“Atomic Chicken” by bark.deviantart.com
On a cold, damp and foggy London night five of us were crammed into one of those charming, proper and bone crushing London cabs. Dinner was at Motcombs off Sloane Street south of the park just a stone’s throw from Harrods. With a full bar upstairs and dining room below street level the restaurant could easily be a set in a ‘50’s Hollywood movie with low wood-beamed ceilings, cozy tables, prints of celebrities on the walls and the odd romantic deuce here and there. But what really makes the restaurant so unique in the late fall is the menu. It’s game season.
Between 2006 and 2010 I had the privilege and great pleasure of helping with the Master’s Exam in London four times. Over the years the U.K. exam has been a smaller event with anywhere from 14 to 25 students compared to the 60-70 candidates that regularly take the exam in the U.S. In London the exam is given over two days at couple of the city’s finest hotels; the Capital and the world-famous Dorchester. The theory exam is given on day one at the Capital with the tasting and service exams at the Dorchester on day two with a reception and dinner following at the hotel. But dinner on the first night has traditionally been held at Motcombs.
This was my fourth dinner at Motcombs and the only difference was the conspicuous absence of the legendary Val Brown. Percival Brown has been a mainstay of the local wine and spirits trade for the last 70+ years. His career began in the mid 1940’s and he is without doubt among the who’s who of the London trade. Val’s energy is boundless and his jokes pointed and innumerable. Val’s presence also means several mystery bottles of Bordeaux to be blind tasted during the meal. Mind you this is not the usual affair with bottles wrapped in cloth bags or foil. The solution is far simpler due to a tragic occurrence. The bottles Val brings to the annual Motcombs dinners are victims of a flood in one of his cellars; a flood that deprived all the bottles of their labels. Practically all the wine in this particular cellar was Bordeaux from the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. It’s then up to us, members of the examining team, to divine the vintage, commune—and if possible—the chateaux behind these mystery bottles. Having little personal experience with tasting claret from the ‘60’s I have to say that the wines are striking but not for the reasons one would imagine. In style the wines from Val’s cellar are about as far away from today’s Bordeaux as the Dog Star. Without exception they show the depth of color somewhere between aged Reserva Rioja and grand cru Burgundy. Bottles I tasted in the past such as 1963 Gruaud-Larose, 1966 Lynch-Bages and 1960 Léoville-Barton were medium-bodied wines at best--elegant, refined, autumnal and very complex. For the record I never had luck identifying much of anything but fellow U.K. Master’s Brian Julyan and Brian Dawes were usually spot on with vintages and communes—sometimes Chateaux—having grown up with the wines during the early part of their careers.
But again on this night Val couldn't make dinner as he had a previous engagement with one of his kids that couldn’t be broken. So we raised a glass in his honor and then set about to examining the menu for dinner. Past meals at the restaurant provided me an opportunity to try several different game birds but tonight the only game listed on the menu was the gamiest of them all—grouse. I had grouse on my first visit to the restaurant and remember it as microscopically as my first Fernet Branca. The two have a lot in common—they’re completely bitter in taste. I’m not sure why this little feathery friend has such a strong liver flavor but it does so in spades. Perhaps it’s like other denizens of the animal kingdom that upon the rush of unexpected and usually dramatic death release various chemical substances into their blood stream as a final defiant “screw you” gesture to the universe at large. But I don’t think that’s true here. Fellow MS Nigel Wilkinson informed us fact that most grouse is now domestically raised only to be released just before the fall season. If true, then surely these poor little mutant birds, roughly half the size of a not-so-free-range chicken, grow up somehow knowing that they will be fattened up briefly before being released into the “wild” only to be blown not quite to bits by some great hunter. So perhaps these little bastards bitter up right out of the egg knowing of their imminent and kablooey demise.
Whatever the case I was not about to pass up the opportunity to partake and I did so and done medium, thank you. After appetizers and Champagne were enjoyed my roasted friend appeared on a massive oval plate perched atop a large piece of toast. The waiter offered sides to accompany the festively bitter fowl including a rich gravy, some kind of wobbly white gelatinous substance, and fine roasted breadcrumbs. I opted just for the gravy. A large slab of bacon was draped over the top of the bird offering a salt and fat counterpoint to the gamey, impending bitterness. I tucked in and relished one of the great epicurean traditions of the fall season, hunting, and the sacrifice of all things small and plucked. And it was good.
Gillian Balance, Master Sommelier, has spent over 20 years in the hospitality industry with stints at several well-known restaurants including Picholine, Cello Restaurant, and Windows on the World in New York as well as the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara. Gillian has also worked in the Bay Area as the Plumpjack Group’s wine director, the sommelier at the Pacific Union Club in San Francisco, and the Bottega restaurant in Napa Valley.
In 2012 Gillian passed the final portion of the Master’s Examination becoming only the 19th woman to ever do so. Aside from her CMSA training Ballance received the Higher Certificate of Distinction as well as her Diploma in Wines & Spirits from the British Wine and Spirits Education Trust. She also received a BFA from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Most recently she joined Treasury Wine Estates as an education manager.
I met up with Gillian in May of 2013 when she was still the wine director at the historic lodge at Cavallo Point near the Golden Gate Bridge. We tasted the 2009 Double Bond Syrah from the Larner Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley and used Riedel Vinum Zinfandel/Chianti glasses. I started the interview by asking her about the strategies she used to pass the three parts of the Master’s Exam.
Intro and Exam Strategies
TG: You passed the exam in 2012 in Dallas. What parts of the exam did you have to take then?
GB: I had tasting and service.
TG: So you got theory out of the way before then. Was theory the easiest for you?
TG: How was it the easiest? Did you have an academic background?
GB: I studied philosophy at NYU but I think that it was more of completing the diploma for the WSET. I finished the diploma shortly before I sat for the MS Advanced Exam. I think it gave me the study regimen, the tools and the approach that made theory not as impossible as most people make it out to be.
TG: If you had to give someone studying theory for the Advanced or Master’s exams what would it be? What was your best practice? What worked for you?
GB: I would say to take a course like the WSET. The thing I see people studying for the MS theory exams doing is a lot of flashcards and Q & A. They study these questions for years without ever understanding why the questions exist. That’s what the WSET diploma program does for you. There’s no short cuts. You have to be able to write full length papers on carbonic maceration or any other topic. That forces you to study the subject in depth and find out the “whys” behind everything. I’m a very visual person as well so visual tools also helped me a lot. My study place would be filled with maps and colored pencil drawings. I also used a smart pen that allows you to record yourself asking questions. I would study a subject for a few hours and then use the smart pen to go over everything I’d just studied. Then when I was driving to work or where ever I’d listen to the recordings over and over again until it became part of me.
TG: What about service? What was challenging for you with service?
GB: I’m working on the floor now but I think that the places I’ve worked at over the last few years haven’t really been the super fine dining in terms of the detail of service, say like the French Laundry. I would get nervous because my approach to service day to day was more casual. So I had to become really polished and really comfortable with more formal service. We have a gueridon here at the restaurant and Jesse Becker MS would come and work with me until it became second nature. Then I could focus on my demeanor and ask myself, “What is my demeanor going to be like when I approach a table of several Master Sommeliers and have to answer questions?” You really have to get the mechanics down before you can do that. I think for a couple of years beforehand I was just trying to get it all down at the same time.
TG: That’s great. What about tasting? How was it for you? Tasting was by far the hardest part of the exam for me.
GB: I worked really hard for two years on blind tasting with the group at the French Laundry once or twice a week.
TG: But when you think about tasting and those two years, was there something that changed or snapped at some point where suddenly tasting became easier? Where you could get in the zone before the exam and taste really well?
GB: I think it became easier but only because of the work I did. When you’re working on tasting you don’t really step outside and see what’s changed in terms of your process. I also think that getting the opportunity to work with and listen to other tasters, especially Masters, was big. Just listening to different people’s approach was very educational. You can’t just rely on yourself, you have to collect things from everybody. But having had a support/tasting group for two years was so important. I feel for friends of mine who have tried to pass the exams but live in places where there’s no network or group like the one I had.
TG: So the group was that important?
GB: Yes it was, for support and building each other up. I can’t imagine not having that group during the process.
Tasting: Overall Goals
TG: When you’re tasting as a buyer, what are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish?
GB: First and foremost I think of pricing and necessity; where the wine could fit in the program right now. Say if we were in need of Pinot Noirs to put on the list for $60 I’d be looking at wines in that price range and taking it from there.
TG: Makes sense but in terms of actually tasting it, what are you trying to assess?
GB: Overall quality is probably the most important thing. Any wine drinker knows quality. They may not know how to define it but they still know it. Our clientele here at the restaurant loves oaky, buttery Chardonnay, for instance. It’s our number one selling wine by the glass. And even though it may not be my personal favorite style of wine I still need to find something that is really high quality in that category-which I believe I can do. But it takes time to learn that process.
TG: All true. What are overall important criteria for a good tasting? What do you need to have for a good tasting environment?
GB: Just wine (laughs).
TG: That’s a given. But what else do you need in terms of glassware etc.?
GB: We do a lot of tasting in the cellar because that’s where my desk is and where salespeople can lay out 20 wines if they need to. So we can’t unfortunately be that picky about the environment. But we have good quality glassware.
TG: What are your beliefs about tasting in terms of you as a taster? Is it easy for you? Difficult?
GB: I think it’s important to do every day to some degree. Maybe it’s just tasting ten wines or tasting through everything that you’re pouring by the glass or whatever. There’s no shortage around here because we have an onslaught of distributors and brokers. A lot of people in the business live in this area so we end up tasting every day. I think that’s important. It’s like singing or dancing where you have to keep your body trained. You have to keep your palate trained in the same way. I also try to take the same approach every time even though I may not be writing notes or tasting according to a grid. I still try to have the same rhythm every time.
TG: Do you think you’re a good taster?
GB: I used to think I was an awesome taster (laughs). I had a fired up period when I was working at Windows on the World with Andrea (Andrea Immer Robinson MS); we had a 150,000 bottle cellar and we could taste anything we wanted as long as we recorded what we were opening. I was younger then and at that time you couldn’t stop me with blind tasting. When I got into the Master of Wine program my tasting was even more elevated. But then I got a big job with Plump Jack that consumed all of my time so I dropped out of the MW program. Three years into that job I decided to take the Advanced Course. I was out of practice and wasn’t feeling as confident. But over the last year before the Master’s exam I started to feel that way again. So it’s like anything else; you practice and build the skills. But I also think you can be an amazing blind taster, pick up a glass and say exactly what it is but not know why the wine is the way it is. I think that could be the most important thing.
TG: What’s interesting is that I’ve asked the question, “Do you think you’re a great taster?” to practically everyone I’ve interviewed and no one has said yes. Everyone—without exception—says that they are good tasters but have to work at it constantly—self included.
GB: That’s because we’re wrong a lot! (Laughs)
TG: True. Last question before we talk about the sight/appearance of the wine. How do you know if a wine is a great wine? What makes a wine great to you?
GB: Having all the elements in balance. Having the structure, the aromatic qualities, and everything on the palate all coming together and really resonating. I really like wines where I can see layers of flavors before I even taste the wine.
TG: It’s interesting that you use the word “see” in describing your experience of a wine.
GB: I do. I see layers of flavors in wine.
TG: We’re going to get to that.
TG: Now let’s talk about tasting, specifically the sight. We can use the context of tasting for an MS-type exam setting. When you look at wine what are you trying to do? What are your goals?
GB: I think it depends on what I’m trying to do. This wine (Double Bond Syrah) has a beautiful sheen to it. I’m also looking at the depth of color and concentration of color; things I can get from the wine just by looking at it. So in looking at this wine I know that it’s bright, youthful, fresh young red wine from a full-bodied grape variety.
TG: Knowing the grape variety is Syrah, do you check the color to make sure it’s appropriate for that grape?
GB: Yes, like I said there’s a sheen to it and it has a dark ruby core that fades gently to a really beautiful pinkish-purple rim.
TG: But as you look at that glass and know it’s Syrah how do you know it’s the right color for the grape? Is there a way that you check it internally against other colors? How do you know?
GB: I don’t really know.
TG: Stop and think for a second, “this color is right for Syrah because …” How do you know it’s not Pinot Noir?
GB: (Laughs) that’s a good question. Because it’s opaque.
TG: I’m just curious because if you stop and go inside for just a second, is there a way you compare what you’re seeing in the glass right now to other wines you’ve tasted before.
GB: I’m sure that there is but I don’t know what it is.
TG: Pause for a second and see if you can figure it out. I know what I do but we’re after your strategies.
GB: I probably flash through color memories of every Syrah I’ve ever tasted.
TG: What about colors for red wine?
GB: Yes, even colors for red wine.
TG: Think about it for a moment because if that’s what you do I’m curious to know how you do it. Are there images of colors? A color gradation? Glasses of wine?
GB: I think it’s a color gradation.
TG: Can you point to it? Can you show me where it is? In your mind’s eye. The easy way is to try to deliberately make it wrong. Say to yourself, “this is Pinot Noir,” and see what happens. Usually you’ll get a strong “no” of some kind.
GB: I guess I see a color gradation right out here (points directly out in front of her face). The left side is lighter in color and right is deeper.
TG: Where is this gradation? How far out in front of you?
GB: It’s right here (about six-eight inches directly in front of her face).
TG: How wide is it?
GB: It’s only about two inches wide.
TG: So as you look at the gradation do you then look at the glass and try to match up the color?
TG: What happens when you find the match? Does something happen?
GB: I think a little light goes off when I find the match. Wait, it’s like I see the paint strip in back of me.
TG: You mean behind you?
GB: No, it’s still in my head.
TG: So still the same dimensions?
TG: Go ahead and find the main color of the wine and try to match it to the gradation. What happens?
GB: A little light goes off.
TG: What color is the light?
GB: its yellow (laughs). It’s like a small light bulb.
TG: Where’s the light bulb?
GB: It’s right in front of the gradation.
TG: If we’re talking about a white wine, is the color gradation in the same place or different place?
GB: Same place.
TG: Does it go light to dark, left to right like the red wine gradation?
TG: What about the yellow light? Still in the same place?
GB: Same spot.
TG: Wow. Did you know that you do that?
TG: When you first smell a glass of wine what are your goals? What are you trying to do?
GB: Like I said, I like to see layers in the aromas of the wine.
TG: OK but before we get there, what’s important in terms of goals when smelling wine?
GB: Is the wine good or not.
TG: So you’re checking the wine for quality. For hygiene?
GB: Yes, checking to see if the wine is clean or not. But also does the wine smell good.
TG: What do you mean by “good?”
TG: That’s pretty subjective. By delicious you mean …
GB: Like something you would really want to drink, to enjoy.
TG: Got it. But also in terms of being a professional, what would your goals be in terms of smelling a wine.
GB: I want to make sure that it’s true to the varietal. I think there’s a lot of wine out there that smells good and tastes delicious but it doesn’t taste like the grape should. Then you just have to assess it for whatever it is.
