Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Drinking with Wine People

Yesterday was a very busy day at the shop. I sat down with around 10 customers to drink tea. All were very interesting people and fun to drink with. There was a couple in particular that stood out to me as I spent this morning recalling those customers. They are a wine couple. They love wine and work in the wine industry. As belabored a topic it is, the comparison of wine and tea culture, I think it is fascinating to simply recall an experience of the two coming into contact. I've realized it is helpful to remember that we are all plant people, just preferring to work with different plants. Also, in America, none of us are working with a plant native to our land, nor is the culture completely homegrown.

Let me return our attention to this lovely wine couple. Because of their hip Seattelite relatives, they been drinking our teas on special occasions for a few years now. But this was the first time they visited Floating Leaves in person. We sat down and introduced ourselves. They shied away from puer because the wife is pregnant, so I settled in with a green oolong, baozhong style. This tea stands out this season in our shop, and I think of it as a good starting point when talking about Taiwan teas.

What was interesting was their reaction while tasting the tea, apparently formed by their long and intimate involvement with wine. They imagined the baozhong as earthy and seaweed tasting which, although a totally valid experience of the tea, aren't descriptors that come to my mind when I drink green Taiwanese baozhong. The key terms I usually bring up are direct, straightforward in the broth and floral, fruity or maybe grassy in the nose. Sometimes the tea is thick and juicy, sometimes bright and stimulating. Then we moved on to a roasted high mountain oolong, roasted to re-enliven a tea from a previous season which did not completely sell out. To me, this tea is warm, buzzy. It is a little throaty and the fragrance has a dark, stimulating ripe-fruitiness to it. The husband, when he drank, noticed a rhubarb note. The wife added that it was like warm rhubarb pie.

Drinking with wine lovers, one of them a trained sommelier, planted deeper into my mind this idea: the way we learn to experience these plants has a whole lot to do with our perceptions of them. And the cultures surrounding the consumption of these plants vary just as much as the plants do themselves, if not more. It is exciting that we live in a time that all these cultures can come into contact with each other and share and learn from each other.

Thinking about this topic, I think of the culture vs language chicken-and-egg conundrum that linguists call the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis". In language, this plays out as follows. Does the language a people speak shape their shared culture, or does their shared culture shape their language? Following this logic, is the plant we are consuming shaping our culture surrounding itself, or is our culture shaping the way we perceive it? I think in both cases, as has become standard through most of linguistics, that it is bi-directional. However, I am in America where none of these plants or cultures are native. I would be very curious to make a study of wine culture in its native places. And hopefully to share a pot of tea and a bottle of wine with the people that carry the culture in their minds and bodies.


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