In the last post fellow Master Sur Lucero talked about strategies that helped him pass the exam making him just the 14th individual to be awarded the Remi Krug Cup for passing all three parts of the exam on his first attempt. In part two of the interview Sur talks further about his tasting strategies and describes, as best he can, how tasting for him is a synesthetic experience involving feelings, shapes, color and movement.
TG: You mentioned previously that you have a unique way of smelling wine. Could you say more about that?
SL: I take the wine in my mouth and let it sit for a second or two before swallowing it and the residual wine in my mouth begins to react with my body chemistry. Then I take the air left inside my mouth cavity and push it by closing my jaw and channeling it through my bottom lip up into my nose as I’m breathing very slowly. So I’m not breathing out through my mouth—I’m closing my mouth cavity and channeling the air up into my nose then logging what my breath smells like. Every wine I ever taste I log with my body chemistry; I’ve tasted thousands of wines in my life so I’m able to use body chemistry as a marker for wines that have intrinsic properties such as mineral, pyrazines, wood or whatever. When those characteristics hit my palate my body’s going to react to them. I want to log these reactions and it’s like there’s a big log somewhere in my brain. I use it by taking the wine from in my throat out through my mouth up into my nose and smelling my breath vs. just smelling the wine itself.
TG: Do you smell the wine as well?
SL: Absolutely. Some people will put their nose into a wine glass and take really short, quick sniffs. That doesn’t work for me. I make my short quick sniffs by raising and lowering my bottom jaw and that brings air in and out. Once you open your mouth a little bit it tends to draw in air. I also realize that everything in the world is affected by gravity and wine will be as well in terms of how it sits in the glass; so the volatile aromatics are going to smell quite a bit more primary and concentrated at the bottom of the glass. Then as you smell up the glass and farther away you can pick up secondary characteristics. I’m using something like a whole rounded picture from two inches above the glass to about an inch below the glass. I’m opening my mouth in between and taking in snapshots that aren’t really even tangible.
TG: I’m curious, at any point do take the glass and rest it on your upper lip directly beneath your nose (like practically everyone)?
SL: Sure, some times.
TG: But it seems like what you doing is pulling the glass away, moving it and smelling in different parts of the glass in a circular-arc motion. True?
SL: Yes, I’m trying to get a full spectrum of the wine. When I put my nose into the bottom of the glass down at the bottom I’m getting dark, primary characteristics; with this wine (Sabon Chateauneuf) I’m getting alcohol and dark ripe fleshy fruit. When I move up from the bottom I get more smoke, cured meats, pepper and dried flowers.
TG: What happens when you pull the glass away from your face?
SL: The fruit becomes more primary again.
TG: Interesting. For me, I keep the glass about an inch away from my face and smell wine through my mouth and nose at the same time. The glass is never resting on my upper lip; that’s like having a huge stereo speaker on full blast right next to my ear. It’s too much. I also breathe in through an arc just like you’re doing because I can cover the entire range of aromatics better. I start at the top of the glass and breathe down in an arc. If TCA is in the wine I’ll always find it right at the bottom of the glass where the edge of the wine meets the glass. That’s where I look for it.
What’s interesting to me is that you’ve probably played around with this smelling technique a lot to get to where you are because I have to tell you that you’re the only one I’ve ever come across that uses something like it. Back to the wine. Go ahead and smell it again and as you’re smelling it what’s the first thing that pops for you?
SL: A pretty intense smokiness—kind of like a smoked plum. Everything has a kind of round quality.
TG: Let’s establish something before we go further. When you first pick up a glass where do your eyes go? What’s comfortable?
SL: Straight ahead and down. Generally I’m going to be tasting with a white table cloth so that the canvas is blank and I can create my picture there.
TG: When you say create your picture what does that mean?
SL: I can begin to log that the fruit in this wine smells baked.
TG: OK but if I had to be you, what would that look like? You’re looking straight out in front of you slightly down; you say that it’s kind of a white blank canvas? Then you smell ripe, smoky plums? What does that look like? What happens?
SL: I get flashes of pictures of plums. If I’m trying to ID a fruit I’ll immediately try to categorize it. I don’t look for the perfect descriptor so I don’t want to say something like “this smells like camp fire smoke with roasted sugar plums on an autumn day.” I’m looking to just put the wine into a category of fruit.
TG: So speaking of the category of fruit, you have your hands straight out in front of you at arm’s length and slightly down. What does category of fruit mean? What does it look like?
SL: In terms of red wines it means lean, tart red fruits to ripe, juicy red fruits to purple and blue fruits all the way to black fruits—it’s a spectrum.
TG: So going left to right there’s a spectrum. Do you see pictures of fruit or colors or what? How does it work?
SL: I see more colors but there are quick pictures of fruit. I don’t necessarily get flashes of specific things like kiwi or melon; I’m not as concerned about that as I’m concerned about the energy in the wine.
TG: Energy meaning …
SL: For me the profile of this wine right in front of my mind is a more murky and smoky. All the characteristics are stewed together and intertwined; they’ve come to one flavor profile together but they’re also connected to each other.
TG: Is that because this is Chateauneuf vs. some other wine? Or is it this specific wine?
SL: I get more definition and delineation from a wine like Chinon which is really clean, sharp and pointed with pyrazines and red fruit. I see much more division and angularity.
TG: Does this go back to the shape of the wine?
SL: Yes and the shape comes from the energy I pick up off the wine. When I say energy it’s how I smell the wine. When I put this wine on my palate and smell it, it feels full, rich and lush; it feels round, heavy and dense. If I pick up Cote du Rhone that has a bit of carbonic maceration in it, it’s more bright and lifted. I can still come to Grenache but I see a different picture of Grenache. It’s the same with a California Chardonnay vs. Chablis. I can still see Chardonnay and get to Chardonnay but it’s just a much different picture.
TG: Does a different picture mean different colors as well?
SL: The picture is more like a shape of colors.
TG: Again we’re talking about the two different axes with the width meaning richness …
SL: And alcohol and volume.
TG: It seems like all this is driven by structure. If that’s the case I would imagine that calibrating the structure of a wine is pretty easy for you because you have an actual picture of it. True?
TG: So are wines with less alcohol going to have more lift and be more narrowly defined?
TG: As opposed to this Chateauneuf which has less acid but more alcohol?
TG: Going back to this gradation, do you get flashes of pictures of fruit? As in in two-dimensional pictures? Or are they 3D where you could reach out and touch them?
SL: I can’t reach out and grab anything. I see colors and the colors are more representative of the fruits. I’m don’t worry so much about picking up a true raspberry or a pure cherry because I think those are going to overlap in a lot of different wines. I could say that “cherry” is going to be in most red wines that I taste. I’m more interested in the shades of the colors. The energy on the aromatics and intensity of aromatics give me different shades of colors. Those give me more clues than any actual specific fruits.
TG: But how does all this work? How do you get aromatics from the shapes?
SL: I get the aromatic properties in terms of the fruit composition generally from the shades of colors that I see moving within the X and the Y axis. Again I don’t necessarily see cherries or blueberries or other specific fruits, I see shades of colors on the X–Y axes. But I don’t really think of the X and y axes as being present in this picture, I just see the shapes of the colors and how they move.
TG: And the shape is coming from you? Where does it come from, your head? Your chest? Where?
SL: It comes from my chest and my head. Whenever I smell something I can feel it coming from here (motioning from his chest up to his face), definitely the upper part of my body. Again, I’m much less concerned about getting descriptors like a specific fruit vs. a category or range of where a wine is.
TG: But how do you know something is cherry and not strawberry, for example?
SL: The texture and feel of it. Strawberry is going to be flesh and opulence for me and raspberry is more tight, bright and high-toned. Even the fruits themselves feel differently on my palate. For me it’s like biting into a ripe, sweet strawberry with the high sugar content vs. even the sweetest raspberry which is still going to have more lift for me.
TG: Just so I have the sequence down, as you pick up a glass you look down and in front of you. Do you say anything to yourself at the point?
SL: I generally start to look at the wine. I don’t saying anything to myself. I hoping at that point things start saying things to me.
TG: You’re making a circular motion with your hand backwards. What does that mean?
SL: I have a hard time picking up a wine and giving the whole grid then right before the conclusion having to start deducing it. I’m using my instincts to call out categories of fruits and the condition of the fruits. I’m using my ability—my instincts-- to assess the wine. I feel like I’m using my instincts the entire time for why this wine is acting the way it’s acting. I remember working with Jesse Becker MS in Boulder and he was on me all the time about my structural calls. I was getting wines right fairly frequently but the structure calls were off. He’d ask how I could get a wine like Chablis right and yet call the acid moderate. I didn’t know at the time because that kind of deduction pattern is not my strong point. But I’ve worked on it since and now it definitely is. But it wasn’t in the beginning because I’ve always used my instincts.
TG: Back to the sequence: you pick up the glass, look ahead and slightly down and then do you go into your breathing routine of moving the air and smelling in different parts of the glass? Are you waiting for the wine to start talking to you which will create the shape of colors? From there it seems like there are flashes of different fruits, spices etc. Is that how it works?
SL: It’s more like categories of fruits.
TG: But are those flashes like two dimensional pictures?
TG: When you get them, how big are they? If you can hold one for a second, how big is it? And what does it look like? Is it like a still photograph?
SL: It’s a very vague of what let’s say plum is. It’s not like a high resolution picture of a plum sliced in half. It’s vague recollections of things I’ve smelled and tastes I’ve tasted.
TG: But it seems like it happens really fast so it’s a flash. But why don’t you try holding one to see what happens. Hold any of the aromatics you smell in this wine for a few seconds and see if you can get some definition on it. You can even try bringing it closer.
SL: It’s tough! I’m trying to bring up a picture of something like a piece of sliced plum, maybe baked or something like that. At this point I got this heavy tar kind of sensation and I was trying to get away from it--I couldn’t. It wouldn’t let go.
TG: So is the dark, smoky tar thing even stronger in the wine now?
SL: Yes--so much for that exercise. (laughs)
TG: I think a lot of it is the fact that you’re doing this really fast; that there are all sorts of micro-associations that happen to create these shapes and colors and you’re just dialing some of them in. And the shape you’re creating literally tells you what you need to know about the wine.
SL: The aromatics give me the colors and intensities too. With this wine there’s lots of richness and smoke. For me that picture becomes a wine that doesn’t have a lot of vigor in it but has a lot of breadth. This wine definitely has breadth; it has concentration but it doesn’t have youthful, vibrant intensity. The wine’s energy seems like it’s baked out or sun-bathed.
TG: So maybe the wine is broader in terms of its shape in that it’s not as high and there’s not a lot of lift to it. What about the colors? Are the colors richer and darker as opposed to something like a Chinon or a Burgundy?
SL: With Chinon I can see shades of red and it’s almost transparent. If I get really strong green pyrazines and tobacco notes then it gets a little bit darker. But with really pure, clean Cab Franc I get the color red across the board.
TG: With these shapes, how do they move? What’s that like?
SL: They move based on how they feel on the palate. This Chateauneuf gets on my palate and sits and relaxes like it’s in a big lazy chair; then it begins to flatten out.
TG: Does it move forward at all?
SL: It does to some degree because the wine has a really long finish. It’s got concentration too because I’m still tasting it. But it’s more about the weight and the feeling of how it resonates on my palate vs. how it races down my palate and shoots in one direction or the other or lifts. It doesn’t do that for me; it blankets and rests like it’s tired.
TG: How does that compare to a Barolo or a Barbaresco?
SL: A really fine, elegant Barbaresco can have the same volume as the Chateauneuf for me because it’s really expansive; the acid’s also going to be higher most likely.
TG: So it’s going to have the same breadth but also more lift?
SL: Yes and with the Y axis the wine can expand in all directions vs. just flattening out in front of me.
TG: How’s the shape different from Chateauneuf?
SL: If you take a basketball with very little air in it and you flatten and round it out that would be Chateauneuf. But if you take one of those red rubber balls that’s really thin—the kind you play dodge ball with-- and blow it up until it’s almost ready to burst, that’s Nebbiolo. It can expand in all directions.
TG: Does the shape of a wine change from the nose to the palate? Do you make any kind of adjustments?
SL: With Nebbiolo, for instance, you can get baked, sweet fruits on the nose but when you get it on the palate there’s a sharp linearity to it.
TG: Does the shape change at the point?
SL: Yes, it begins to expand.
TG: Do the colors change at all?
SL: It depends. For the most part when I pick up a glass of wine I taste it within the first 10-15 seconds so I’m beginning the activation of everything I have, almost simultaneously. It can change. Sometimes you have to adjust to the acid and tannin profile. It’s like you have to taste farther into the wine. I would hate to get a beautiful Nebbiolo on my palate and not truly begin to assess its structure until I’m 90 seconds into it. Then I’d be left with two-and-a-half minutes in exam time to get all the Nebbiolo points. Or even worse to get to the palate and realize that it’s Nebbiolo having described something else like Pinot Noir. Then I’ve put myself in a hole. I’ve always believed in getting the wine on your palate a soon as you can. That way you can use everything you have. You’re also going to help your nose out because when you taste the wine and swallow a bit of it you’re going to use some retro-nasal. It’s your 25 minutes and you need to take advantage of it however you can.
TG: True. Let’s get back to the shape of the wine. I’m curious about how it moves. Does it come out from your head and chest? How far does it go? If it’s a great wine with a really long finish does it go on forever as opposed to having some kind of end point? Sounds like this Chateauneuf doesn’t go very far at all.
SL: I feel it. The concentration of the wine will change the color. With this wine, even though I can see through it for the most part, it feels like it has a slightly different color on the palate; it feels darker and richer and that has to do with the amount of energy and vigor that I get off the wine. That will deepen or lighten the color. This as opposed to a really elegant pure Côte Rotie that begins to expand and the colors can become lighter or darker. With Hermitage they might become darker.
TG: Could a wine do both? Say a wine with richness but a lot of acid as in both light and dark colors?
SL: I would say yes. You taught me a technique one time when I was tasting here at your house. We were picturing our circle in front of us (Circle of Excellence) and we attached any color to it. I used this technique when I was in the exam. I created my circle after I felt really good; I figured out which direction my energy was moving and then I stepped into my circle which was like Chablis with pale straw and streaks of green in the center and then reflective platinum radiating out in all directions. Then depending on how big or expansive the circle was it had a burnt orange Nebbiolo rim to it; my two favorite wines. Not sure if that answers your question and I don’t know if I’ve ever had a wine that shows two different colors in the structure.
TG: All we’ve talked about is fruit but what about earth definition and other things like flowers and spices? How do you represent those and know they’re in the wine? Fruit seems to be attached to the colors of the shapes you create. How about the other aromatics?
SL: They are different shades of color that will go through the shape. The shape doesn’t have to be one particular color and rarely is it just one color.
TG: But let’s say we have Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and Chablis. What’s the difference between the two?
SL: In terms of their color?
TG: In terms of their minerality. What’s in the Chablis that’s not in the other Chardonnay?
SL: Whenever I feel chalk on the palate or some kind of white mineral/stone, the wine for me becomes more transparent. It’s almost like I can begin to see through the colors. When I feel things that are round, creamy and weighty the colors I see begin to darken. So things like butterscotch and wood notes in a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay are going to give me a darker, more golden color.
TG: What about this Chateauneuf compared to an Aussie Grenache? There’s a lot of stone, game, leather and meat in this wine vs. an Aussie Grenache that would have a lot of fruit and mint/eucalyptus. How are they different to you?
SL: The color would be more primary for the Aussie Grenache, a more pronounced red. This wine has more overtones and shades of smoke, meat and all those other things which gives me different shades and kinds of dullness; a kind of tawny color, if you will. Even the dried herbs and violet on this wine are going to give me different streaks and those colors will go across my mind.
TG: Colors going across your mind meaning …
SL: I’ll see the overall general impression of the color. For me this wine is a smoky reddish-purple. It’s not purple, not quite that dark. But the picture of Aussie Grenache I have in my mind is more of a primary red. It’s more candied red plum color vs. purple plum that’s been baked. Zinfandel would be like almost sweet, compoted mulberries and blueberries with different shades of violet.
TG: As your describing the Zinfandel you’re looking out here (in front of him). What do you see? Do you see the shape of what you think Zinfandel is in terms of the colors?
SL: Yes and those are triggered by the olfactory sensations that I’ve had. I’ve created all these pictures based on the smells that I’ve had in the past.
TG: It seems like you have very quick flashes out here (in front) of fruits and things like that as they relate to the shape.
SL: As they relate to the shape I begin to look down a little bit more.
TG: So they’re flashes like two-dimensional pictures of things you remember from the past?
TG: How do you know when you’re done? How do you know when you have all the information you need to make a conclusion. Or does that arrive earlier on when you’re smelling/tasting the wine?