TG: So what could prevent a wine from tasting good or tasting like whatever the grape is?
GB: Quality of the fruit; winemaking practices …
TG: Such as …
GB: heavy oak, too long maceration on the skins giving a coarse or gritty tannic structure in a red wine. Picking fruit too soon. Picking fruit too late. You can really tell if the winemaker is still experimenting when you taste the wine (laughs). I’ve never made wine but I think that as a winemaker you have to evolve in your style. And who are you practicing on? Us!
TG: Go ahead and smell the wine.
GB: I can actually smell it from here without lifting the glass and we’re not in a specifically neutral environment.
TG: Wow, OK, pick up your glass. I’m curious, when you first pick up the glass, where do your eyes go? Is there a place that’s consistently comfortable for you?
GB: My eyes go out and over the glass.
TG: Right, they’re pretty much center and looking out at a 45° down but over the top of the glass.
TG: Just curious, smell the wine and then move your eyes to either side. What happens?
GB: It changes a little bit but it feels the most comfortable when my eyes are straight ahead.
TG: I notice your eyes also go up to the left briefly as well.
GB: Yes and I also look to the side a lot when I’m smelling.
TG: Do you say anything to yourself when you first start smelling the wine? Any kind of verbal prompt? I’m trying to figure out your sequence.
GB: I say something like, “what” or “what’s there?”
TG: And what happens after you ask that question? You mentioned that you “see” layers of flavors. Does that happen then as in immediately? Or does something happen in between?
GB: Yes it does. It’s like a cake.
TG: If I had to be you, what would I see? What would I experience? What does that look like?
GB: It’s not like a physical cake. It’s just brown lines like in my brain is making layers. And then I fill them in with what I get in the wine.
TG: Is it like a wooden frame or just lines? What color of brown? Are the lines thin or thick?
GB: Just a frame and it’s tan brown with thin lines. And it’s like a layer cake in between the lines (she motions to the layers about ½ inch apart).
TG: So it looks like the layers are only about half an inch apart. In your mind’s eye, how far away is these layers? (Gillian motions to about 10 inches right in front of her face). How big is it?
GB: It’s about eight inches tall and it’s square.
TG: Is there a border on the square?
TG: Does it just fade out?
TG: What surrounds it?
GB: It’s just sort of neutral, it’s white.
TG: Just curious, what would happen if you made the square larger? Would that make it easier for you to recognize aromas? Try it and see what happens.
GB: I’ve never thought about expanding it but it would probably change what I’m smelling.
TG: Fair enough but let’s figure out what you do first and then come back to this. To recap, you see this square that’s about eight by eight inches. Inside the square there are layers. What do you see inside the layers? Colors? Images?
GB: Brown layers with off-white in between; I fill in the layers with what I’m smelling in the wine. With this wine in the first layer I would probably have a blueberry in my head.
TG: Can you draw that for me? Motion with your hand and draw the square and show me what it’s like.
GB: It doesn’t really have a border but here’s the first layer (motions out in front of her face about 10 inches away and slightly to the right). And it’s tan brown with a thin layer of off-white or cream color in between—just like a cake.
TG: But then these layers get filled in with various things. Does it start off blank and then you fill it in, populating it with different things you smell in the wine?
TG: That’s a pretty cool system. So as you’re smelling this wine, the Syrah, what starts to populate in the layers?
GB: I look for fruit first so at the base I would see blueberry and blackberry.
TG: Does that become an image before it goes into the layer?
TG: So how does that happen? How does that get into the layer?
GB: I don’t know.
TG: Hold the glass and smell the wine for a few seconds focusing on the blueberry and blackberry. See if you can figure it out because this is one of those things you probably never thought about or were aware of.
GB: The frame is already there and then I fill it in with an image of blueberries.
TG: In the cream-colored part?
TG: How does that happen?
GB: I just smell the wine and then it’s there.
TG: Do you say anything to yourself at that point like, “that’s blueberry.”
GB: I do and then I move on and try to build up the other layers.
TG: So you start at the bottom and build up?
TG: So as you smell the wine again what else comes up besides blueberries?
GB: Violets—crushed violet pops into my head.
TG: When you say it pops into your head does it appear in one of the layers?
GB: It came in a little higher up …
TG: Can you show me where it is? (Gillian motions out in front of her face about 10 inches away and about 10 inches off to the right of center). Hold the image of the crushed violets for a moment. What does that look like? Is it 2D or 3D?
GB: It’s flat and like dried crushed petals that are sitting right there.
TG: Once you see that image does it go into the second layer? What happens then?
GB: It actually moved up another layer because it’s more of a top note.
TG: I was just going to ask if there’s some kind of hierarchy in terms of the position in the frame of the image of the aroma as it relates to the specific kind of aroma.
GB: Yes so floral being a more delicate aroma is higher up.
TG: As you think about this square, what would be at the top?
GB: Flowers. I would put all the fruits at the base.
TG: Where would the oak go?
GB: The oak would be somewhere right above the base, above the fruit.
TG: Let’s finish the wine. What else do you smell?
GB: Black pepper.
TG: Interesting; your eyes first went here (out front and slightly up) and then here (to the right where the layers are. Does the image first pop up here in front and then move to the layers? Is that what happened with the violets?
TG: Did you also say to yourself, “black pepper?”
TG: Is the black pepper above the fruit?
GB: Yes and it’s in the middle between the fruit and the violets.
TG: What else do you smell?
TG: You did the same thing with your eyes so that seems to be your system: smell the wine and the image pops up here in front and then moves into one of the layers. Is the image of tobacco flat and two dimensional?
TG: Is there a shape to the picture of the tobacco?
GB: It’s round.
TG: Where does it go in the grid?
GB: It’s in the middle; it’s where I see warmth.
TG: What do you mean by warmth?
GB: I consider tobacco to be a warming aroma.
TG: Does warming mean heat or warm feeling or …
GB: It’s warm feeling; it’s where the sensual part gets filled in.
TG: Say more about that.
GB: Tobacco kind of strikes a sensual chord inside of you. You smell the wine and then think that at the base there’s this fresh vibrant fruit--so you see it at the base layer of the “cake.” In the middle is where all the warm sensual things are like oak, cedar, tobacco leaf, and coffee. At the top is where the floral and black pepper will come into play.
TG: Smell the wine again and check for any earthiness. I’m not sure if there’s any earthiness but go ahead and check for it.
GB: There is a faint stony mineral component. I know this vineyard.
TG: So knowing that do you get a picture of the vineyard? If so, where is it?
GB: It came up all over.
TG: Like you’re standing in the vineyard.
GB: Yes and I’m actually there right now looking at the soil. It’s very chalky and stony.
TG: Where in your “layers” does the earthiness go?
GB: It’s between the warm central part and the fruit probably because it’s the earth component and it holds everything else up.
TG: Just curious, hold it there underneath the fruit for a few moments and see if it feels right. What happens?
GB: No, it’s above the fruit.
TG: OK but what is the earth like? A picture or a texture?
GB: It’s the crushed stony soil that I see.
TG: Like a picture of the wine.
GB: Yes, this it’s literally a picture of the wine.
TG: Smell the wine one last time and see if there’s anything else.
GB: There’s vanilla; it looks like a vanilla bean suspended in air.
TG: Where does it live in the layers?
GB: It’s also in the warm layer with the tobacco.
TG: Having said all that, are there any parts of the “layer” cake that are left blank for this wine?
GB: From an aromatic stand point yes, but it will complete itself when I taste the wine.
TG: Got it. Last question about this section: how do you know when you’re finished smelling the wine and it’s time to taste it?
GB: I feel like I can always come back so I don’t ever feel like I’m “done.”
TG: Back to your layers. Is the set up for the layers different with each wine the same?
TG: Are the layers something you’re consciously aware of what a picture of a wine actually looks like? In other words, do you have an idea of what the layers for an Alsace Riesling look like compared to those for a Rioja Gran Reserva?
TG: Have you ever thought about practicing tasting by practicing with your layers and not tasting?
GB: No but I think it would be very interesting to do. I’ve never verbalized this before so it’s hard to explain. At the same time it’s something that I would want to develop further.
It’s funny that you mention the eye thing. When I took the theory exam Fred (Dame) said that I kept looking up—and that’s where I kept getting my answers from.
TG: Up and to the right or left?
GB: Just generally up.
TG: Now that you’ve smelled the wine you have a pretty good idea of what it’s about. When you finally taste the wine what are you trying to do? What are your goals when you taste vs. smell?
GB: I think about whether everything that was pleasing aromatically is there on the palate. Does the palate match the texture in terms of what I thought it would be visually? When I think of texture I think of things like sweaters or wooly blankets.
TG: I have a feeling we’ll get back to that when we talk about calibrating the structure of the wine. But go ahead and taste the wine and I’ll so as well. First, when you taste the wine do you say something to yourself like you do when you first smell the wine? Or do you bring the layers back in? What happens?
GB: I bring the layers back in but now they’ve gone this way, 90 degrees to the right. They’re still in layers but now it’s more what about the texture, the alcohol and the acidity are like.
TG: So do you literally ask yourself, “What’s the texture like?” or “what’s the acidity like?” Things like that?
GB: That’s when I think of a sweater or a piece of chalk.
TG: So taste the wine again. How would you describe the texture? What’s it like?
GB: It starts off kind of velvety.
TG: How do you represent that?
GB: A kind of red velvet top or something like that.
TG: Where is that?
GB: It’s here (directly in front about eye level).
TG: Is it an actual picture of it?
GB: No, it’s more like the material.
TG: Does it change as the finish goes on?
GB: It changes to a more slightly chalky feeling.
TG: After you get the chalky taste/feeling what happens to the material? Does it go away?
TG: How is the chalk represented?
GB: It’s like crushed white chalk suspended in the air.
TG: What about the layers? Do they change if the intensity of the aromas change on the palate? Or do they stay the same?
GB: They stay in the same place.
TG: Let’s talk about structure; the alcohol, acid and tannin. How do you calibrate the structure in a wine, the difference between medium and medium-plus acid, for instance.
GB: The tannin is medium-plus.
TG: How do you know it’s not medium?
GB: Because it’s slightly elevated; medium would be right here (points out in front of her).
TG: What’s right there?
TG: Where’s low? (She points down lower) Where’s high? (She points higher but in line with where medium and low are). Aha! So there’s a scale of sorts.
GB: Yes, there’s a visual scale of sorts.
TG: What does the scale look like? Does it look like a ruler? Like a dial?
GB: It looks like hash marks.
TG: It seems like they’re right out in front of you in the center about 15 inches away; medium is right at eye level with “high” up higher and low below eye level. How wide are the hash marks?
GB: About 4-5 inches wide.
TG: Are the marks on a ruler?
GB: No, they’re suspended in space.
TG: How do you use them to calibrate? Is there a button that moves?
GB: No, my eyes move up and down them. So if I’m tasting a wine that has medium-plus tannin my eyes start at medium and then move up.
TG: So there’s some kind of marker for medium-plus? Or does it light up someway so you know? I’m trying to figure out how you do it.
GB: Not sure.
TG. Try this: taste the wine and try to make the tannin medium or medium-minus. What happens?
GB: The hash mark pops up (laughs).
TG: Fair enough. What about acidity? Do you calibrate it the same way as tannin?
GB: No and this is so hard because I’ve never thought about it.
TG: Not a surprise given that you do it so fast and for so long that you’re not aware of how you actually do it. Try doing it the same way as tannin and see what happens. If it’s totally off your brain will show you how you actually do it rather quickly.
GB: The acid part is more round like a circular scale.
TG: Where is it?
GB: Right in front about a foot away. It’s about the size of a basketball.
TG: How does it work in terms of low, medium and high? Where is low acid on the circle?
GB: Low is right in the center and high is on the outside. Medium-plus is close to the outside.
TG: So how do you calibrate a wine? Are there concentric circles? Do the inner circles move? How does it work?
GB: It’s kind of like a target.
TG: Are there different colors?
GB: No, it’s all blue—like peacock blue.
TG: OK but how are you absolutely sure that a wine is medium-plus acidity and not medium? How do you know?
GB: I think I start in the center and then move out as the acidity elevates.
TG: As the acidity elevates do the different concentric circles light up? What happens?
GB: Yes, they light up and get more intense in color.
TG: Taste the wine again and let’s figure out what you do for alcohol. First, how much alcohol do you get in the wine?
TG: Once again I have to ask, how do you know it’s not medium? Do you use the hash marks or the concentric circles? What do you do?
GB: I use the gradations—the hash marks.
TG: Do they look the same as the tannin hash marks?
TG: So medium is straight out in front of you, “high” is up higher and “low” is lower?
TG: How about the length of the finish? How do you calibrate that?
GB: The finish is more like a runway and you’re on it and seeing how far you’re going on it.
TG: So if it’s a really short finish, what’s that look like?
GB: It’s right in front of me and stopped.
TG: Where’s a medium finish?
GB: Several feet out in front of me.
TG: And a long finish?
GB: A long finish really doesn’t have an end. It goes all the way to a vanishing point. I like that.
TG: Great. One more thing: back to the layers. If a flavor really changes from the nose to the palate, what happens to it in the layers? For instance, if there’s more red fruit on the palate vs. the nose do the layers change to reflect that? What happens?
GB: I think I add layers or even take away in some cases.
TG: One more question about the layers; if you’re getting blackberry in the wine is there literally an image of blackberries in one of the layers? Or is it 3D where you could reach out and grab the blackberries?
GB: I could reach out.
TG: Once it’s time to identify the wine what do you do? Do you bring the layers back and take a look at them again?
GB: In an exam situation structure seems to come to me first. I’m not sure if that’s because I like to get the structure out of the way to make room for the layers or if it’s because that’s how I approach a wine. I think it’s a little bit of both. Structure as in alcohol, acid, tannin, body and finish come first for me.
TG: We didn’t talk about body. How do you calibrate something like light-bodied vs. full-bodied?
GB: I guess it’s a circle.
TG: So if it’s something light-bodied like a glass of Champagne, what’s that like?
GB: It would be a bright circle.
TG: What about something like a Chardonnay?
TG: And this Syrah?
GB: It’s almost purple-black.
TG: What about something that’s medium-bodied?
GB: More red.
TG: It seems like this circle is right out in front of your face.
TG: What’s interesting to me is that you use all these structural visual devices, if you want to call them that, really quickly and unconsciously so you probably aren’t aware of using them at all.
GB: Yes and maybe it’s because I want to get structure out of the way so I can rearrange all the furniture if I need to.
TG: Meaning the layers?
TG: But do they stay relatively static? Or do things change a lot?
GB: It can change lot because the palate of this wine is very different from the nose.
TG: With the layers, are they all the same width? Or if something is really dominant, is it wider than the other layers?
GB: If something is really dominant it’s almost like the base of a pyramid. It’s wider.
TG: Did you know you did any of this?
GB: I knew about the layers because it’s how I “see” wine.
