Why Is the Last Glass of Wine Always the Best?

If you hang around wine long enough, you discover, perhaps to your surprise, that there aren’t as many commonalities among wine drinkers as you had first imagined.

This comes as a surprise if only because, when you first start on your wine journey, you’re sure that, of course, your fellow drinkers must like all obviously good wines. Then you meet someone, often at the same dinner table where such a wine is being served, who disagrees, saying, «I don’t like Cabernet Franc.» (Gee, I loved that wine, you think.)

During a tasting not long ago, a guy who’s had a vast number of Burgundies and has what I’ve considered is a good palate, declared, «I’ve never thought that the 1993 vintage was all that good for red Burgundies.»

Really? Gee, some of the greatest red Burgundies I’ve ever tasted came from that vintage, including some of the wines that were in front of us at that very moment. Go figure.

All of which is to say that the longer you taste and drink wine, and hang out with fellow wine lovers, the more you realize that consensus is rare. And then you come upon the «last glass phenomenon.»

The last glass phenomenon is simple enough: The last glass of wine from a bottle always seems like the best. When you first experience this, in the formative years of your wine life, you figure that it must be particular to you. «I’m feeling the effects of alcohol,» you say to yourself. That’s very likely true. Perhaps a bit embarrassed by that, you keep your «last glass» opinion to yourself.

But then you hear someone else at the table exclaim about how good that last glass is (or was) and how it’s a pity that there’s no more of the wine to go around. At that moment you discover the near-universality of the last glass phenomenon.

Is it real? And if it is, what’s going on here? The last glass phenomenon is real, and we’ve all experienced it. It’s one of the very few wine experiences that transcends all of our hugely various personal taste preferences. Pretty much everyone arrives at the conclusion, never mind how much or little they like the wine in hand, that the last glass was as good as it got.

Scientists will submit that the last glass phenomenon is simply a function of oxidation: The longer the open bottle is exposed to air during the course of a meal, the more likely it will open up and reveal its virtues. This is surely true, especially given the extreme youth of the wines that most of us drink these days.

But the effect of exposure to air doesn’t really explain, except in the most mechanistic way, the causes of the last glass phenomenon. Rather, those have to do with us as tasters and appreciators of wine.

Yes, various aldehydes, esters and whatnot emerge from a wine thanks to exposure to air. This is why we sense, correctly, that a wine changes over time. It’s also why many wine lovers like to decant wines, the better to speed this process.

But the last glass phenomenon is really far more subjective than a narrowly defined scientific cause-and-effect explanation. The real source lies within us, specifically in our greater availability to nuance as we engage with a wine over time. It’s not so much a wine’s opening up to us as it is our opening up to the wine. We, as tasters, gradually become more available to the wine.

Like getting to know someone better, we begin to understand, and thus appreciate, a wine’s particularities. We begin to accept it on its terms, rather than insisting that it meet us only on our preconceived demands or imaginings. Put another way, a relationship forms.

This is the source of the last glass phenomenon. You gradually perceive the wine differently. You become aware of, and accepting of, its shadings, of the nuances that create that «last glass longing.»

There’s poignancy here, a wistful sense of only at the very end having discovered something quite beautiful that, somehow, you missed at the beginning.

Perhaps you were distracted or influenced by the label or its price, high or low. (This is its own phenomenon, the «how good could it be if it’s so cheap?» effect.)

Maybe the wine seemed at first too basic or simple. Here again, as we become more available to the wine, accepting and understanding it, the misguidance of price, classification or rarity fades and is replaced by something much more substantive and worthwhile, namely your own recognition of a wine’s intrinsic goodness and character. (This is one reason why blind tasting can serve such a good purpose.)

In short, however much over the course of a meal a wine may change, we change even more. Is it the relaxing effect of alcohol? Surely so. And it’s all to the good too, lowering our shields and making us that much more vulnerable and available.

After all, wine appreciation isn’t an autopsy. It’s a dance of the living, a brief interaction at a particular moment in time, ours and the wine’s. How well we get to know each other and how much we are rewarded is far more a matter of a nuanced understanding than it is of oxidation.

By the last glass, you come to love a wine—a good wine, anyway—on its terms, not yours. And then of course it’s gone, as is that gratifying sense of feeling like you understood something that you didn’t before.

That’s why the last glass is always the best.

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