SL: Hopefully it happens early on (laughs). Sometimes it happens when I’m about to run out of time. About two years ago we had a tasting at the French Laundry with a big group of us. Anthony Anselmi came in right after he’d passed his exam and he gave us his flow chart with different things like pyrazines, wood, botrytis and whatever else it might be. These were all intrinsic factors having to do with what a wine might be. You look at the chart and it had all the classic wines with the different properties so each grape/wine had different boxes. So if a wine had X and X and X you’d ask yourself if it were one of five classic wines that showed these characteristics. It was a great deduction tool but I had a hard time trying to grasp it.
TG: It sounds like a decision matrix that’s very complex because there’s a lot of variables.
SL: I think what’s good about it is that it began to give people a foundation of important things to look for.
TG: With the classic wines and grapes, are the shapes of the wines so different that once you have the shape you can nail a specific wine?
SL: I always hope so (laughs). I still make mistakes. But I would say more often than not I pick out a wine 80% of the time.
TG: We didn’t talk about structure much at all but it seems like the structure of a wine is represented to you by the depth and volume of the shape and what you’re feeling/sensing in the wine affects the shape. Does that seem right?
SL: Yes, I call the structure based on the shape and the colors that are taking form, whether they’re moving straight ahead like Sangiovese or whether they’re beginning to expand like Nebbiolo. For me Sangiovese is much more linear. It’s like Riesling vs. Chardonnay.
TG: More narrowly defined?
SL: Yes, more narrowly defined. The Riesling, for example, is higher-lined and more north-south. The Chardonnay begins to expand in all directions. The Riesling can also be more luminous.
TG: What about tannin? How does that manifest?
SL: Tannin gives an impression; I can feel it. Outside the colors and shapes I can feel tannins in different palate interpretations. With the astringency that tannin sometimes leaves behind I try to take note of where it is on my palate to determine if it’s fruit tannin or wood tannin (wood tannin being in the back and fruit tannin up front). But it definitely does leave a tactile impression and it’s noted.
TG: But how does tannin relate in terms of the colors and shapes?
SL: It brings them in tighter. Thinking about it just now the fruit tannin brings them in tighter. But if I’m thinking about something really tannic like a Napa Valley Cabernet that might have a few grams of residual sugar in it, it may have a rich lush voluminous side to it but it’s still pretty linear in terms of how the colors move.
TG: I’m still trying to get a sense of movement and the shapes. Is there movement within the shapes or colors? This almost sounds like everything is weaving within the shape.
SL: Yes, the great wines have more volume. The great wines are the most expansive. The first wine that ever got me truly excited about wine was the ’89 Guigal La Mouline. It’s sounds cliché, but with that wine I kept closing my eyes and seeing it. I was in the middle of lunch service at the French Laundry and having a hard time focusing on anything other than the wine. It seemed like it shot out in every direction and kept going and going. But it was also voluminous, elegant and contoured; it wasn’t sharp, lean and more direct like a Jasmin Côte Rotie. So even within the same category the wines can sometimes have different shapes.
TG: When you were preparing for the exam, did you do much mental work practicing with the wines? It seems like you have very defined profiles for all the grapes and wines. Did you practice mocking up shapes and colors to practice the wines? Did you practice that way?
SL: My instincts were my instincts so I didn’t really know how to practice that way. But I definitely practiced making sure that within the frame of my instincts I really knew what to say.
TG: It might be interesting for you to play with this; to practice creating shapes for classic grapes and wines. For example, can you create the shape of Nebbiolo on command?
TG: That’s great. I’m convinced that students, especially at the Master’s level, need to practice tasting without actually having wines in hand using their own representational system.
This interview with Sur Lucero MS is the third in an ongoing series of tasting interviews with MS and MW colleagues; interviews with the express purpose of discovering their strategies for tasting as well as passing the MS examination. As for Sur, he was raised in the Napa Valley and spent two decades in the hospitality industry and earned a degree in Culinary Arts. Lucero then put in time on the floor as a sommelier at the Little Nell in Aspen, Daniel Boulud in Las Vegas and The French Laundry in Yountville. He passed the Master’s exam in the summer of 2012 and was honored by the CSMA with the coveted Remi Krug Cup for passing all three parts of the exam on his first attempt—only the 14th person to ever do so. Lucero still resides in Napa Valley with his family and is currently working with the Jackson Family Fine Wines as an educator.
I caught up with Sur just after New Years’ in January of this year. We tasted at my house and used two wines, the 2010 Roger Sabon Chateauneuf du Pape “Les Olivets” and the 2010 Double Bond Zinfandel from Paso Robles. Sur describes himself as an instinctual taster and his strategies for tasting are about as far from mine—and most of the other professionals I’ve worked with—as possible. He is a true synesthete with tasting in that he perceives wine in shapes, colors and movement with images playing a very secondary role. What is interesting is how structural elements really influence his perception of a given wine and also how he’s established shapes/flows/colors for all the major grapes and wines in order to identify them. But the first part of this two part interview focuses on his exam strategies and how he keyed in on his blood sugar level and being in good physical shape in the months leading up to his exam to be successful.
I. Exam Strategies
TG: You passed everything on your first attempt, a pretty amazing accomplishment. In terms of taking the exams it would be interesting for other students reading this to hear about your strategies and how you prepared for the exam. Let’s start with the tasting exam. What was it like for you?
SL: I was really focused, honed and acute going into that exam. There were a lot of things I did to prepare to get to that point.
TG: What were some of the things you did that helped most?
SL: In the last couple of years I’ve really been in tune with where my blood sugar is when I’m tasting. I feel like that really sets me up for how I’m going to perceive a wine in terms of it feeling richer or fuller or leaner on my palate. I’ve also paid attention to my diet and how much rest I get and the amount of endorphins going through my body as a result of exercise. I’ve also used mind-clearing meditation. I developed a full schedule of what I would be doing before going into an exam room—and the same for the theory portion of the exam and the service portion.
TG: When you say schedule what do you mean?
SL: By that time I got the schedule for the exam that had my times I already had my routine that I would go through two and a half hours prior to each part of the exam. With tasting I was either in the first or second group that went in so I was up two and a half hours beforehand. I got up, ate and then went to the gym where I did cardio, nothing too heavy. I was just zoning out doing cardio with my music for about 45 minutes. Afterwards I went into the sauna then back to my room to shower and dress. Then I meditated for about five minutes and went down to the exam room really focused and calm, visualizing what was going to take place.
TG: What kind of visualization?
SL: I visualized walking down to the room and then sitting in front of the panel. Then I tuned out the examiners.
TG: So did you see yourself doing all this or were you seeing this as if you were looking out of your own eyes? There’s a big difference between the two.
SL: Out of my own eyes.
TG: When you said you tuned out the examiners what does that mean? How did you do it?
SL: I was just really intensely focused on the wines. After the meditation my mind was so clear; it sounds odd but it’s almost as if your mind is sending out wave lengths or energy. So when I looked at the wines I could tell that my wine two was a white wine with skin contact with a pinkish hue, with wines five and six I could see some tawny in the rim and I knew they had seen time in oak. So the information started coming in immediately. It was almost like I was communicating back and forth with the wine glasses as I was getting my instructions from the examiners.
TG: What’s interesting to me is that your entire routine is geared to putting you in a place where you can really focus as opposed to trying to avoid being nervous or in various degrees of fear. So in the end your having a routine allowed you to focus and really be able to bring your best game when you needed it most.
SL: It was all about being able to bring to the exam what I thought I could already do. When I was on the tread mill for 45 minutes and then sitting in the sauna with my eyes closed, I was thinking about all the wines and going over the grids in my head because you need every point you can possibly score. So when it’s actually time you’re perfectly clear and your body feels good. You haven’t consumed four cups of coffee and three pancakes so your blood sugar is all out of whack. You’re in a good place with your health and your mind and it worked for me.
TG: What did you change in terms of your blood sugar?
SL: I changed my diet and in the six months before the exam I dropped between 30 and 35 pounds.
TG: That’s great. Getting back to the tasting exam what do you think made the difference for you? When you say you were able to communicate with the wines what does that mean? How does that happen? Was there a point when you were working and practicing where something clicked and there was a huge difference?
SL: I feel like I’m a very instinctual taster first but when my instincts take me in a couple of different directions my deduction starts to kick in. I’ve always felt like I had a strong intuition more than being clinical about it. Those wines in the exam really spoke to me that day. I made sure I had those wines on my palate as fast as I could. It’s your 25 minutes and if you’re going to assess the color of the wine then go on to the nose why not get a jump start on the structure and texture of the wine. Get the wine on your palate. You don’t have to say anything about it but the retro-nasal will come up and you’ll be using 100% of your detection mechanisms your body has as opposed to just your eyes and your nose.
TG: So did you taste the wines immediately and then go from there?
SL: I tasted four of them immediately. I got the other two from just the nose.
TG: What’s your advice for students working on tasting? What do you think makes a difference?
SL: I really think they should watch their blood sugar—blood glucose levels. If you can get every capillary in your body expanded as much as possible through exercise or whatever, you’re much more present and aware. I used exercise and meditation and it worked for me.
TG: What about theory? How was theory for you?
SL: Theory was probably my biggest “X” factor. I didn’t really know how I was going to do—even half way through the exam itself. At that point I was thinking “if they stop right now I passed! Stop asking me questions!” (Laughs) It seemed like a really long theory exam but at the end I felt really good about it.
TG: How did you study theory? Did you use 3X5 cards or practice with audio?
SL: I used 4X6 cards and had a routine. Every morning I woke up and had coffee (I didn’t start drinking coffee until last year) and looked at the Guild study guides—all 21 of them. I’d cross reference the study guides with the compendiums. Once I was done with that I choose a wine region and map it out.
TG: What does mapping out mean?
SL: I’d draw maps, nothing really detailed but more general. Obviously I wasn’t going to map out the entirety of Burgundy, it was more like the juxtaposition of how Volnay and Meursault fit together and how one was larger than the other. I mapped out most of the major wine regions in the world this way. Then I made flash cards. But I had readjust how I studied for theory no less than 15-20 times.
TG: Readjust meaning …
SL: Meaning that often it wasn’t working for me; it’s was tough, it’s a grind. I’d realize that I was having a hard time absorbing information so I needed to draw another map. It was as if I needed to change how my mind was working, how I was thinking. Especially the last four months when you can’t count how many hours you’re studying, whether you’re awake, having something to eat, on the treadmill, or listening to a podcast from your notes. I tried to leverage everything I possibly could.
TG: Did you practice much with auditory files? You mentioned podcasts, did you record yourself asking questions?
SL: Yes I did. I also kept my flash card stacks to about 25 questions max so I could put them on a 2-3 minute podcast. I would use Garage Band on my Mac and alternate between songs and podcasts and then use them during exercise. I felt like I had to exercise at the same time to keep my mind clear so I could absorb more information.
TG: That’s interesting. Recently I took a cognitive survey and according to the survey there are five different preferences that the brain has for processing experience. Like you, I think best if I’ve just been physically moving or if I’m moving at the time. So moving/exercising really helped you absorb information. I also like the fact that you were using music because you were building associations between information and songs. What about service? How was the service exam for you?
SL: I felt pretty good on all three of my service stations—really strong. I was happy that the business math question didn’t throw me for a loop. I did go back and study possibilities of basic costing. Service was good. In between each of the three stations I faced the wall, closed my eyes and felt myself breathing. I just tried to stay as calm as possible so I could engage the Masters as much as I could. I really wanted to serve them the best I could and make sure that there was nothing else that they could want of me.
TG: So was it like work? Was it like being on the floor and taking care of guests at the table?
SL: It wasn’t much far removed from that. I knew that I would probably be asked to decant a bottle of red wine, open a bottle of sparkling wine and do some food and wine pairing. Of course I researched the exam by talking to friends who had taken the exam before. But I prepared the best that I could. I tried to prepare for all kinds of scenarios
TG: Thinking back on all three parts of the exam, was the service the easily doable for you since you were working the floor?
SL: Yes, it was the part of the exam I gave the least attention to until right before the exam. For me it was all work on theory because there’s such an amazing depth and breadth of questions that can be asked in that part of the exam. I was literally studying until an hour before the exam. I was on the treadmill with flashcards going over the basics.
TG: Now after the exam how much of that material is still there?
SL: Six months later about 35% of it. It’s too bad but I feel like I’m growing in other aspects.
TG: Understood and that’s really the nature of taking a difficult exam in terms of timing and bringing your best game on exam day. I think that accounts for at least 35% of exam preparation in being successful. It’s not just the preparation it’s being able to bring your preparation to the exams when you need it. Do you have access to everything you’ve studied when you need it—or are you going to freak out and self-destruct.
II. Tasting – Overall Goals, Sight & Instinctual Strategy
TG: As you think about tasting what are your goals? I know that there are many contexts for tasting but when you’re tasting as a buyer, for instance, what are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish?
SL: I’m trying to get the value of a wine. Does it perform within its company? Does it show typicity in terms of where it’s from and is it a good value among other wines of the same type?
TG: When you’re practicing for an exam or coaching students what are you trying to do?
SL: When I’m teaching I’m trying to give them the basic structure of the grid because it’s going to be what they’re going to go back to when they practice. I think with enough exposure they’re going to establish their own instinctual patterns. Mine are unique to me so why should anyone else smell a wine like me.
TG: So what are the important criteria needed for a successful tasting? What about glassware, lighting etc.?
SL: A proper glass that’s free of any kind of off aroma from soap and so forth. A glass that not too big or too small. I think lighting is also very important because looking at the color concentration and vibrancy of a wine gives me tremendous clues before I even taste it. The temperature of the wine is also crucial.
TG: What are your beliefs about tasting in terms of your ability to taste?
SL: I had a tremendous advantage when I started out in the wine business because I worked for an exceptional program (The French Laundry) where I was able to taste some of the most classic representations from the entire wine world. So I calibrated my palate with some fantastic wines. That gave me a really strong up as far as the instinctual side of tasting. I feel like I’m a really strong instinctual taster. My deduction techniques are solid-plus but I go off more on instinct than deduction. My grid work isn’t exactly impeccable but it’s pretty strong.
TG: I think everyone to a certain extent is an instinctual taster but I know lots of strong instinctual tasters who crash and burn in exams because they don’t have the discipline to pay attention to all the information in the glass. In other words they strongly go to the completely wrong place. How are you different from that?
SL: I think it’s because my instincts are not just taken from aromatic and taste profiles. I create a picture of the wine in terms of how it interacts texturally on my palate. I visualize how the wine feels on my palate; whether it feels flat, lifted, vibrant, tense, or youthful.
TG: Could you give me some examples of that? So if the texture of the mouthfeel is lifted, what does that mean? What do you see?
SL: Take New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for example. It’s an intense wine with lots of energy and crisp angularity to it.
TG: Say more about that.
SL: When I think of how it acts or how it moves in its kinetics on my palate I kind of get a picture of it. My picture for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is fairly broad because it’s pretty rich but it’s also pretty linear and angled as opposed to a Sancerre where there’s kind of a green sharp finesse to it.
TG: So if I had to be you what would I see? What does that look like? First you’re looking down right out in front of you at about a 45° and you’re holding the glass with both hands in parallel. What are you seeing? What’s the picture?
SL: I’m seeing shades of green and yellow and platinum.
TG: Shades of these colors? Shapes?
SL: I don’t necessarily see shapes but I see movement.
TG: But you see colors …
SL: Yes I see colors and movements. They’re going in a fairly linear fashion straight out in front of me. They move a bit and they’re not just in one dimension. They can also expand on an X and a Y axis.
TG: So there’s depth to them. In this case with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc your hands were about six inches apart. What’s the depth to it?
SL: It’s pretty broad but the Y axis would be the depth. That would tell me how lifted the wine is.
TG: By lifted you mean the acidity?
SL: Yes, the intensity, the sharpness and the austerity of the wine will create more lift as opposed to a wine that’s richer, fuller and fatter which will be a little more condensed. A California Chardonnay that’s rich and round isn’t going to have a lot of lift on my Y axis but it will be more enveloping and rounder on my X axis as it expands out.
TG: That would make sense. Just curious, when does all this happen? When you smell the wine? Taste the wine?
SL: It happens in different ways when I’m using my instincts to assess the condition of the fruit. The fruit is going to tell me if it’s ripe, fleshy Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. When I say fleshy I mean the ripeness of the fruit; the density and concentration of the fruit. It’s going to be a rounder profile vs. a wine from the Cote de Beaune like a really firm Pommard from a cool vintage; the latter is going to have more intensity and be more compact and angular; it’s going to lift on the Y axis.
TG: So with a wine like that, the Y axis is going to be longer or greater as opposed to the Sonoma Coast wine.