TG: It might be interesting to see if somehow, either visually or on paper, you could create different layers for all the classic grapes and wines.
GB: That would be really interesting.
TG: I say that because as time goes on I tell students that they first have to figure out what strategies they use internally and then they need to practice these strategies in terms of memory but without actually tasting wine.
One more thing; submodalities. Let’s play with the structural elements of your layers to see if and how they can change your experience of the wine. So let’s try a few things. First, what happens if you smell and taste the wine and then move the layers across the room and make them small?
GB: It makes the wine a little fainter. It’s like you’re trying to distance something that’s internal.
TG: Now reset and then make the layers huge—the size of a billboard. What happens?
GB: The wine expands and gets much more intense.
TG: Does it get harder to pick out the individual things?
GB: Yes! Much harder.
TG: Reset and put the layers back. Now make the image of the layers black and white. What happens?
GB: The wine becomes much more muted.
TG: OK, reset again. Now take the layers and put them over to the left side. What happens then?
GB: More muted.
TG: Put it back where it belongs and leave it! Last thing: how do you know when you’re done tasting a wine?
GB: That’s interesting because I’m still tasting this wine as we speak. I guess if I’m taking notes I’ve said everything I wanted to say. I guess that’s the point of completion.
TG: Thanks! This has been a lot of fun.
The Certified Sommelier Examination was introduced in December of 2005. Previously students who passed the MS Introductory examination could apply directly to the Advanced Course after waiting the required years’ time. More often than not first time students did poorly on the Advanced Exam for any number of reasons. Each student is unique so the three parts of the examination will always pose different challenges to different individuals. Historically the major challenge was the service exam where the combination of lack of appropriate preparation for dealing with nerves—sometimes extreme—in an audition situation doomed most first timers. Exceptions to the rule usually came in the form of students who were working the floor of upscale restaurants where they performed service to MS standards night in and night out, and who were also used to the pressure of being “on stage” in a top level venue.
Several years prior to 2005 we (the CMSA Board) had discussed the possibility of an intermediate level between the Introductory and Advanced Courses; a level that would accomplish several goals: first, to provide the hospitality industry with a much-needed basic sommelier certification; second, to introduce students to the three-part MS examination format; third, to give us a first look at their individual service skills.
Between 2004 and 2005 a team of Masters from the CMSA created the Certified Sommelier Examination with the help of UK and European Masters. After beta-testing, the exam went live at the end of 2005. While the content has changed from year to year the format of the exam has remained basically the same:
- Theory: a 40-question written test combining multiple choice, short answer and matching questions.
- Tasting: a blind tasting of two wines, one white and one red, with the student filling out a grid based on the MS Deductive Tasting Method.
- Service: sparkling wine service with students being asked questions about various beverages that might be served during the course of a meal as well as questions about food and wine pairing.
Since that first exam in 2005 the Certified Sommelier Examination has, to a great extent, accomplished its goals. With that I’d like to offer some advice to students who are preparing to take the Certified Exam, especially those taking it for the first time. Disclaimer! The following is my personal advice to students and in no way a reflection of the policies of the CMSA or its Board of Directors.Theory Examination
The CMSA philosophy of theory curriculum has a lot to do with what a sommelier theoretically could be asked tableside by a guest about any beverage served in the restaurant. Emphasis is placed on wine but beer, spirits, sake, and aperitifs are important as well. Therefore, it’s important to realize that geography is vital to a sommelier’s body of knowledge; knowing where a wine is produced down to a single vineyard (if necessary) is paramount to success in the MS program.
Example: if a guest is asking about a vintage of Savennières “Clos de la Coulée de Serrant” from the producer Nicholas Joly, the sommelier/student should know the following about the wine:
- It’s a dry white wine.
- It’s made from the Chenin Blanc grape.
- The Coulée de Serrant vineyard is located in the Anjou region of France’s Loire Valley, specifically in the AOP of Savennières.
- The Coulée de Serrant vineyard is actually an AOP itself.
Further, if the guest asks about the biodynamic symbol on the bottle, the sommelier/student should be able to explain what it means and also provide some information about the philosophy of biodynamics, how it can affect wine quality, and some growers/producers that farm biodynamically in other regions of the world—all without burying the guest in a mountain of useless and confusing verbiage.
Once again, it’s important to note that MS theory exams focus on geography and being able to connect grape varieties to styles of wines made in specific geographical locations. From there students also need to study country and regional laws, classifications, terms about grape growing and winemaking, and major producers for important wines such at prestige cuvée Champagne.
The Certified tasting examination consists of tasting a white and a red wine and filling out a written grid based on the Deductive Tasting Method which is first taught in the Introductory Sommelier Class. The grid requires the student to input information concerning a wine’s aromas and flavors, the presence of minerality and/or earthiness, and the use of oak. Further, the grid asks that students assess the structural components of the wines; the levels of residual sugar, acidity, alcohol, the finish, and tannin in the red wine. Finally, the student is asked to deduce the best possible conclusion about the wine, which includes the climate in which the grapes were grown, Old World vs. New World style, the actual grape variety or blend of grapes, the country of origin, and the vintage of production.
It goes without saying that a good deal of practice is needed to become proficient at using the grid, not to mention tasting in general. The good news is that the grid can be downloaded for practice from the CMSA website at any time (here
). The grape varieties used in the exam for both white and red wines are listed on the grid so the student can focus his or her tasting practice. Otherwise, here is further advice in preparing for the Certified tasting exam:
A word about practicing tasting: make sure you are working in a tasting group as the dynamics of a good study group are essential to learning and improvement, not to mention the camaraderie and shared experience.
Finally, I’ve written about tasting and preparing for the MS tasting exams extensively on my blog. I’ve found that smelling and tasting wine is completely based on one’s memory; not only the memory of the various aromatics and flavors in wine but the combination of these components that make up the complete profile of a grape or style of wine. If memory is the key, then students can—and absolutely should—work with their own personal memories of these components and varietal profiles apart from actually tasting wine. I strongly believe that practicing memory of the components and profiles of grapes and wines is just as important and beneficial as actually tasting them.
The MS title is about being a world-class sommelier and thus service and working the floor are the essence of what we do. The service component is also important to an employer in terms of wanting to know if a potential hire knows the basics of correct service and can open a bottle of sparkling wine without inflicting bodily injury to themselves or those in the immediate vicinity. Safety is key in sparkling wine service. There are any number of ways to open a bottle of bubbly incorrectly—even dangerously—but only one way to do it right. Here are some vital pointers to do just that:
- Fold two—and ONLY two—serviettes for service. One will be used for opening the bottle and the other will be left on the bucket tableside if a bucket is used for service. In other words, don’t fold all the napkins on the service station.
- Make sure the glassware is clean and polished.
- Always line the tray with an unfolded cloth napkin; no fancy origami folds as they result in an uneven surface almost guaranteeing you’ll lose glassware in a spectacular fashion.
- Place the glassware consistently at each cover; at the point of the knife is the most straight forward method.
- Place glassware starting with the host or the person to the host’s left. Placing glassware is NOT gender specific so one trip around the table will suffice.
- Place two under-liners or coasters to the right of the host, one for the cork and the other for the bottle, if the host decides to keep the bottle on the table.
Opening the bottle:
- Never take the top of your hand off the bottle when opening. This is utterly crucial to opening the bottle safely and properly. BEFORE loosening the cage, place a folded serviette over the top of the bottle. Then with a firm grip over the serviette and top of the bottle loosen the wire cage and slowly remove the cage and cork at the same time by twisting the bottom of the bottle back and forth. Remember: the cage is NEVER removed before the cork.
- Watch where you’re pointing the bottle when opening. Don’t point the bottle at the table or anyone else in the vicinity. Doing so is dangerous and cause for major deductions on your score.
- Always place a serviette over the top of the bottle when opening. As mentioned above, use a serviette over the top of the bottle when opening to prevent spilling any wine if the cork exits the bottles suddenly and tragically.
- Open the bottle as quietly as possible. A no-brainer. This is proper wine service and not the end of a Formula One race. Opening bottles of sparkling wine quietly is a matter of practice and repetition.
- Remember to wipe the bottle with your serviette after you’ve removed the cork before pouring a taste for the host.
- Remember to present the cork to the host on an underliner which is placed to the host’s right.
Serving the bottle:
- Hold the bottle with a still wine grip. Do NOT hold the bottle with your thumb in the punt of the bottle when pouring; this method does not provide enough control and stability and the odds of dropping or losing control of the bottle increase significantly.
- After presenting the cork pour a 1-to-1.5 ounce taste for the host. Wait for them to approve the wine and then serve the table in the following order: serve lady guests first and then men. Serve the host last regardless of gender.
- Fill the glasses at least ½ to ¾ glass full with a maximum pour of an inch below the top of the glass.
- Fill the glasses one at a time with a maximum of two pours for each glass; partial pouring and/or going around the table multiple times is not allowed.
- Make sure the pours are even!
- Gage the pour level/amount based on glass size and number of glasses to be poured so you don’t run out of wine.
- It’s not necessary to empty the entire bottle of wine; in fact, there should be a little wine left in the bottle.
General Service points
- Remember to serve from the right and to move around the table clockwise—ALWAYS—even if just returning to the service station.
- Don’t reach across a guest’s space to place or clear glassware or serve wine--even if the chair is empty.
- PRACTICE CARRYING A TRAY. This is the one part of service that cannot be faked. If you don’t regularly work with a tray lots of practice will be needed for an exam setting. Odds are you will be nervous. Practice!
- You should be able to carry a tray comfortably with either hand. However, proper service dictates that the tray should be carried in the left hand and glassware placed with the right hand.
Service exam theory:
- Work on major cocktails, aperitifs and after dinner spirits. :oe Study cocktails and aperitifs by category, i.e., vodka cocktails, gin cocktails etc.
- Food and wine pairing: Have specific wine recommendations with producer and vintage in mind.
- Be able to take a specific style—be it a high acid red wine or a white with residual sugar—to multiple places in the wine world.
- Above all, know why the pairing works! Be able to explain why a wine works well with a specific dish in terms of the structural components of the wine (i.e., high acidity, lack or oak or smooth tannins). It’s the entire point of selling a specific wine with a certain dish.
General Service Advice:
- Taking care of the table is paramount. Even though you’re in an exam setting remember that you are a sommelier and your job is to take care of the table—NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS. In a real life service situation you do not have the luxury of freaking out or giving up on a table or “failing.” Your job again is to take care of the guest and give them great service. The exam should be no different. Take care of the examiner(s) as you would any guest in your restaurant. To do so will translate into success.
Thomas Price, MS is the head sommelier and educator at the Metropolitan Grill, Seattle’s premier steakhouse. Price came to Seattle in 1988 from Anchorage and managed beverage programs for some of Seattle’s top restaurateurs. In 1997 Thomas and his wife Jessica opened their own restaurant, Luau Polynesian Lounge. After selling Luau in 2004 Thomas started at The Met as a banquet server by night and by day began the arduous process preparing for the Master Sommelier examinations. Price was promoted to head sommelier at The Met in June of 2008 and passed the Master’s exam on his fourth attempt in May of 2012.
I tasted with Thomas in January of 2013. We used the 2009 RDV Rendezvous Merlot blend from Virginia and Riedel Vinum Bordeaux glasses. I began the interview by asking Thomas about his strategies for the three parts of the Master’s exam. I’m always interested in what strategies different students use to prepare for the exam. Thomas’ were unique and didn’t disappoint.
TG: Let’s talk about the exams first and what worked best for you. We were talking about theory a few minutes ago. You said that you tried maps but they didn’t do it.
TG: Most students say that they work but you said that working with sounds files was really good for you.
TP: That was a better method for me. I was probably overstating it when I said that maps didn’t work for me. But focusing solely on visual learning was not successful for me. Once I went to audio bombardment and very exhaustive note taking it really began to work.
TG: Going to the service exam, what part of the practical was hardest for you?
TP: Something you said once when you came up to Seattle to work with my group finally got me in the right mode. Before I just couldn’t get into character. I really struggled. I’d think this (the exam) isn’t real, I’m so stiff and wooden. Then you said something like, “we just want to be taken care of like we’re at a restaurant.” And that made all the difference in the world. So when I drop a little bit of red on the table cloth or I’m less than perfect at the job, I rise above and embrace the fact that I made a mistake and get better and keep going. That was really useful for me.
The whole thing for the exam is that people worry about what’s going to happen and they think about “what wines are they going to pour me” or “what questions are they going to ask me.” If you’re thinking like that you’re just not going to be successful. I found that out the hard way as it took me four times to pass the exam. Ask me anything you want and make me do anything you want and I’ll persevere. I’ll persevere with style and class and I may not answer every question but I’ll carry myself like a Master. That’s when you know the difference.
TG: Sounds like being in what I call “game mode” for the service exam was the hardest part. Was the physical service difficult for you?
TP: Yes because as I mentioned earlier I get nervous. I think part of it for me too was that I never achieved any academic success. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself. When I was successful at service my technique was extremely smooth. I think the last time I did the decant it was a magnum which I do a lot of at the restaurant. We rarely use a cradle at the Met (Metropolitan Grill in Seattle). I practiced a lot with one but it never did feel natural to me. But really it was just a combination of everything. I would get nervous to perform in that medium which I think was the most difficult and unpredictable of all for me.
TG: And what again made the difference in terms of not being so nervous that you could really function well? Was it the feeling that you had to take care of the table?
TP: Yes, I got into character. I kind of channeled our colleague Shayn Bjornholm who was a trained actor in a previous life. I’m not an actor, but I was that day and I was so in character that this was my restaurant and these are my guests. They’re not Master Sommeliers who are judging me on my performance. I’m going to wait on them because that’s what I’m really good at. So that was really helpful.
TG: What about tasting? Was tasting difficult? It was by far the most difficult part of the exams for me. How was it for you?
TP: It was difficult for me because again it was about nerves. But in Aspen when I passed (May 2012) I took each wine individually. I remember working with Fred Dame MS and him saying to approach a flight like it was six different examinations. So I tasted the heck out each wine and then moved on to the next one. I think that if you can go wine by wine it’s much better. I was also not thinking, “They’re going to pour Grüner or Grigio and Chablis next to each other and I’ve got to figure it out.” For the first few exams that was my mindset. But in Aspen it was more like, “pour me anything you want. I trust my process and I’m going to evaluate the wine to the best of my ability.”
TG: That’s a big shift.
TP: (laughs) well the other way wasn’t working!
TG: So for students in tasting, if you had advice for them what would it be?
TP: In my practice I actually got away from Court-like tasting and did a lot of comparative tastings. My group always talked about the “why” and not just the end result—almost like a metaphor for the whole exam. So I really worked on why I would confuse Grüner with Chablis. We (the group) would do that and sometimes we’d see the labels and discuss differences. All this helped me in the examination format to be able to speak to the characteristics of the wine in a much more informed way.
TG: The next part has to do with your goals in tasting wine. First, let’s take you in the MS tasting context. What are your goals? What are you trying to achieve?
