At age 14 Matt Citriglia was stocking beer, wine, and soda at his father’s tiny beverage store in Ohio. At age 17 he read his first “non-teacher” assigned book, "Alexis Lichine’s Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France." Thus began a life-long journey in wine and a career that included retail ownership, restaurant service, and wholesale management of sales and marketing. Along the way, Matt’s thirst for knowledge not only emptied countless bottles of wine but also drove him to pursue the Court of Master Sommeliers Diploma which he attained in February of 2002. Currently Matt is the Director of Education for Vintage Wine Distributor in Ohio and has been a member of the Board of Directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, since 2004. He is regularly asked to lecture on a variety of beverage topics. He also helps coordinate and administer the Court of Master Sommeliers exams and mentors numerous students in the MS program. As the WineMentor, he created an innovative online e-learning server training program as well as series of training seminars geared towards motivating and educating wait staff.
In his spare time Matt can be found on his yoga mat attempting to defy gravity with an open bottle of champagne or preaching the virtues of Riesling while mocking what he calls the "soulless" wines made popular by leading wine critics.
I tasted with Matt in May of 2014 at the Little Nell Resort in Aspen during the Master's Exam. We tasted the 2010 RDV Rendezvous Merlot blend from Virginia and used Riedel Vinum Sangiovese/Zinfandel glasses. Our conversation began with Matt's experiences taking the Master's Exam and exam strategies in general.
Exam Prep Strategies
TG: How many times did you take the Master’s Exam?
MC: Three times.
TG: What years?
MC: 2000 was my first year and I passed the last part of the exam in 2002. I passed theory the first year, then tasting the next year, and finally service the last year.
TG: Let’s talk about the different parts of the exam. This is really about best practices and I would be curious to find out what worked for you. Starting with theory; how did you study for it?
MC: A lot of it was understanding geography. I would dive into a region and begin to understand the impact of mountains, rivers, soil types, and aspect—all the influences that created a region as it was. That was the only way I could really begin to understand the geography and memorize it. I couldn’t just draw a map and put marks on it. That didn’t work for me in terms of memorizing regions, because they were more than just places on a map. I wanted to know what made a growing region unique and not just a place on a map. So flash cards didn’t really work and I had to dive into a wide variety of books and talk to producers to get that kind of information. Back then there was no internet yet so I couldn’t just surf for this kind of stuff. I remember making phone calls to the Greek consulate and trying to talk to someone in Greece about different wine regions (laughs). It was really comical because you had to make an international phone call to get that kind of info.
TG: Did you work with maps a lot?
MC: I would use a map more as a jumping off place to understand say for instance the regions of France and what made each one of them unique and why the sub-regions had been defined. From there I’d utilize geography and climatic aspects to make a three-dimensional picture of a particular area. I’d never traveled to any of these places either. In fact, I never traveled overseas until after I passed the MS exam.
TG: As in a three dimensional model where you picture yourself standing in a vineyard somewhere trying to get a sense of why things are the way they are?
MC: Right, what Mother Nature did to create Bordeaux vs. Burgundy.
TG: That’s great because if you have a template of sorts then every time you switch it over to something different there are certain things that you look for. I’m not sure what those would be—mountains or bodies of water or whatever—but things that stand out for you and make a difference. But what did you do for memorizing lists of things?
MC: A lot of it was repetition and some of it was using acronyms. I created stories like the one I had for going upriver on the Mosel and all the villages and vineyards. For Goldtröpchen in Piesport it was something about Rumpelstiltskin—things like that.
TG: Did you have an academic background of some kind before taking the exams?
MC: I had a basic academic background in that I went to college to study electrical engineering.
TG: Did having gone to college and writing papers and taking exams help you in any way?
MC: Yes it did because that’s where most of my study habits were developed—in high school and college.
TG: Was the theory hard for you?
MC: Theory was the easiest of the three parts for me. It was the first thing that I passed. I had the greatest grasp of it and felt really comfortable with it. The first time I took the Advanced and the Master’s the theory wasn’t an issue.
TG: What about service?
