Taste Blindness and Its Remedies

Ken Friedenreich, Wine Columnist

By Ken Friedenreich, Wine Columnist

Over a career spanning a half century, MFK Fisher’s 27 books on food, drink, and conviviality in general earned her prime position among American authors.

Fisher (1908-92) though born in Michigan, resided in California except in her ex-pat adventures in France between the world wars. Fisher never lost her vitality or her fascination with America’s table rituals, though at times she was very critical of its ersatz tendencies, putting convenience and speed ahead of enjoyment and quality.

Her continued lament describes “taste blindness.”

Taste blindness is not an absence of taste; it seems rather a willful denial of its existence. At least we can see bad taste. Just watch a Madonna music video. To be cut off from food life and lore is like being bitten by midges.

What causes this myopia? I think the answer is resident in our cultural DNA, with its impulse to get a move on. But there is also something else. We carry a recessive gene of Puritanical prudery that casts a long shadow over joyous occasions such as a leisurely meal, with flagons of wine throughout.

Because pleasure elicits guilt and woeful spasms of conscience, we fake denial, but don’t shake the blindness, anymore than the Romanovs or the House of Windsor can shake hemophilia. It follows us down the ages.

How else to explain the time constraints of “Happy Hour­?”

Fisher recounts farm-to-table food before American cooking and dining was consigned by modernity to the root cellar and the Mason jar--thus into the Orphic shade of nostalgia. Some of Fisher’s best writing, for example, recalls the rush to harvest, cook, and store bounty for use over the somewhat imaginary long winter of a California homestead.

The modern kitchen and attendant improvements of packaging removed the farm from the table; indeed, the farm was so far removed it was in another state or vanished into pretty packs from the freezer.

Fisher carries a theme through her food tomes; namely, human hunger--not in the weepy-deeply Sally Strothers overnight cable-TV commercial way, but as its essence as fuel needed to preserve the race, so as to live and love well. The remedies for taste blindness advocate immediate connection between the farm, the kitchen and the table.

Writing a foreword to one edition of Fisher’s collections, James Beard suggests a direct regimen to overcome taste blindness. It entails knowledge, practice, and memory.

Since wine is food in a different form, I apply Beard’s judgment to decoding grapes, since it has become too easy in our drinking wine to lose sight of what’s really happening. Few cures offer as much pleasure. Its regimen seems most apt as new shoots emerge from vines up and down the Left Coast.

My suggestions are not arcane. I liken them to making a video of your tennis serve so you can watch it in discrete images to improve your delivery. Pros spend hours on form improvements. So might we isolate the steps in drinking wine.

In the 24/7 me too, me first information cycle, we lose sight of the point of drinking wine is not speed dating.

“See better, Lear” the dutiful retainer tells the irascible, deluded monarch early in Shakespeare’s greatest play. Had Lear taken the advice, his backhand would have shown much improvement. Likewise, removing the taste blinders is a matter of returning to those basics you oft take for granted.

A few ways to follow Beard begins with knowledge. Much, too much, can an enthusiast learn about wine. Let’s take a number, like vintage.

Vintages are relatively recent in wine classifications and were intended to help value product with Gallic pride. A vintage year owns some distinctions from other years; for example, the wildfires of 2017 will have some effect on the wines produced.

Vintage gives you a starting place to anticipate what a particular wine may offer. If a wine hasn’t a vintage date doesn’t mean it’s bad; it does mean the fruit may have been pressed into blending matter in a prior year resting in the cave until needed. Little waste makes winemakers smile. Champagnes just as often as not will be non-vintage. Only a cad would pass up bubbles without a date.

Let’s assign something to Beard’s practice. We might consider place, You can find the Mall on your GPS, so why not find out where the wine in your glass hales from? The American Viticultural Area designations (over 130 in CA) provides a way to put your palate around certain wine varieties. Sense of place is a big deal in wine joy and anyone touring a wine region will appreciate its manifold attractions. These in transformation, will end up in the bottle and on the label. Why not take tours every time you pop a cork?

The last of Beard’s steps entails memory, and I consider taste memory the acquisition most prized in drinking wine. First of all, it redeems time past. Second, it puts context around the wine such as the venue, the company sharing with you, and the food. To reconstruct an occasion will light the present and the time to come.

With this memory acquisition comes the finish of the wine, like the sound of beautiful music that gradually fades away. The finish is the cumulative effect of tasting wines and in summing up the visual, aromatic, taste, acid, and sweet sensations, makes a statement we can file for future reference.

None of these suggestions intend to mystify. I hope, however, that readers will remind one another that wine, restorative and refresher for thousands of years is no thirst quencher or Gatorade clone, but a crucial component at the MFK Fisher table. As buds break on the vine, it serves us to see better.



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