TP: I’m trying to evaluate the wine as thoroughly as I possibly can all the way down the line. But also--and this is another piece that I started to incorporate into my actual tastings--I ask myself, “Do I like it personally? Do I like the texture? Do I like the flavor?” Obviously we all have wines that we like and wines we don’t like as much as others. I changed my tasting from just wanting to get the wine right to starting to think about if the wine would work for me or the guest in my restaurant. I let a little of that creep into my method for the exam and I think that was helpful too.
TG: What are your beliefs about tasting in general? Equipment-wise, what do you need to have a successful tasting?
TP: I think you need good light and proper glassware. For Court-specific tasting I love to keep my own time. Some people don’t like to do that. But if you get the banker Chablis of all time and blast through it in two minutes it’s good to know that have that time in case you get a wine you have no clue about. Then you have some extra time to spend on it. Otherwise, lighting is big but then so is glassware. I love specifically the Riedel Sangiovese/Riesling glass for tasting. I think from an aromatic perspective it really concentrates the aromas. Also make sure you’re hydrated, make sure you get some rest.
If I can give one piece of advice to Master’s candidates it would be “don’t taste ten wines before you go in for your tasting.” I made that mistake a couple of times. Also, don’t over-taste before you go to the exam. I was so geeked before I went to my first couple of tasting exams that I tasted too much. You’ve got to taper off and trust your ability especially right before the exam. I tried a lot of different strategies but the one I went back to was one I used for my Advanced exam. Before I went in for my tasting I tasted three wines: Vouray, Rioja and Zinfandel. I know those wines and rarely get them wrong so tasting them was just a positive thing. It’s a better calibration for me than trying to taste other wines that I might struggle with.
TG: What are your beliefs about yourself as a taster?
TP: I’m think I’m very strong. I started with some ability but with a lot of practice and some shifting of my approach I’ve become really solid. I’m think I’m really good at establishing a rhythm when I’m in the practice of doing it exactly the same way every time. Now when I work with students I tell them, “Come to the church of low, medium and high.” Not sort-of or slightly or a bit or kind of. Everything is low, medium or high. If it’s minerality sure there are gray areas because wine is a constantly morphing, changing thing. The wine you start with four minutes in may be showing some different characteristics. But low, medium, high is uber important. Then doing the wines in the same order every time. That’s a discipline because every wine has a different expression. Doing it the same way every time is an enormous part of the discipline.
TG: Finally, what do you think makes for a great wine?
TP: Great question. I have this discussion with my guests and also with my colleagues. There’s a few things: price to quality ratio is big in the real world. DRC is a dream for a lot of people, myself included. Also if the wine costs four dollars a bottle or four hundred dollars a bottle if it tastes real. I know that’s an ambiguous term but what I mean is that the wine tastes like it was made in the vineyard and not like it was genetically engineered or manipulated. That’s a huge factor for me. Something we don’t discuss a lot but I try to use in my notes is texture. How does the wine feel in your mouth? I think that we are so busy with the structure—the acid, alcohol and tannin—that mouthfeel gets left behind. When I’m tasting for the restaurant or for pleasure that’s a big factor for me. It doesn’t have to be dense and plush but it’s how the texture works with the fruit and the structure that’s a key component for me.
TG: In terms of looking at wine to evaluate it either for professional purposes for your list or the MS context what are you trying to do? What are your goals when looking at a wine?
TP: For both it’s making sure there’s no intentional flocculation whether the wine is old or however filtration or cold stabilization fits into the picture. I think you’re looking at the wine initially to try to get your feet underneath you in terms of where the wine might be, where it might come from and how it might taste. For the CMS tasting format I don’t spend a lot of time on sight. I think there are some wines like an aged Rioja or a Barolo where it can be a huge tell. But for me it’s more important to say all the things about the sight in 20 seconds tops. It’s different for everybody but certainly I would say to Advanced or Master’s candidates, if you’re 30-45 seconds into the sight you’re already behind.
TG: Any other thoughts about the sight, the appearance of wine?
TP: With this wine that I’m looking at right now, viscosity is your friend. With the color description-wise, my ruby might be your garnet might be somebody else’s red. I think those descriptions are useful but the viscosity and staining of the tears in a red can be really important clues right at the start.
TG: What color would you call this wine? (2009 RDV Rendezvous Merlot blend from Virginia)
TP: I would call that a dark purple going out to some ruby notes; holding its color with a little bit of change at the rim; moderate-plus staining of the tears and high viscosity.
TG: We’re going to get into some abstract questions, but how do you know it’s that color vs. something else? How do you know it’s not the color of Pinot Noir?
TP: That’s a great question. It goes back to thing I was talking about; having confidence anchored in because I almost see the staining of the tears and the viscosity first. In my mind I know that this can’t be a light-skinned grape varietal.
TG: But in terms of picking out that color and being able to identify it, how do you know?
TP: I don’t know. A lot of people will look at ruby red in an art book. I just never did that.
TG: But there must be some way that you know. So as you take a look at the glass, in your mind’s eye how do you know it’s that color vs. something else?
TP: I think that is just repetition of tasting a bunch of wines.
TG: How would you represent all that experience?
TP: That’s a great question. I’m not a very visual learner or visual person.
TG: Let me ask you this: if I say think of the difference between something like Mendoza Malbec that’s purple and Rioja Gran Reserva that’s 20 years old. Do you get two images in your head?
TG: So when you pick up this glass is there some way in terms of a series of images or colors that you’re able to match the wine to a color you’ve seen before? That’s the question.
TP: I’m more abstract than that. I don’t want to sound like I’m winging it but I have a really good memory and I’m drawing on tastings that I’ve done in the past.
TG: OK but how do you represent all that? Think about other Cabernet and Merlot-based wines and how do you know?
TP: I don’t know.
TG: I think it’s more that you do it so fast that you’re not aware of how you do it. But let’s slow it down for a second. And if I had to be you, what would I do? What would I see? What happens?
TP: I think that I’m so excited to get into the wine that I do it really fast. I don’t really want to get locked in on it. It (the wine) looks ruby purple enough so we’re moving on.
TG: I have to tell you that watching in watching you, you’re looking at the glass first and then you’re looking out here at several different points (out in front and slightly to the left of center and slightly up in several places). So I’m wondering if you hold your eyes out here, what happens? Take a look at the glass first and then go there and see what happens. What feels comfortable when thinking about color?
TP: It’s almost like in this format the train is on the track.
TG: When you say the train is on the track it means …
TP: It means it’s time to start evaluating this wine and I have a visual memory of what I call purple or ruby.
TG: What are those memories like? Images of colors or images of glasses of wine?
TP: Glasses of wine. 100%.
TG: Are the images in a row?
TP: This is great. So Stevenson’s book (Sotheby’s Encyclopedia of Wine) has pictures of everything from the lightest, brightest, cleanest wine to the deepest red. That series flashes in my head.
TG: Do you have separate white images and red images? Or is it just one color gradation?
TP: It’s one.
TG: Are they separate images like the Stevenson book?
TP: They’re like little slide images in my head.
TG: So what happens? Do you take a look at the glass and then the image continuum and match it up?
TG: Does anything happen when you find the right match? Does something light up? Something happen? Does the slide change somehow?
TP: It’s almost like I go straight to it. It’s like your computer when you click on something and it gets bigger. It’s like I’m scrolling through and then match it up.
TG: So the image gets bigger?
TP: Yes, it gets bigger and I know it’s a match.
TG: Do you say something to yourself at that point?
TP: I say, “That’s it.” I also may say to myself the four or five things it could be. But some days I’m in the zone and not aware of any of this.
TG: Just curious, when you say you’re in the zone and you look at the glass, ID the color and say here are the three or four things it could be, where do those things go? Do you say those possible things to yourself? Do you see images? How does it work?
TP: It’s words.
TG: At that point is it your voice saying it or someone else’s?
TG: How do you get around the pitfall of pigeonholing the wine?
TP: Because I’ve got so much left to evaluate. Those potential things are floating through my head as I taste the wine but I really try not to force the wine into something. I think that’s something I’ve become really proficient at—really focusing on what the wine actually is and not trying to force into something it isn’t. Otherwise, there’s a lot of people living in my head at the same time.
TG: That’s right because you have to acknowledge that kind of thought but then park it to the side and get back to it at the conclusion to see if it makes sense. Otherwise, you definitely will try to make the wine into something else.
TG: Now for the nose. In terms of overall goals in smelling wine, what are you trying to do?
TP: I’m trying to get the blueprint of what the wine is which will hopefully be confirmed on the palate; what it’s going to taste like, what its age is and if there’s minerality and the like. I’m just trying to get a snapshot of what the wine will be. We’ve all been there when you get the wine on your palate and all the things you’ve said about the nose seem really dumb. But I think for the most part as you become a better taster the nose is the main thing. In my experience, when I put my nose in the glass and smell it for the first time, I try to think about what it is and 95% of the time it’s right for me—I know what it is. When I was a less accomplished taster I would try to find ways to talk myself out of that. Occasionally it doesn’t work because I still need to evaluate the wine.
TG: Now it’s time to get to work. For the record we have the 2009 Rendezvous Merlot blend from RDV in Virginia as the wine we’re using today. So go ahead and smell the wine and focus and get in your zone. What I’m curious about is where you’re looking when you put your nose in the glass which is almost straight down in front. Is that where you usually look when smelling a wine?
TG: Just curious about something. So as you smell the wine what happens if you move your eyes up to about horizon level? What happens? Anything change? Smell better? Worse?
TP: I get more lift, more high tones.
TG: I ask only because if I describe what you do, you hold the glass at a fairly steep angle straight out in front and then pretty much look straight down. What happens if you move your eyes to the left or right? Brain-wise, does that feel better or worse?
TP: It doesn’t work. I need to be right in the middle.
TG: OK, so as you smell this wine why don’t we start with the fruit. What do you get for fruit?
TP: Blackcurrant, black plum and black cherry.
TG: Couple of questions: how do you know you’re smelling those things? And if I had to be you what would I experience?
TP: To begin I didn’t do a lot of “go get some gooseberries” to learn what gooseberries smell like. It’s almost a life memory. I know what blackberry and black plums smell like.
TG: Agreed. But when you put your nose in this particular glass of wine, how do you know you’re smelling those things vs. anything else? How do you know? I also notice that you’re holding the glass with both hands.
TP: Yes, that’s how I do it. A lot of times I want the temp of the wine to be warmer so it’s a way of doing that. Otherwise, it’s been my method. But that’s such a great question and it’s awesome to delve into this.
TG: Let’s go back and do it again. You put your nose in the glass and your eyes go here (middle and almost straight down). At this point do you say anything to yourself?
TG: Anything like “what’s there” or “what’s going on?”
TP: It’s like I talked about doing it the same way every time. The initial scent on this wine is new oak. I get a very plush, lush, nutmeg, vanilla sort of aroma. But of course I have to be careful to stay in my method so that’s not the first thing I would note.
TG: Having said nutmeg and vanilla, how do you know it’s those things vs. something else?
TP: Because of all the wines I’ve evaluated over the last 9-10 years.
TG: Not to be a pain but if I had to be you what would nutmeg and vanilla be like? How would I experience them?
TP: I’m going to have to somehow convey that information to you.
TG: Exactly! But again, how would you know? So if I had to be you I would hold the glass with both hands at this angle, look straight down here and then smell a lot of new oak influence. What would I experience for new oak? How would I remember that it’s new oak?
TP: Baking spices, apple pie, everything. I’m a cooking fanatic. It’s my favorite thing to do. Ever since I’ve been studying for the exams, every time I make something I try to identify the smells as much as possible—fruits, vegetables or whatever. So if I’m making a salad with arugula I’ll crush some in my hands and smell it so the next time I smell Grüner Veltliner I’ll be able to recognize it. Even if I say the word “arugula” this memory pops into my mind. It’s mostly driven by foods I’ve worked with. I’ve never been much of an aroma wheel person either.
TG: OK, so pick up the glass again and go to all the oak aromas. From here I’m just trying to see what your eyes do. They go down here initially but I’m looking for the other place they go when you recognize something in the glass. All of this is to say that you have to have a way of drawing on all the memories you were just talking about—memories that help you identify something. So when you smell vanilla and spices in this wine how do you represent that to yourself? That’s what we’re after.
TP: It’s all smell memories.
TG: Memories like …
TP: Like apple pie filling.
TG: So apple pie filling and you’re looking out here to the left and about chest level. What’s there at that location where you’re looking? Is that a memory of you making an apple pie as you in a movie making apple pie?
TG: So with the nutmeg and vanilla, what do you get for those?
TP: Like making béchamel and putting a little nutmeg in it.
TG: Like making the sauce?
TP: Literally me making the sauce.
TG: Great. Just so you know, this is what you did just now: when you mentioned nutmeg, you put your nose in the glass and looked down to your starting point then went very strongly out and slightly to the left to your memory of making the béchamel.
Just for some detail, when you see making the sauce do you see the actual ingredients or the process of actually making the sauce?
TP: I see the ingredient that I’m using and also smelling in the moment.
TG: Does the ingredient sit on something? Is it by itself? Remember this is in the context of me being you and experiencing what you are in the moment.
TP: The ragu is almost cooked down, the cream is almost cooked in and I’m grabbing a pinch of nutmeg and about ready to add it to the sauce.
TG: What about the vanilla, what’s that like?
TP: Vanilla extract. As a kid I liked to open a bottle of vanilla extract and just smell it. To me it’s just a beautiful smell. That’s a very powerful memory for me. But I’m not necessarily accessing this memory while I’m smelling the wine because I’m so focused on what I’m doing. But to your point I have to get there somehow.
TG: Go ahead and smell the wine again; what about fruit? Tell me about the fruit.
TP: Black fruits: black plum, blackcurrant and almost a kind of blue or boysenberry thing too.
TG: That’s a lot of fruit. Which one is the strongest? Let’s pick one and figure out how you got there.
TP: Black plum.
TG: So for black plum, what do you get? How is that represented to you?
TP: I’m thinking of a place where we used to toss the disc around in Seattle; on the rare occasion of warm summer day where there were plums that were so ripe they were almost rotten on the trees. You could smell them in this orchard where we played.
TG: So this is like a movie of the memory and you’re in it? Like you could reach out and grab the plums?
TP: Absolutely and we would never eat them because they were so ripe they were almost turned. But that’s the level of intensity of the black plum on the nose of this wine—uber ripe.
TG: What other fruits to do you smell?
TP: There some blue fruit too: boysenberry, blueberry and straight blackberry.
TG: So all those other fruits, how do you represent them to yourself? We’ve got the movie for the black plums and what happens for the rest?
TP: This if funny because I really don’t eat very much fruit—I don’t really like it. So how I access these memories is almost going back to when I was growing up in Juneau, Alaska. There wasn’t a lot of fruit growing there but we had blueberries. I remember having to eat them but not enjoying them. Now living in Seattle blackberries grow rampantly all over the place. My wife tries to get me to eat them and I still don’t particularly like them.
