Four years ago, I stuck my nose into a glass of wine and it changed my life. I had just graduated college amidst the beginning of the economic crisis, and had no way to make a living with my degree in creative writing and politics. I took a job at the nicest restaurant in town. The servers complained of how “green” I was because I had no knowledge of food, proper service, and my only experience with wine was sneaking some from my mom’s Franzia box during high school.
I made friends with the bartender, a certified sommelier who took me under his wing and decided to teach me about wine. One night he put a glass of white wine in front of me and said, “I want you to taste this wine, but you have to smell it before you taste it. I’m not going to tell you what it is. You just smell it and tell me what’s there.” He showed me how to put my nose into the glass and when I took my first long inhalation, my mind’s eye flashed to the immense honeysuckle vines that grew over my backyard fence in North Carolina, next to the treehouse my brothers and I played in as kids. In that moment I was in the backyard again, plucking honeysuckle flowers off the vine to prick and suck sweet juice from. I could feel the soft powdery flowers and taste the drops of nectar on my tongue. I could even hear the snapping of the flowers off their vines as my brothers and I pulled them off.
The wine was a 2006 or 2007 Darioush Viogner from Napa Valley. It was the moment I fell in love with wine. The experience was so powerful that I have spent my time since then studying wine.
For me, food and drink are powerful memory activators–much more than substances for sustenance. My moment with the glass of Darioush was something akin to Proust’s episode with the madeleine in his novel, “Remembrance of Things Past”:
And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in the pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent…once I had recognised the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.
Tim Gaiser, a Master Sommelier who studies the use of sub-modalities when blind tasting, says there are three contextual varibales when tasting:
The wine The taster The setting
If you change one of these variables, you change the whole system. So, you taste differently depending on how you feel, and who you’re with. In the same line of thought, what you taste and when and with whom helps you form memories. My first taste of Darioush didn’t simply recall the smell or taste of honeysuckle, but a specific time, a moment in the past that became as vivid as if I was experiencing it all over again. The man who tastes the madeleine can see his childhood town before him like a set at the theater. This is the power of food and wine, and part of why we love it so. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Wine is bottled poetry.”