SL: Correct. The richer wines have more volume and the leaner wines have more height.
TG: I thought you weren’t a math person.
SL: I’m not! (laughs)
TG: But colors also seem important. How do you assign colors? How does that happen?
SL: The colors are generally based on the ripeness of the fruit. Leaner, tauter wines are going to have lighter shades of color. Like for the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc it’s a pretty intense, almost electric green. For Chablis it’s a very pale cream straw, almost transparent.
TG: With the Chablis, would the shape would be narrow but have a lot of volume?
TG: So when you see these colors and movements how far out do they go? Do they stop right out in front of you or do they go on?
SL: The best wines in the world keep going on; they’re really expansive to me. It’s like I’m standing in the middle of them and they emanate out in all directions exponentially.
TG: Say more about that.
SL: Like a really great Nebbiolo can have volume and it can keep growing and growing but still stay very elegant. Or it can be so compacted, firm and grippy but still have the ability to expand. You can just tell that it’s waiting to be unlocked and to stretch out. I guess I can still picture that after tasting thousands of wines in my lifetime.
TG: This is really interesting because it seems as if you have profiles for grape varieties and for wines.
SL: Right, I have visual profile for grapes and wines.
TG: So if you smell and taste something and it snaps into one of these profiles you know exactly what it is or it becomes a quick process of elimination.
SL: Yes, my instincts come into play. I put my nose in the glass and the fruit profile--whether I think it’s taut, lean and angular or full, lush and rich--creates a different shape as well as how it appears on the X and Y axes. I generally place those two axes right on a tongue—like a big massive tongue right out in front of me. Then it’s how the wine plays out on it.
TG: It sounds like what you’re mainly talking about is fruit quality in terms of ripeness and how it relates to structure.
TG: This is all great and we’re going to talk about it more in a bit. But back to the sight. When you take a look at a glass of wine, especially a red wine, do you have expectations about it in terms of these shapes and the axis?
SL: Generally I’ll pick up the glass and see if I can see through the wine. This particular wine I can see through and it has pretty dark concentration of color for Grenache. So I can think of other grapes it might be. It could also be Crianza Rioja with the hint of purple around the edge. But I always like to use my instincts as quickly as possible. So I’d get it on my palate right away and then start describing the sight and the nose, trying to use the olfactory to give me some kind of impression.
TG: Just curious, do you take much from the viscosity; the legs or tears?
SL: It do to a certain degree but it’s more how the wines feels in the mouth, the weight of it. You can have a wine like a Barolo with 14.5 or even 15% alcohol but it doesn’t feel heavy because of the high level of acidity. The weight of the wine in my mouth gives me a more important impression than the viscosity.
End of Part I - Continued in the next post.
Everyone’s journey to the Master Sommelier title is unique. For good friend Brian Cronin it included seven attempts at the exam before finally passing.
Along the way there were stints at some of the country’s top restaurants as well as moving to Hawaii and temporarily losing his sense of smell. In Chicago Brian worked for Charlie Trotter starting as the assistant sommelier under another Master Sommelier, Joe Spellman. He (Cronin) eventually worked his way up to head Sommelier. In Hawaii Brian worked as an Educator for Southern Wine & Spirits and then back stateside as Wine Director for the St. Regis Hotel in Dana Point. Later he worked as a sommelier at Gary Danko Restaurant and as a retailer at Peter Granoff MS’ Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant. Most recently Brian served as National Educator for Jackson Family Wines. Currently he’s an active member of the CMSA (Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas) examining and teaching at all levels as well as serving as an elected member of the Board of Directors.
As part of my ongoing tasting project Brian and I met at my house on July 17th, 2012. We used Riedel Vinum Pinot Noir glasses for the tasting. The primary wine used for the tasting was the 2009 Chateau La Gardine Châteauneuf du Pape; we also tasted the 2010 Double Bond Zinfandel from Paso Robles.
Background, Exams & Food and Wine Pairing
TG: How many times did you take the Master’s Exam?
BC: Seven times.
TG: What changed that made it possible for you to pass on that seventh time? I seem to recall that living in Hawaii for several years and experiencing allergies was an issue.
BC: The first time I sat for it four months after the Advanced which we don’t allow people to do anymore. I was working at Charlie Trotter’s at the time and passed the Advanced in August and then took the Master’s Exam for the first time the following February. I zeroed—I didn’t pass anything. The next year I passed service and theory and then I moved to Hawaii. I developed a problem with smelling and didn’t know what it was at the time; I thought it was a cold. Over the course of that year I found out that it was volcanic fog and sulfur and my sinuses became impacted. It really affected my tasting and I started looking for ways to get out of Hawaii. It’s really expensive to move to and from there—about $12,000 each way.
After my first reset I passed service and theory again the following year before finally managing to get out of Hawaii. I sat the Master’s about three weeks later and I didn’t pass the tasting again but I noticed a huge difference--I could smell again. But I didn’t have the grid or structure down. So over the course of the next year I really worked on the grid and reattaching markers to descriptors because I had such a huge problem with not being able to smell. I literally had to re-associate smells which was really
TG: How did you do that?
BC: By just smelling wines over and over again. It was like I knew what the smell was but couldn’t attach it to a description. It’s like having your hand in a cast and being able to move your pinkie; like retraining it.
TG: Did you work with smell memory in general? Just try to remember what various fruits and other things smelled like?
BC: Right. I didn’t really spend time working on my grid because I always knew it. But if you can’t attach it to a smell then you have a problem. Even today when I talk to people the first question I ask is how often are you blind tasting versus tasting? Because if you’re blind tasting but not tasting you’re not learning anything. To me it’s the biggest part. You see people who just don’t know markers for classic varieties; they just know a grid for a classic wine. It’s really strange. You can make the experiential methodical--you can be methodical about how you experience things. On the floor in service I don’t think you can, but you can make a methodical experience out of tasting.
I was describing it once to someone and they said that it sounds like some kind of transcendental-hippie way of learning to think experientially. Say for instance I wanted to work on Rhônes this month then I’d be tasting however many Rhône wines looking at the label and incorporating then into a dinner or what have you and still learning. In fact, in that context you’re probably learning better in many ways. I also remember when I moved back to San Francisco and started to take the exam again. I’d be taking the dog for a walk and I’d be doing wines in my head.
TG: When you say you’d be doing wines in your head, what does
BC: For instance I’d pick Sancerre as a generic category and I’d go through the entire description in my head as if I was saying it out loud.
TG: As you’re doing that are you literally creating the smells and flavors in your head?
BC: Yes and it’s really interesting in the context of the work you’ve been doing. With food and wine pairing, I noticed that when we were working on the cookbooks at Charlie Trotter’s and sometimes I didn’t have an exact answer for some of the parings I can up with. It’s like I could literally “see” flavors.
TG: How do you see flavors?
BC: It’s like I can picture a steak and taste it right now and I can picture wines and taste certain characteristics. I categorize flavors, like here are the warm flavors over here (gestures to his left). So it’s like warm flavors have a category whether it be spices or roasted fruit or stewed fruit. So I could meld a wine and a dish together. I could see flavors in this dish and I could see flavors in that wine. The only other thing that wouldn’t be perfect would be the structural elements. Until I tasted this particular Sancerre, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to see if it would work with an element in a particular salad dish.
TG: When you say you’re melding the two together, how do you do that? It looks like you’ve got image of steak here and then multiple different images of wines that could work.
BC: I’ll give you an example; it was one of the first times it happened. It was fennel salad. Charlie used to do this fennel confit salad with asparagus and jus on the bottom. The first thing that popped into my head was that it was really elegant fennel and maybe I want to accentuate it and make the fennel really pop. The first wine that immediately came to mind was Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc because it wasn’t green--it had a lot of fennel in it.
TG: But it seems like it’s all 3D in your head because of the way your eyes are moving out here and your hands are describing it in space.
BC: Yes it’s like a hologram in front of me.
TG: After comparing the food image/memory with multiple wine images do you just taste them so to speak?
TG: Do images of labels or bottles pop up with the wines or what happens?
BC: I picture the whole wine--the bottle and the label. Sometimes I might get a couple of labels for a dish and the one that’s closer to me internally is usually the one that works better.
Tasting - Overall Goals
TG: Now it’s time to taste. To begin what are your goals when you taste? What are you trying to do?
BC: The first thing is varietal identification, then old world or new world and style identification—breaking down very simply those points. Do I recognize the wine, the producer and the other things?
TG: When you were a buyer for the restaurant what were your goals?
BC: Would other people like the wine? Or is it some esoteric style I like? Or is it something that could really be cool with the menu? I had a couple of different mentalities: first there was Charlie Trotter’s and then there was the other going back as far as North Carolina when I was first starting to become a buyer and had a finite number of spots of the list. For that it was
asking if a wine would sell or is the boss going to yell at me? I only had 30
spots on a small hand-written list. Most of the time it was thinking about if a wine would sell on its own or would I have to be the one to sell it. First of all, was it a good wine and did I like it.
TG: What are important criteria for anyone tasting to be able to do a good job? That would include glassware, environment etc.
BC: Your nose and aromatic identification. Even before I lost my sense of smell I liked the taste of wine but really preferred the nose aspect of it.
TG: What about equipment? What do you need?
BC: Good glassware; it doesn’t have to be anything over the top. I could easily use Riedel Overture to taste and even enjoy drinking wine. So a white wine stem that’s crystal is good. Even when professionally tasting I try to keep the glassware as simple as possible. You never know what kind of glassware you’ll be using so if you get used to tasting with a basic stem you do fine. Also sometimes you find a lot more things in a wine using more expensive glassware but you also tend to find more flaws.
TG: What are your beliefs about your own tasting abilities and you as a taster?
BC: Some of them might be slightly off the wall. Overall I think my descriptors are dead on and very specific. I get very specific down to the style of fruit in terms of fresh vs. cooked vs. desiccated. Maybe even
sometimes a brand of something such as Craisin or even down to specifics of how I would like fruit and tannin together in a repertoire of teas that taste
TG: What about your own beliefs about your ability to taste?
BC: If I could rate myself as a taster out of 100 percent I would probably rate at 83 (laughs). Before moving to Hawaii I was much more comfortable and confident. I think it was a mental confidence versus a physical ability.
I think my comfort level is much more on the theory and practical. Sometimes I have an amazing tasting day but that’s because of how I’m thinking, my frame of mind. Some people have it all the time. But the flavor memory part I know is always there. It’s just being able to use the force that day …
TG: You’re right. It’s the force (laughs). You have your memory and then you have what’s in the glass and the force is what’s in between.
TG: When you’re looking at a glass of wine to examine it, what you trying to do?
BC: The first thing I look at is the rim. I don’t go straight into the center; I actually look at the rim first and then move inward breaking down if it’s a thin-skinned or thick-skinned grape and then if there’s any kind of color variation. I try to categorize as quickly as I can any color variations as in any orange or pink/purple hues. If it’s a white wine I look for green. I’m mainly looking at hues. I don’t look at viscosity a lot but unless it’s really staining (for red wine). The viscosity is the least important part of it; if we put several different 15% alcohol wines next to each other, they’re all going to tear very differently. Part of it’s the variety in terms of thin or thicker skins but there are all sorts of things that can affect viscosity.
TG: Hence the great debate ongoing about even using the term viscosity. In looking at color are you trying to assess age?
BC: It’s categories of varietals first. Then I’m looking for other things. Most of the time if you get a wine that shows garnet in any way or age in any way you know you’re dealing with an older wine. But until you smell it or taste it you can’t categorize how old it is. But I’m always looking for categories of varietals first.
TG: How do you know when you’re done looking at a wine? How do you know when it’s time to smell the wine?
BC: It’s funny but when I’m looking at a wine I’m checking my nose at the same time.
TG: Say more about that.
BC: I ask internally if I’m ready to smell and may take a sniff to see if my nose is clear and ready to go. If I’m describing the wine out loud it’s however long it takes to describe it. If I’m just looking at the wine it’s pretty quick. I might give myself five to ten seconds if I’m just looking at it.
TG: During this time do you use the MS grid as kind of a check list?
BC: I use parts of it but not all of it. Clarity I look at but the brightness factor not so much. Color and hue I jump to right away. I can still see the grid and so go to those things right away. My grid is always clear, clean, bright, color, hue, viscosity, gas …
TG: You have your right hand out right out in front of you about ten to fifteen inches away. Is that where you see the grid? What’s it like? Is it a white sheet with the grid on it?
BC: Sometimes I see a sheet of paper I typed out after I took the Advanced. I think Evan (Goldstein) called it the “Brownstone method.” I typed it out which is basically our grid. Sometimes it just pops in and other times it’s right there (points out in front at chest level).
TG: But it seems like whatever it is it’s right out in front of you and you just go through it and check things off to make sure you remember everything.
TG: What I’ve found over the last year is that experienced tasters have set eye patterns when they taste, specifically a consistent starting eye position. I will be curious to see if that’s true for you. So when you smell wine, is there a place that you look that seems more familiar and/or more comfortable for you to look?
BC: It’s almost a semi-circle.
TG: But where do you start?
BC: Lower left and then I move over to the center.
TG: So as you move over to the center what’s going on?
BC: As I’m looking right here (down and to the left) I’m noticing dark fruit with spice. And I’m already starting to qualify it by saying, “what’s that?”
TG: So you smell a dark fruit such as …
BC: Fruit like a dark blackberry.
TG: You’re pointing down like it’s waist-high and left of center. It also looks like it’s about 15 inches in front of you. With that, if I had to be you what would it look like? What do you see?
BC: It’s a picture of the fruit.
TG: 2D? 3D? Picture of a berry all by itself?
BC: It’s more like a cluster of darker berries. There’s red fruit too and they’re individual red type fruits.
TG: With those it seems as if you’re pointing slightly down and straight out in front of you.
BC: It’s all pretty much in the same place although the red fruits are slightly higher up.
TG: Just curious, when you first started talking about the fruits you mentioned that you qualify it as in fresh vs. dried.
BC: The original thought for the red fruit was that it was higher up vs. where the dark fruit was. So maybe if the fruit is darker and riper I see it lower down vs. tarter red fruit that I see higher up.
TG: In other words there’s an arc of sorts that has to do with color and ripeness. As the fruits get tarter they images go up and to the right. It curves over. Is there any kind of color thing that lets you know how ripe or how tart the fruit is? Or is it just kinds of fruit and how they are positioned in this arc?
BC: More like fruits in positions.
TG: So where is something like rhubarb or cranberry? Something
really sour; where would that be?
BC: Tarter things and spices are up and over to the right side.
TG: So you’ve got this 3D cluster of dark berries and a single red berry; any other kinds of fruit?
BC: Yes, there’s almost like a chutney that combines some spice and fruit elements.
TG: Where’s that? I noticed that you were looking out there (straight ahead and slightly up to the left).
BC: If I don’t initially get something in the wine it’s like I’m moving my eyes across and letting images pop up.
TG: So it’s like your calibrating as you smell the wine and look around. That’s very cool because you can be really precise with it. What does the chutney look like?
BC: It’s like looking into a jar of chutney or looking at a pot of chutney cooking. I can see the types of fruit in it, cherries, rhubarb, spices, cloves etc.
TG: You also mentioned spices over here to the left and slightly down. What do they look like?
BC: Individual spices like you put five jars of spices out in a row. Piles of
TG: What about other non-fruit type things?
BC: There’s pepper but it’s in the chutney. It’s like fresh cracked pepper but it doesn’t really stand out. There’s also a slight gaminess to it.
TG: What’s that like?
BC: It’s a slight gaminess and meat. It’s right in the center.
TG: You’re literally holding your right hand in the center right in front of you.
BC: If it’s kind of an arc, then the meat is here (points to the center about chest high). There are dark, warm characteristics to the meat such as bloodier things as opposed to more sanguine dried meat.
TG: So there’s almost a range here too.
BC: From deep, dark and bloody on this side over to higher-toned sanguine dried blood on this side.
TG: Where is this arc?
BC: It’s just below the arc of the range of fruits. Maybe it’s also has to do with the weight. Maybe it’s because I think in terms of weight of whatever it
TG: Any other non-fruit things?
BC: There’s definitely some herbal characteristics such as Herbes de Provence; also lavender and things like harder, more dried herbs.
TG: Where are the herbs?
BC: They’re higher up (reaches up and to the right). It follows around to the spices in almost an orb. Like in a round glass fish bowl.
TG: It’s like a sphere and things have arcs and curves. The fruit seems to go from down left for ripe, darker fruits curving up and to the right for red, tarter fruits.
BC: Funny, as we were talking just now I was thinking about citrus fruits and they go across up here (almost at head level) but also in an arc.
TG: Throughout all this is the MS grid anywhere that you can see it or use it?