TG: Anything else for fruit we should mention?
TP: No, I think the wine is very expressive and straight forward.
TG: OK. So pick up the glass again and think about all those fruits. Can you pick them up sequentially quickly or keep them in mind all at the same time? How does it work?
TP: It’s sequentially. But I’m thinking that when I get to the palate the intensity or the amount of each fruit will probably change. There may be more blueberry vs. more black plum or whatever. I kind of card catalogue it.
TG: When you say “card catalogue” what does that mean?
TP: In my brain I remember the three primary fruits.
TG: Are there literally cards? You’re pointing to the right side of your head by your ear.
TP: Yes, it’s right back there. It’s like the purpose of my whole process is to not only get the wine right but to also evaluate it completely. So on the palate--if my nose didn’t let me down and those fruits are still in the wine--I need to let to let whoever wants to know, be that an MS panel or a distributor, about what’s going on in the wine.
TG: OK but what I’m trying to do here is build a sequence of what you’re doing. It seems like you smell the wine, your eyes move up here and then you get total body memories of things in the wine. That’s at least what I’m picking up so far. But then does that information become a card that you store in your head? That seems to be where the info is going.
TP: This is interesting because I’ve never thought about it analytically. At that point what it feels like in my head is that I do make an image because I might need it later but then put it away. I’ve pulled the memories out, I’ve got the cards and I don’t need the childhood stuff anymore.
TG: Not to sound silly but what do the cards look like?
TP: Like little flashcards.
TG: Like 3 X 5 cards?
TP: No, really small. They have to fit in my head! (Laughs) It’s almost like dragging your mouse on your computer over an image and it gets bigger. I can make the images bigger if I need to. With the blue fruit thing, if I taste it then the image will get bigger automatically because it’s so intense.
TG: But these images are to the side. How can you see them?
TP: It’s inside and like a voice and an image.
TG: But you still got an image, correct?
TG: Is the image flat and two dimensional? Or is it three dimensional?
TP: Flat and two dimensional.
TG: Are the images in the order that you smelled them? Or is it whatever is the most intense?
TP: It’s whatever is the most intense is first.
TG: Does the MS grid have any bearing in terms of how you organize all this?
TP: Definitely. But right now with the nose I’m just compiling evidence. By the time I get this wine on the palate I’ll put all the evidence in a perfect linear order.
TG: When you do that it sounds like you pull everything outside and put it right in front of you. You’re going from up to down right out in front of you about a foot away.
TG: When the images are inside can you look at all of them or do you have to look at things one at a time?
TP: I look at categories of things in sequence.
TG: What about minerality? Smell the wine again and see if anything pops up for minerality. Then I’m curious if you use the same process that you did for fruit.
TP: Yes, I actually picture rocks inside my head.
TG: You mean rocks out here (out in front) or an image of rock inside your head?
TP: That’s out front.
TG: Then that goes internally and becomes one of those cards that you store?
TG: So what does the image of minerality look like?
TP: If it’s Chablis it’s like the white cliffs of Dover or it’s galets for Chateauneuf. I’ve never walked the vineyards in some of these places so I have to rely on images I’ve seen in books. But the images are definitely there.
TG: So the last thing is non-fruit; what do you smell in this wine?
TP: There’s a lot of purple flower-violet happening in the wine.
TG: What’s that like?
TP: It’s an image of the flowers.
TG: Is it 2D or 3D? Movie? Still image?
TP: It’s 3D and like a vase of violets. But it’s also like a flower that grows in Alaska called fireweed and it has a very similar aroma to this.
TG: But the image is like a vase with flowers in space out in front of you?
TG: It seems pretty close like you could reach out and touch it. Is it life size?
TP: Yes and yes.
TG: Once you create that image does it get filed in your head like the rest of the images? What happens to it?
TP: They go back into the file.
TG: What does the file itself look like? It’s a collection of images but what does it look like?
TP: It’s like a box with cards in it. This if funny because this is what I was finally able to do in the Aspen exam—and what I’ve been able to do since—is I’m able to empty out the box once I’m done with a wine and then refill it with the next wine.
TG: That’s brilliant. But can you get that information back if you need it?
TP: Yes and this sounds so nuts (laughs) because there’s another box—a hedge box.
TG: So the first box is in your head and at some point you empty it; but you also want to keep the information when you’re done with the wine. Does it go into the “hedge box?”
TG: Where does this hedge box live?
TP: It’s sitting right in front of me, right by the glass of wine in case I have a question about it.
TG: So it’s there and you can pull up information/images if you need it?
TG: Finally, how do you know when you’re finished smelling the wine?
TP: When I’ve filled in all my boxes; when I’ve talked about everything I feel there is to talk about.
TG: Do you actually see the MS grid when you’re tasting to make sure you’re not missing anything?
TP: Yes, very much so.
TG: Where do you see it?
TP: It’s out in front.
TG: Yes, you’re looking right out in front of you 3-5 feet away almost at eye level. So periodically, you’ll flash it up and make sure you’re getting everything?
TG: So go ahead and taste the wine; in fact you should probably taste it a couple of times. First, what are your goals for tasting? Now that you’ve smelled the wine and pulled out much of the information you need, what are you trying to accomplish when you actually tasting the wine?
TP: Matching up everything—or not—that I’ve already spoken about. Now it’s time to get everything collated or assimilated or say my nose file isn’t matching up to my palate file. Most of the time when I’m tasting I can use straight sensory input. But I’ve got the theory if I need it in case things don’t match up because theory always informs tasting.
TG: Go ahead and taste the wine again. I would be interested to find out what you do with the images of things you smelled that you’ve filed internally. What do you do with them? Do you bring them out and look at them as you taste the wine to confirm things? How do you compare what you’re tasting in the moment to what you’ve already smelled? What do you do?
TP: Right now, and it’s happening pretty fast, I’m going through all the fruit I smelled and the blue fruit isn’t nearly as important—it’s all black plum all the way.
TG: What’s interesting is that you’re looking at and motioning right out in front of your face about ten inches away; it looks like you have all the images there. Is that true? Stop for a moment and check. Are all the images there? Flowers? Oak?
TP: Yes and they’re all in the grid sequence.
TG: OK and you said this time there’s more black plum. Did that image change in any way? Did it rise to the top? Get larger?
TP: Yes, it went to the top but it’s still about flash card size.
TG: Is it 3D? Can you reach out and touch it? If you can, what happens to it?
TP: No, it’s 2D because it’s the grid to me which is a piece of paper that I had on my fridge with a magnet for three years.
TG: So you have all these images out in front of you. Can they shift? Get larger? Change in any way?
TP: The more intense they are the more they go up to the top; they also get larger. The black plum image immediately got larger right when I tasted the wine.
TG: Then what happens?
TP: It goes back.
TG: Is this like the way you described dragging a computer mouse over an image and it getting larger?
TG: So what else to you taste/see?
TP: So I’ve got the grid out in front and I’m going right down it as in this wine is dry and full-bodied.
TG: So you’re working completely from the grid?
TP: Yes, so again it’s dry, full-bodied, black fruits and there’s also some ripe blue fruit in this wine as well; not much minerality.
TG: If there was a lot of minerality where would it be? Underneath the fruit where it matches the grid?
TG: What about the non-fruit?
TP: That’s the next thing because I’m sticking to my version of the grid. So this wine has lots of purple flowers, fireweed and violet.
TG: And all these are underneath the fruit?
TG: Then what about oak?
TP: My order is always fruit, earth, other oak.
TG: Just curious, is there a grid that you’re seeing as you go down that order of things; an actual grid with writing on it where you place the images?
TP: The grid is like memory tied to the images. So I don’t actually see the writing.
TG: But how do you know which order in which to do things?
TP: I don’t know.
TG: Just hold it there for a couple of seconds and see what happens.
TP: Actually there is—it’s a reminder for me not miss anything.
TG: So you’re reading the grid to yourself as you taste?
TP: Yes, I’m saying “fruit” and then the pictures of the fruit come up; then “earth” and the pictures come up for that.
TG: Do the pictures populate out in front of you?
TG: That’s a really elegant sequence. Now something occurs to me; pick up the wine and smell it again. Are you doing the same thing with the grid when you smell the wine as in saying parts of it to yourself then generating the images? Do you say something on the grid to yourself which generates a memory that then becomes an image?
TG: OK I think we’re putting together your strategy for tasting. From there the images go into the file box in your head. When you taste the wine you see the grid again and say the various things to yourself and then the images appear in front of you in an up/down arrangement with the most intense flavors at the top having the largest images. Does that sound right?
TG: That’s a very organized way of thinking about tasting. Fantastic. The best part is that you probably never mix things up that way.
TP: True. It’s all driven by time management because I ran out of time in the previous exam in Vegas. It was the worst feeling ever. You’re never going to pass if you run out of time.
TG: Your tasting trance wasn’t quite there …
TG: Let me review your sequence. This is what I have so far: you pick up the glass with both hands and look almost straight down and to the center. As you smell the wine you see the grid out in front of you literally read it to yourself; as you recognize things they initially take the form of whole body memories but then become images on cards that move to the inside your head which you then file. When you taste the wine you again read the grid to yourself and images from your internal “file box” move out in front of you about 10 inches away from your face. The images are arranged in a strip and if something is more intense on the palate vs. the nose the image gets larger and moves to the top of the strip. Does this sound about right?
TG: Once again I have to say that this is a very elegant system for tasting. So now I’m interested in how you calibrate structure. So taste the wine again and pick something about the structure, acidity for instance. How much acidity does the wine have?
TG: How do you know it’s moderate and not moderate-plus? For that matter, how do you know it’s not high?
TP: This is fascinating. So now a whole separate set of cards comes up.
TG: But this is just structure. You’re not trying to ID the wine.
TP: But Nebbiolo is high acid so I bring up a card for Nebbiolo and know that this wine doesn’t have the same amount of acidity. This is more like a California Cabernet or Merlot. With that I haven’t tasted many of those wines that have more than medium-plus acid so I know that this is medium acid.
TG: I agree with your call of medium acidity. But how do you know it’s not medium-minus or medium-plus? What happens if you taste the wine again and try to make it medium-plus?
TP: It’s just medium.
TG: How do you know?
TP: I’m going through a file of every class wine in the world.
TG: But then does it take you a long time to get through structure? Are you flashing a series of glasses with names on them or what?
TP: No, it’s more like words.
TG: Is there a picture of an actual glass of wine?
TP: More just like a word on a card.
TG: So you read the word Nebbiolo on a card to yourself? As opposed to something with lower acidity?
TG: Are the cards in a sequence from low to high acid?
TP: No, I don’t see everything I just see what’s relevant to this wine I’m tasting.
TG: You’re also holding your right arm at arm’s length out in front of you just below eye level. Is that where you see the words? Do the words flash and say Nebbiolo or how does it work? It’s almost like search and identify as in higher-lower, higher-lower, back and forth and then you have it.
TG: So what other words might come up for this wine to identify the acid?
TP: Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Also at this point I’ve already tasted the wine and identified it as new world so other things don’t come into play. It’s like Nebbiolo is here (points out front), over ripe Zinfandel is down here (points lower out in front) and this wine is right in the middles.
TG: So there are locations where the words live?
TG: Is there some kind of gradation or a sequence that all the words live in?
TP: Yes: Nebbiolo, Cabernet-Merlot and Zinfandel.
TG: So that’s acidity. What do you do for alcohol? What’s the alcohol level in this wine?
TG: Again, how do you know it’s not moderate-minus or high? Do you use the same kind of system of cards with words? Do you do something different?
TP: With a wine like this that’s either moderate-plus or high, I channel into a fortified wine kind of a scale just because of the alcohol in the retro-nasal and how the wine feels on the sides of my tongue. I’m thinking that the wine’s not port-like but it’s not Burgundy either. The wine is delicious, by the way.
TG: But is the same kind of system with words? Do you have Port over here and Burgundy over here? The middle would be something like Cabernet or Merlot?
TP: Yes and yes.
TG: But are there any markers in and around the words on the cards that make it so you can really calibrate precisely? Or is it using wine types?
TP: It’s wine types and how the wine hits me in the moment. Part of it was born out of the desire to be timely and linear but it also the way I’ve always done it.
TG: What about tannin? Do you do it the same way?
TG: Just a bit more about this series of words. Is it a strip of words out in front of you? A white strip?
TG: Is it the same scale for all the wines or do you have different scales for different wines?
TP: Good question. I’m really focusing wine by wine so if I’ve got Clare Riesling then that’s at the top for acidity, Condrieu would be at the bottom. I’m calibrating off that.
TG: So different scales for whites and reds.
TG: What about the finish? How do you do that? Say a short finish vs. a long finish.
TP: Just mouth feel and texture.
TG: OK but how do you know? How do you calibrate it?
TP: I’m going back to the contributing factors to the finish which are tannin, alcohol and acid. I’ve already established what I believe those to be. So if I called a wine medium-plus alcohol, medium acid and medium-plus tannin, then the finish couldn’t be short. It would have to be medium-plus or long.
TG: Got it. Where you do store these words?
TP: It’s in a grid.
TG: So when you get to where it says acid and you say Cabernet, what does there? The word “medium” or just “Cabernet?” Does the answer go there too?
TP: It’s a combination of both. Again, if I called the wine medium-plus alcohol, medium acid and medium-plus tannin, I look at my grid and all the cards and know the wine has to have medium-plus complexity and a medium-plus finish.
TG: You mention complexity; what is complexity like? Think of a basic jug wine then think of a heroically complex wine; what’s the difference? How do you represent those to yourself? Do you see labels or bottles?
TP: That’s a tough one. It’s like a textural thing; if I’m falling face down on the floor it’s not a complex wine. But if I’m falling face down into a big lush pile of pillows then the wine has to have higher complexity. It’s a body-feeling type of a thing and again at this is the point during my tasting where I allow myself to ask if I like the wine or not. As for this wine, it has a velvety texture and the tannins are in balance so it’s a really good wine—and very complex. So the pleasure center for the first time might come into play. That’s always been my complexity thing: do I like it or not.
TG: So at the end of it when you have all this information on the grid in terms of images and answers, how do you identify the wine in the MS context? What do you do?
TP: I’m going all the way back everything I’ve said. So the grid is laid out and I have all my markers and evaluations. I’m reading down the grid and seeing all the various images and the structure words. At this point I have no choice but to call this a new world wine from a moderate to warm climate.
TG: Why can’t you call it old world? What stops you?
TP: Low minerality. I don’t even have a picture for minerality, literally a picture of a rock in my head. I’m not saying that the absence of minerality automatically makes it new world but in the case of this wine I’m 99% sure.
TG: Got it. So I think we pretty much have your sequence down. I have to ask you, did you know that you did any of this?
TP: No, not at all. Thanks, this has been pretty amazing.
