Some people call us wine geeks. I prefer to think of our team as excitable. In my role as blind tasting coach to our critics and trade panelists, my goal is to get all of us to react first and think later. Sure, there’s value in assessing the clarity of the color, the intensity of the aroma, the seamless nature of a wine’s balance, the length of its flavor. But there’s something more critical than that. Does the wine trigger any emotional response; does it connect us with a memory?
In all of our recommendations, we try to articulate why we like a wine and why we think you might want to buy it. Not because it has oodles of fruit, or a medium-length finish. But because it reminds us of other wines we’ve enjoyed from the region where it grew. How specific a memory does it bring? We’re not playing a guessing game, attempting to determine what the wine is. We tell our tasters its varietal and regional origin. We’re asking whether it triggers a positive response.
At Wine & Spirits, we’ve tasted this way for more than two decades, a time in our culture when we’ve learned a lot about our sense of smell. In 2002, Chandler Burr published The Emperor of Scent, his tale of Luca Turin—a perfumer who developed a new theory about the sense of smellâ€”and his quest for scientific acceptance. In 2006, neurobiologist Donald Wilson and psychologist Richard Stevenson published Learning to Smell, a more scientific consideration of how we use our olfactory sense to “extract an odor object from a complex olfactory scene.” It turns out, there is no direct link between specific molecules and our olfactory response; it’s more about pattern recognition. When we smell something as complicated as a glass of wine, our brains use the memories associated with elements of that wine’s scent to assemble a response. We remember the scent of a wine much like we remember the face of a friend. It also turns out that, although smell is our most primitive sense, we can train ourselves to appreciate scents. “Not only can mere exposure enhance the discriminability of odors,” Wilson and Stevenson write, “it also appears to affect the liking for them, too.”
By exposing ourselves to the diverse scents of wine, over time we learn to appreciate them, enjoy them, covet them. This issue is a report on the wines that elicited our strongest positive responses last year. The wines that flat-out excited us most are our 100 Best Wines (p. 94). We present a hundred more that earned our strongest recommendations at the lowest relative prices in the 100 Best Buys (p. 109). And our Top 100 Wineries of the Year are those that garnered the most attention from our critics over their entire range of wines. As usual, it’s a mix of discoveries and old favorites, all wines and wineries we’re convinced you should get to know.
cover shot by Brian Kennedy
This story appears in the print issue of Winter 2013.
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