BC: Initially yes because the first thing I’m looking for is what kind of fruits, but not right at the moment. I use it for what kinds of fruits and qualifying the style of the fruits. Looking at this wine it’s definitely thin skinned and yet dark at the same time so I’m already considering things that might be covered by the color.
TG: When you first put your nose in the glass do you say something to yourself?
BC: Nothing really consistent. It could be anything like, “wow, the fruit is ripe here” or “this is exactly what I was thinking” or “this is not what I was expecting at all” or “what the hell is that?” Simple kinds of frames.
TG: What about the earthiness in the wine? Where is that? What’s it
BC: Right now the only earthiness that was standing out was the
darker meat and the dried herbal characteristics. However, if I start thinking about chalk, granite and those kinds of things they would be straight up here.
TG: Right in front of you about 15 inches away at eyebrow level?
BC: Like I’m looking at my eyebrows.
TG: What’s it like?
BC: I see actual pictures of actual soils.
TG: 3D or actual pictures?
BC: 3D. Sometimes I see the ground or sometimes I see a pile of soil like the piles of herbs. Usually it’s something I’ve seen before.
TG: Is there a way that you check the quality of the earthiness like you check the quality of the fruit?
BC: Similar in that it moves left to right from chalk to dark earth.
TG: When you look up here (up and to the left) what are you checking for? Do you have a check list or a grid that you’re working with?
BC: I’m going from inorganic to organic soils with the more alkaline, powdered chalk, gravel and limestone; then it becomes darker earth going to the right. The lighter things are to the left and the darker things are to the right.
TG: The final thing is oak. How do you get that?
BC: Dead center in the circle. If it’s older it’s to more to the left and then the newer, heavier toast things are to the right.
TG: Do you have images for it?
BC: Yes. New oak is a brand spanking new barrel that could be standing up in a package or it could be in a chai like at Opus or in a chateau—as in a lot of money and wood. If I look more to the left of that circle I’d see pictures of old barrels like the ones we saw in Jerez; like a barrel almost falling apart as in dried, decaying wood.
TG: OK, let’s see if we can put this whole thing together: Starting with the fruit, describe the whole sequence to me.
BC: This would actually be an interesting thing to draw out. With fruit it’s darker fruit down left getting into brighter fruits up and to the right; like dark cherry all the way to rhubarb and things like that. The more tart they are the more right of center or even clustered around center. Also the harder more vegetal things like rose hips tend to be on the right as well.
TG: Then the chutney is straight out in front.
BC: Right, straight out in front about arm’s length. Everything’s in a kind of globe out in front of me.
TG: Where is the meat again?
BC: The meat is almost dead center; like a bullseye that’s darker in the center then getting lighter with the more sanguine, dried character.
TG: How’s that in relation to the soil? Behind it? In front of it?
BC: The soils are down below then the chutney and the meat above. The herbs are to the right and up in a bowl. Then up here to the left are light citrus things like spiced orange or orange marmalade that would be used in
TG: We didn’t talk about flowers. Are there flowers?
BC: Dark flowers are here, up and to the right past the earth. White flowers are also to the left of the earth.
TG: That’s a pretty complex map. But what’s interesting about it is that
everything is in a sphere all in close proximity so you can easily organize it.
TG: Let’s play with the wine a bit. Go ahead and smell the wine and what’s a really dominant feature in the wine for you? What really pops?
BC: The dark blackberry juice.
TG: That’s down here to the right. What happens if we change the location of that and put it up here and to the left? Smell the wine and tell me what
BC: It doesn’t affect the wine but it’s a really odd feeling.
TG: OK but when you smell the wine for blackberry and you move
the image of blackberry does the wine change?
BC: It makes it less strong.
TG: Reset it. What happens if you take the image and make it really huge? Does that make is stronger or less strong?
BC: No change.
TG: OK, put it back. What happens if you make the image black and
BC: It accentuates everything acidic in the wine.
TG: Reset it and then what happens if you expand your sphere out as you smell the wine? Let it bubble out and grow. It’s a bigger sphere and everything is bigger.
BC: Nothing really changes but it made me think of how I’m looking at the scale in terms of the actual wine. With aromatic wines I think it’s further out vs. other wines where it could be much tighter, closer. Now that I’m thinking about it I’m wondering if I can look at it farther away.
(At this point TG opens a different wine, a 2010 Double Bond Zinfandel from Paso Robles)
TG: So what’s this wine like? The same distance away? Different?
BC: Same distance and immediately I’m scanning from tarter to darker fruit
and the different kinds of spices.
TG: When you scan is it a color gradation or something else? A
scale? If I had to be you, how would I do it?
BC: No, it’s not a color gradation but more like colors and pictures of the actual fruits.
TG: Are they all lined up next to each other? How does that work?
BC: They’re going from a harder plum to a tarter cherry all the way to a
cherry that’s rotting.
TG: So you’re just matching them up.
BC: Yes, it’s like I’m saying, “that works, that works”etc.
TG: Before we taste the wine, how do you know you’re finished smelling it?
BC: When I can’t find anything else. Or nothing else stands out immediately. I know that if I keep smelling the wine I might be able to smell other things but then everything else disappears.
TG: When you say disappears …
BC: There’s only so many times I can recognize that same fruit, that same spice, that wood, all those kinds of things If I keep smelling then I’ve killed those kinds of scents. From there if I smell other things I consider them kind of irrelevant. Because if you keep smelling the wine you’ll probably be able to smell VA after a while or who knows what. Unless something is initially there on the first few sniffs I consider it irrelevant.
TG: Taste the Chateauneuf again and as you’re tasting it what are your goals? What are you trying to do?
BC: I try to go into the palate clean and not think about the things I’ve smelled. I think you get a clear description in your mind when you go to something new; then you can connect it or disconnect it to what you smelled. With this wine I thought, “what was my initial impression when I smelled the wine?” Immediately it was the dark berry characteristic but I thought that it was darker than what it was on the nose.
TG: So how does it change? It was right here (motions down and to the
BC: It was still dark and in the same place. Then it went to uber acid up here and to the right. I wasn’t thinking in terms of fruit it just crossed up and to the right.
TG: Does it change positions?
BC: The acid took it over here.
TG: So how does that work?
BC: It changed positions going from the realm of is it “fruits,
fruits, fruits” or “ACID!”
TG: So how do you know it’s not fruit and acid?
BC: It may be the fruits. I started going through the tarter fruits and on to the finish of the wine. My mouth started to water so it’s just acid.
TG: So there’s a sequence of tarter fruits and then acid.
BC: Right. There’s a sequence from the tarter fruits going to acid. That was just the initial impression of it.
TG: So taste it again and how do you compare it to the nose in terms of the set up and all these things? Are they relatively the same? Different? And if different, how so because the fruit quality has definitely changed.
BC: Everything that I’m looking at as far as the fruits is the same. Still going from the dark to the tarter, redder fruits.
TG: What about the spices over here?
BC: Spices still there; earth and meat still there. Herbs--more lavender but still there. But there’s some new wood on the wine. I still see some older
barrels but I’m definitely leaning more to the right side and getting more of an image of new barrels--actually the inside of a new barrel.
TG: 3D-type picture?
BC: Yes, cross sections of the inside of a new barrel. Again the older stuff is to the left and the newer stuff is to the right and I can see the cross sections of a new barrel over here (points to the right) with some degree of toasting.
TG: What about the earthiness?
BC: Still the same with the darker earth and stone with a little bit of iron. I see the color of the earth right here (motions).
TG: Is that a picture of the soil itself? 2D or 3D?
BC: It’s a 3D picture.
TG: One of the last things I’ll ask you about the palate is the structure. How do you figure out how much acid, alcohol and tannin is in the wine? How do you know that it’s medium vs. medium-plus acid? Go ahead and taste the wine again start with what’s easiest for you. Acid? Tannin?
BC: Acid. I usually do acid first because I’m still feeling it in my mouth whereas the alcohol becomes a function of figuring out the acid.
TG: So what do you do to calibrate the acid?
BC: For this wine I went right over there and thought screeching acidity.
TG: So you’re pointing out front and above shoulder level. What if it’s low
BC: It’s here. It seems like there’s a line that goes from here to here (points straight out at shoulder level and up higher); from low to high.
TG: How do you calibrate? Are there markers on the line? Does something move? What goes on?
BC: It’s almost like there’s a marker that moves.
TG: Is there a button or something like that?
BC: No it’s just a little line, a hash mark.
TG: But are there calibrations from low to high?
BC: No it’s just for low and high with the line.
TG: So when you taste does the marker move or do you get the idea first and then it moves?
BC: With that one it moved right away but I know that sometimes if I taste a wine and I’m not sure what it is I’ll move the marker until it fits.
TG: So you’re taking the calibration with the marker and moving it until it matches up. What about alcohol? Does it work the same way?
BC: Interesting. It’s also on the left but it’s like a target that gets bigger or smaller depending on how much alcohol is in the wine (He makes a circular motion out in front of him chest high). Does that make sense? Here’s the center of the target and the higher the alcohol the darker the target becomes. It’s like concentric circles and the higher the alcohol the closer to the bullseye and darker in color. If it’s more to the outside it’s lighter in color with less alcohol.
TG: How does it work? Does it expand and contract?
BC: Yes it expands and contracts and also changes color depending in how much alcohol.
TG: What about tannin? Is it the line thing again?
BC: Yes, it’s the line thing only it’s straight up and down. High tannins up here and then lower tannins down here (Points to a line straight out in front should height and down).
TG: Is there a marker that moves on it like the one for acid?
BC: Yes but it’s more like a dot on the line that’s moving.
TG: It seems like high tannin is straight out in front of you at eye level.
BC: Yes, it’s like the acid line is here and then the tannin line is below.
TG: How about residual sugar? Do you have something for that?
BC: I just thought of Sauternes and it’s way out there (points out in front).
TG: Is it beyond the sphere?
TG: What about a really dry wine? Where is that?
BC: Same place.
TG: When you taste something how do you know if it’s dry vs. off-dry or slightly sweet vs. medium sweet? How do you know?
BC: Actually it’s another kind of bullseye but farther out. It’s a separate thing outside the sphere, sweet on the outside and then dry in the center.
TG: So you’re looking at the center of the bullseye and it expands if it’s sweet.
BC: Right, it’s the same kind of thing as the concentric circles for tannin.
TG: Is the tannin circle red?
BC: No, it’s yellow.
TG: Do you use the same kind of thing for fortified wines?
BC: I think so. I’m trying to picture a Port and it’s going to the same place.
But I’m also going back and forth to tannin and other things.
TG: So did you know that you did any of this?
BC: I did have some idea—but not this specific. A lot of times I know I’m scanning something and trying to find out where it fits. But this was like doing it in a slower, more specific fashion.
TG: You start by looking here (down and slightly left of center) but you’re immediately looking at all kinds of scales and gradations to ID things in specific positions. What’s interesting to me is that everything in your sphere is relatively close to you so it’s really tight and focused. If you think about it, it’s really good because you can keep a lot of things in your field of attention/awareness at the same time. Someone else whose field is farther away would have a hell of a time pulling this off. If you were coaching them you’d have to try to get them to pull everything closer in to improve their focus.
Finally, how do you know when you’re done tasting the wine? Is it like the nose when you run out of things?
BC: It’s like I know it’s all there.
TG: In making a conclusion about a wine, what do you do? You’ve got all this information. How do you put it all together?
BC: I’ve described it all so I bring it all back to a common denominator and run through things it could be.
TG: Like a Rolodex?
BC: Yes, it’s like circling.
TG: So you’re making circle motions out here (out in front). What’s this circular apparatus? How does it work? Is it images of wines or labels?
BC: It’s usually labels but sometimes it’s the grape first. But if I’m not sure then it wavers and I go back and forth. Sometimes I start with categories of grapes and go back and forth. So if I’m looking at this I might say, “It’s Barolo but then does it have those acid and tannin characteristics?”
TG: Are you literally asking yourself these things internally?
BC: Yes, I’m asking myself. If I’ve narrowed it down to either Sangiovese or Nebbiolo then I’ll start breaking it down and asking, “does it have X or does it have Y? Does it have these fruit characteristics or this spice characteristic?”
TG: OK. On a related note, I don’t know about you but for me the wines live in different places in my mind’s eye. For me Sangiovese is here (Eye level slightly left of center) and Nebbiolo is here (Slight above eye level and slightly right of center). Is it the same for you?
BC: No, they’re both in the same general area.
TG: I try sometimes try to take wines and make them into something that they’re not. I literally will put them in other places just to see what happens. They usually pop off the new location and go back to where I usually find them.
BC: Sounds good.
TG: To close, I’m thinking about the whole tasting process in the context of the exams. We work with students and they practice on their own and in groups, but then they have to be in the right zone for the exam to do well. A lot of it has to do with confidence but there’s something else as well.
BC: Whenever I’ve had a good tasting confidence is always the key. Nervous energy keeps you all over the place and prevents you from focusing in on the fruits, the earth in a categorized way. I’ve also noticed that when people are doing nothing in a tasting they’re looking all over the place.
TG: Agree. I would say that people with experience tend to have a pretty consistent place they look when they start and then other places to look when they generate images, compare and file. I also think using a grid for people like us who have MS training is huge. When I’m tasting and really focused the grid is the size of a billboard or a game show board. I think
practically all of us with MS training use the grid consistently if only subconsciously.
BC: I’d be curious if you actually blindfolded someone, you couldn’t see where their eyes were going. And if the wines were all red or all white and the same temperature, how would they think? I’ve tasted out of black
glasses before and it’s a really interesting experience.
TG: True. I also think that expectations and belief are powerful filters that start a sequence of thinking. For instance, when you pick up this glass and look at the color of the wine you have instant expectations about the wine including fruit profile and structure. White wines not so much but red wines much more. So if you take the color away then the function has to be
BC. True but for me I look down here and then up here; then ask is it a red wine or a white wine? Is it in these realms? It’s all pretty interesting.
Is there a connection between music and wine? I’m often asked that question and probably qualified to answer it as I have two degrees in music; a BA in music history and an MM in classical trumpet. The easy answer is yes, there is a connection between music and wine due to the multitude of parallels between the two fields. Both have remarkable depth in terms of history, culture, sociology and even philosophy. We could spend a lifetime discussing all that. But the most important connection between music and wine for me is how they make us think; how intensive training in either or both can create complex and refined patterns of thought for the individual not necessarily acquired in other fields.
I started playing the trumpet in 4th grade. My first job in the restaurant
business, bussing tables and washing dishes in a pancake house from 6:00 PM to 4:00 AM on weekends, helped pay for my first professional trumpet. I played in concert bands, jazz bands, marching bands (true!) and orchestras throughout high school into my undergraduate days at the University of New Mexico to graduate school at the University of Michigan. After grad school Carla and I moved to San Francisco where I played with various Bay Area orchestras and chamber groups as well as playing with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra as an extra for the better part of four years before the restaurant business and impending parenthood took over. Music has always been a vital part of my career and life so I can easily draw on my experience to answer the music-wine question. Further, there are many outcomes from my musical training that have mapped over to my wine career. I would even go as far to say that I would never have passed the Master Sommelier examination without my musical training. Here’s why.
I. Shutting the World Out
Playing a musical instrument (or singing) requires immense focus and one’s success ultimately depends on being able to shut the world out and concentrate singularly on playing/performing along with the playing of other musicians if an ensemble is involved. Tasting at a high level of proficiency also requires great focus and the ability to shut the world out in order to decipher what’s the in glass. I would argue that both are refined trance states in a manner of speaking.
II. Game Day Skills
Game day skills means the ability to bring one’s best game exactly when needed. I’ve written about it several times previously in this blog. The MS Exam is a series of three very specialized auditions and I’m convinced that I would never have passed if it weren’t for the trumpet auditions I took from junior high all the way to my years as a professional. As tough as the MS exam was it wasn’t nearly as intimidating compared to some of the auditions I took as a professional. In one of those auditions it was me alone on the stage of a huge empty concert hall in front of an audition jury I couldn’t see with a music stand filled with a long list of the some of most difficult excerpts in the repertoire. Audition protocol requires that you start playing at the beginning of the list and when you make a mistake a voice from someone unseen in the jury tells you, “again!” Then you resume playing until you make three or four mistakes when the unseen voice says, “Thank you!” With those two dreaded words you're done and months and countless hours of practice are gone with no reward other than the fact you took the audition and have the experience. Want pressure? That’s pressure.
III. Unconscious Competence and Mastery
Competence as in unconscious competence of a given skill with the ultimate goal of mastery. This is the scale of competence that begins with unconscious incompetence (I’m completely oblivious to the fact that I’m a really horrible dancer) to conscious incompetence (Wow! I really suck at dancing) to conscious competence (I can dance OK but I really have to work at it) and finally to unconscious competence (Wow, he/she’s an amazing dancer and they make it look so easy). Music and wine are both fields where this scale definitely applies. With the trumpet it’s all about breathing, specifically the cycle of inhalation, exhalation and the release of a note—a cycle that has to practiced literally thousands of times to become consistent especially under the duress of an audition or performance. With wine one smells and tastes a liquid in order to translate a myriad of aromas and flavors and connect the information to a specific grape, style, place and even a specific harvest. This too requires repetition in the form of thousands of times to gain unconscious competence and with the ultimate goal of mastery.
IV. Heightened Sensory Acuity and an Expanded Field of Awareness
This is perhaps the most important connection of all: how music and wine affect the way we think. A musician in a professional orchestra is required to have remarkable sensory acuity. I remember performing the Verdi Requiem in an orchestra of over a hundred musicians with several vocal soloists out in front of the orchestra, a chorus of over 200 singers directly behind me and a dozen off-stage brass players positioned hundreds of feet from the orchestra up in the balcony of the hall. From moment to moment I had to be aware of everything going on around me including my own part, watching the conductor, and listening to the other people in my section as well as all the various instruments and singers around me. Every instant I had to adjust the volume, intonation and timbre of my sound while playing my part in tune and in time with the rest of the trumpet section much less the rest of the orchestra. I really can’t tell you how I did this or how any musician does it for that matter. But I can tell you that performing at a high level requires one to keep an enormous number of things in their field of awareness either simultaneously or in rapid sequence.
Tasting is much the same. In the work I’ve done over the last two years modeling the tasting strategies of MS and MW colleagues I’ve noticed one major pattern: tasting is a visual experience internally for most people and top tasters have unique and intricate ways of visually organizing all the information in a glass of wine. Like the musician a professional taster can keep a great number of aromas and flavors as well as structural components from a given wine in their field of awareness either simultaneously or in rapid sequence.
V. Heightened Sensory Calibration
I’ve written many times previously of how sight is our dominant internal sense; how most of the human race thinks in pictures and movies. The accomplished musician goes one more by elevating their internal auditory sense to the level of internal sight. A trained, experienced musician calibrates pitch, volume and timbre with as much precision as a visual artist does color, contrast, shade and more. Likewise a professional taster also elevates the olfactory and gustatory senses to the level of internal sight by calibrating the qualities of aromatics (fresh vs. dried vs. cooked vs. stewed fruit) as well the structural components in wine including acidity, alcohol and tannin. I’ve heard many musicians describe their experience of music and/or playing as three dimensional; I’ve heard many tasters describe their internal experience of wine as three dimensional as well--no great surprise.
VI. Importance of Theory and Accumulated Experience
Sounds lofty but as a mere trumpet player sitting in the back of an orchestra I had to know the difference between playing fortissimo (loud) in a Mozart symphony vs. playing fortissimo in a Mahler symphony. Both are completely different even though they are marked identically on the page. In Mozart the trumpet never plays over mezzo forte (medium-loud) even when the part is marked fortissimo because of the acoustical properties of the instruments that Mozart wrote for in his time. The trumpet Mahler wrote for at the end of the 19th century is almost identical to the instrument of today; it can easily bury an entire orchestra all by itself in terms of volume. No surprise that he (Mahler) took full advantage of what the trumpet could do and wrote some of the greatest literature for the instrument in his nine symphonies. And when Mahler wrote fortissimo for the trumpet he intended for the performer to play LOUD--but always maintaining a good sound.
In wine theory is also always key. In blind tasting it’s almost impossible for one to get to a conclusion such as “Spain, Tempranillo, Rioja Gran Reserva” without knowing that a classic style of Tempranillo from Spain comes from Rioja region and that Rioja as an appellation has a quality hierarchy of which Gran Reserva is the highest designation (Not to mention that one can’t even get to Rioja without knowing all the markers for the Tempranillo grape).
There are other many other parallels between music and wine but I will leave you with these last few: both music and wine tend to create a great passion and drive in the student for the very subject being studied. In fact, both should do just that. Both also require a willingness on the part of the student to spend a great deal of time practicing alone to improve personal skills including the repetition of tedious and often boring things. Finally, music and wine are two fields involving a high degree of aesthetics and beauty; in many ways they are two of the greatest things Western civilization has ever produced. Music, wine and life—it’s not a bad combination.
Last year as a part of my tasting project I did a session with dear friend and fellow Master Emily Wines. Emily is the current Senior Director of Beverage for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants in the U.S. She’s had an outstanding career in the wine industry having worked at top level restaurants in San Francisco such as Jardinierre, Elka and Foreign Cinema. In 2000 she joined the Fifth Floor restaurant as assistant sommelier under Raj Parr. In 2005 she took over the Wine Director position for the restaurant and during her tenure the Fifth Floor list won a Grand Award from Wine Spectator as well as being nominated for the Outstanding Wine Service award by the James Beard Foundation.
In 2008, Emily became one of only 131 people in the U.S. to ever pass the Master Sommelier diploma examination. She was also awarded the prestigious Remi Krug Cup for passing all three sections of the exam on her first attempt, one of two women to ever achieve this remarkable distinction.
We did the tasting session at her office in San Francisco. The wine used for the tasting was the 2009 Double Bond Pinot Noir from the Wolf Vineyard in Edna Valley. Riedel Wine Series Chianti Classico/Sangiovese glasses were used for the tasting. During the session I spent the better part of two hours standing next to Emily observing her tasting. In particular I paid close attention to her eye movements and language patterns, looking for clues as to how she processed all the information in the glass. My intent was to figure out her strategies, literally how she thinks about tasting in the form of processing and organizing aromatics, flavors and structural components. In the end we managed to deconstruct the exact sequence of what she does internally when she tastes. The results, to say the least, are remarkable in that they provide a glimpse into the thinking and strategies of a top taster. Read on and enjoy!
I. Tasting: Overall Goals and Beliefs about Wine
TG: What are your overall goals when you taste? What are you trying to
EW: I’m trying to find out if the wine is what is should be and if it’s OK and not flawed. If it’s too wacked I don’t even bother to further and taste it. I’m checking for flaws to make sure it’s not too over the top. I’m also looking for varietal correctness and the “deliciousness factor,” or something that makes me want to taste more. Even if it’s an over the top Cabernet is there something about the wine that would make me want to taste more.
TG: What does “deliciousness” mean?
EW: Does the wine have good balance and good structure? Does the wine have something intriguing about it that makes me want to taste more? The intriguing thing could be if it’s an over the top Chardonnay that’s all about oak and butter does it taste like delicious caramel popcorn and tropical fruit and butterscotch. Or is it just so heavy in the mouth that there’s really nothing else there. The opposite would be something really understated which also can be a problem if there’s not much there to begin with. A lot of people are now making an un-oaked or restrained style of Chardonnay but there’s really not much there.
TG: Do you have other goals for tasting if it’s a wine you’re considering for a
EW: I’m checking for varietal or regional correctness. I’m also asking if it’s appropriately priced. Does the wine taste like it should for the money or does it over-deliver. Ideally it should over-deliver.
TG: What are your goals as a taster?
EW: To narrow down and get an impression from the wine. At the very least I want to come away with an impression from a wine. I’d like to have more stamina as a taster, to be able to get through more wines. Once I get beyond 50 wines my palate isn’t as fresh. There’s not something specific that I try to do every time I sit down and taste but I’m trying to find something new that sticks or that makes an impression; I think blind tasting is like a language so I’m looking for something that I can add to my language of senses.
TG: What is your evidence for a good tasting? What do you need? (Glassware, context, lighting, etc.)
EW: I need good light, bright enough light that I can really see the wine; it needs to be quiet; with a professional tasting it’s really easy to blow through a ton of wines and not be paying attention. I taste wine in batches so I can go back and compare if I need to. I also think comparing is important because wine is sometimes affected by what comes before it. I also almost always taste wines at room temperature because any flaws in the wine will really show. It’s the most honest way to look at wine.
TG: What are your beliefs about tasting; about your own tasting?
EW: I think that I have a pretty unbiased palate; some people’s palates are more skewed to luxury wines vs. other people’s palates which can be more naïve. I’ve tasted so long as a buyer that I do tend to have that perspective. One of the things I have to do is find wines under $5 and that’s hard. But I don’t really think I’m a great blind taster; it’s something that I worked really hard at and focused on. It’s not something that comes inherently easy for me. Some people have really great palate memory and the ability to taste things and textures that I don’t get. But I can taste at a really high level. In the scheme of blind tasters out there, it’s not a talent that came easy to me but it’s something that I’m good at doing. I think I’m good at processing information quickly and categorizing it in my mind; visualizing through things. I learned pretty early on that I’m a visual learner with my tasting.
TG: What about the other parts of the exam?
EW: Service was easy for me because it’s what I did all the time. Theory was manageable because it was about taking all the information and making a system for memorizing the information. To memorize theory I made up a lot of acronyms. But then I also did what I’ve come learn as making memory palaces; taking names or places that didn’t really have any connection for me and then create a word association picture with it.
TG: What are your overall beliefs about wine?
EW: Wine is pleasurable, it’s enjoyable and it’s often social. It’s an artisanal thing but it’s also an industrial product; there’s a balance there and it doesn’t mean that one is necessarily better than the other.
TG: How is wine valuable to you, both personally and professionally?
EW: It’s a living, creative thing. Fine wine is like artwork that’s in a bottle and you don’t get to appreciate that artwork until you consume it. If you go to a big trade event like the Aspen Food and Wine Festival, watch the people with wine vs. spirits. There’s something about the way that people think about wine—they savor it. Most people take their time and get drawn into it. You don’t see that often with beer and spirits.
II. Tasting: Sight
TG: What are you trying to learn/accomplish when looking at a glass of wine?
EW: For quality. There are times when I’m looking at a Pinot Noir, for instance, and it’s purple. Then something’s wacky or not varietally correct because there could be something blended in like Syrah. So it’s not honest wine and they’re (winemaker) changing the wine from something that it should be.
TG: As you look at the color, how do you know if it’s varietally correct? How do you know that it’s the right color vs. other similar wines you’ve had in the past?
EW: If I know what the wine is I can compare it to similar wines I’ve had before; I have experience with what those wines look like. I’m picturing the range of colors for red wine starting on the left with pale colors for a delicate young red moving across and to the right as they get more intense in color. (Emily motions 12-15” in front of her about 12” high starting to her left at eye level the going left to right ending just to the right of her face. The more intense the color the farther right and closer to her face the color is. If it’s too intense for her it’s literally right in her face).
TG: What about wines that have age?
EW: If the wines are more orange in color with age then it moves off to the right and farther away.
TG: So there are two color spectrums? One for age and one for intensity of color? Do they start together and then branch out separately?
EW: Yes and yes.
TG: Do you do this with all wines? What about a white wine like Chardonnay?
EW: Yes. If it’s really yellow it’s right here close to me; if it’s a younger wine with more green it’s over here (to her left). If it’s golden and oxidized then it’s over here off to the right and further back.
TG: Do you literally take a look at the color of a wine and then compare it to the scales?
TG: What shape are these color scales?
EW: It’s like a strip.
TG: Do the colors change in a continuum or are they
EW: It’s like a continuum or series of pantone paint swatches lined up.
TG: Are the different colors segmented?
EW: They are segmented but it’s very subtle. Like tick marks, like paint strips with very thin lines.
TG: How does it work? Do you look at the color of the wine and then match it? Does the scale move? Something else move?
EW: The scale is fixed. I look at the wine and then compare it to the scale.
TG: How do you know you have it or have accomplished it?
EW: Happens pretty quickly for me. After I match the wine to the color on the scale I’m pretty much done.
TG: How do you actually observe wine?
EW: When I look at a glass of wine I almost always tip it away from me and roll the glass in my fingers. At the same time I’m looking at the color I’m also watching the viscosity and the staining because the wine is moving and reflecting light. I’m also looking down at the core and then at the rim for sediment for brightness, for clarity. All that’s happening pretty much at once.
III. Tasting: Nose
TG: What are you trying to learn and/or accomplish when smelling a wine?
EW: The grid is a pretty important framework to hang things on. My primary goal is to get a first impression. I believe that whatever that first impression is, is really important. If I’m starting to veer off I go back to that first impression because it’s something that can’t be ignored. The first impression can be a flaw or cherries or violets or smoke like a campfire. I ask, what can that be? Sometimes it can be really obvious like Shiraz. Sometimes not.
TG: When you say it’s obvious like the Shiraz, it’s because ...
EW: It’s because all those clues are lined up.
TG: What are the clues?
EW: I’ve already looked at it so the color’s there. But then there an almost painful intensity with really blue-black fruit, tar, mint and eucalyptus, herby and exotic; all those things.
TG: Are there any other goals in smelling the wine?
EW: Once I get that primary or first impression, I usually don’t say it out loud but if I’m blind tasting but hold it and then I try to go through the wine and find the fruit, earth and wood.
TG: Do you use the MS tasting grid?
EW: Yes, it’s huge and in black and white right in front of me (about 5 feet away, 2D, rectangular about chest height). It looks like an Excel document and has the all information from the grid on it. The first thing I do when approaching a wine is to get the first impression, to let the wine come to me. I stop and smell the wine. It’s more of a visceral experience and I try to get an idea of what’s the very first impression. But I’m not trying to make any decisions. I just want to be with the wine because sometimes I think we do so much work with the grid that we miss out on things. You can miss the soul of the wine.
TG: What does soul of the wine mean to you?
EW: It’s the part of the wine that speaks to me.
TG: So soul and first impression are the same thing?
TG: Now let’s find out how you smell wine.
EW: I smell wine twice. I first pick up the glass not disturbing it too much and take the most delicate gentle sniff and let the wine come in. To me it’s a whole different range of smells. Then I give it a swirl and smell again.
TG: What are you looking for in that first go round?
EW: The very delicate, sort of volatile aromas that disappear when you swirl the glass. Things like floral, volatile acidity and perfume things. Sometimes it’s hard to pull things out of a wine but when you pick up the glass like that you can get some delicate subtle aromas.
TG: Show me how you smell the wine. (Emily rests the glass under her nose on her upper lip. She holds the glass at about a 35 degree angle, head slightly down, torso very slightly down as well). When you first pick up a glass to smell the wine where do your eyes go?
EW: Straight out ahead and very slightly down.
TG: What’s happening then? Do you think about the grid?
TG: What’s going on?
EW: I smell roses and cherries. It’s almost like Tarot cards on a table.
TG: Cards? How do the cards appear? Where do they come from? So you smell something, ID it as “cherry” and then what happens?
EW: It’s almost like there’s a table in front of me and there are cards on the table that have things in the wine on them.
TG: Where do the cards from?
EW: I take them out of my back pocket.
TG: When you take the card out of your pocket do you look at it and ID it as
TG: So when you smell something you and ID it, how do you know it’s a “cherry” and not something else? This even before it becomes a card.
EW: I’m picturing big, luscious, almost stewed cherries right here (points chin level to the right about six inches away). There’s a cluster of cherries, they’re really ripe almost soppy.
TG: What does the image look like?
EW: It’s a cluster of cherries in 3D with realistic bright colors and texture.
TG: What happens to the cherries once you see them and ID them?
EW: I set them aside and they become an image on a card that goes on the table. With the first impression, whatever it is, the card is larger and I keep it on the table right in front of me.
TG: So you smell and then confirm with an image of the fruit or whatever; then the image becomes a 2D Tarot like card on the table in front of you.
TG: What’s the table like?
EW: It’s a dark wood conference-like table. When I taste the table is my whole world. I can’t see the other side. I’m in my own little bubble just putting these cards out in front of me. It’s funny because I’ve never
even done Tarot cards before. But that’s exactly how I picture it.
TG: So what else did you smell besides the cherries?
EW: Roses (she points to almost the same place where the image of
cherries was) and they’re almost to the point of almost being tossed out.
TG: Just curious, where are the cherries now?
EW: They’re both together but the roses are closer to me. They’re the same color as the cherries (deep but almost faded Burgundy).
TG: So what happens to the roses then?
EW: They become a card and go on the table.
TG: How big are the cards on the table?
EW: About the same size as playing cards although the primary, first impression card is larger and it’s right in front of me. The others not so close so I’m always having to refer back to them. But if there’s an important clue about a wine the card could become bigger and closer to me. If I’m looking at a white wine that’s copper colored then it’s an important clue and would be a bigger card. It’s almost as if the sight’s here, the nose is here and palate’s here (she motions in front of her left to right, table level, sight to the left, nose directly in front and palate to the right).
TG: With all these cards, are there different places for fruit vs. earth vs.
EW: Not at all. It’s more about what are the most important clues. The more important they are the closer they are to me.
TG: This is a pretty cool system. How do you use the grid with it? The
grid that you showed me a few minutes ago was right out in front of you about chest-high and was like an Excel grid with all the information on it.
EW: Yes, it’s right here (motions out in front of her about two feet) and I’m going through it checking off things that might be in the wine.
TG: So what happens there? You’re seeing something that might be on the grid and then what?
EW: Rather than checking something off it becomes a visual clue.
TG: So you’re going down the grid checking things off and then an image is generated?
EW: I’m looking at the section of the grid on wood and now images of oak aromas are coming up and then they become cards and go down here (points to the “table”).
TG: It also seems like the images of wood are slightly to the right of
TG: For this wine what representation of wood do you see?
EW: I’m looking for sweet things like sweet spices in ice cream or am I getting baking spice things like clove. Or is there a subtle textural thing.
TG: Are you pulling something out of the glass and then comparing to something you’ve smell before, or do you see all of those things first and then choose?
EW: It’s a scale just like the colors; from gently oxidative all the way to screaming oak.
TG: What does that scale look like? Is it colors? Images?
EW: I guess it’s kind of images. For gently oxidative I think of dried apples.
TG: Where is that? (Points over to the left about 2-3 feet from center) What’s over on this end?
EW: On this end it’s my primary impression and I almost can’t shake it. The scale starts here (motions to the left, in front about two feet left of center) and goes over here (scale ends really close to the right side of her face).
TG: What’s over here next to your face?
EW: It’s something so sweet like vanilla and sweet spices. It’s not necessarily images but something so sweet like you’re walking through the cologne department of a store and people are spraying things on you.
While over here I really have to reach for it.
TG: That’s great but again I’m trying to get the recipe or sequence for what you do. You put your nose in the glass and smell the wine. Then you have the Excel grid in front of you and have these continuums. Do you use them for everything? Do you use the same thing for earth and mineral?
EW: No, it’s different. With fruit I have buckets of different kinds of fruit I’m reaching into. Is it red fruit or black fruit or blue fruit or dried fruit? (Points to different locations out in front of her, eye level, left to right starting with red fruit).
TG: When you say buckets of fruit are there literally buckets?
EW: No they’re almost like giant fruit bowls with real fruits in them (both 3D). So I identify the kind of fruit in the bucket and then ask what quality is the fruit. Is it fresh? Is it dry? Is it sweet? Is it sour?
TG: So you pull the fruit out of the bucket and then look at it to see if it’s dry, fresh, sour etc.? Then once you’re done with it it becomes a card that goes on the table? If it’s really important is the card is larger and closer to
you? If it’s everything else is there an arrangement to it?
EW: Not really. It’s more like the important things are closer to me; the things that are screaming are very close and that first impression is always the biggest card.
TG: Do the other cards vary in size?
EW: No, it’s just in terms of how close or how far they are from me.
TG: What about earth? What do you do with earth?
EW: With earth I smell the wine and ask if it’s there and then if it’s organic or not. (Eye position is in front and down table top level).
TG: You looked here and here for organic and inorganic. What are you looking at?
EW: It’s almost like there are two buckets--a bucket full of rocks and a bucket full of soil and mushrooms.
TG: What do these buckets look like?
EW: These are more like a bucket with a handle on it.
TG: And the fruit is in a bowl?
EW: Yes the fruits are in a bowl up here (points to just below eye level out in front) while the buckets for earth and mineral are down here (table or waist level).
TG: So you ID something, define its quality and then as soon as you’re done with it, it becomes a card on goes on the table.
EW: Especially if it’s important. It might not be important.
TG: So how do you know if it’s important? Better question, how do you know if it’s not important?
EW: Sometimes if it’s a neutral white wine and has citrus, the citrus doesn’t tell me anything.
TG: Got it. But behind this there’s a lot of theory and experience to back it up.
TG: I have to ask if you had any idea that you did all this?
EW: I knew I did the Tarot card thing but not the rest of it.
TG: So to summarize: you start by putting your nose in the glass and then you look out in front here. It seems like most of your eye positions are right out here in front. But right here (out in front, straight ahead and slightly down) seems like your comfortable starting point. Does that seem right?
TG: From there you’re looking for the first impression, whatever is strongest aroma. If it’s fruit it’s in the bowls out in front here, if it’s earth it’s in the buckets here or here. What about herbs and other non-fruit things? Where are they?
EW: They fall in that same kind of middle tier out here (points directly out front, chest level and left to right). It’s almost like reaching out to find what else is there.
TG: Where are the herbs?
EW: The herbs are in bunches. And I’m also asking what kind of herbs as in fresh herbs or dried herbs etc.
TG: So literally right out in front of you, chest level, with herbs left of center in bunches and then going toward center.
TG: To finish your sequence: you put your nose in the glass your eyes go out in front and slightly down. Then if fruit is the first impression you go with the system of bowls choose what it is and then grab it. From there you hold it, look at it and then assign a quality to it; then that becomes a card that goes on the table.
EW: That’s right.
TG: So how do you know when you’re done?
EW: Because I’ve gone through the entire grid. I’ve got my first impression and then I check off all the boxes on my Excel sheet.
TG: It also seems like that once you ID something you pull it out and compare it against the grid as well.
EW: Right. I check it against all the boxes.
TG: When you say you check all the boxes do you actually put marks on the sheet?
TG: To finish up let’s talk about submodalities and the image of cherries.
What happens if you make the image larger as in really large? Does the intensity of the aromas of the fruit get stronger? Less strong?
EW: If I make it larger it becomes singular, blocking out all other smells.
TG: What happens if you make the image smaller? Stronger intensity or less strong?
EW: By making the image smaller it’s less intense, almost like it's set aside.
TG: What happens if you push the image far away? Stronger intensity or less strong?
EW: Much less strong or intense; it’s what has to happen to move on to the next aroma.
TG: What happens if you make the image of the fruit black and white? Stronger intensity or less strong?
EW: It becomes much less intense. The color is very much a part of the aroma.
TG: What happens if you make the image 2 D instead of 3 D? Stronger intensity or less strong?
EW: Much less strong. This is what I describe when I say the 3D
image becomes like a playing card. It is cataloged but set aside.
TG: What happens if you change the location of the image? Say put it way up or way down? Stronger intensity or less strong?
EW: It becomes less strong. It's strongest when it is right in front of my eyes.
TG: In summary, Emily’s driver submodalities are size, proximity, color vs. black and white and location. Changing any of those in an image changes the experience and sometimes dramatically.
IV Tasting: Palate
TG: So now you have a really good idea of what the wine is about.
What are your goals when actually tasting the wine? What are you trying to
EW: To confirm the checked off things on my Excel sheet next to me but then I’m also going through this physical visceral kind of experience with the wine.
TG: What does that mean?
EW: Is it mouthwatering; is it appealing? Is it bitter? Is it the right temperature?
TG: We’ll get to the structure in a bit but in the meantime what are your goals as a taster in terms of what you’ve tasted vs. the cards on the table?
EW: I’m referring back to the cards on the table, reviewing and asking; does this taste like cherry? Like roses? But now I’m noticing that the fruit is more macerated.
TG: So what you’re doing is pointing to all the cards on the table from smelling the wine. If there’s something extra what happens? Is it the same process where you reach for something and then it becomes another card?
EW: No, when I taste I’m looking at the cards and reviewing them. If there’s something new then it’s almost like it’s right in front of my face.
TG: You mean an image right in front of you?
EW: Yes but it’s like a card because I’m not reaching for it. I’ve already done that but I’ve missed whatever the new thing is.
TG: After it pops up where does it go? Is there a specific position for it?
EW: It goes on the table in the palate position to the right. If it’s something subtle then it will go further away from me. But if it’s something screaming then it will be closer and I’ll say, "wow, how did I miss that much tar in the wine?" Or something like noticing that the quality of the fruit is different from what I was smelling.
TG: Do the images on the cards change or do you get different cards?
EW: If I’m tasting a wine and the fruit is much richer or brighter than it was on the nose then the image on the card actually gets brighter too. If it’s a wine where I’m reaching for it and can’t I really get anything out of the nose sometimes I’ll taste something new and it can solidify the wine.
TG: Go ahead and taste the wine. I’m interested in the sequence of where your eyes go. I notice that when you taste your eyes go down here (down and straight ahead). Are you looking at cards?
EW: I’m looking at the other edge of the table. When I taste my whole world is right out here (motions to the “table”).
TG: Are you looking at anything in particular?
EW: No, just trying to let an impression come to me.
TG: So you look out to the other edge of the table and let the whole process start?
TG: Now for structure. How do you know how much acid, alcohol or tannin is in the wine? How do you quantify those things? Let’s talk about acidity, for instance.
EW: I’m paying attention to how tart the wine is on my tongue, how much I’m salivating—a combination of the two.
TG: Got that. But how do you calibrate just how much acidity is in the wine as in the difference between medium-plus and high acid? How do you know?
EW: There’s a scale I see; it’s really small.
TG: So there’s some kind of visual confirmation? You put both hands out in front of you about a foot apart. What does the scale look like?
EW: Yes but’s it’s smaller because I’m only looking at medium to high.
TG: What does the scale look like?
EW: It’s a ruler.
TG: A ruler with gradations? Over here to the left for low and over to the right for high?
TG: What color is it?
EW: It’s yellow and the color for medium over to low is almost faded out; the color from medium to high is much deeper and brighter.
TG: Is there any marker on it that moves so you can calibrate? Or do you just point to a mark on it?
EW: There’s a motion; I point to it.
TG: What about alcohol? How do you calibrate it?
EW: Alcohol is more visceral in some way; there’s an intensity to the wine overall.
TG: But how do you measure it?
EW: There’s the same kind of ruler only it’s broader because it goes from low to high. It also doesn’t have tick marks on it. There’s almost like a bubble on it like a construction level that shifts. I have to watch it a lot closer because alcohol can be kind of nebulous for me sometimes.
TG: Is it the same color as the acid ruler?
EW: No, it’s kind of an aquamarine blue like a swimming pool.
TG: What about tannin?
EW: Tannin is kind of a wooly thing; it’s a textural thing. It’s almost like a piece of wool that’s stretched out and thin at one end and much thicker and larger at the other.
TG: I also notice that you’re going through the scale with your hand. Is that something you have to feel?
EW: It’s a textural thing: how much is it and what texture is
it. Is it gritty? Is it silky? Where is it on the scale and how much.
TG: So it’s a combination of not only the amount but also the
EW: Right. As I’m tasting it’s almost like I’m taking a piece of Brillo pad and rubbing it against my fingers.
TG: So if it’s a Brillo pad it’s probably a wine that’s pretty tannic and
astringent. What about a wine that’s smooth?
EW: Sometimes it’s like wet velvet.
TG: So it’s like you have your right arm out in front of you and you’ve moving it from left to right and feeling the texture of the wool.
TG: What about the finish? How do you calibrate that?
EW: I like the finish because I get a lot of subtle clues out of it (Her eyes move slightly up and look out over the table).
TG: I noticed that your eyes moved here (points to the location). What’s there?
EW: I guess it’s almost like I’m trying to taste the wine through my sinuses or something. I’m exhaling the finish.
TG: Like retro-nasal breathing?
EW: Yes. I’m doing that and asking, “What’s there?”
TG: OK but twice you’ve literally looked right up here, slightly above eye level, out and straight ahead. What’s up there?
EW: I’m looking for anything that I haven’t seen in the wine.
TG: The components of the wine?
EW: Yes. Sometimes I find something on the finish like, “that’s American
TG: Would that then become a card?
TG: Getting back to the finish. How do you know how long the finish is?
How do you calibrate it? Is it another scale?
EW: Yes, it’s a kind of a scale that goes out in front of me. It’s almost like a road that goes out to the horizon. I’m looking to see how far down the road I can see.
TG: When you taste and look down the road at the finish does anything move?
EW: No, it’s almost like how far away is the horizon.
TG: How do you know when you’re finished tasting the wine?
EW: I’ve gone through the process with all my cards and then I sit there and do a quick see, smell and taste through of the wine to see if I’ve missed anything. From there I ask what makes sense about the wine. I obviously already have a general idea about the wine sitting in my head.
TG: Do you use the cards on the table to match to a specific wine? How would you match the cards to this Pinot Noir we’re tasting?
EW: No, it’s like I have a Pinot Noir card in my hand (holds her left hand out in front of her) and ask if the cards on the table match the list of things on the Pinot card.
TG: So you look at the list of things on your Pinot Noir card and compare it to the cards on the table? If enough of them match then you internally say yes, this is Pinot Noir?
TG: What happens if the Pinot card doesn’t match?
EW: Then I might set the Pinot card aside and consider other cards. But I always have my first impression card and that’s really important for the
TG: What does the Pinot Noir card look like? Is it just a list of the markers for the grape?
EW: It’s a card with a Burgundy-colored border and the center is white with the list of Pinot things typed out—sight, smell and palate. It’s literally a check list for Pinot Noir.
TG: Is it playing card size?
TG: So if it’s not Pinot Noir you pull out another card that the wine could be?
EW: Yes, at that point I have a really good idea of the cards I want to bring out to look at to consider for the wine.
TG: Where do the cards come from?
EW: (Pauses and smiles) From my back pocket! Then I think that I have Pinot or Gamay or something like that and ask, “Which of these match?” I’m thinking varietal as well as wine. Is it Burgundy? Is it new world?
TG: In terms of Pinot Noir are there different cards for Central Otago and Carneros?
EW: They all have their own cards. It’s almost like Pinot Noir has a card but Pinot Noir from Beaune has its own card too.
TG: How do all these Pinot cards show up?
EW: It’s almost like a family of cards, the Pinot cards, and that set has a Burgundy border. If it’s the Malbec/Syrah cards they have a dark purple border. It’s a family of cards.
TG: So it has to do with color.
TG: If it’s white wine does it have to do with the color as well?
EW: Not necessarily but wines that are grassy and herbal have a green color. Aromatic wines might have a pink border since they are so distinctive and floral.
TG: How do you know you’re finished tasting the wine?
EW: I say this is the card that matches, that feels right. Then I put the card right in front of the wine and move on to the next glass. When I’m done with all the wines I’ll go back and look at all the cards to make sure.
TG: What about age and being able to assign a vintage to a wine?
EW: To me that’s like theory. It’s about knowing what happened in a particular place and how youthful the wine is and then matching the two together and asking if it makes sense. It’s combining the sensory thing of feeling the age of the wine with knowing about the year.
“Music has Charms to Soothe a Savage Breast”
Music has been called the universal language. It’s the aspect of our culture that arguably moves us more than anything else--other than sex. Mankind
cherishes and values music so much that snippets of several of western civilization’s musical highlights including the song “Johnny B. Goode” and the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony were sent into space along with the two Voyager probes in 1977 in the hopes of ultimately reaching extraterrestrial life and demonstrating that we as a race are intelligent. Ahem.
But what happens when music goes wrong? Sure there’s plenty of what can generally be considered bad music and much of it from the 1970’s--which by the way was my formative decade. Catch a mere smidge of any of these truly bad songs and you may be stuck with it for the rest of your day and auditorily maimed, so to speak. Yes even a mere five second exposure to the likes of “MacArthur Park,” “Take a letter Maria,” “Honey” or “Muskrat Love” is enough to stun the naked mind. I apologize for even bringing up these cursed tunes and hope you will read on.
But beyond simply bad music like the songs listed above there are other times when musical mismatching of monumental proportions takes place; where the performers, the performance, the music and/or the context is so epically wrong as to defy all logic much less lofty imagination. These are special musical moments indeed and here are three of my favorites. Read on, listen and enjoy.
Exhibit A: The Leningrad Cowboys Play “Sweet Home Alabama” with the Russian Army Chorus
It’s doubtful that you’ve heard of the subject of our first sonic implosion. If by some chance you have then you know that the Leningrad Cowboys were and still are a Finnish band known for their exaggerated hairstyles and costumes. The Cowboys are further known for performing a wide range of popular '70's and '80’s covers not to mention some very slick polka tunes. Beyond that the band also has a cult following for their filmed concerts, in particular the “Total Balalaika Show” first released in 1994. The film is of a 1993 performance of the group in Helsinki accompanied by the 160 member Russian Alexandrov ensemble and chorus. The highlight of said concert even above an inspiring rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” has to be Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 ode to southern rock, “Sweet Home Alabama.” Know that the Cowboys are a pretty decent cover band that manage to do justice to anything they play. But the combination of remarkably outlandish hair/outfits with the minions of straight-laced Russian lads in staid brown uniforms belting out “Sweet Home Alabama” is impossible to describe. It
must be experienced: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKD7g56DNN0
Exhibit B: Lawrence Welk and “One Toke over the Line”
Even in my naïve youth I could sense an incredible rift in TV reality played out weekly on early Saturday evenings on our local Albuquerque ABC affiliate. Precisely at the 7:00 hour just before the listening audience was about to go face down in their TV dinners due to a combination of starch, fat and various medications, conductor and accordion player extraordinaire Lawrence Welk and his band of renown offered up 60 minutes of what can only be called well-scrubbed sonic dry wall. Each and every week Larry and the band would offer up bits of perky tunes so removed from musical reality that their source had to be a portal into some bizarre alien universe or the result of a cruel government anti-youth plot.
Likewise I’m sure that Larry struggled with all the music/noise born in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, when musicians began to plug their instruments into wall sockets and play louder than proverbial hell (This not to mention the long hair, the outlandish clothes and the steaming morass that defined the morality of the times). But every now and again Welk and his band would bravely foray into the murky waters of rock and roll and always with mixed results at best. The finest example surely must be their 1971 rendition of Brewer and Shipley's ode to marijuana and excess entitled, “One Toke over the Line.” It’s a song I remember from high school; a song that’s definitely forgettable unless of course you tried to embody the spirit of its lyrics in which case remembering anything other than your name became major sport not to mention the power-eating of junk food.
But did Lawrence and company realize what the song was about especially with Welk himself calling it a “modern spiritual”? And did bashful Dick Dale and perky Gail Farrell really get what being “one toke over the line sweet Jesus” meant? Probably not but then we are the benefactors, yea the grateful recipients, of this momentous occasion in the history of musical short circuitry. Watch, listen and enjoy!http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8tdmaEhMHE
Exhibit C: the Portsmouth Sinfonia Performs “Also Sprach Zarathustra”
By now the initial bars of Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” aka the opening theme to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, is one of the most ubiquitous pieces of classical music known to man. It’s right up there with the Blue Danube waltz and the Taco Bell canon. You might assume that a piece such as Also Sprach which is scored in C Major with a lot of open chords, a simple melody and tympani (kettle drums) going boom boom boom might be a piece of cake to play. After all, how hard could it be? You would be wrong. The very fact that so many different instruments in the orchestra are all playing the same pitches and the same chords at the same time lives and breathes disaster for ensembles at practically every level of expertise. Just ask the principal trumpet player who has to end the opening segment by blowing his or her brains out on a high “C.” Lovely.
Enter the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra founded in 1970 by a group of students at the Portsmouth School of Art in the U.K.
The only entrance requirement for the orchestra was that players either had to be non-musicians or if they were musicians they must play an instrument that was completely new to them. The ensemble started off as a lark but soon gained notoriety with concert
appearances and a film. They eventually attracted the attention of musician Brian Eno who produced two albums with the group. Even though the orchestra disbanded in 1979 their recording of Also Sprach is legendary. So without further ado I give you a performance for the ages:
“The future seems bright.”
“I just can’t get any distance from it.”
“He’s blowing it all out of proportion.”
“My mind went blank.”
Sound familiar? Odds are you’ve probably heard all of them at some point as they’re commonly used sayings. But they may be a lot more than just catch phrases casually tossed into conversation. In the 1970’s a group headed by Richard Bandler at U.C. Santa Cruz were working with student subjects trying to find patterns that would connect eye movements to various memory functions; patterns which would later come to be called eye accessing cues or lateral and vertical eye movements in psychology speak. But what Bandler and his colleagues also realized during their study was that some of the answers given by students like the ones above were more than mere allegories—they were in fact literal descriptions of what the subject was experiencing inside their head at the time. So the person who couldn’t get any distance from their problem actually had a large image in their mind’s eye that was too close for comfort. Likewise someone whose mind “went blank” literally saw a blank white screen instead of being able to bring up with the image of the desired memory.
Consider for a moment that our connection to the physical universe is our five senses: seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting. These are called modalities after “moda,” the Greek term for senses. Internally we also use our five senses, our inner modalities, to organize our experiences. But those inner modalities further have structural qualities or “submodalities” as noted by Bandler and colleagues. Sight alone has dozens of submodalities including size, proximity, location, brightness, depth and more. Here’s a partial list of some of the most common submodalities:
Black & white or color*
Proximity: near or far*
Size of the image*
Three dimensional or flat image*
Focused or defocused
Framed or unframed
Movie or still image
Volume: loud or soft
Distance: near or far
Internal or external
Stereo or mono
Fast or slow
Pitch: high or low
Verbal or tonal
Intensity: strong or weak
Area: large or small
Weight: heavy or light
Texture: smooth, rough or other
Constant or intermittent
Temperature: hot or cold
Another thing Bandler and company discovered was that changing any one of a handful of visual submodalities completely altered the experience and any feelings connected to the experience for the subject in question. These became known as “driver” submodalities and they include size, proximity, brightness and dimensionality to name a few (I’ve noted the driver submodalities for visual listed above with an asterisk). I have to note that all the tasters I’ve worked with in my project have driver submodalities. For Emily Wines MS, increasing the size and proximity of the images she perceived of the aromas in a given wine increased the intensity of her experience. Decreasing the size of her images or pushing them away did the opposite—it decreased her experience of the specific aroma but also increased the intensity of the other aromas in the wine. For Doug Frost MS MW, changing any of the major submodalities made the entire experience unreal and he couldn’t hold focus on the wine. For me personally changing the size, proximity, color vs. black and white or making the image two dimensional instead of three dimensional all change my experience of a single aromatic component—and the wine—completely.
Your First Submodality Exercise
This is an exercise in finding out how your brain works; literally discovering how your brain codes external experience. For this first exercise we’ll limit it to just visual submodalities. The only thing you’ll need for this exercise is a pleasant memory like the beautiful sunset pictured above. So go back to a time when you experienced a gorgeous sunset. Once you’ve got the memory so that you feel like you’re really there make the suggested changes below. Rule: only change ONE thing at a time. If you change more than one you’ll likely to completely muddle the experience. After you make each single change remember to RESET your memory to the original before going to the next. As you make each change pay close attention to how the change affects the intensity and quality of your feelings toward the memory of the sunset. Remember to only change ONE thing at a time and reset it before going to the next. Have fun! Go!
1. Color: change the intensity of the color in your image from intense, bright colors to black and white.
2. Depth: change the image from a flat picture to three dimensional image with lots of depth.
3. Distance: move the image from very close to very far away.
4. Duration: from an instantaneous fleeting image to an image that stays a long time
5. Clarity: change the image from crystal clear to blurred.
6. Border: change the image from having a solid border to have fuzzy edges all around.
7. Movement: change the image from a still image to a movie with movement.
8. Colors: change the image and increase the intensity of the reds and decrease the intensity of the blues and greens.
9. Aspect: make the image tall and narrow then short and wide.
10. Orientation: change the image by tilting it away from you and then toward you.
Which of the preceding changes altered your experience the most? For some people changing the distance, proximity, brightness or dimensionality (2D vs. 3D) completely changes the intensity of the feelings connected to the memory. Did you find your driver submodalities? Chances are it was pretty easy to do. Now for more fun.
Your Second Submodality Exercise
In the first exercise we took one memory/image and played with changing major visual submodalities one by one to get an idea of how profound the changes can be. In this second exercise we’ll take two memories and map the differences between them. We’ll use food as the topic so the first thing you’ll need to do is pick your favorite food, something that makes you swoon at the very thought of it. Easy for me: good bittersweet chocolate or chocolate truffles. So bring up a great memory of your favorite food, be it chocolate or whatever. Now choose your least favorite food, something you will absolutely NOT eat under any circumstances. If for any reason you don’t have one choose something that you really would rather not eat. For me this is easy once again; my least favorite food is calves liver. Can’t stand it and absolutely won’t eat it (Long story here having to do with a tragic childhood experience).
Now that you have your two foods in mind focus on your favorite. Where is the image of your favorite food located? Is it a life size memory? Is it in color? Is there movement? Sound? How bright are the colors? Is it 2D or 3D? Really be thorough in investigating the structure of your memory. Note all the different elements and write them down if you need to. Next think about your least favorite food and do the same; note the location of the image, if it’s a movie, the size, distance, color, brightness and many other things. Note and write them down if you need to.
Now compare the two different foods in terms of how you represent them internally. Are the images in different locations? Different sizes? Is one image closer than the other? Is one brighter than the other? Is one a still image still while the other is a movie? For the record I did quick inventory of both my choices. Chocolate was a large image front and center, 3d, about 4-5 feet away, life size, bright colors and lots of detail. The calves liver image was down on the floor to my left just out of eye sight; it was a dark image, very dull in terms of brightness and the colors were all faded greys and browns. It almost looked like a daguerreotype from the 19th century.
You get the picture--literally. Contrasting memories like this in terms of structure is called "contrastive analysis" and it has any number of different applications.
The only other part of this exercise I'd like you to do is this: for a moment try moving the unliked food over to the favorite food location and make all the structural components the same. Notice if you feel any different about the unliked food after doing so. Then put it back where it was. As the saying goes, let sleeping dogs lie and undesirable foods alone.
Submodalities and Language
One final and not so trivial thing about Bandler and company’s initial work with submodalities: during their work their group recognized that subjects often favored one particular sensory representational system (internal sense) over others in conversation. Some would use “sight” language vs. others who regularly chose auditory vs. still others who used kinesthetic language. Thus one person might say “I see what you mean” while another would say “that sounds good” while a third might say “that feels right.” While it may seem superficial at first Bandler's group went on to learn that matching language predicates generally led to good communication while mismatching predicates usually led to the opposite. Suffice to say that if you mismatch someone’s language predicates you will drive them absolutely crazy in a short period time. Further, it will be challenging to establish any kind of rapport or connection with them because you’re not in the same mental universe. However, match their conversational predicates and you’ll find yourself singing harmony with them in short order. Or something like that.
Tasting and Submodalities
How can we use submodalities in tasting wine? I thought you’d never ask.
The answer is in a multitude of different ways but in this post we’ll focus on improving olfactory memory. In the last post I wrote about working on one’s memory of the most common aromas in wine using what I called the “Basic Set.” If you did any work with the images you probably improved your memory, maybe even considerably. Kudos to you! Now we’ll combine the submodalities with image work. Here are some exercises to try:
a. Images, aromas and submodalities: bring up an image of lemons internally like the one above. Start to use the submodality changes listed above in terms of changing the size of the image, its location, the brightness, 2D vs. 3D, etc. Note how you can increase or decrease the intensity of your memory of what a lemon smells and tastes like.
b. Expand your repertoire: now isolate what different parts of the lemon smell like—the peel, pith, rind and the oil. Once again use images to increase or decrease the intensity of your memory of lemon and all its components.
c. Refine and calibrate: now that you’ve discovered your major driver submodality (Be it size, proximity, brightness or whatever—and there could be more than one), use it/them to decrease the intensity of your memory of lemon until you can barely detect it. Work on pushing your memory and perception until you can detect minute amounts of the lemon and any part of the lemon.
d. Quality of fruit: take your image/memory of lemon and change it from freshly sliced lemon to dried lemon to preserved lemon. Morph your images and adjust your memory of the lemon accordingly.
Now you should have a good first impression of how you can change your experience by altering submodalities and the possibilities as it’s easy to see are endless. While doing the exercises you probably realized—and very quickly—how important knowledge of submodalities is; how knowing about them and being able to change them consciously is like being given a keyboard to your brain along with a lot more control and choice about your experience and memories. I think submodalities could be the most profound thing I’ve ever learned. Nothing else comes close. Cheers!
The Beginner’s Dilemma: “But it just smells like wine …”
Sound familiar? I think this is an altogether common experience for most people just getting into wine. It was for me. I clearly remember going to my first professional tasting while in grad school studying music. As I stood
next to a vendor’s table with a southern French red in my glass I listened to
the two guys next to me extolling the virtues of the same wine in the form of baked earth, dried spice and leather notes. I immediately put my nose back into the glass and it smelled like … red wine. Period. I thought the two guys were completely full of it or hallucinating—or both.
It wasn’t until several months later during the holidays that I had my first wine epiphany. A good friend had given me a bottle of 1976 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet for Christmas dinner. The ‘76 vintage was one of several consecutive drought years in California and the wine was rich, powerful and quickly filled the room with blackberry jam and exotic spices once poured. I remember thinking, “this is what they’re talking about!” So what changed between experiences “A” and “B”? What was the key that made the difference between wine smelling like wine and wine smelling like other things? At the time it seemed completely mysterious and it wasn’t until decades later that I finally pieced together what had happened.
My experience points to one of the major wine disconnects I wrote about in the last post; that wine as a fermented beverage smells like a host of other things and that presupposes complexity which in turn results in intimidation on the part of the beginning taster. The answer to this conundrum may be as simple as perception and recognition in the form of olfactory and taste memory.
The good news is that practically everyone has all the hardware and software required to smell, taste and remember. We’ve been doing it and
arguably getting better at it (or not) since we were infants. In fact, we are more than capable of storing a complex taste memory fairly easily. Not convinced? Take a moment to consider exhibit “A,” the humble cheeseburger. If we take all seven taste sensations as in sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami (savory), kokumi (calcium) and fat into consideration, your garden variety cheeseburger can check off on all the categories except for bitter, unless of course you’ve burned the burger or are going très chic by adding radicchio to the toppings. Combine these with other variables such as temperature, texture and context (where, when, how and with whom you enjoyed said cheeseburger) and you have the makings (sorry for the pun) for a very complex smell and taste memory indeed.
But there still is a challenge for beginners with wine in the form of another major disconnect also mentioned in the last post: that most beginners enter the wine portal with the expectation that learning to taste is somehow different than learning anything else they’ve ever studied—most of which is visually based.
What’s missing then is the awareness that there is a key visual component to smell and taste memory, specifically that there’s an internal image connected to practically all smell and taste memories. I’ve written about the image-olfactory connection several times previously but suffice to say that all the professional tasters I’ve worked with on my project, without exception, use images in some form or another to identify aromas and flavors when they taste wine. Said images range from two-dimensional still photographs all the way to multi-sensory panoramic life-size movies. At this point I’ll go as far to say that if you can’t create an image for something smelled or tasted you can’t recognize it much less remember what it is.
Front Loading and the Basic Set
The challenge in teaching the beginning taster then becomes clear: to somehow bring awareness to the internal image olfactory/taste connection. What’s important to note here is that we’re not talking about actual smelling and tasting anything—we’re talking about memory function and therefore it’s possible to improve memory—and recognition--without an actually working with wine.
Over the past year I’ve worked with students using a technique called “Front Loading” combined with a subset of the most common wine aromas I’ve dubbed the “Basic Set.” Front Loading in effect is working backwards to improve memory of the most common components found in wine—without
using wine. The Basic Set is the 30 most common aromas and flavors found in a majority of all wines. I’ve found that using both in conjunction can bring awareness to the image-olfactory connection and ultimately improve tasting ability—in some cases considerably. Further, using Front Loading and the Basic Set helps to accomplish the following:
– Making strong image/olfactory connections
– Improving memory of Basic Set components
– Using multi-sensory memory to learn vs. visual memory
– Using contrast and olfactory memory as a tool for learning
Here are the components of the Basic Set, the two-dozen-plus aromas and flavors found in most wines. Keep in mind that the intent of the list is not to carve anything in stone but to merely serve as a vehicle for learning. Thus the list and its components can always be altered as needed.
Basic Set: Common Wine Aromas and Flavors
Green apple Red and/or Golden Delicious apple
Black cherry Blackberry
Sour red cherry Red raspberry
Mint/eucalyptus Bell pepper (pyrazines)
Herbs: rosemary Black/white pepper
Mushroom& forest floor Chalk
Exercise: Using the Basic Set
The complete instructions, modules and exercises for the Basic Set can be found at the two links listed at the end of this point. In the meantime, here are some brief exercises using some of the principles.
There are four sequential modules using the Basic Set:
• Module I: using words and images
• Module II: using images
• Module III: using words
• Module IV: using images and contrastive analysis
Part I: Using Images and Words
I've listed six images below, three fruit images and three non-fruit images. Take a look at the images and then do the following:
1. Look at the image and say the name of the fruit, etc. internally or out loud.
2. Recall a time when you smelled and/or tasted the given fruit, spice, etc.
3. In your mind’s “eye” reach out, pick up a slice of the fruit (etc.) and take a bite of it.
4. Make your experience of the fruit, spice or other component as complete and intense as possible down to the aromas, flavors and the texture and mouthfeel.
5. Intensify the experience of your memory by doing the following:
a. Make your images (or movie) larger
b. Make your images closer
c. Make the colors brighter
d. Make any sounds louder
e. Intensify any physical/tactile sensations
Part II: Rewind!