Hugh Macleod from gapingvoid.com
Recently I was listening to Michael Krasny interview wine importer extraordinaire Kermit Lynch on the local Bay Area NPR radio affiliate. At the end of the interview Kermit took calls from listeners and one of the callers complained bitterly about wine writers and how they describe wines in florid detail using terms that, according the caller, were complete nonsense. Kermit soft-pedaled his answer saying that yes, writers can sometimes go off the rails when describing wine and that yes, everyone’s palate is different so you can’t expect to agree on everything you read in a wine review. But Lynch’s response made me pause because I’ve heard this complaint all too often; that wine descriptions and reviews are in some form or other nonsense and that wine writers frankly make things up. So I’d like to address this personally, even ecumenically, if you will.
Odds are wine writers as much as you may want to believe it are not making things up. Sure there may be the odd hallucination now and again but usually they’re simply trying to tell you what wine X, Y or Z smells and tastes like to them. Emphasis on THEM. Beyond that we often hear the phrase “everybody’s different” when it comes to wine and that is correct across the board. Here’s how we’re different. In short, here’s the deal:
We all have the same hardware in the form of our brain and neurology. But after that all bets are off. What’s different? Simple answer: everyone’s memories. So your take on Meyer Lemon is going to be different than mine because my experience in the form of my internal pictures, movies, sounds and feelings associated with Meyer Lemon throughout my lifetime is unique and not yours. And while we may agree that there’s something sour and citrus-like in the wine we’re sharing we’re never going to have the identical experience collectively known as Meyer Lemon. You may think it smells more like pink grape fruit or a catcher’s mitt or a freshly painted garage door for that matter. Further, the wonderful bouquet of flowers I adore in a glass of glorious Grand Cru Alsace Gewurztraminer may utterly repel you because it’s entirely too close to your memory of a tragic drive-by at a Macy’s perfume counter at some point in the distant past. Personal likes and dislikes are important and those are based on memory too.
Context is also important. The how’s, who’s, why’s and when’s you taste/drink a wine collectively form the trump card in any wine experience. That magic bottle of whatever you enjoyed when your boyfriend proposed will forever be your favorite wine in the whole entire universe and just the mere thought of it will send you around the moon and back to that magic moment--until the divorce. Then it becomes the most cursed s#@*&% bottle of wine in the history of mankind. Yes, friends, context is important. Remember that.
Remember also that wine tasting is marginally about actually tasting. It’s primarily about SMELLING as smell accounts for over 85% of the sense of taste. So if you’re passing by the nose on your evening goblet of Cabernet going right in for the big slurp the proverbial cow is already out of the barn. In fact, the cow is so far out of the barn that it took your car to SFO and is now headed to Fiji. On your credit card. Moo.
That is to say olfactory memory is the most powerful form of memory we have because aromas from the glass or any other source go right up our nasal passages directly into the cerebral cortex. That means when such-and-such wine writer rambles on about how the pepper and herbal notes in a Chateauneuf-du-Pape remind him of the cassoulet his grandmother used to make when he was a kid during the holidays, guess what; it probably does and that means you shouldn’t wig out over said writer’s musings but should instead try to get to your own memories of pepper and savory herbs to better understand what the writer is trying to express about the wine. Hopefully the next time you taste the same wine or a similar wine you might experience them too unless, of course, you find something completely different. Because after all, it’s what the wines smells and tastes like to you that actually counts.
As for the sense of smell, we as a culture generally suck at olfactory memory. It’s not important to us so we don’t practice it and we’re not very good at it. Other than a smack-me-on-the-side-of-the-head tsunami of cow pasture, raw garlic or did somebody left the burner with the gas stove on, we’re generally not tuned into the olfactory world. There are definitely exceptions and those individuals tend to be in the perfume, wine and spirits worlds or other professions where one’s expertise is largely determined by smell memory. It’s not surprising then that when someone with a highly developed olfactory memory writes about their subject in depth it’s viewed with great suspicion.
But it's easily understandable that the poetic meanderings/descriptions of wine writing can sometimes leave one puzzled, forlorn and even verklempt. This because wine has no inherent vocabulary leaving us wine professionals to borrow, often tragically, nomenclature from completely unrelated fields. Adjectives such as “murky,” “bold,” “dense,” and even something comical like “explosive” find their way into wine descriptions not to mention any number of fruits, herbs and spices (road tar is among my favorites). But when you read that tasting a rare old vintage made some famous wine writer start weeping you should definitely have serious misgivings. I would.
Know that wine professionals taste a lot of wine as in potentially thousands of bottles a year. If someone is tasting that much odds are they’re pretty good at it and they should also be proficient at communicating about it in a meaningful way even if they are limited to nomenclature that may seem like Martian to the novice. Keep in mind that this is tasting and not drinking. A professional tasting may sound like fun to you but it’s hard work requiring a hell of a lot of focus, concentration and inevitable palate fatigue. Still think it sounds fun? Imagine tasting 45 different coffees in 90 minutes, taking notes and then writing about the qualities of each one. I rest my case.
Finally, if the florid wine descriptions still give you agita consider giving wine writers a break. Even with the zillions of wine blogs and everyone pretending to be a wine expert these days there are more good writers than ever. Find one whose prose you can live with—even like—and follow them. Chances are their likes and dislikes are similar to yours. But above all remember that your palate—and what you like to drink—is the bottom line. Because after all, I made all this up.
Gilian Handelman is the current director of education and communications for Jackson Family Wines. She began her career as an assistant sommelier in 1987 at Pierce’s restaurant in the Finger Lakes region of New York but quickly moved into the production side in 1988 in Washington State working six harvests for three different wineries. Gilian was hired in 1994 by Kendall-Jackson as Enologist, where she produced experimental wine, yeast and barrel trials and tracked the 1,500-plus lots of wine made by the winery each year. In 2006, she was tapped to create a trade education program for the winery, where she developed training for KJ’s sales force as well as wine and food education and seminars for trade and consumers.
In 2000 she was hired by Paige Poulos at Paige Poulos Communications to be the Director of Wine Communications. Here she developed PR and education plans for winery and industry clients; plans that combined sensory evaluation, winemaking and culinary education with public relations and marketing strategy.
In 2002 Gilian was hired by Wine & Spirits Magazine; as their Director of Marketing and Education she created their Best New Sommelier program, coordinated and taught scores of classes at culinary and hospitality schools around the United States and developed their lauded event program.
Eventually she was lured back to Jackson Family Wines in 2007, where she currently directs education for the family’s 34 wineries around the globe.
Gilian lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two children.
I met with Gilian in May of last year. We used the 2009 RDV Rendezvous Merlot blend from Virginia and Riedel Vinum/Bordeaux glasses for the tasting. As for the session, it was clear from the outset that Gilian’s inner processing of wine is far different than most people’s strategies. She is a synesthete processing wine as a flow and shape of colors and movement. She’s created “maps” of many grape varieties and these can be found on the KJ website (http://www.kj.com/sensory-tour). Her strategy is unique and remarkable as well. Overall Goals TG: What are your overall goals when tasting? GH: I’m trying to bridge the gap between language and the abstract. For me it’s a different exercise because I’m trying to decipher what’s going on in the glass whether it’s for a blind tasting or for quality purposes. But when I’m speaking to an audience and trying to get them to come to a shared conclusion, what I’m trying to do is to get them to consider anything whether it’s shapes, sounds, frequencies, hard word descriptors—literally anything that will create that “aha!” for the class. It’s a language aspect. TG: What do you think the “aha!” moment is? What does that mean? GH: It really varies so much from person to person. What I’m looking for is the brow not to be knitted anymore. It’s like someone is thinking, “I don’t see it, I don’t see it, I don’t see it, I SEE IT!” Some people want the satisfaction that they’ve hit upon a descriptor that resonates for everybody. Other people want to understand a structural element. Some people just want answers to questions like, “what do you mean by framework?” or “What do you mean by high note?” Even if you have to resort to things like, “is it this?” (She sings high pitch) or “is it this?” (Sings low pitch); you do whatever it is to make all the brows to stop knitting. Sight TG: When you look at wine in the glass what are you trying to figure out about it? GH: I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to unravel the 30-year mystery for me of how much bias goes into sight. This because I’ve had so many “kerthunk” moments in the last five years when I’ve been positing things to scientists and people who really taste analytically about how sight is such a huge predetermination of how people taste. What I’ve been trying to do is to open the space between my ears and think, “with this wine (glass in hand) it’s opaque so my sense is that it’s relatively low in acid and high in tannin and probably has wood on it, blah blah blah.” These are all things you get from visual cues. But now I’m trying really hard to think that maybe those things aren’t necessarily true. TG: So why do you want to avoid doing that? I think to your point sight, especially for red wines, builds instant expectations for fruit qualities and structural components. But at least that’s a good framework to begin with. So are you trying to wipe the slate clean? GH: A little bit. I think one of my pitfalls as a taster is that I have preconceived notions and they will drive me through things that I am missing. So something I’m really striving to do now is to stop my brain from saying, “I know what that is!” TG: Anything else about the sight, the appearance of a wine? Anything to describe it? GH: The other thing about sight that I really like to pay attention to, and that I also encourage people to pay attention to, is the textural element; how the wine moves in the glass. That’s something I look at pretty carefully right away. That’s different from color. It translates to sound for me. TG: In other words when you swirl the glass and watch how the wine moves in the glass you hear sounds? GH: Yes. TG: So if a wine is really viscous and rich what sound is that? GH: Gloop, gloop, gloop. (Laughs) TG: Is it just a sound? Is there anything that you see? Does the sound create any kind of pattern in your field of vision? I’m just curious. GH: I don’t think so. I think it’s more like having observed Jell-O, jellies and candies hardening-- various things like that over the years. I just have a very firm sense of what texture means. TG: What about something like Champagne or German Riesling that’s really light-bodied? GH: Ffft! Ffft! Ffft! (Laughs again) TG: What’s in between? GH: It’s more of a gentle swishing sound, like water lapping on the edge of a lake or the sides of a boat. TG: Do you have a predisposition to any one of those? GH: Gloop, gloop, gloop is not attractive to me. TG: For all wines? What about something like a dessert wine? GH: For a Sauternes it’s OK. TG: What about a red wine? GH: Much less so. Personally I want more tension and more edges on my red. Also I’ve become more predisposed to not like so much glycerin-glycerol-texture in my wines. But that’s totally personal and not qualitative. TG: So one is about judging wine professionally and the other is personal. So it sounds like at home you like the higher acid, less alcohol red wines. GH: Yes but there are definitely exceptions. I wouldn’t kick a Huet Vouvray out of bed and it’s a gloop gloop wine. TG: (Laughs) I agree.
Gilian Handelman: KJ Vintner's Reserve Sauvignon Blanc
TG: Go ahead and pick up your glass and smell the wine. When you really get into the zone what I’m interested in is where your eyes go, where you look. (She smells the wine) It seems your eyes go right out here (straight out and down about 15-20 degrees).
TG: Does that feel really comfortable like it’s the best place? Try it again.
GH: Yes, that’s it. Definitely. I don’t stare into the wine.
TG: Most people do. Over 90% of the people I’ve worked with look down either center, slightly to the left or slightly to the right. I think this is really important because it’s a starting point for your tasting sequence. It also helps to shut the world out so you can focus.
So once you do that and smell this wine, what kind of fruits do you smell?
GH: Mostly dark fruit; fruit that’s not stewed but more on the compote side or on the counter for a while side.
TG: As you’re smelling the wine and telling me this I see your eyes start here and then go out here (Straight out in front almost eye level). Question: how do you know it’s dark fruit and not something else?
TG: Tenor meaning …
GH: I also see and hear music a lot when I taste. For me this wine is more of a basso sound (hums) vs. a higher sound.
TG: When you say you see something do you get images of something that’s dark fruit? I also have to note that you’re looking in exactly the same place as before.
GH: Not sure.
TG: Put your nose in the glass and hold the dark fruit and your eyes in the same place for a few seconds and see if anything pops up.
GH: No, I don’t see any dark fruit. I feel dark fruit whether it’s in the core of my body or in a smell memory.
TG: But I’m curious because feelings tend to be evaluative—they happen as a result of an image or a sound. So what I want to know is there an image that creates all this other stuff? Because again, how do you know it’s dark fruit and not red fruit or even a catcher’s mitt for that matter? How do you know?
GH: Right as in how am I pulling it from the wine. I guess it’s just an instantaneous reaction in my brain. There’s this thought that I’ve catalogued all these smells and there’s a synapse that’s telling me this is dark fruit.
TG: But what tells the synapse?
GH: I think, although I haven’t really articulated this before, that for me it’s sort of a family tree or a logarithm. Like you, I do the same kind of thing in terms of the fruit, the floral, mineral, veggie and the rest.
TG: As you’re saying those things you’re going left to right just out in front of you. Is that how it works?
GH: I always go left to right.
TG: Is that a grid or what is that?
GH: It’s a like a family tree or a logarithm. So if I’m starting with fruit (and I always start with fruit) then it would branch off here (points out front). It happens really quickly and there’s only two worlds for fruit for me—white and red. In red fruit there’s also only two worlds, red and black. After that the logarithm breaks off further.
TG: If I were you what would all that look like? Is it like a picture of a tree with branches?
GH: It’s almost like electricity. Once I make those quick decisions, say that it’s in the black fruit world I’m asking if it’s fresh black fruit or prunes or whatever.
TG: As you point to those places (out in front of her), are those images or what are they?
GH: I think they are lines of connect in my brain that are leading me to one framework or another.
TG: I’m still trying to get to how you know it’s black fruit vs. something else. So if I had to be you, what would I do? So far I know that you put your nose in the glass and some kind of tree appears quickly; but you somehow take everything into consideration and then recognize something specifically. From there it becomes a subset of different variations of whatever it is. But what does all this look like?
GH: It’s like a family tree or an electron, almost like when you match up electrons and protons. There’s lines of yes-no, yes-no for me.
TG: Are there any pictures that have to do with all this? I’m just curious if there are images somehow in the process.
GH: I don’t think there are pictures. I think there’s a memory but it doesn’t look like an image because I’ve been smelling things for so long. I remember walking around as a kid with my Mom smelling things in markets. It’s more of an association. It’s not emotional as it it’s recognition of some kind.
TG: But how do you recognize something? That’s the question. If you recognize anything specifically, how do you do it? Say it’s something really strong in a wine such as a fruit or a rose. How do you represent that?
GH: So if we really do go there I think it’s a shape. For me round, dark fruit is sort of amorphous and blobby. Red, vivid fruit is spiky. And it’s not necessarily something like, “there’s that shape of a tear drop.” It’s not that clear cut for me. It’s more like thought flowing into shape. So round, black fruit that’s kind of stewed is amorphous; back to the gloop gloop. In fact all the fruits I smell will go into those kind of roles. Maybe that’s what it’s like for me, a channel of shape and sound. “So (speaking in a high voice) this is a tiny channel that is bristly, high-noted and cleaver-shaped. Then (speaking in a much lower voice) this amorphous pool of a shape.” I don’t think I see actual pictures of things.
TG: Interesting. Where does that come from? Where do these shapes come from? Inside your head? Out front?
