Fine Wine is a Live Performance

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

It happens to all of us. We taste something at a winery, or perhaps a restaurant, and love the wine. So, we buy a bottle (or several). But later, when we open it up, the wine isn’t the way we remember. The magic isn’t there.


There’s no single cause. Dozens of factors contribute to how a wine tastes to you at any particular moment in time. And many of those variables are impossible to reproduce. That’s why I’ve come to see the tasting of wine (outside of a controlled, review environment) as very similar to live music or theatre.

I remember the first time I saw Paul McCartney play in person. It was outdoors on a summer night at the old football stadium in Berkeley. I was with a friend. I’d looked forward to the show for a long time. The crowd was enthusiastic, McCartney was in great form and the music… The energy of “Live and Let Die” was unbelievable. People living near the stadium complained about the noise, said Paul, just before cranking the volume up a few notches.

I’ve seen him play twice since then and, while good, neither show approached the first. The venues were different, as were my companions. McCartney got older, his band members changed. The staging of “Live and Let Die” did not change, but that meant there was no element of surprise. Surprise had heightened the first experience. And because I had a wonderful time at the first concert, my expectations were higher for the subsequent shows than for the first.

Here are two or three or forty variables that affect your experience with a wine: time of day, time of year, ambient temperature and barometric pressure, what you have eaten (if you did), whether you are standing or sitting and how comfortably,  the color and intensity of lighting in the room, the color of the walls or the quality of the scenery, the type and level of audible noise or music, who poured the wine, if they smiled when they poured it, if the pourer is friendly, who you are with, how you feel about how much they do or don’t know about wine, if you are explaining the wine to them or they are explaining it to you, how much wine you have already had and what kind of wine it was, your expectations for the wine you are tasting, your expectations of the winery, whether or not you know the price of the wine and how you generally feel about wines at that price, how well you slept the night before and that week overall, how long you had to drive before arriving at the winery, the quality of greeting you were given, the presence of winery dogs or cats and how much you like them, etc. All this before we even talk about the wine itself, the glass it’s served in…

So don’t expect fine wine to be the same from one time to the next. Just relax and enjoy that night’s show.

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JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel and SOMM Journal, where he is a contributing editor. Online, he writes for his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine), PlanetGrape, and the San Francisco Wine School where he also teaches. Fred’s certifications include the WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. In that same year, he was inducted into the Eschansonnerie des Papes, the honorary society of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC.