Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Seven Vectors of an Evolving Palate

I was poring over The Naked Vine Index while working on a review of a South African wine. I swore that I’d written about this particular wine – Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc – in the recent past. I went back to the archives to see if my new notes paralleled my previous review. There were some parallels with the previous review...that I’d written almost six years before.

I sometimes lose track of how long I’ve been at this. I first clicked “Publish” on The Naked Vine on August 1, 2006 and I first appeared in print in the Dayton City Paper on January 3, 2007.  A lot of bottles have gone into the recycling bin since then. When I look at some of those early columns and reviews, it’s blatantly obvious that my tastes, my palate, and my outlook on wine in general have changed a lot over the years.

Everything evolves in stages -- whether biological organisms, psychological states, or a wine taster’s palate. One doesn’t leap from Manichewitz to Chateau Petrus in a day. When we’re going through an educational experience --and my last decade of wine tasting has most certainly been that – we gain a little knowledge through experience, try to figure out What It All Means, and then apply it to the next situation. Through fits and starts, we gradually get a clearer picture.

Tucked away among dusty remembrances of my University of Arizona grad school seminars in higher education two decades ago is an identity development theory by a school psychologist named Arthur Chickering. His “seven vectors” of the psychological growth of college students are commonly cited in the higher education literature. Working on my doctoral qualifying exams last November (which I passed, by the way!) I revisited Chickering’s work.

Since this theoretical stuff has been on my mind so much recently, I thought it might be fun to apply the vectors to the “higher education” of learning about wine. Sure, developmental psychology might seem an odd framework to think about wine appreciation – but we taste as much with our brains as we do our tongues and noses. And while I don’t claim to be fully developed as a wine connoisseur, I think this process holds up pretty well. Here’s my wine-related application of Chickering’s seven vectors:

#1 -- Developing Competence: You’re just getting started. You’ve had some wines you liked. Maybe you’ve gone to a wine tasting or six and even figured out that you prefer reds to whites, but you really don’t know merlot from your elbow. You need the basics here. The fundamentals. If you’re in this stage – a good place to start is with The Big Six, my term for the six grapes everyone should know: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling on the white side; Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah on the red. Also, peek back through the archives to my old Wine School articles to get an idea.

#2 -- Managing Emotions – This stage refers to the challenge of handling one’s feelings and acting appropriately – whether to positive or negative stimuli. As a wine student, you’re going to find yourself overwhelmed once you start trying new types of wines. You’ll find one you like and you’ll feel the urge to buy two cases. I was firmly in this phase on our first trip to Sonoma in 2005, as you could see from our credit card receipts. While you undoubtedly will burn out on a type of wine you like in this stage, it’ll be fun getting there. If you’re ready to branch out, go with flavorful wines: Zinfandel, Gewurztraminer, and maybe a rosé or two.

#3 -- Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence – Oh, this is the fun phase…learning how everything is connected and how to state preferences for what you want. By this point, you have a basic idea of what flavors you enjoy. Now you get to apply the Naked Vine First Law of Wine Pairings – people make wine to go with the food they like. As you start to understand the lovely interdependence between food and wine, you start to pick certain wines for certain meals (or pick certain meals for certain wines!) and you start to gain a greater appreciation for why certain wines are made certain ways. If you’ve made it this far, now’s the time to start playing with Italian and French wines, especially Chianti, Barbera, Cotes-du-Rhone and Bordeaux.

#4 -- Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships – One of the terms that comes up in this stage is “cross-cultural tolerance” – being able to negotiate relationships with individuals that you may not have been comfortable around previously. With wine, this is the time when you get over the biases that you developed in the managing emotions stage. You get a glass of that Muscadet next to some peel-and-eat shrimp or some oysters on the half shell and go, “Oh…*now* I get it.” Context plays such a strong role in understanding wine. So, try that Muscadet here while at a raw bar – or crack open (and decant! decant! decant!) some barnyard-laden French wines – earthy selections from Burgundy and Chateauneauf-de-Pape (preferably with some rich French foods and cheeses) to gather some knowledge.

#5 -- Establishing Identity – This phase is about becoming comfortable with one’s self and gaining self-esteem. By this point in the process, you’ve tried scads and scads of wine. You’ve got a good idea of what’s what. You know what you like and what you don’t. This is the point when people start handing you restaurant wine lists because they figure you know what you’re talking about. At this point, you’re ready to hone in on a grape or region and really explore. For me, this was about the time when I started to love pinot noir, which can be a challenging grape. I know that my favorites come from Burgundy and from Oregon. You’ll find your favorites, too.

#6 & #7 -- Developing Purpose & Developing Integrity – I take these two stages together, because this is the developmental point where you start setting goals, deciding on your core values, and living them. In the wine development process, this is when you make the important live decisions like whether to build a wine cellar, how much you wine you have around the house, how special an occasion has to be to crack that particular bottle you’ve been saving, and so on. This is the most dangerous stage for your wallet, as you might find yourself tracking down 80 year old dessert wines as I once did. Wine is now as much a part of your life as anything else you have around the house. You are now fully integrated in the oenological sense. Congratulations. This process never ends, but the journey is most of the fun. Thanks for hanging in there with my journey over the last seven-plus years, and let’s raise a glass to more good times ahead.

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