Wine talk can feel a like a parlor game, a test of who can throw out the more precise flavor descriptors, the more abstruse references to winemaking technique. But I’ve recently had an experience proving that it can also be quite the opposite: an acknowledgment of the universal nature of taste experience.
It goes roughly like this: At the end of each day, when the guys helping with my house finish and clean up the work area, I typically offer them a drink. For weeks, it was always a beer; young laborers, I figured, would probably like nothing more. They’re from a remote pueblo in Chiapas, these three guys—they’re brothers—and they speak Spanish as a second language. Their first language is an Indian tongue. I hardly speak Spanish at all, and they speak no English, so our communication is somewhat creative. But it was clear that while they enjoyed their cervezas, they enjoyed some brands much more than others. I could see them talking away to one another, comparing flavors. They didn’t like excessively alcoholic beers or heavily flavored beers, but they also didn’t like bad beers like Corona.
A similar sensitivity to taste emerged in our lunches together: After a few weeks of takeout pizza and burritos from the place around the corner, I couldn’t stand it anymore and started making us all proper lunches. The guys turned out to love salad above all else. No matter how much salad I put in the bowl, they would inhale all of it. When I made a salad of lettuces and herbs picked right out of my garden, they talked among themselves until they had identified every leaf and herb in terms of plants they knew back home, on the pueblo. It’s strictly subsistence farming back there, but they clearly ate a huge variety of fruits, greens, and vegetables grown on their father’s farm—along with eggs, chickens, the occasional pig, and the very occasional cow. It turns out they also forage for a huge range of wild mushrooms. I could tell they missed the foods of home, and I noticed that when they brought snacks for themselves, they chose melons and other fruits: never any form of cheap processed carbohydrate.
I taste a lot of wine all the time, and one day I decided I wanted their opinion on a Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial Rosé nonvintage Champagne I had to open. Florentino, the eldest of the three—he’s perhaps 32—took one sip and asked to know what fruit it was made from. Strawberries, he guessed? Maybe others? And just like that, I knew that all our wine talk has a streak of objectivity after all.