It's not the wine, dear - or is it?

I had a client in the store the other day who wanted to talk about cabernet sauvignon. He said he'd had a falling out with the varietal, as the last few he'd tasted were disappointing on just about every level.

When I asked him to elaborate, he said the cabs weren't made in the manner he "used to like." I wondered about this for a while, then sold him a cabernet I thought he'd enjoy. He promised he'd let me know what he thought.

This "used-to-like" phenomenon happens from time to time in wine appreciation and is worth exploring.

It's not the wine, dear: Many times our "appreciation memory" plays tricks on us. It could be we enjoy a particular wine because of the circumstance, the vacation or the person with whom we're drinking it.

I remember a wine judge who was going through a contentious divorce rated every zinfandel we were tasting as "below average." I tried to bring her along and open her palate and her heart during the tasting, but to no avail.

When I saw her months later, she admitted to me that her time had been so full of angst, that nothing she ate or drank "agreed" with her. She apologized and in hindsight agreed that she should have retired from the judging.

It has never ceased to amaze me how relaxation plays into the appreciation of wine. I can't tell you how many times folks have come to me with the "perfect" wine they had during a trip to Europe, a honeymoon or any great vacation.

I have found stress levels play a part in the university setting as well. Students who have been having a "great week" enjoy the wines I bring to class for evaluation. During midterms or finals, however, the class usually downgrades the wine on some level. To test the theory, I have served the same wines (blind) to students during non-stressful times and stressful times, and it never misses: During the stressful exams, the wines are rated lower, sometimes much lower than the less stressful times.

We know that along with stress comes physiological changes in the palate that alter perception. When a judge admits stress or unhappiness, he often experiences a "bitter" taste on the palate which, of course, taints whatever comes in contact with it. It really does not matter how good the grapes or winemaking are, this kind of physiological "handicap" rarely is surmountable.

It is the wine, dear: Winemaking does change over time. What my client had in cabernet sometime back may not be the "kind" of wine being produced today. Years ago, especially in the California wine industry in the mid to late 1970s, many of the cabernets were woodier, more tannic and needed time to mature. The "bigger-the-better" school of winemaking was in vogue at the time, but things have (thankfully) moved on to a more balanced approach.

The main, and bigger, issue is that we go through phases with wine and wine changes vintage by vintage. What we "liked" in style in a certain wine may no longer be made, or perhaps it is still being made but our tastes have changed.

It is the food, dear: So, how many of us are eating less red meat, smaller portions, more seafood and salads and less sweet or salty cuisine? With this comes wine preference change. What we liked before with our meals, we might not like now.

I know, having been retailing here in Ashland for more than 30 years, folks change their eating habits, and along with that change comes wine change.

It just all keeps rolling along.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at

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