The Turmoil of Personal Taste

One of the least true wine or whisky-isms that gets thrown around the booze world is the terrible adage:

The best wine or whisky is the one that tastes best to you.

Why do I hate that aphorism? Because it sends the message that personal taste and quality always go hand in hand. It reminds me of an old and faded memory from first grade. We were learning about directions and there was a boy in my class who didn't understand that north, south, east, and west were fixed and final. He thought that whatever direction he faced was north and that east would invariably be to the right of that. The idea that direction could exist independently of him absolutely blew his mind. Of course, it's cute and funny when a kid misunderstands that concept. It's less adorable when a grown man sends you a nasty email about how his whisky wasn't any good because he didn't like it. There are two important lessons that you always have to keep in mind regarding taste:

-Just because you like something doesn't mean it's good.

-Just because you don't like something doesn't mean it isn't good.

Films, for example, can be very well-made while still boring your pants off. I knew dozens of people in college who didn't like the movie Citizen Kane, yet experts consider it to be the finest film ever made. Along that same line, I know a person who really likes the Steve Martin film Cheaper by the Dozen 2, but I watched it on HBO last year and I think I can definitively say that movie is god-awful. Now before you launch into that whole "it's just your opinion, man" thing, let me add this qualifier: almost all of the folks who I mentioned concerning Citizen Kane did admit that the film was technically brilliant. Simultaneously, the one person I know who likes Cheaper by the Dozen 2 also told me she didn't think the movie was all that great, but for some reason it made her nostalgic. In both cases, the relative parties were able to separate their own personal tastes from any assessment of quality. They were able to identify how their own particular penchants might influence their value judgements. That's called perspective. That's what experience teaches one to do. It's a big part of being an adult, in my opinion—being able to admit that there are things in the world you just don't like, but ultimately that the problem lies within you, and not the thing itself. 

But here's where it starts to get tricky. Whereas a bottle of whisky will always present you with a final product, ready-to-drink right then and there, a bottle of wine requires you to make a personal preference on top of that. For example, you can buy any number of 2012 Bordeaux selections at K&L presently; many of which taste pretty damn good right now. But ultimately you as a consumer have to decide when to drink those wines and what you want them to taste like when you do. It's here that the exact opposite phenomenon happens with aficionados in relation to what we described above. I have definitely advised customers not to open bottles of wine for months if not years after purchasing them because that's personally what I would do. However, I can't guarantee anyone that they'll ultimately like the wine any better if they follow that advice. This is where we need to maybe add in a new aphorism. Maybe something like:

A wine tastes best when it tastes best to you (but then is it worth it?)

A great example of how personal taste can and should influence wine decision-making occurred this past weekend at the UGC tasting in Bordeaux. I was prepping the producer tables while my co-worker Ralph Sands opened bottles and tasted the wines. We were discussing the 2013 whites and Ralph mentioned to me that he likes the wines young, fresh, and lively. He's not really a fan of aging them because they take on a completely different character at that point. "I'm not into that honeyed and almondy profile it takes on," he said to me regarding the Domaine de Chevalier Blanc—one of the most famous white wines in all of Bordeaux. Now if you're unfamiliar with that wine, it's a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillion from the Pessac-Léognan region that can mature for twenty years easily. In fact, that very ability to age plays a huge factor in the price of the wine. But Ralph Sands, one of our premier Bordeaux experts, makes the personal decision to open his white Bordeaux bottles at a younger age because he personally likes the wines better at that point in their maturity. There you go.

So here's where it gets even trickier. What many wine consumers often do not understand is that many (if not most) high-end bottles of wine are expensive because of how they will taste, not necessarily because of how they taste in the present moment. Let's say you drive over to K&L, grab a bottle of the 2012 Leoville-Barton, open it for dinner that same night, and pour yourself a glass. You take a sip, swirl it around your mouth, and think: "Hmmm....this is good, but I don't know if it's $80-a-bottle good." That's a totally fair assessment, except that you're missing one very important thing: that wine won't show you its true quality and character for another ten years. So let's say you buy another bottle based on what I just told you. You put that wine in your cellar. Ten years go by. You've waited a decade now. You go grab the bottle of 2012 Leoville-Barton and open it up. Yuck. "This tastes terrible!" you think to yourself. But does that mean the wine isn't any good? Or does it mean you simply don't like aged, mature Bordeaux? It could be either one, or both! Or maybe the bottle was corked and you didn't know it. Or maybe you didn't store it properly. Or maybe you opened the bottle when the wine was closed down and going through a slumber period. There are literally dozens of possible explanations. (HEADS EXPLODING!!) You have ask yourself at that point: should I keep buying expensive wine, or can I get the satisfaction I'm looking for from a far more affordable option?

You can see why many people stick to distilled spirits. With whisky you don't have any of this uncertainty. You buy the bottle, you open it, it tastes how it's supposed to taste, and you get to make the clear assessment as to whether you like it or not. Wine has so much more uncertainty and it's important to remember that when you formulate any type of opinion. Ultimately, what I would encourage any drinker of either beverage to remember are these two things:

You should only drink what that you like; however, just because you don't like a particular wine or whisky doesn't mean it isn't good and doesn't have merit beyond your ability to sense it. You have to be able to differentiate between the two.

A wine won't necessarily taste best to you when the experts say it will. You have to personally decide when to open each bottle, but be aware that by doing so you may not get the recommended experience, nor will you necessarily taste the inherent quality you originally paid for.

Personal taste is a complicated issue. I don't think I can get anymore absolute than that.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll