Sunday Night Dinner: Rambling About Acquired Tastes


At some point in the past 15 years there was a point in my life when i started to like olives, and another point sometime shortly thereafter when i realized that i like olives. As a child, like most children, there were things that i absolutely despised, and olives were chief amongst them. i can’t exactly be sure why i started to eat olives, or exactly why i started to like them, but at some point i did.

Last sunday saturday my wife and i drove up to Oakland to eat at a friend’s house where the theme quickly become “grown up tastes” (this was an unconcious decision, just like the olives).

It started innocuously enough while drinking a fantastic bottle of Larmandier Bernier Terre des Vertus Champagne and someone noted that at one point they didn’t “get” sparkling wine because of the CO2. this person, being a wine professional, had then taken steps to conciously try and understand sparkling wine. Sparkling chenin, Champagne, the bizarre sparklers from Movia were all employed in this service. At long last he understand sparkling wine, and was free to heap praise on what was in his glass.

i’ve been thinking the past few days about my own relationship with the concept of “taste.” At one point, not so long ago, i would have been the first to trumpet the notion of a purely subjective notion of taste, but perhaps i no longer believe that. Not that i believe in any nonsense of the objectivity of taste either, but rather something more fluid and contextual/cultural. Evolving, rather than fixed, and certainly worth reevaluating periodically rather than constantly defending. If someone can come to like something based on the idea that he should appreciate it, or if someone can reach an age where suddenly olives taste good, than maybe outside forces are at play (but enough about that).

Next up was a bottle of 2007 Catherine and Pierre Breton “Les Galichets” Bourgueil served with duck, polenta, and that parody of “finish your vegetables” scoldings, brussels sprouts. Both the wine and the sprouts were lacking in easy flavors, but were still loved by all. Interestingly looking back there was a hard time in even wondering why those things would have ever been unpleasant. Like the olives i can remember revulsion at the thought of brussels sprouts (and okra) but i can’t remember why. Unlike say, taste in literature or music, food seems so elemental that it should be fixed in time. Realizing that it isn’t is a rather liberating feeling.

To top it all off we finished with blue cheese ice cream and Sauternes. There is perhaps no other food (with a few excpetions like natto) that so fully encompasses the idea of having grown up tastes here in America than blue cheese. It is strong smelling, strong tasting, pungent, and has a hint of European elitism. The Sauternes, on the other hand, should be easy. But not for me. For whatever reason i still don’t understand botrysized wines. Sure they taste OK but there is something offputting about them that i can’t get past. The wines of Nicolas Joly, the botrysized Chateau Bongran wines, Sauternes all remain just on the periphery for me.

Maybe practice is all i need.

~ by Cory Cartwright on January 20, 2010.

6 Responses to “Sunday Night Dinner: Rambling About Acquired Tastes”

  1. “Maybe practice is all i need.”

    There’s a good philosophy of life.

  2. Joly is boytrytiszed? I thought the reputation was oxidized.

    • As far as I know he claims it isn’t oxidized, but everything i have ever tasted tastes like botrytis.

  3. The subjective vs. objective distinction is a bit staid is it not? Any time we deal in such exclusive binaries for such profound concepts we are bound to be left unimpressed. I recommend we leave such stark divisions with Descartes and the 17th century.

  4. I hope a little interloping on the last question is not unwelcome —

    The subjective / objective distinction might not matter too much, but a different question (what Hume and Kant were really arguing about when they asked the question whether there cuold be disputes about taste) is the natural/normative distinction, which I actually always teach to my students using examples from wine (the problem then being that I have to explain a little too much about wine).

    Here’s a quick anecdote that should help make the distinction clear:

    When I was last in Italy, I went with my daughter, my wife and my wife’s younger sister (since we both were working we paid her way in exchange for some light nannying…)

    My wife’s sister didn’t drink much wine and when she did mainly complained (as a vegetarian) that it tasted like “meat.”

    I vowed that by the end of the trip I’d get her appreciating wine (I also failed).

    The best find I made on that trip was a ’97 Brunello (can’t find the name of the vineyard in my notes) for about $35 — As I talked about Sangioveses, my sister-in-law suggested we start with that.

    “Absoultely not!” I said
    “But if I want to know what’s good about it shouldn’t I start with the best?”

    Here’s where the naturalist/normative question comes in:

    If I’m a naturalist (like Hume) I’ll say, “no because you haven’t learned what makes Brunello such a sublime kind of Sangiovese — you won’t appreciate the tension between Montalcino’s rocky soils and the sunny days that make Sangiovese so robust, you won’t taste how the tannins that would have made it harsher than a young Chianti have mellowed” yaddah yaddah yaddah — Not, then, that she’d think it worse than a young Chianti (worse is too broad a term), but she wouldn’t be able to distinguish all the ways in which it was better. The point for the naturalist would be that she didn’t have the acquired taste to taste the differences, so for her they’d be the same — a waste of money when I could buy perfectly drinkable Sangioveses for $5 or 6 no problem.

    On the other hand, the normativist would say that she always should know that the Brunello is better, that if she didn’t appreciate it, the failing was in her. This isn’t exactly subjective as opposed to objective — the point is that there is some reason that she ought to understand what makes the Brunello better…

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