GH: It comes from my whole body (laughs).
TG: Not only that but it seems like there are sounds that accompany all this too.
GH: Yes, inside my brain.
TG: So you project these amorphous shapes along with pitches and frequencies in terms of how rich or how acidic the fruit is.
GH: I do this all the time especially with the structure of a wine—the liquid takes a shape.
TG: We’ll get to structure in a bit. In the meantime you mentioned dark fruits. Are there any red fruits in the wine, anything sour?
GH: Near the end there’s some plum notes like plum skin.
TG: What about things like flowers, herbs and even dirt?
GH: There’s kind of a cured leather or cured fruit leather to which then to me goes flat. It’s not amorphous anymore and that I think is just associated with fruit leather. Whenever I think of fruit leather I always think of flat.
TG: As in a flat shape?
GH: Yes. There’s also some subtle perfume in this wine but it’s more of a bass-noted or woody perfume. That’s getting into the wood world but it’s still kind of in the fruit-natural things world.
TG: Finally, what about oak? How do you know there’s oak?
GH: There’s a cocoa note which to me is a dark almost round, puffy character. Oak characters to me are more bristly.
TG: When you say bristly, what do you mean? What does that look like?
GH: It looks like a claw (laughs) because it’s “grippy.” Then there’s the spice-oak elements which I’m picking in the wine which are almost like roasted spice elements. They’re like little bits of roundness but it’s not a large puffy thing.
TG: Thinking about all those things together, what does that look like? Once you put your energy into a shape and/or color how does it appear? It seems to be almost like an arrangement. Do all the shapes happen at once and stay there or does it happen one thing at a time?
GH: It eventually all comes together so that there’s the puffiness and the roundness. But that round jam note anchors it all and then there’s stuff laid on top it.
TG: So the shape of the fruit anchors it all and everything else is around it like little satellites?
TG: In other words there are shapes instead of actual images?
TG: A bunch of different shapes? Do the shapes have any color or any texture?
TG: Are they just outlines?
GH: There’s definitely texture. Now I’m also picking up some resinous notes in the wine. It’s almost like blood orange notes and dried citrus and they’re kind of curly shaped.
TG: You’re pointing to them right out in front of your face. It’s interesting that your entire field is very close to you in proximity. It’s all within 12-14 inches in front of you at eye level. What happens when you taste the wine? Does all this change? If one flavor gets stronger than it was on the nose, does anything change? Or does it all stay the same?
GH: Your right, it is all intimate for me, it’s right here in front. But what changes is that it takes off.
TG: Takes off? As in …
GH: Away from me.
TG: Just curious, smell the wine again and take your arrangement of shapes and push away from you about 10 feet. What happens to the wine? Just push it all the way.
GHY: I kind of lose control of it.
TG: Can you make sense of the wine anymore? Or does the wine smell different if you push it away?
GH: Yes, it smells higher noted. It’s like I pushed the bass away.
TG: Reset it. It sounds like there’s dimensionality to this as well as depth. What happens if you smell it and make the shape flat? Like two dimensional and flat right out in front of you.
GH: I lose the whole screen.
TG: But is there any part of the wine that smells stronger? Different?
GH: It’s kind of like all the left over notes like soy and fruit leather.
TG: So the major things go away?
TG: Makes sense. So reset it and let’s taste the wine.
Gilian Handelman: KJ Taylor Peak Merlot
TG: Now that you’re tasting the wine keeping all those shapes in mind, does anything change? Or do they stay in the same kind of arrangement? Same place?
GH: Now what happens is that I check the assumptions from the aromatic profile and things open up quite a bit.
TG: Meaning that the field gets larger?
GH: Yes, it gets quite a bit larger this way (pointing up) and that way (side to side). But it never, ever grows down. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is. It grows in width, in height and in depth.
TG: So how much larger does it get? 100%
GH: At least a hundred percent bigger? I feel and see huge spikes.
TG: Huge spikes? What does that mean?
GH: I’m very influenced by structure in terms of my visuals and my sense of things which is why when I’m teaching a class in front of people I’m motioning like this all the time (waves her arms).
TG: You’re literally showing them what you get out of the wine.
GH: Right! It’s really a three-dimensional model on my palate.
TG: Do the shapes stay the same? Do they get bigger?
GH: No. The big amorphous thing is still there and that’s the center of the whole structure. What’s happening elsewhere is that tannin and acid are stretching either forward or up and out. With a tannic wine like this I’m looking very carefully at how the tannin crescendos and where it pops out. This is a little bit like those fruits that have spikes on them. I think it’s like a passion fruit because it’s fairly round. They don’t take on square shapes for me so they’re fairly round. It’s almost like this is a vision of my palate right in front of me.
TG: It’s kind of an arch right in front of you.
GH: Right, front to back. So what’s happening is that the tannins take shape on the palate.
TG: When you say “takes shape,” what does that mean?
GH: They get spikey.
TG: Meaning that on the curve of the wine shape there are spikes that come up?
GH: Yes, there are spikes that come up through the curve.
TG: Again I have to ask, is there any color to all this? Or is it just shapes and outlines?
GH: In reds no but some whites have a color.
TG: But in red wines in terms of all these different fruits, spices and other things, there’s only shapes with outlines? Are they filled? How does it work?
GH: They’re definitely filled. It’s like a big rubber casing that’s filled and things are shooting out the end of the casing making the rubber stretch which is what I meant by the passion fruit. Then in the back there’s this kind of roller coaster and other stuff stretching through the casing.
TG: Roller coaster meaning what?
GH: Cascade—like a cascade of what’s going on. There’s tannin and acid, and it (cascade shape) goes up (motions with hands) coming back down and then goes up again.
TG: So it’s the shape of the palate of the wine. So the structure defines movement of the shape?
GH: Yes, the structure.
TG: So how is high acid different from low acid?
GH: For me high acid definitely goes up (whistles). With acid there’s usually an up and sometimes an out.
TG: How would that be different?
GH: Because of the way acids are perceived on my palate. Whether I feel burst at the end of the wine like fingers moving or a turkey tail or a slow build of acid that takes off like you’re going up a roller coaster.
TG: How about alcohol? How is that represented to you?
GH: I don’t perceive alcohol that much. The only way I’m influenced by alcohol is by retro-nasal.
TG: What about something that’s really high in alcohol like a port?
GH: If it’s really high in alcohol it’s almost like a burning or a gaseous …
TG: You’re making a motion off to the side and up.
GH: Right, it’s off to the side and up but all also through the palate. It’s constantly kind of burning in there. Like roiling gas.
TG: How about residual sugar? What’s that like?
GH: I don’t know because I don’t have anything like that in the glass.
TG: True but if you had a young vintage port what would the sweetness be like?
GH: It’s that base “mattress” again (pointing right underneath her chin). So if this is all a reflection of my palate, and I think it is, then this base mattress is a kind of soft, couchy thing going on the bottom of my palate.
TG: So you’re literally projecting all this right out in front of your palate? In front of your face?
TG: Have you ever thought about taking different grape varieties and drawing maps of what all this looks like?
GH: Yes, I did it and they’re on the Kendall Jackson website.
TG: You did? Then I have to check it out to see what all of them look like.
GH: You’ll see them on the website and in some instances I did several maps for a single grape like Cabernet. I did maps for three different Cabernets but you’ll see that they all have a similar shape. That’s because I feel that tannin and texture work together in such an unusual way. To me the tannin dictates a huge amount of what that shape looks like. It’s not just the grape variety because you can taste Cabernet from the Oakville bench from a big time producer at 15% alcohol and to me the shape is a lot like a Central Coast Syrah. It’s got that zauftig kind of shape. But Cabernet from Howell Mountain or Pauilliac is much more spikey. So I can’t necessarily put a shape to a specific grape.
TG: So structure is really important. Does a shape with all these aspects just keep going and changing every time you taste the wine? Or does it stop changing at some point.
GH: It does change after three to five minutes. What’s left is this kind of end of the roller coaster or like foothills or steps left by the tannin on my palate. And often for me, and this is how I pick up minerality, there’s literally pebbles or gravel.
TG: Do you see pebbles or gravel?
GH: I see different shapes of rocks on my palate at the end.
TG: You mentioned no colors for red wine but some colors for white wines.
GH: I should revise that because there’s no color for most reds. But if something is really different from what I’m tasting day to day (and that can change depending on where I am or what I’m working on), there might some color. That’s usually if something is really blue or really red in terms of the fruit. There’s also a spike or a frequency. Blue gives me a frequency that sounds like a high-pitched buzz. It’s almost musical.
TG: Do you have a music background?
TG: How does sound enter so much of what you perceive in wine? I have a formal musical background and it doesn’t really transfer over into wine directly.
GH: Not sure why. I’ve always been very sensitive to music and it’s affected me emotionally quite a bit and that affects me physically.
TG: What kind of music?
GH: All kinds but I particularly love classical and even reggae. I love syncopation.
TG: When you say classical, what kinds of classical music?
GH: Primarily French horn and cello. I love piano too and those are certain frequencies (sings a pitch). Things that vibrate at a middle base line frequency as opposed to more of a base frequency are less interesting to me.
TG: Just curious are there other things in your life where these frequency and shape things come into play? I’m not sure what that would be but do different people have different frequencies for you?
GH: Frequencies definitely enter the picture around certain situations.
TG: Does it have to do with stress?
GH: Probably but it also has to do with real happiness. So for instance my favorite time of the day is right before sunset and that is a shape that is incredibly amorphous and really generous and flowing.
TG: Is there a sound or pitch that goes with that?
GH: It sounds almost like a harp. It’s extremely gentle and sounds of water too.
TG: Really interesting. You’re very much a synesthete when it comes to tasting in that you bring in other senses to the tasting experience that don’t usually come into play. I think that pitch really help you calibrate things. If something in a wine is off then the pitch of the wine is probably off for you too. So if it’s not quite right it probably bugs the hell out of you.
TG: But as for shapes and pitches in tasting--not many people do that. For most of us, especially those of us trained in the MS program, tasting is very visual and locational. A lot of it has to do with pictures.
GH: It’s funny because I’m not very good at memorization of specific wines like “X” producer from 1982. But I can remember the shape of the wine. Like I can also pretty much remember any face or voice I hear but I may not be able to remember a name.
TG: What parts of you strategy do you try to teach people? Do you try to get them to hear different pitches with different kinds of wines?
GH: I encourage them to consider that there are other modes of communicating about wine which is arguably the area that trips people up the most. They can feel they’re not establishing a connection around what they’re supposed to be tasting with people. Or they can feel inferior in some way because they don’t have the language expected of them. I’m really trying to encourage people to consider that there are other modes of communication than words to discuss wine.
TG: That’s great. I want to try one more thing if only to be a pain. I want you to smell and taste the wine and as you’re smelling, what happens if you put a picture of whatever the dominant fruit up there?
GH: That does happen to me a lot in the beginning of tasting a wine before I’ve had a chance to dissect it. And this was the exact same picture I had when I first tasted the wine—which is like moss and mud.
TG: I was asking about fruit. So how does that happen?
GH: It smells like moss and mud to me. The natural world of it is a very huge aspect for me as well. It’s really important and I often see landscapes or waterways when I smell and taste.
TG: Just curious are those landscapes or waterways life size?
GH: No, they’re very intimate whether it’s like a river bank or a dried up gravel bed or other things like that. It’s literally like a section of earth or an overturned log or a crushed flowers or what have you. Those are the only visuals I tend to pick up.
TG: And those are like flashes?
TG: So the overall impression of the wine gives you something like that?
GH: Yes and sometimes it’s kind of fecund and gross like a tide pool with rotting critters.
TG: One last question: when you teach beginners what’s the “aha!” moment you want them to have?
GH: That their voice is relevant. I tell people that they don’t have to describe the wine but what I’m asking them to do and what other people in this community will ask to them to do is to share some sort of connection around what’s in the glass. So they can come up with any kind of entry point in terms of describing it. They can describe wine musically or as a person. They can describe it as an emotion or they can dissect it and totally take it apart. They can describe a wine as the color purple. But at some point you have to have a connection to the understanding that the language is bringing to two people. What you’re doing trying to do is to connect over something that isn’t saying anything at all. It’s like when you’re trying to connect over a piece of art. It’s just that with wine you have so many more cues than just visual. So you can say a wine reminds you of a piece of velvet because that’s true for you. It’s all about finding a way to connect.
TG: I think a major disconnect for most people is that the wine is visual; that internally the experience and sequence of smelling and tasting have visual aspects to them. At the same time, someone who is a beginner and picks up a glass of wine is really intimidated because we’re using a vocabulary, a language that’s really intended for another sense—not smelling or tasting.
GH: I agree. You just can’t expect people to come into a first tasting and start getting a lot of things right away. But your smell memory is yours and if you smell Clorox in a wine or Barbie legs it’s fine. It’s more like you’ve got all these memories logged and you can use them with wine.
