, and not particularly acidic. I tried sniffing again – again my sniffer failed me; maybe residual congestion was hampering me. The wine smelled, frankly, like wine — a bit floral, a bit fermented, tough to describe beyond, er, wine.

The texture was smooth, it felt crisp in my mouth. The Beaujolais left no aftertaste and hardly an afterthought. Down the hatch and quickly forgotten — that was the impression I was getting about this particular wine. Don’t misunderstand: this was not an unpleasant experience, and I am not complaining. It was easy to drink, not quite as sweet as juice but as pliant and quenching. It was, simply, unmemorable mere moments after I took a sip. I realized, in part, the problem is that it had been a full four weeks since my dance with Bordeaux, and I wanted to be able to compare the wines. Yet the memory of taste is not the same thing as taste, so unless I had a Bordeaux right in front of me it would be impossible to tell how the Beaujolais differed? How was it the same?

To get to know a wine, or several wines, I’d have to drink frequently enough that I’d remember the subtle but unique qualities of different types of wine or, furthermore, different vintages or producers. That would be a full time job. And I have a job. Or two, if you count parenting. So for now, I must remain the female wine equivalent of a gentleman farmer — a hobbyist, a dabbler — seeing what I like but probably mostly remembering what I love. Also, what I hate.

Is there an ideal of what a so-called “good” wine should taste like? Wine school’s teacher, Eric Asimov, hasn’t quite said, and yet I find myself wondering: if taste is subjective (and isn’t it always?), how can the quality of wine be assessed? Is it purely determined by market forces? And if I dislike a very expensive bottle of wine, does that mean I am ignorant of what is good? Or does it mean that the cost of something does not reflect or predict if and how I will enjoy that unique wine?

Maybe I’m jumping the gun here, pushing my way beyond Wine 101 to Wine Economics or the Wine’s Platonic Ideals. Let us return then to the Beaujolais in question. With my second glass, the wine did take on aroma — when I took a sniff, it seemed to convey the warmth and juicy deliciousness of a house where a chicken was roasting. The wine relaxed me and made me a bit lightheaded. Was I imagining that aroma? Did I want so much for there to be an aroma that I imagined one?

The next night, I uncorked the wine again, poured myself a glass and inhaled. If pressed, I’d say the wine now smelled like cherries — bright and bursting — though I can’t say with 100% certainty. Once again I was stymied as to how to describe the Beaujolais in my mouth. What distinguished it? What attributes did it hold uniquely? I cannot say. It tasted good, crisp, satisfying, pleasure-inducing but hardly peerless. It retained its snap through a second meal (this time pasta with mozzarella and tomatoes and a side salad), and again failed to leave traces of itself once I had drunk it. It seemed to sweeten up over the course of dinner, not so much that I felt the need to have sips of seltzer at regular intervals, but just slightly. The more Beaujolais I drank, the more I felt warm and sleepy. Sleepier, more correctly, given the state of things in my life. I never reached a state of lethargy or exhaustion from it, and the next morning I was awoken at 5:20 and felt bright and crisp. And ready to try more.

Check back monthly for Sara’s updates on wine school for VinePair

Sara Ivry works at Tablet Magazine, where she hosts Vox Tablet, its weekly podcast on arts and culture. A longtime freelancer, she has contributed pieces to the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Real Simple, Medium, Design Observer, Bookforum and other publications.

Header image via Shutterstock.com