Pondering Peynaud: Drink Less But Be Fastidious

Carlo Rossi Chablis“Drink less but be fastidious in your choice; every time you purchase an inferior bottle, you compromise the reputation of good wine in general.”

So what is good wine? Peynaud has his parameters, which I know now and will share with you.

But I will tell you first that I have drunk, and bought, plenty of inferior wine. In my first memory, I actually stole it.

You see, I did not grow up in a wine-drinking household. My parents’ drink of choice was bourbon and water, with a side of Granny Goose potato chips. But my paternal Motherland – Croatia – is ground zero for wine discovery. The cradle, my instructor once called it.

My father was laying in the cradle when he had his first taste of wine. As any Old World European would, my Croatian grandmother would dilute wine with water, wet her index finger, and rub it lavishly on my teething father’s gums as his yelps of pain silenced under the salve. I would like to think they did the same for me – but I can’t be sure.

So I deduce my first taste of white wine was from a jug of Carlo Rossi Chablis stolen from a Catholic confirmation party in the 8th grade. During the party, my best friend Tina and I knew the exact moment when all adults would be cleared out of the Clubhouse kitchen located directly across from where Tina lived.

We each took two. I can still see us, hoofing those seemingly 40-pound jugs across the street as fast as our Top Sidered feet would take us – our thumbs desperately wrapped in the rings of their handles.

The Carlo Rossi tasted of granulated aspirin tablets, especially when it was warm, which it always was, because we stored the four jugs in Tina’s closet. Looking for a tennis racket a month later, Tina’s father found the stash, and quickly confiscated them.

And that was the end of my white wine drinking until Bartles and James wine coolers came into fashion in high school.

Acidity and sweetness makes white wines harmonious, Peynaud writes. “Because they possess little or no tannin, white wines have a simple balance of flavors by comparison with red wines. Their support structure is conditioned solely by substances that are sweet and those that are acid.”

The Carlo Rossi had none of the pure fruit sweetness, and – from what I remember – was as high in acid as a Woodstock Summer of Love hippie.

Pondering Peynaud

Dear Drinker

“To the amateur: You, dear drinker, are the most important link in the chain. You pay for the wine, you support the winegrowers, you cheerfully help consume what we produce. Whether you are a seasoned toper, an occasional bibber, or preferably, an enlightened amateur, you find food for thought in this book.”

Emile Pey51EGP24CQVLnaud, “The Taste of Wine,” 1983

I have just finished my fifth year of wine classes. Soaring light years past tasting varietals I never even knew existed, learning about wine has uncorked a universe through liquid.

To study the vine and wine is to walk through a history filled with turf wars, traditions, and political machinations. Supply and demand and the magic of diurnal swings. Cultural ethos, individual prejudices and perceptions. Frame error, fashion and failure. Chemistry and other mysteries.

What’s been most illuminating out of all these chapters in wine’s story is the genius that is Emile Peynaud.

Peynaud, a professor at the Bordeaux Institute of Oenology who passed away in 2004, wrote “Le Goût du Vin,” or “The Taste of Wine,” the seminal work on the art and science of how to taste wine. Translated into English in 1987, we used his book in my Advanced Sensory Analysis class.

As I studied furiously for weekly quizzes and searched for answers to sometimes 50-question homework assignments, many of Peynaud’s nuggets of brilliance screamed at me to stop, reread, record.

Stop. Reread. Record.

The wine you drink is the wine you deserve. It is up to the consumers to discourage bad winemaking: The quality of wine will improve when they make up their minds to drink better quality wine and when they are also prepared to pay for that extra qualtiy. 

What makes wine good, great or even bad, and to how to train yourself to taste the difference, is the main theme running though Peynaud’s jargon-free, metaphorical and sometimes humorous prose.

Wine can enthrall all, he assures us, all we need to do is pay attention.

In Pondering Peynaud, I share all of the Stop, Re-Read, and Record writings and explain how they have helped me fill the Grand Canyon-wide chasm between what I thought I knew about wine and what I know now.

But there is still much to learn.

So much like retasting a wine to concentrate on its texture and mouthfeel rather than its fruit profile or acidity, I revisit Peynaud in the hopes of discovering more dimensions of his brillance during my next phase of self-directed learning.

I hope that by offering my reflections, I can help fellow oenophiles who haven’t read or can’t find his out-of-print text continue to learn alongside me.

Because if wine is about anything, isn’t it the joy of sharing?

Pondering Peynaud Post #1: “Drink less but be fastidious in your choice; every time you purchase an inferior bottle, you compromise the reputation of good wine in general.”

Tales from the Vineyard to the Tasting Room