Another season of wine trade shows is drawing to a close, and I’ll miss ’em.

Most people in the wine trade say these shows are a necessary inconvenience, and you can always count on a few retailers and sommeliers to complain extravagantly about having to elbow past ignorant waitresses and waiters at the tasting tables.

But c’mon: Tasting wine is fun; anyone who complains about the scene is being a sourpuss.

The best part, not surprisingly, is the discovery of something new — a wine you never knew about that captivates your emotions, a wine maker whose story gives you faith in the ultimate triumph of heart and land over price and gimmickry, a grape or region you’d previously disparaged expressing something true and nervy.

Then there’s the larger kind of discovery, and no matter who you are, what you do for a living or whether you care about wine at all, you have had such experiences — but only rarely. These are when everything’s just humming along as it’s supposed to and then it’s not humming anymore because all your expectations and self-concept just implode.

I was doing my best to be very serious about what was in my glass: sniffing, swirling, slurping, swishing pay attention, pay attention finally spitting it into a bucket. I was playing the professional wine person role so I could “understand” that wine and decide what to do with it: sell it in my store, write about it at some point, ignore it altogether.


The discovery is that I had no idea what I was tasting, and I had no idea what to do. People around me were mentioning flavor notes, discussing tannins and length, and I was just grinning, a fool. I loved the wine but was bereft of the skills to communicate this love. It just was. It existed, that was all.

In that moment I learned that despite my ever-deepening passion for wine and what it can show me about the world, I’m just not very good at it. There’s a certain level of palate sensitivity each person is born with, and mine is relatively sensitive but not spectacularly so.

Lance Armstrong was born with a VO2 max far above the average cyclist’s, and no matter how hard others try, they’ll never be as strong as he. I can — and will — certainly hone my skills of tasting wine, and of communicating what I encounter. I’m not blessed with the most sensitive palate in the world, so I’ll never “beat Lance.”

This is a joyful humbling, because the Zen thing — the disappearing-act wonder of this particular truth — is that the skill I need to hone with sincerest attention is the ability to experience and observe without applying technique and skills.

This all ought to be like playing. We need only stay calmly open to whatever comes up and respond from the heart. All sorts of influences confound our desire to do this — not least of these the assumption that others around us are counting on our “seriousness.”

Like the environmental-sustainability consultant who travels in jet planes to preach low-impact living, or the simplify-your-life talk-show star with a coterie of consultants, or the book reviewer who plows through three novels a day so she can write two paragraphs about each in an entertainment magazine, a wine professional who grits his teeth, knits his brow and disparages servers so he can “learn” about the particular pleasures — pleasures! — of a given wine is a walking paradox.


The only way I know to dissolve such paradoxes is to lighten up and get intelligently ignorant.

Intelligent ignorance is different from the dull ignorance that says, “Who cares what it tastes like or what it connotes? It’s just wine! Drink it!”

Rather, this is a liberating, existential ignorance, where you realize you’re not in control of much that matters, so you might as well enjoy the ride — not by tuning out, but by staying awake to the anything-can-happen-here possibility of any given moment.

So, here’s one reasonably priced wine you can use to happily explore the limits of understanding:

Its label says Weingut Wien Cobenzl, and it is a gemischter satz made in Vienna, Austria. It costs $12 and is distributed by Wicked Wines. It is almost criminally fun to drink — shockingly intricate; pairs well with food from gingery stir-fries to cornbread, collard greens and sausage to no food at all.

The story of this wine is ridiculously rich and fascinating: everything from the grapes in it, the way these grapes are grown and harvested, the owner of the winery, the culture that surrounds it, what gemischter satz denotes.

I know a lot about this wine. But I’m not going to tell you any of that right now, because then you wouldn’t have as much fun — and you’d end up knowing less.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog,, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at:


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