by Ron Washam

Jefford on Mundane: Palate and Column Fatigue

How do you maintain your nose? Your tongue is your most important tool, but whose box do you keep it in? How often do you need a liver transplant? And where do you keep the young migrants from whom you harvest your organs? How do you get orange wine stains out of your teeth? Is it better to expectorate or drool? Is age a factor?

In my 30 years in wine, I’ve never been asked these questions. Is your forehead available for advertising? I hear that all the damned time. Can you lend me a fiver? That damned sod Oz Clarke again. The above-mentioned questions I ask myself from time to time, often outloud so that no one will sit next to me in the pub. I think the answers will surprise you, though, really, I just have a column to finish and am making it up as I go along.

I’d guess that more than half of my readers are in the wine business, and are moving their lips right now. They’re Masters of Wine, not Masters of Reading Comprehension. How much do you care about your palate? Do you give any thought to its health and fitness? Health and fitness are as important to those in the wine trade as they are to professional athletes. I, for one, always prepare for my tasting days just as an athlete prepares for competition. Though, candidly, using a tastevin as a protective cup can really chafe. Ask Jancis. The upside is it makes the wines from the Jura smell just that much better. (However, note that if you don’t thoroughly clean the tastevin after a Vin Jaune, one may contract a voile infection — and voile balls can ruin your days on the stationary bike.)

Let me be clear, I’m speaking about maintaining your finely-tuned palate, not developing one. Acquiring a sophisticated palate is primarily a combination of experience and something else. Oh, bugger, what is it? It’s that thing we have where we know how something is supposed to taste because we’ve had a lot of experience; or what one uses in order to be able to talk endlessly about how important you are because you’ve done a lot of things which you’re nostalgic for because at this point you’re supremely bored with wine as a subject. You know. Oh, now I remember. Memory! Experience and palate memory. That’s what makes for a great palate. I estimate that in my life I’ve tasted several hundred thousand wines. Oddly, I favor the ones with kitties on the label. Don’t know why, they’re just more soothing, I suppose.

No one can come close to tasting every wine produced, or even every wine style. And there seem to be more and more wines in an ever-expanding wine universe. It’s all rather hopeless, wouldn’t you say? The whole exercise is dreary. Putting wine after wine into your bangerhole, spitting them out, and then trying to say something interesting about them. It’s the apex of trivial lives, like mastering chess or being part of the Royal Family. But it’s all I’ve got. That, and a weekly column to fill.

Since you asked, here is my informal method for keeping my palate in tip-top shape. It’s quite personal, and there are no guarantees it will work for you. But you had best start thinking about your own palate health and fitness, and developing your own regimen, or you may end up like Robert Parker — toothless and owned by Asians.

1. Physical Fitness

The body is a temple. Everything that enters it should be wearing a yarmulke. Mind and body are inseparable, unless you’re Stephen Hawking, and believe me, you’re no Stephen Hawking (though if you’re Stephen Spurrier spitting wine, are you Stephen hawking?). In order to have a fit palate, one must have a fit body. It doesn’t matter how you accomplish this fitness. You can vigorously tend your garden like Hugh Johnson. Or you can dig your own grave like Isabelle Legeron MW. It doesn’t matter, but an unfit body will most likely have an unfit palate. Only trust skinny wine critics. The fat ones are faking it.

2. Dental Health

Where is your palate located? I left mine in my other pants. But, for the most part, your palate is located between your teeth. In that glass on your nightstand. Going to the dentist may be painful, and nice teeth may make you an outcast among fellow Brits, but it’s important that you do what’s necessary to maintain your teeth. Even if you only have eleven left. Your dentist will frown upon putting so much wine into your mouth on a daily basis, tannic acid is detrimental to your tooth enamel, but dentists are seriously depressed people whose advice is best ignored. Yet the healthier the environment where you taste wine, the more perceptive your palate will be. I taste all my wine in Fiji.

3. Don’t Forget Your Buds

Humans are fortunate that taste buds regenerate, like lizards’ tails or my unsightly nose hair. However, your tongue is a very rough surface which can harbor a lot of bacteria and other weird stuff you get from kissing Lalou Bize-Leroy. I find it best to scrape the tongue on a regular basis. However you do it is fine as long as you do it regularly. As for me, once a day I lick Clive Coates.

4. Palate Vacation

Wine is nasty shit. We all feign pleasure when it attacks our palate, but ethanol and acid, tannin and sugar are essentially bird guano on your tongue’s nice new paint job. Tasting wine day after day is an insult to your palate. It needs a vacation. I do my best to take a break every few days and give my palate a much-needed rest by exposing it to nothing but the tasteless—water, or Sicilian white wines, maybe a Rosé of Pinot Noir. Or I’ll rest my tongue against the stereo speaker and play Kenny G albums. Remember, any good wine critic is tasteless about 15% of the time, though Suckling has upped that game considerably.

5. Recalibration

Taste is just one of our six senses — there’s also smell, touch, sight, hearing and spidey. We use all of our senses all the time. And every sense diminishes as we age. Humans have invented eyeglasses and hearing aids, why can’t we invent something to help us smell better when we get old? I’m not talking about Gas-X. Anyway, the more you exercise a sense, the longer it will serve you well. So don’t just taste and smell wine, taste and smell all the wonderful things around you — the air, flowers, your children’s hair, your neighbor’s freshly laundered lingerie you “borrow” from her clothesline, car exhaust. The world is a sensual place. Take a break from wine, but make sure your palate never rests. Use a cattle prod if you have to. If you’re a wine professional, wine is one of the peak experiences of your sensual life. Sad, isn’t it?

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