Q: I like hot and spicy food, hot peppers, wasabi, horseradish—you get the idea. In a conversation I had about wine I was told people with tastes like mine could never taste the subtle flavors and aromas in wines. In general do you think this is true? I read the descriptors on labels and can almost never smell or taste these things. I've been told many times you have to develop that taste. Is there hope for me or is this just hype?. I enjoy reds for the most part and have my likes and dislikes.
—Bob Fila, Palos Hills
A: No, there's hope even for an award-winning photographer like you, who served the Chicago Tribune for 40 years with distinction before retiring in 2008. I can't say bold food flavors won't crowd out the subtlest of subtle tastes and aromas in wine, but I think you can get a pretty good bead on most any wine no matter what you eat with it. Be warned: Hot and spicy foods can "war" with certain wines, particularly big, tannic reds. These lively foods often play better with lower-profile wines, whites often, that offer a refreshing acidity and crispness.
Don't feel bad if you can't suss out all the smells or flavors promised on the label. Remember, those descriptors are there to sell the wine by offering the consumer a snapshot of what they might find inside the bottle.
Then there's the wine snob factor. I have encountered people who delight in chasing down every adjective possible while trying a wine and then insist on intoning each and every one of them. Boring!
Still, I urge you not to try and control or limit your vocabulary in describing a wine. There were wines back in my drinking days that sparked some amazing adjectives. You may snort at the words "cat pee" — a bona fide wine term — but then you try a sauvignon blanc that sports the identical smell and you stop laughing. Often those initial thoughts/reactions/words are the truest — go with them.
My suggestion? You need to "train" your nose, tongue and eye to assess wine. Start by pouring the wine in a glass and take a moment to look at it. Is it all one color? Is the edge, where the wine meets the glass, a different color? Is the wine cloudy or clear? Bluish? Reddish? Brown? Write down what you see on a piece of paper — even if that's a cocktail napkin. Smell the wine; swirl it in the glass to release the aroma. What does it smell like? Try to jot down three or four descriptors. Now, taste it. Write down your immediate thoughts. Taste it again. Does the second sip taste any different than the first? Does the wine taste like it smells or did the flavor come as a surprise?
Take just a minute or two to think about the wine in front of you and soon you'll have a whole vocabulary of words and terms to use and enjoy.
Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.