Now use your own memories to bring up the following aromas/flavors:
Important! Pay attention to the structure of your memories, specifically the location, proximity and size of your images/movies. Are they large, even life-size, in bright HD color and three-dimensional? If not, make them that way as it will improve your memory of them—sometimes dramatically. Changing the structure of your memories is literally altering the submodalities of your thinking—the topic of a post in the very near future. Part III: Contrastive Analysis
Contrastive analysis is my fancy-ass way of saying, “try to make something into something else.” In this case we’ll take your images of the aromas and or flavors depicted above and play with them. The results are at the very least surprising. Here are instructions:
1. Use your images/memories for the pairs of components listed below.
2. Try to make one image into the other.
3. What happens?
Example I: lemon into mushroom
Example II: lime into vanilla
Example III: orange into rose
What happens when you try to make one image into the other? Practically everyone I’ve done this exercise with (myself included) experienced something akin to placing polarized magnets near each other: the images literally fly apart and become separated usually by noticeable distance--and the two images land in very specific locations in your “mind’s eye.”
While this exercise may seem odd initially the same phenomenon will really come into play when one builds more complex “progressive” memories of specific grapes and wines. Then a wine like Alsace Riesling will occupy a specific location and proximity in one’s internal field making it more difficult to confuse for another grape or wine—even another Riesling. But I’m getting ahead of myself …
Parting thoughts on using the Basic Set:
• Repetition is key
: work with the images/words dozens of times until your memories become automatic.
• Remember the goal is to be able to bring up a memory of one of any of the components instantly, intensely--on command!
• Don’t limit your work to the Basic Set
: expand your repertoire to include as many other aromatics/flavors as you can.
• In time, start to put the components together in groups or
sequences to form markers for classic grape and wines.
A final question: can you install an aroma? The answer is yes you can. First, obtain some of whatever it is (white pepper, lentils, cucumber etc.) and smell and taste it repetitively (If tasting is appropriate!). After tasting close your eyes and generate a huge bright image of the component along with bringing up the smell and taste memory as intensely and completely as possible. Repetition, again, is the key and in some cases you may have to do it dozens of times. But with practice it will be there.Downloading the Basic Set
The complete exercises using the Basic Set can be found at slideshare.net. To download the two PDF’s use the following links:
Modules I& II: http://www.slideshare.net/tgaiser/basic-set-modules-i-and-ii-pdf
Modules III& IV: http://www.slideshare.net/tgaiser/basic-set-modules-iii-and-ii-pdf
Try using the basic set exercises and see what happens to your tasting. I will be curious to hear any and all feedback so please post any thoughts or comments.
Our work here is done …
Last week I was working with a corporate client leading a tasting for some 50 of their employees. The experience level in the group ranged from a few seasoned veterans to a larger group not much beyond the novice level. As I
asked them to examine a particular wine I was struck by how scattered they were in their approach to simply picking up the glass and smelling; specifically how many of them were looking all over the room as if seeking some kind of divine intervention to figure out what was in the glass. It then struck me how consistent my approach was to tasting wine and that this consistency is a vital part—no make that an absolute requirement--to becoming an experienced taster. It also made me think about some of the major challenges for a beginner and the fact that there are multiple major disconnects about wine. Here are a few of them along with some potentially effective strategies/solutions for beginning tasters.
Disconnect I: Wine is a liquid that smells and tastes like other things
Apple juice may smell and taste like apple juice and milk like milk but anything brewed, fermented or distilled smells like a host of things beyond the base material. Wine is no exception creating a lot of wonderful but intimidating complexity for the beginning taster.
Disconnect II: Wine has no inherent vocabulary
With wine we are left to use the language of seeing, hearing and feeling to describe what we smell and taste--as if the experience wasn’t already subjective enough. And isn’t all experience subjective?
Disconnect III: The expectation that learning how to taste wine is somehow different than learning about anything else.
This is perhaps the biggest disconnect of all. Most of the human race is visual-dominant when it comes to internal representational systems (A fancy-ass way of saying how we think). We perceive, learn and remember in still images and movies inside our “heads.” Learning about wine, odd as it may seem, is no different in that there’s a vitally important visual aspect to our experience of smelling and tasting that allows us to make sense out of what’s in the glass. For most this visual component is completely unconscious.
It’s All about Knowing How to Begin …
Beyond these major disconnects perhaps the biggest challenge for a
beginning/novice taster is knowing how to start; literally having a starting
routine of some kind. After watching the corporate group trying to sort through their flight of wines I came to conclusion that most beginners have no idea of how or where to start other than picking up the glass, sticking their nose into it and then pretending they look like they know what they’re doing. I’ve been there and remember it well.
With the strategic modeling work I’ve done over the last couple of years with MS and MW colleagues I’ve come to the conclusion that something all experienced tasters share—without exception—is a consistent starting routine that includes how we “address” the glass in terms of picking it up, putting it to our noses and--arguably even more important—what we do with our eyes when we initially start to smell a wine. It’s not unlike playing golf where having a consistent routine when sizing up a shot, addressing the ball and coming set before striking the ball is crucial to one’s consistency and ultimately one’s success in the game. Dealing with a glass of wine is no different. How one holds the glass, where it’s placed on or near the nose to be able to smell and how we actually smell the wine are all part of the routine. Further, where we look and what we say to ourselves is equally important in terms of consistency.
Establishing a Consistent Starting Routine
Developing one’s starting routine involves finding the right glassware stance, using the right starting eye position combined with an internal auditory prompt in one’s own voice. Here are the steps to getting one’s routine together:
I. Glassware Stance
Includes the following:
•Resting point: where the glass is placed
•Glass angle: finding the sweet spot
•Passive vs. active inhalation: smelling with the mouth closed or open
Step one: finding the resting point. I remember George Riedel demonstrating how to smell wine to a group by saying to place the glass on your upper lip and then slowly (emphasis on slowly) start to angle the glass up until you can really smell the wine. Somewhere between 25 and 40° you’ll find your sweet spot. Mark it and remember it—it’s the beginning of your “zone.”
As you start to angle the glass slowly upwards be aware of what happens to your torso/upper body, head and eyes—all of the above move downwards. That’s important.
Step two: passive vs. active inhalation: most of the human race smells wine with just their nose—as in with their mouth closed. I call this “passive” inhalation. But there is a small percentage of us, myself included, who smell wine with their mouth slightly open. The beginner needs to find this one out quickly because there might be the odd chance that he or she may be able smell dramatically better by simply opening their mouth--as in "active" inhalation. I’ve written previously about my epiphany during a Cognac master class. For me the simple act of opening my mouth was literally the difference between being able to detect single components in the glass, much less to be able to smell at all.
To do a quick check try pulling the glass away from your face by at least half an inch. Open your mouth about a quarter of an inch and breathe in gently through your mouth and nose at the same time (Remember to breathe out too!). Can you smell more? Less? Is it impossible to do? Make note if it works better and remember to use it--especially with high alcohol wines (as in fortified) or spirits.
II. Finding a Consistent Starting Eye Position
I’ve written about the importance of eye positions in tasting previously and by now I’m convinced that one simply cannot become an experienced taster unless one uses a consistent starting eye position as well as other consistent eye patterns when smelling and tasting. The reasons have to do with eye accessing cues and memory function. The importance of using a consistent starting eye position includes:
•Using a consistent start eye position is a vital part of having a tasting routine; it literally is the mental trigger that starts the smelling and tasting sequence.
•Focus: being able to shut the world out. The eyes going to a specific
location signals the brain to focus on the task at hand (which in this case is smelling and/or tasting the wine) as completely as possible and to delete/ignore the avalanche of other sensory data available at the moment. Being able to concentrate — ferociously—is key to becoming a good taster. Fellow Master and outstanding taster Roland Micu described his experience to me as literally “attacking the wine.” I wouldn’t go that far but I would say that when I pick up a glass and my eyes go down and to the left my focus becomes like a funnel, shutting everything else out as much as possible. I’ve heard this kind of focus described as an altered state. I’m not going to argue with that description.
Exercise: finding your starting eye position
As you pick up the glass and start smelling the wine do the following:
• Start by looking down in front and/or to the left/right
•As you smell the wine move your eyes side to side slowly
•Use your free hand to point EXACTLY where your eyes are looking
•Find your zone - the place that feels the most comfortable WHILE you talk to yourself
•Use “SOFT” eyes!
•Repetition: practice going to your spot multiple times
•Keep smelling the wine when you’re moving your eyes!
Two important points:
First, it’s important to note that there is no right or correct way of doing this. Everyone’s starting eye position/location is unique. Most people find their zone down center or down left. Others find it down and to the right. A very small group of tasters I’ve worked with don’t look down when smelling and instead look out at horizon level. Again, whatever place feels best for you and allows you to focus and concentrate is your very own unique eye position. Find it and use it consistently. You’ll be glad you did.
Second, remember this is the starting point we’re talking about and your eyes will go to other locations quickly to access different memory functions needed as you explore the wine. To repeat, your eyes will NOT stay in the starting position throughout the smelling/tasting sequence. To
do so would feel … well, really odd.
III.Use of an Auditory Prompt
Without exception, all the Masters I worked with prompt the smelling and tasting sequence with an internal auditory phrase in their own voice. Here are some of the phrases used:
• “What’s there?”
•“What am I smelling?”
•“What’s in the glass?”
•“What kind of fruit (etc.) is it?”
•“What is this on the end of my fork?” (Just kidding)
Now we can begin …
With knowledge of glassware stance, starting eye position and auditory prompt the beginning taster is now set up and ready to go. But what’s next? How to figure out what the wine smells and tastes like? This goes back to one of the disconnects mentioned above, specifically the one about wine being a liquid that smells and tastes like other things. The bad news is that being a good taster requires a lot of experience, i.e., tasting a lot of wines over a prolonged duration of time and in doing so developing a highly acute memory of different smells and tastes. The good news is that everyone without exception possesses all the hardware and software needed to do just that. But how to start? That’s the question and my
solution is a concept called “Front Loading” using what I call the “Basic Set.” We’ll cover it in the next post. Until then, à votre santé!
Recently there’s been much discussion and lively debate in the Master Sommelier community about the term “viscosity” as it’s used to describe
the appearance of wine as it moves in the glass. Some feel the term is incorrectly used even to the extent that it should be wiped completely from the wine lexicon. Mind you our intention in using the term has always been to help students assess the potential alcohol level and/or the presence of residual sugar in a given wine and to also help describe a wine to a guest at the table. The concept behind our usage of the term is a wine with high alcohol and/or the presence of residual sugar such as a young vintage port will display thick, slowly moving tears/legs in the glass and thus have high viscosity. A wine at the other end of the alcohol/residual sugar spectrum such as young Mosel Kabinett Riesling will do the opposite and simply sheet down the sides of the glass without forming any tears/legs whatsoever, thus offering low viscosity. So far so good. But the naysayers in our community
point out that according to a more strict scientific definition the term
viscosity does not and should not apply.
At this point I’m tempted to roll my eyes and say, “really?” But given the pedigree and innate brilliance of my colleagues I’m willing to at least explore the definition of the term and even entertain a possible alternative. With
that, Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia and fountain of all truth and deep knowledge, defines viscosity by saying:
“The viscosity of a fluid is a measure of its resistance to gradual deformation by shear stress or tensile stress” (I’m thinking of sheep, occupational hazards and Prozac here). “For liquids, it corresponds to the informal notion of "thickness. For example, honey has a higher viscosity than water.”
Wikipedia further states that, “viscosity is due to friction between neighboring parcels of the fluid that are moving at different velocities.”
(Frat party, anyone?) “When fluid is forced through a tube, the fluid generally moves faster near the axis and very slowly near the walls, therefore some stress (such as a pressure difference between the two ends of the tube) is needed to overcome the friction between layers and keep the fluid moving.” (I’m thinking of competitive eating contests here). “For the same velocity pattern, the stress required is proportional to the fluid's viscosity. A liquid's viscosity depends on the size and shape of its particles and the attractions between the particles.”
II. Surface Tension
After reading the above slowly and out loud (multiple times) I’m not convinced it contradicts our use of the term viscosity. But I also have to confess that several years ago when conducting a tasting seminar in Santa Fe I was corrected on my use of the term by a nuclear engineer from the Los Alamos labs. Said scientist referred to the phenomenon as “surface tension.” I’m quite positive he was (and still is) smarter than me so I once again turned to the uber-venerated Wikipedia for enlightenment. The following definition was provided:
“Surface tension is a contractive tendency of the surface of a liquid that allows it to resist an external force.” (Water beds, anyone?) “It is revealed, for example, in the floating of some objects on the surface of water, even though they are denser than water, and in the ability of some insects (e.g. water striders) to run on the water surface. This property is caused by cohesion of similar molecules, and is responsible for many of the behaviors of liquids.” (As we don’t regularly invite denizens of the insect world into our glasses during tastings I think we may be off the hook here).
“Surface tension has the dimension of force per unit length, or of energy per unit area.” (My high school physics background is crumbling here so I’m just going to go with it.) “The two are equivalent—but when referring to energy per unit of area, people use the term surface energy--which is a more general term in the sense that it applies also to solids and not just liquids. In materials science, surface tension is used for either surface stress or surface free energy.”
At first glance I felt a strong need for a pie chart or some kind of visual aid here but reading the phrase, “surface tension is used for either surface stress or surface free energy” gave rise to vivid images of teenage angst and thus greater understanding.
But I still wasn’t convinced we had to dump “viscosity” as a meaningful term used to teach students about the physical properties of wine in the glass. That was until a third—and fourth—possible term was suggested by a fellow Master in the form of “flow inhibition” and “flow impedance.” These two phrases were uttered during a conversation with the utmost seriousness and complete conviction. Immediately visions of an impending trip to a urologist danced in my head. But rest assured dear reader that I resisted all urges to snort, guffaw or allow various bodily functions to seize the moment in response.
After that I almost allowed myself to pretend to feel a sort of catharsis over something I had been teaching for the better part of the last 20 years. Was I wrong? Have we all been wrong? In that moment of darkness fellow Master and friend Steve Morey appeared with perhaps the most compelling piece of information of all. It’s called the “Marangoni effect.”
III. The Marangoni Effect
Wikipedia relates the following: “The Marangoni effect (also called the Gibbs–Marangoni effect) is the mass transfer along an interface between two fluids due to surface tension gradient. In the case of temperature dependence, this phenomenon may be called thermo-capillary convection (or Bénard–Marangoni convection).
OK so we’re getting in deep here but stay with me.
“This phenomenon was first identified in the so-called “tears of wine” by physicist James Thomson (Lord Kelvin’s brother) in 1855.” (Aha!) “The general effect is named after Italian physicist Carlo Marangoni, who studied it for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Pavia and published his results in 1865. A complete theoretical treatment of the subject was given by J. Willard Gibbs in his work On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances (1875-8).”
Further, “Since a liquid with a high surface tension pulls more strongly on the surrounding liquid than one with a low surface tension, the presence of a gradient in surface tension will naturally cause the liquid to flow away from regions of low surface tension. The surface tension gradient can be caused by concentration gradient or by a temperature gradient (surface tension is a function of temperature).”
Another aha! Now surface tension is starting to make sense. Still further and utterly relevant to our present discussion was the following:
“As an example, wine may exhibit a visible effect called “tears.” The effect is a consequence of the fact that alcohol has a lower surface tension than water. If alcohol is mixed with water inhomogeneously,” (As in bad milk?) “a region with a lower concentration of alcohol (greater surface tension) will pull on the surrounding fluid more strongly than a region with a higher alcohol concentration (lower surface tension). The result is that the liquid tends to flow away from regions with higher alcohol concentration — along the tension gradient. This can also be easily demonstrated by spreading a thin film of water on a smooth surface and then allowing a drop of alcohol to fall on the center of the film. The liquid will rush out of the region where the drop of alcohol fell.”
After reading this many times and once again out loud it starts to makes sense. But yet another crisis of conscience immediately occurs. How are we as wine educators possibly going to explain what we call legs and tears to students as related to that “Marangoni guy”? I don’t know about you but the only thing I can see here is mass confusion and yet more wailing, gnashing of teeth and broken dreams.
It all comes down to one of the major disconnects in learning anything about our beloved subject: wine has no inherent vocabulary. We use the language of seeing, hearing and feeling to describe what we smell and
taste in wine and in doing so often appropriate, sometimes in error, nomenclature from other unrelated fields. Hence the above much ado about nothing concerning the term viscosity. So often we in the wine community are guilty of trying to define and calibrate the physical and experiential properties of wine to the nth degree. It’s a noble thing we do but ultimately impractical given the fact that so much of the wine experience is subjective (Is there any other kind of experience?). It’s only through our collective hallucinations that we as professionals are able to arrive at commonly used terms such as “viscosity” and “fruit” and “finish.” Never mind the fact that context in the wine experience is the ultimate trump card.
So after much thought and careful deliberation I’ve come up with the perfect term to describe the properties of how wine moves in the glass. It’s easy to understand for beginner and professional alike. It’s called viscosity.