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In the mood for wine: Where and how you enjoy it affects what you think

By Michael Austin • Sep 20, 2017 at 7:00 AM

What if you had to name the best thing you've ever eaten? One favorite dish among all of the dishes you have enjoyed in your life. Think about it for a second, and pay attention to where your mind goes. Where did you even begin? A rapid-fire inventory of all the fancy restaurants you've been to? Vacation dinners? Childhood lunches? Romantic rendezvous?

I had to do it years ago, on the spot, in front of a bunch of accomplished chefs. This was in the early stages of molecular gastronomy, the cooking movement that had chefs dreaming up ways to manipulate ingredients to pleasantly trick diners, like Willy Wonka, or trigger memories and feelings, like family slide shows with soundtracks. I was a fan from the start, and the dish I picked — born of that movement — was successful in every way it attempted to be: delicious, inventive, whimsical and thought-provoking. Even the server's narrative was cool. I stand by my endorsement of that dish, which is easily one of the best things I've ever eaten.

But it's not my No. 1 today and wasn't even my No. 1 the night I told the chefs it was, because after I heard them tell story after story about the simplest foods, another dish popped into my head. These people had dined in some of the world's finest restaurants, and the dishes they had chosen as favorites had little or nothing to do with being fancy or inventive.

Many of the chefs described the circumstances — the setting — of their meals as much as the food itself, and it opened a door in my brain. I couldn't let it go. After the final chef proclaimed his favorite dish, and the moderator introduced the next discussion topic, I raised my index finger and awkwardly said, "Can I amend my favorite dish?" All heads at the table swiveled to face me.

I told them about an unadorned, unaccompanied plate of delicious langostinos I had had on the roof of a beachfront restaurant in a tiny Venezuelan town years earlier. But I also told them where I was in my life at the time, what I was doing on that trip, what I had done earlier that day, what the salt breeze felt like coming in off of the ocean, and what the pelicans were doing as I ate. Those chefs were clear on the connection between emotion and enjoyment.

Wine drinking is no different.

Wine drinking is no different. The setting and circumstances can have an effect on our perception, and when we factor in the expanding glow of intoxication, that effect can be even greater. Experiencing the aromas, flavors and texture of a wine in the right setting, and in the right frame of mind, can make them better than they would have been otherwise.

Even a larger shift can matter — beyond the setting of a single event. For me, life always feels a little different after Labor Day weekend — much more so than at any other time of year. Maybe it's the beginning of the school year that makes things feel different, or the fairly sudden and reliable shift in the weather, or the return of football. Even though Labor Day marks the end of something great (summer), to me it always feels like the beginning of something just as great (fall). The air feels different, the sky looks different. I have nothing against July 4, or even May 4, but they're nothing like Sept. 4. And each one has its effect on all of us.

Take note of how often, in the beautiful setting of a joyous occasion, someone sips a wine and says, "Hey, that's good." What those people are usually saying is, "Hey, I'm good. I'm feeling good right now." Their wine consumption has merged with their mood. Of course, elements of objective truth exist, and the more sophisticated you are as a wine consumer or diner, the more objective you can be in your judgments. But why not let yourself be amazed more often? That doesn't mean convincing yourself to like a wine that doesn't taste good to you. It just means putting yourself in a position to fully enjoy the pleasures of the table.

Our moods matter.

What happened to you earlier in the day or week matters. What is looming in front of you in the weeks to come matters. The weather matters. Do your feet hurt? Is it a good hair day? Is it the first night of your vacation, and my goodness, have you ever seen a sunset like that? Is it the last night of your vacation, and does your flight home depart at 5:10 a.m.?

There are more measurable factors in play too. Through the years, our tastes change, both figuratively (as in our preferences) and literally (as in our ability to smell and taste). Your ability to taste can also change daily, hourly, depending on what you have eaten. This is why people who taste wine for a living like to do it in the morning, before their palates have been wrecked by coffee, French onion soup or moo shu pork. That, however, is a separate discussion. This is more about the influences beyond your nose and mouth.

It's kind of like revisiting a book or movie you think of as one of your favorites. Does it stand up to the greatness your memory has cloaked it in? Where were you when you first fell in love with it? Who were you back then? Those perceptions, and our perceptions of wine and food, call to mind the old saying about a river — you can never step into the same one twice. The river is not the same as it was, and neither are you. A wine that you love right now might not do it for you in five years, or in five months, or in five days when your vacation is over. But there is power in your mind, and in the reminders of why you love the things you do. Keep yourself open to the arrival of pleasure, and go so far as to invite it in when you can.

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