MC: Service was the worst; it was a nightmare because I had never worked the floor in a fine dining restaurant. Most of my service experience up to that point was high volume expensive restaurants where I could sell a $80-$90 bottle of wine but the idea of utilizing a tray or any of the other mis-en-place for fine service wasn’t there. It’s like you grabbed the bottle, opened it, and you were done. So understanding the service standards and all the details that went into fine dining was really difficult for me to grasp. And being the OCD person that I am, what really hurt me in service is that I wanted everything to be exact and precise—which doesn’t happen in an exam. It wasn’t until I could fully grasp the CMS service standards—that they were embodied in me—that I could adapt on the fly in an exam or at least feel comfortable adapting. Even when I passed I never felt like my service was all that great.
TG: When you work with students now what do you tell them to do for service?
MC: The main thing I tell them to do is to practice the CMS service standards over and over again. Even if they’re a server working in an upscale restaurant they may not know the Court’s standards. They have to put the standards into muscle memory and the only way you can do that is by decanting using our standards multiple times until when you do it you’re not thinking about it and your reflexes take over. That way you can think and answer questions during the exam as opposed to having to think about the details of service.
TG: Right, if you have to think about the points of service you have no disc space to be able to answer questions. What about tasting? How was tasting for you?
MC: Tasting was a variety of different things. My tasting group met every two weeks and we did a combination of double blind tastings, single blind tastings, MW-style tastings, and open tastings.
TG: When you say MW-style tastings what does that mean?
MC: Writing notes, but also the MW’s have certain kinds of themes to their tastings. One of the people in the group was thinking about pursuing the MW program and he had a bunch of lists and themes an MW candidate had given him that we would play with in our tastings. We often had open tastings where we made presentations on certain regions. Say we were doing Chablis, each person in the group would take a different element of Chablis and make a presentation on it. So we would have the theoretical knowledge of Chablis and then taste through Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines all in an open setting to better understand it. Or maybe the open tasting would be a comparative tasting of Pinot Noir from Oregon, Russian River Valley, Burgundy, and New Zealand. We’d have benchmark wines from each area and then the designated person would do a presentation on it. After, we’d taste the wines in an open setting and apply the knowledge to our single and double blind tastings.
TG: Like bringing theory to the tasting and giving it a solid foundation.
MC: Right, a foundation because if all you do is double blind taste you’ll never develop any theoretical knowledge. That’s the problem I see with most candidates today--it’s all about the double blind tasting. They need to bring in open and single blind tastings with some kind of theme and apply all that knowledge to a double blind tasting.
TG: Was tasting hard for you? You had to take it twice. What was the difference between the first and the second time that enabled you to pass the exam?
MC: One of the big things for me was understanding vintage and age on a wine. The first time I took the exam I had never tasted old wine and there were two really old wines in the flight—an old white wine and one old red. I really guessed at what the wines were because I had no experience with older wines. I had all these clues I had pulled out of the glass but I didn’t know what to do with them because I had no base to apply them to. Again, I just guessed. The following year I spent more time understanding vintage variation and how wines develop as they age; so if I got a wine in the next exam that was 10-15 years old I would have a better understanding of it. I also spent that next year further defining how grapes differ from region to region as well as what the clues were and how to pull them from the glass. I’ve never been one of those people who is an instinctual taster. It’s rare that I stick my nose in the glass and know what the wine is outside of something like Riesling or Nebbiolo. I really have to work through the wine to understand what it is.
TG: How did you deal with nerves and taking the exam?
MC: It was horrible for me and I wish I would have discovered yoga before I took the first exam.
TG: In thinking back, I don’t think I had you on any exam panel for either the Advanced or the Master’s.
MC: True! I remember that in the feedback for my first exam I was told that even though I passed the theory, I would have done a lot better if I would have just slowed down and taken more time to think and answer the questions. I got the same feedback the next year on tasting; I finished with five minutes left and would have done much better had I just slowed down. But part of that was also my strategy because I didn’t want to take the whole 25 minutes to taste. Ideally I wanted to leave myself two-to-three minutes so that I could take a deep breath and ask myself if I felt good about the tasting. That’s because I had a pattern where wines one and two were always difficult for me. They never spoke to me. But by the time I hit wine three I felt this rhythm going and wines three through six always felt really good. So I wanted that couple of minutes left over so I could take a deep breath and go back and look at wines one and two to see if I missed anything and also to see if my conclusions felt good.
TG: Keeping with tasting, when you coach students what else is important besides making sure they have a good theory base?
MC: I try take every candidate individually. Candidates all have their own different style so I try not to force them to fit into a specific box. I try to understand how they perceive things. For instance, are they better retro-nasal smellers vs. regular smellers? For me personally when I would go through pre-nosing the wines I would never see a big difference between them unless it was something like massive alcohol. Otherwise nothing usually stood out. So I would smell the wine, put some in my mouth, spit it out, and then start going through the whole process of visual, nose, palate, and so on. In coaching candidates, sometimes I’ll work with them using that to find out if they’re better retro-nasal smellers. It’s usually pretty obvious because their nose box will have no descriptors in it. Then they taste the wine and retro-nasally all of a sudden everything comes out. Some candidates need to assess structure—alcohol, acid, and tannin—right away while other candidates need to wait based on how quickly their palates perceive structure. Another thing is how to use the theoretical aspect to tie the aroma and structure together. To me structure is far more important than aroma because there are so many grapes that have aromatic overlaps. When you smell Chenin Blanc and Pinot Gris they have a lot of similar aromatic components like orange citrus, peach, wax, and wool. But when you put them in your mouth they feel completely different. So understanding the relationship aromatically and then the structural differences between the wines really helps define what they are.
Tasting: Overall Goals
TG: There are lots of different contexts for tasting, but when you’re tasting as a professional—say in a restaurant setting--what are you trying to do What are your goals?
MC: It’s a combination of things. First, does the wine meet whatever beverage standard we’re trying to do from the standpoint of cost of goods sold? We have to make sure the list is profitable and that it fits the theme of the restaurant. Am I running an Italian restaurant or a French restaurant Whatever it is there’s got to be some kind of theme to the food and I want to follow that theme with the beverage program as well. Then it’s a matter of trying to find a variety of styles and a variety price points; not just wines that I like but also wines I know different customers will like. It’s really a combination of all that. Its about finding a diverse selection for your customer that fits the identity of the restaurant that is both profitable and fun.
TG: Great answer. If you’re tasting in the context of the MS exam how is that different? Say for instance with this wine were tasting today; when you pick up the glass what are you trying to do? In the context of using the grid, what are your goals?
MC: Then the goal is to pull out as many clues as possible and figure out what the hell I’m tasting (laughs), because most of the time I don’t know what I’m tasting. With the Court, we’re talking a lot about the cause and effect these days.
TG: What do you think about that?
MC: I think it’s important because students understand what they’re talking about better. I never went through the Intro Course when I first got into the program; I went straight to the Advanced and learned tasting in a completely different way. I originally looked at everything from the standpoint of the color of a wine was “X” and that tells me “Y” about the wine. I smell A which tells me B about the wine. It was a back and forth thing all the way through the grid providing me with my initial conclusion. It wasn’t called “cause and effect” back then, but that is what I was doing, finding causes for the effects I either saw, smelled or tasted. These cause and effect relationships told me much about cool vs. warm climate, old vs. new world, and possible grapes. Then somewhere between passing the Master’s exam and teaching the first Intro Course, the whole cause and effect thing seems to have gotten lost with the evolution of the Court. I think it’s really good we’re getting back to discussing cause and effect because there’s so few people are passing the Master’s tasting exactly for that reason—they don’t understand it.
TG: Other general things about tasting; what things do you need for a successful tasting? Things like glassware, lighting, etc.
MC: When I was going through the exam process I’d try to use different glasses and taste in different environments all the time. I wanted distractors because back then you didn’t know what kind of glasses you were going to get in an exam. I tell candidates to do that as well because those distractors can help you understand the wines better. It’s like practicing in a less than perfect environment so when you walk into a perfect environment in the exam setting it’s easier.
TG: So getting to the actual tasting. With this wine, the RDV Merlot blend, when you look at it what are you trying to do? What are your goals in looking at it?
MC: If I know what the wine is I’m going to apply what I think are standards for that particular grape variety. That’s because I don’t want the wine to taste a certain way because I think it should taste a certain way. After being in the program for many years, Pinot Noir for instance has a very specific expression I’m looking for just like Cabernet and Merlot also have a specific expressions. So first I look to see if the wine is varietally correct; does it look, smell, and taste like a Merlot-Cabernet blend. Then I look to see what kind of complexity is coming out of the wine. Is it just black fruit and lots of herbs or is there a wide variety of elements to the wine. Also, is the wine dominated by oak or do the fruit and the oak come together. Then I tie all that in with a price point. If it’s a single note Cabernet and it has a cost of five dollars a bottle then it’s OK and I can deal with it. But if it’s a single note Cabernet that’s all oak with a $20 cost then I might find something else that’s more interesting.
TG: All good. In looking at this specific wine, what color would you call it Also, what do you pick up from just watching the wine move in the glass?
MC: When I look at this wine it’s definitely deep ruby purple in color. In fact it’s almost black and opaque because I can’t even read through it. So I’d call it a dark ruby opaque wine that holds its color to the edge leaving a very slight pink rim. As I go through the process of looking at the wine I’ve learned to spin the glass slowly as I talk about the wine because I can see viscosity forming and staining of the tears. Too many times I see candidates go through the whole color regime and then they spin the glass and have to sit there and wait for the viscosity. There’s a delay in time and you can cut your visual down to 10-12 seconds if you do it all at the same time.
TG: In looking at the way this wine moves in the glass, do you already have expectations about family of grapes or fruit character or structure?
MC: When I look at the way this wine grabs the glass—the glycerol intensity—it gives me the impression of both a thicker skin grape as well as a wine that’s probably higher in alcohol. It’s like if I had skim milk in a glass vs. heavy cream in a glass; this wine looks like cream in a glass to me.
TG: So now one of the first trick questions: how do you know what color it is vs. other colors? In your head how do you get to deep ruby purple vs. other colors? What’s your internal system for figuring that out?
MC: Crayola crayons (laughs).
TG: Really? If I had to be you what does that look like? Take extremes; that’s how I get things easily. This wine in a way is an extreme in color. Then think about a really old Burgundy or something else with a lot of age. Put those two together in your head. How does that work?
MC: I guess I have a color chart in my head that after years and years of working with wine. I’m always trying to define colors like garnet. With garnet I always see a bit of yellow and I don’t see yellow in this wine at all. I see color that’s a mixture of purple and red and I know those two colors from painting and drawing.
TG: But do you have some kind of color spectrum that goes from light and evolved to something like this that’s black and opaque? How does it work? When you look in your mind’s eye is there something like that?
MC: I guess it’s more like color circles.
TG: Meaning …
MC: Meaning it’s like when you go to a paint store and get those paint samples only it’s more like circles. There’s a band of circles that run across and each circle has a slightly different circle.
TG: How does it work? You’re literally pointing at eye level left to right. Is that how it goes?
MC: The circles go left to right, lightest to darkest.
TG: How big are the circles?
MC: About three inches in diameter.
TG: Is there a different scale for white wines vs. red wines? If so, are they in different places?
MC: Yes, there are different scales but if I start thinking about white wine the red wine scale disappears.
TG: Is the white wine scale is similar in that it goes left to right and lighter to deeper in color?
MC: Yes, lighter to deeper.
TG: What happens when you go to ID the exact color, does the scale change in some way?
MC: I’ve never really thought about it in those terms. As I look at the glass I’m scanning across all the colors and then there’s a match. It’s like I have this glass and this color and they match up.
TG: But does the specific circle/color come out or get larger when you match it up? Does it change and if so, how does it change? Or do you say something to yourself and “point” to it?
MC: I don’t know but I just know.
TG: Hold it mentally for a few seconds and what happens?
TG: Try this; try making the color you see in this glass a completely different color. What happens then?
MC: It doesn’t match. But you know what, when it does match the circle in the scale gets bigger and everything else diminishes and fades away because it’s not the right color.
TG: Does the right circle get closer to you or just bigger?
MC: I guess what happens is that everything else just fades away. Now that I think about it, it’s like you’re scanning through colors and then boom it’s the right color and everything else just disappears.
TG: Is there any writing underneath the colors or labels?
MC: No writing at all.
TG: Did you know that you did that to ID colors?
MC: No, not really until we started talking about it.
TG: Now for the nose; when you go to smell wine what are your goals? What are you trying to do?
MC: Again it’s all about defining the grape variety. To me the grape final variety is more important than whether or not it old world or new world, warm climate or cool climate. I want to know what the grape is first and then understand why the grape is the way it is.
TG: In trying to get to the grape, when you smell the wine what are you trying to do?
MC: It’s just using the MS process. Sometimes when I stick my nose in the glass an element will jump out—maybe something herbal or the oak jumps—but I push it away because it’s not time to evaluate that. With six wines and 25 minutes, if you do that you’ll be jumping all over the place. You’ll also forget where you are in the grid and by wine three you’ll feel like a broken record because you’re saying the same things over and over again. So I always push anything away that jumps out of the glass—literally push it down to the right. I don’t discard it but I look at other things first. The first think I look at is fruit. I ask what kind of fruit is it and how ripe is it. What color, all those things.
TG: Let’s talk about this wine. Go ahead and pick up the glass; I want to see what I call “glassware stance” or how you hold the glass and where you look when you first go to smell the wine. In watching you just now, I notice that you look down at chest level and slightly to the right of center. Just curious, what happens if you look to the left? Does it work?
MC: Not really.
TG: Beyond that you have the glass all the way up to your face but you smell with your mouth open. So you’re doing the active inhalation thing.
TG: I’m curious, just for fun, I want you to smell the wine and move your eyes up as far as they go in their sockets. What happens then?
MC: I lose everything. Everything’s gone. It’s also really uncomfortable.
TG: That’s probably because look up that far is in the visual memory range and most people lose their ability to smell if they look up beyond the horizon level. It’s rare that I come across someone who looks above the horizon level when they smell. At this point go back and smell the wine again. When you do that, do you have the grid in mind? Do you think of the grid when you start to smell a wine?
MC: Pretty much all the time.
TG: When you do that do you actually see the grid?
TG: Try it again and when you put your nose in the glass how do you know where to start? That’s the question.
MC: I guess because I’ve done it so many times that the grid is ingrained. It’s rote memory.
TG: We’ll circle back to that because I think there’s a way you know how to do it consistently. But for now put your nose in the glass and what do you smell for fruit?
MC: Black fruit; really ripe, jammy black fruit like I’ve just opened a jar of blackberry/blackcurrant jam.
TG: We’ve talked about this before; how do you represent that? What happens?
MC: It’s like an image; it’s not blackberries but more like a jar with blackberry jam.
TG: Do you actually see a jar that’s open with blackberries?
MC: Something like that.
TG: Where is it? If I had to be you, where would it be?
MC: (Points waist high and slightly left off-center.)
TG: Is it 2D or 3D?
MC: It’s three-dimensional.
TG: Is there anything else around it?
MC: There’s the other fruit that I smell.
TG: So the fruit is all in one location?
MC: Yes, the fruit is all right here (again points out center and slightly to the left).
TG: How big is the picture of the fruits?
MC: The size of that chair (points to a desk chair).
TG: That’s big. And you said that it’s three dimensional so you can reach out and grab any of it?
TG: What other fruits are there?
MC: Blackberries and blackcurrants …
TG: Are these clusters of berries or what are they like?
MC: There’s both clusters and blackberries in the jam. It’s like jammy and preserved but there’s also fresh berries and currants on the stems.
TG: How close are the images to you?
MC: The blackberries are much closer and the currants farther away. The blackberries seem to dominate everything.
TG: So there’s depth to all the fruit images? Do the fruit images sit on
something or are they suspended in air?
MC: They’re suspended in air and there’s no leaves or stems it’s just the berries.
TG: Besides fruit what else do you smell in the wine?
MC: I don’t get much of anything for flowers but there’s herbs and bell pepper—something green and herbal in the wine. I guess it’s all kind of in the same area.
TG: You’re drawing a circle out in front of you and again it’s about chest high. In that circle you’ve got the fruit. But where are the herbs? Are they in a different place?
MC: The fruits are a bit higher and the herbs lower. There’s also mint and eucalyptus and there’s pictures for them.
TG: 2D or 3D like the fruits?
MC: The images are flatter because those things are like leaves.
TG: But are they three dimensional so you could pick them?
MC: Yes and I can also see clove, coriander seeds, and cinnamon sticks. All the herbs and spices are grouped together with the fruits a little bit higher.
TG: It seems like everything is arm’s length away.
TG: But how big are the herb and spice images compared to the fruit images?
MC: They’re smaller because the fruit is dominating everything.
TG: What about any sense of earth or mineral?
MC: There’s really not any kind of earth to me just lots of toasted wood.
TG: Think for a moment; if this was a wine like Bordeaux with earthiness where would the earthiness be? Where would you put earth?
MC: I guess there’s an overlap between earth and wood but they would be here (Points chest high slightly to the right).
TG: It all seems around chest-level and going left to right you have the large fruit image then the herbs underneath then the spices and to the right oak. Does that look right?
MC: But the wood is up higher than the herbs and spices.
TG: So intensity of the aroma has to do with positioning in terms of how low or how high the image is in your field?
TG: What do you see for wood?