Daniel Tammet is a remarkable man. The London born 34-year-old Tammet is both autistic and a savant. In his book “Born on a Blue Day” he describes his struggles with autism as a child and young adult and how through sheer force of will and the help of his family and a multitude of others he was able to acquire the skills to be able to function in the adult world, itself an extraordinary feat. But what is equally arresting about Daniel is his incredible memory for numbers; he can recite the number pi past 22,000 digits as well as multiply and divide enormous sums in his head with the accuracy and speed of a computer. But there’s more. To Daniel numbers such as arithmetic problems or days of the week are experienced as different shapes, colors and movements—hence the title of his book. This phenomena is called “synesthesia,” a term often defined as a neurological condition where stimulating one of the senses results in an automatic, involuntary response/experience with a second sense. Tammet describes synesthesia as “cross-talk” between the senses. He and others like him are called “synesthetes.” Over 60 kinds of synesthesia have been documented and some of the more common forms include grapheme or color synesthesia where letters or numbers are perceived as colors; ordinal linguistic personification where numbers, days of the week and months of the year are experienced by the individual as personalities; and spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia where numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week are experienced as specific and very precise locations in space. In thinking about Tammet it’s tempting to put forth the idea that everyone experiences synesthesia from time to time given that our inner senses are so interdependent. Any strong memory--be it pleasant or not—is a complex package of intensely interconnected images, sounds and feelings. But true neurological synesthesia is always involuntary thus differentiating individuals who experience it from the rest of us. As for tasting and synesthesia, I’ve learned that most of the colleagues I’ve worked with in my tasting project are like me. We’re visual dominant in our thinking and represent our internal experience of wine primarily with images in any number of different ways. But over the last year I noticed several outliers among participants; professionals who taste at a world-class level but whose inner processing of the wine experience is so far outside the norm that their tasting strategies are challenging to deconstruct and code. To these few the experience of wine is not so much about using images associated with memories of aromatics and flavors but instead experiencing wine as a flow, shape, colors, texture and sounds often projected outward from their body. These tasters are synesthetes, the true instinctual tasters. Here are three of them. Sur Lucero, MS Sur Lucero, MS describes himself as an instinctual taster who learned how to work with the MS tasting grid only after many long months of hard work in order to pass the Master’s tasting exam in the summer of 2012. Sur is also one of 16 individuals to ever receive the Remi Krug Cup for passing all three parts of the exam on his first attempt. Lucero told me that he’s never relied on the aromatic and taste profiles that most students use but more from the “picture” of a wine in terms of how it interact texturally on his palate. “I visualize how the wine feels on my palate,” he says, “whether it feels flat, lifted, vibrant, tense, or youthful.” When asked for an example he mentioned New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc describing it as an “intense wine with lots of energy and crisp angularity to it with shades of green, yellow and platinum.” I asked if he saw shapes and he replied that he doesn’t necessarily see shapes but does see colors and movement in what he described as a linear fashion out in front of him. “They move and they’re not just in one dimension. They expand on an X and a Y axis.” Further, he went on to say that the shape of a wine is largely determined by the structure. To Sur the “intensity, the sharpness and austerity” of a wine will create more lift on the Y axis as opposed to a wine that’s richer, fuller and fatter which be more expansive and breadth on the X axis. But then I wanted to know how he was able to assess the quality of the fruit or age of the wine. He answered by saying, “The colors are generally based on the ripeness of the fruit. Leaner, tauter wines are going to have lighter shades of color … a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a pretty intense, almost electric green. For Chablis it’s a very pale cream straw, almost transparent.” Further, “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 axes. 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; the richer wines have more volume and the leaner wines have more height.” I asked him where a shape comes from and he replied with the following: “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.” Gilian Handelman Gilian Handelman is director of education for Kendall-Jackson. She’s long known that she doesn’t process wine the same way that most people do. During our session (interview to be posted in the near future) I asked her how she was able to recognize a specific fruit vs. another. She replied by saying, “I guess it’s just an instantaneous reaction in my brain. There’s this thought that I’ve catalogued all these smells and there’s a synapse that’s telling me this is dark fruit. It’s almost like electricity. Once I make those quick decisions, say that it’s in the black fruit world, I’m asking if it’s fresh black fruit or prunes or whatever.” While saying the previous she was motioning with her hands out in front of her face. I asked her if her hand movements corresponded to images of the aromatics she was smelling in the wine. She replied saying, “No, I think they are lines or shapes that connect in my brain leading me to one framework or another. I haven’t really articulated this before but for me it’s sort of a family tree or a logarithm, almost like electricity.” As for the shapes she said that the quality of the fruit and structure of a wine had a lot to do with determining the kind of shape. She described her experience of the RDV Cabernet from Virginia we were tasting as: “It’s like a big rubber casing that’s filled and things are shooting out the end of the casing making the rubber stretch … then in the back there’s this kind of roller coaster and other stuff stretching through the casing. But there’s also like a cascade of what’s going on. There’s tannin and acid, and it (cascade shape) goes up (she motioned with her hands) coming back down and then goes up again.” When I asked her if the shapes were consistent within a single grape variety she responded by saying, “It’s not that clear cut for me. It’s more like thought flowing into shape. So round, black fruit that’s kind of stewed like in this wine is amorphous. In fact, all the fruits I smell will go into those kind of roles. Maybe that’s what it’s like for me, a channel of shape and sound. So (speaking in a high voice) this is a tiny channel that is bristly, high-noted and cleaver-shaped. Then (speaking in a much lower voice) this amorphous pool of a shape.” Gilian also experiences different sounds with different styles of wines. For her a rich, round wine like the Cabernet we were tasting sounded like “gloop, gloop, gloop” vs. a lighter-bodied, high-acid wine like a German Riesling which would sound more like water lapping on the edge of a lake or pond or “fffft, ffft, ffft” as she described it. She further said, “I see and hear music a lot when I taste. For me this wine is more of a basso sound (hums) vs. a higher sound.” I then asked her where a shape would come from and she replied, “It comes from my whole body. It’s really a three-dimensional model of my palate.” She went on to say that the shapes are outlines and some, but not all, have color to them. Gilian has illustrated many of the shapes for different grapes and they can be found at the KJ website: http://www.kj.com/sensory-tour Here are some examples:
Gilian Handelman: Kendall-Jackson Reserve Chardonnay
Gilian Handelman: Kendall-Jackson Pinot Noir
Gilian Handelman: Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates - Napa Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
Roland Micu, MS
Like Gilian, Roland Micu MS has always known that the way he tastes wine is different from most everyone else. As soon as we started his interview (also to be posted in the near future) Roland said, “I smell the wine and then there’s this so-called shape or texture. Maybe it’s a type of synesthesia because if you hear a note on a keyboard it’s going to have a kind of impact. All the notes are going to have different impacts. So the shapes or textures remind me of that.”
I asked him if the different components in a wine like a specific fruit had different shapes. He responded yes and then described the dark plum note in the Merlot blend we were tasting as having a round shape that was black in color. But his experience of the shape was more complex in that it had texture as if he were biting into the actual fruit. He went on to say that “different fruits have different textures. Raspberry is going have more angularity and be mushier. A dark cherry will be more focused and a dark plum more broad.”
I then asked if images were involved in his processing of the different aromatics and he said yes but that the shapes were the initial sensation before an image of something would appear. But the two he said were almost simultaneous as the process unfolds rapidly when he smells a wine. He went on to describe the Merlot blend we were tasting with the following: “To me this wine is like a level. There are no sharp angles and texturally nothing shoots out. It’s not like a contact lens but more like squished elliptical shape and the edges are round.”
I asked him where the shapes come from and he said, “It’s a feeling and it comes out of me (pointing to his chest) and then moves up through my chest and out through my eyes so I can see it and translate it.” In terms of assessing the kind and quality of the fruit he said that “the shape is being formed and all these fruits are being assessed at the same time.”
Roland described any changes in the wine from the nose to the palate with the following: “I think with the nose its two dimensions but when it gets to the palate it’s three dimensional. It also might be more blocky or pixilated. But it’s three dimensional as opposed to the nose where it’s an image of a cherry or whatever.” As for assessing the structure in the wine we were tasting during the session Roland used the shape to calibrate the amount of alcohol, acid and tannin: “I don’t base structure on texture but I’ve done some research and found that the elliptical shape in this wine typically is related to higher alcohol, riper fruit, new oak (usually barrique) and minimal minerality.”
Ultimately the purpose of my tasting project is to model best practices by deconstructing the internal strategies used by top tasters; the end goal is to take the best strategies and be able to teach them to anyone interested in learning about wine. With that, the question of what can be taken from the strategies of Gilian, Roland and Sur arises. At this point I’m not convinced their strategies can be easily taught. But perhaps what we can gain from them is the idea of using colors, sounds and shapes to more intimately and precisely calibrate the different aromatic and structural properties in wine. But more than that, working with tasters like Sur, Gilian and Roland makes me think about how complex and miraculous the human mind is. And though we share common “hardware” in the form of our brain and nervous system how different we all are and how important it is that we celebrate these differences and learn from each other—on a blue day or any other.
It’s holiday time again and that means we’re about to careen smack into the new year with little if any semblance of control. But before then we’ll have to navigate the perilous tinsel-filled waters of office parties, dysfunctional family gatherings, crowds, traffic and general holiday mayhem. But fear not! What follows is sage gift giving advice that will hopefully allay the madness and make your holiday shopping all the easier.
Rule # 1: if all else fails give a bottle of bubbly. Champagne, sparkling wine, Prosecco & Cava are like a quartet of sparkling seasonal elves whose only purpose is to make your gift list shorter. Prosecco, the DOCG variety and not the mass-produced dreck, is a personal favorite because of the deliciousness-to-value ratio. Beyond that, for the boss or the target of your future affection a bottle of grower-producer Champagne fits the bill perfectly. Pierre Peters and Egly-Ouriet are personal favorite producers.
Rule #2: Give yourself a gift. Before everyone and everything gets completely out of control remember to buy yourself something. A great bottle of restorative spirits is just the prescription needed whether it be a top shelf Cognac, Malt Whisky or Rum. Italian Amaros are my personal favorite and aside from the ever-restorative bottle of Fernet Branca always on my shelf I heartily recommend Braulio. It originates from the Valtelinna district in Northern Italy and is both overtly herbal and bittersweet. An ounce or two (or three …) is guaranteed to help guide your nimble fingers over the keyboard as your order away online. Remember: avoid brick and mortar if at all possible.
Rule #3: Get a book! A good book is one of the best gifts for to give and receive. Here’s a dozen I’ve read over the last year. All are entertaining, informative and highly recommended.
1. “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” Mary Roach
“Gulp” is the latest effort from the ever-curious and equally hilarious Mary Roach. Follow Roach as she fearlessly explores the human digestive tract like no other before with painstaking and often bizarre results including putting her hand in a cow’s stomach. Want to know how Elvis really died? Read and discover.
2. “Wine: A Tasting Course,” Marnie Old
A wine book? Absolutely! Long-time colleague and Philadelphia-based Marnie Old’s new book, “Wine: A Tasting Course,” makes brilliant use of graphics to convey all the basics a wine newbie needs to know. It’s become my new go-to book for beginners. Highly recommended.
3. “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth,” Colonel Chris Hadfield
Canadian-born Chris Hadfield spent decades training to become an astronaut and ultimately logged over four thousand hours in space. His “Astronaut’s Guide” chronicles his years of training and space exploration including six months aboard the International Space Station where he was an integral part of scientific experiments not to mention producing and performing a zero-gravity version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” which received over ten million views.
4. “Wine Grapes,” Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, Jose Vouillamoz
The one and only time I met Jancis Robinson was several years ago at a memorial dinner held for the late Robert Mondavi at the artist formerly known as COPIA. I was a member of the sommelier team and met Jancis just as she was leaving at the end of the evening. I only had time to say hello and ask when she would release an update of her book, “Vines, Grapes & Wines,” published in the early ‘90s. She looked at me as if she suddenly had a strong urge to tase me. In fact, if there would have been a taser app for the iPhone at the time I’m sure she would have made quick use of it. Instead she smiled tightly and said that something would be coming out “in a couple of years.” Fast forward to last year and her new amazing tome, “Wine Grapes.” Weighing in at a hefty six-plus pounds and over 1,400 pages, it could be the most profound book on wine ever written—and sure to satisfy any and all wine geeks on your gift list. Suggestion: given the heft and lack of portability of the book you might consider a gift download to your lucky recipient.
5. “One Summer: America, 1927,” Bill Bryson
I’m a huge Bill Bryson fan and his new effort doesn’t disappoint. In “One Summer” Bryson spins his narrative magic describing in detail the months that made up the summer of 1927, a very short period time crammed with remarkable events and characters including the likes of Lindberg crossing the Atlantic, the Sacco-Vinzetti trial, the secret origins of the Great Depression, Al Capone, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Charles Ponzi, Herbert Hoover and much, much more. After reading it I’m once again struck at how much there is to learn about American history. Highly recommended.
6. “Letters to a Young Scientist,” Edward O. Wilson
Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson is an emeritus professor of biology at Harvard University. Wilson is considered to be one of the world’s preeminent scientists and has taught and counseled thousands of students over the course of his career. In his book “Letters” Wilson makes a surprising argument that success in the sciences is not dependent on math skills or a stratospheric I.Q. but rather one’s passion for finding and solving problems. He also calls for a more broad synthesis of the sciences and humanities in the decades to come so future generations of students will be inspired to solve the major problems that face the human race. More than anything, reading “Letters” is like having a one-on-one chat with one of the great teachers of our time. Inspiring!
7. The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is one of the great fiction writers living today. His earlier works include Coraline, Stardust, American Gods and Neverwhere. In his new novel “Ocean at the End of the Lane” Gaiman weaves a magical tapestry where the lines between reality, fiction and fantasy challenge the reader in delightful ways. It’s become my favorite Gaiman book and it’s sure to please any fiction-lover on your gift list.
8. “Smoke & Mirrors,” Neil Gaiman
Another Gaiman book and the perfect airplane book. “Smoke & Mirrors is a collection of some of Gaiman’s best short stories and poems; all wildly imaginative and perfectly, completely creepy.
9. "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” Richard P. Feynman
Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman was one of the most brilliant scientists of the 20th century. For better or worse, Feynman was an instrumental part of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb ending World War II and ushering in the Cold War. Aside from his work in physics Feynman was also an outstanding teacher/lecturer at Cal Tech and he penned multiple books on his thoughts on everything from explaining the basics of science to gambling in Las Vegas to working on physics problems while sitting in strip clubs. “Surely You’re Joking,” is one of Feynman’s best and most entertaining volumes.
10. "How to Raise a Happy Child,” Heather Criswell & Taryn Voget
A book on raising kids for x-mas? Am I kidding? Not in the least. “How to Raise a Happy Child” is the brainchild of Heather Criswell and Taryn Voget. Taryn is a corporate trainer/speaker and NLP specialist and Heather has worked with over 20,000 kids during the course of her career in the child care industry. Together they deconstruct Heather’s strategies for dealing with every possible kid scenario from the most trivial to the most horribly nuclear. But what is especially impressive is that the book is one of the best manuals on intra-personal communication I’ve ever come across. The strategies listed in its pages are priceless for dealing with kids of any and all ages from toddlers melting down all the way to your passive-aggressive boss. “How to Raise a Happy Child” is the one book I wished I would have had 25 years ago before my kids were born. It would have made my life exponentially easier.
11. "Color: A Natural History of the Palette,” Victoria Finlay
Victoria Finlay’s “Color” is a wonderfully written history of all the colors found in an artist’s palette. From ochre all the way to violet each color has a fascinating, complex and sometimes perilous story. Finlay chronicles the super-spy -level intrigue needed to smuggle the tiny cochineal beetles out of Central America ultimately resulting in the original scarlet red; how the essences of the color orange originated in India and traveled to Italy through the Middle East only to become part of the secret concoction used varnish the great violins of Guarneri and Stradivarius; or how the exiled Emperor Napoleon died from arsenic poisoning not at the hands of his incarcerators as long thought but from mold growing on the emerald green wallpaper lining his apartment that created toxicity that would eventually be his demise. A great read!
12. "Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Musicals,” Steve Young & Sport Murphy
This book to be filed under the category of strange, wacky and delightful--as in an entire musical genre you’ve probably never heard of. While the great musicals such as “My Fair Lady,” “Oklahoma,” and “Carousel” are widely known (even if not nearly as popular as they once were), for several decades running the same talents—literally from writers to performers—crafted hundreds of stage musicals for the big corporations of their day, from John Deer Tractors to the Ford Motor Company to the Maiden Form Bra. That’s right, full-blown staged musicals with casts, plots (sort of), bands and full scores where stars of the stage (and sometimes screen) belted out tunes about the beauties of selling the newest, shiniest tractor, pickup or bra. Steve Young, long-time writer for the David Letterman show, and industrial musical vet Sport Murphy chronicle the history of the industrial musical through the decades. “Everything’s Coming Up Profits” is a perfect coffee table book filled with delightful period illustrations and photos.
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.