MC: A big barrel—a barrique with brown/black toasted staves.
TG: Are you looking inside the barrel or at the outside?
MC: I’m looking inside.
TG: Is the barrel life-size?
MC: No, it’s smaller than life-size; it’s like something I could grab with my hand.
TG: Anything else you smell in the wine?
MC: Not much other than the alcohol is burning my nose.
TG: Do you make anything for that?
MC: To me it’s a feeling more than a visual. I feel it in my eyes and throat.
TG: OK but I think that’s a pretty complete picture of what you’re smelling in the wine. Again, it’s all right out in front of you at chest level and whatever is dominant in the wine seems to be positioned the highest. From there, the images are arranged in a semi-circle with less dominant things positioned lower. The advantage to your arrangement is that you keep all the information in your field of awareness at the same time. Nothing goes away.
MC: No, nothing goes away and that’s because they’re all clues; they’re telling me something important.
TG: In comparison to Evan (Evan Goldstein MS); he makes images incredibly fast and once he’s done with them he’s stores them off to the side. Other people store images up and out of the way. But you keep them all out directly in front of you. I store all mine down at floor level.
TG: Now we’ll taste the wine. I’ll ask you to review what you smelled and note if the wine changes in terms of the images that you generated for the nose. Start with the fruit first. Does the representation for the fruit change in any way?
MC: Not really; everything pretty much stays the same. But the first thing my mind wants to do is tie in the structural elements with all the fruit, non-fruit and wood elements and figure out what those characteristics are telling me.
TG: When you say tie in the structure, how do you do that?
MC: Not sure but I guess it has to do with clarifying what grape variety I’m talking about. This is not just any black-fruited grape with any type of herbal component; now it becomes a tactile thing. The texture of the wine was always really important when I was going through the MS studies. Texture helped me define a lot of different grapes. Oily for instance has a certain texture to it; tannin grip has a certain texture to it. There’s fruit tannin and oak tannin and they feel different in the mouth after you experience them enough times. The acid on this wine falls a little flat; it’s a little tart but not nearly intense. So I start thinking that I have all these aromatic things out here (gestures out front) that I smell retro-nasally. But I guess what’s happening is that all the pictures I created on the nose stay the same because I am smelling retro-nasally. I’d never really thought about that before.
TG: So the images don’t change from the nose to the palate?
TG: It’s like you’re holding them as markers. So the next thing we should do is talk about structure and how you calibrate structure. In tasting this wine, what do you think the level of alcohol is?
MC: I’d put it at 14.5%.
TG: But in terms of the MS scale where would you put it?
TG: The question is how do you know it’s high vs. medium-plus?
MC: It has to do with a feeling with heat on the back of my palate, how heat runs down my chest, and how the heat feels as I exhale out my nose. All that combined with the heat I picked up when I stuck my nose in the glass.
TG: But if you weren’t sure if the alcohol was “high,” how would you calibrate it accurately?
MC: I don’t know if I was ever that precise to begin with (laughs). It’s like I know exactly where high is …
TG: But you’re also making a couple of gestures; holding your hand out in front and to the right for high and then to the left for low.
MC: It’s a scale.
TG: That makes sense. What happens if you try to make the alcohol in this wine medium? Does it work?
MC: No, I can’t move it.
TG: What can’t you move? What’s there?
MC: I guess it’s a scale of some sort; like a metal bar with a ball on it that moves with the alcohol.
TG: How long is the bar?
MC: It’s about three feet long and it’s right out here at chest level.
TG: Does the ball have a color to it?
MC: No, it’s metal too and it moves.
TG: Does it stop when it matches up to the right level?
MC: It stops when it matches up to what I’m feeling.
TG: Are there increments or markers on the scale so you can calibrate?
MC: Yes, it’s almost like a ruler with marks on it and there’s a silver ball on it that moves and right now it’s anchored to high.
TG: But think about tasting a wine and the alcohol is somewhere between medium and medium-plus, how do you know? How do you calibrate it? How do you get really, really precise with it?
MC: Again it’s really a feeling and feeling moves the ball on the scale. And once it’s there it’s there and I’ve defined the level.
TG: So you wait until the ball stops and matches up with what you’re feeling.
TG: If you think about a Mosel Riesling with 8% alcohol, what’s that like?
MC: Then the ball is over here to the left.
TG: Where is something like Sancerre?
MC: Right in the middle.
TG: Did you know that you used this scale?
MC: That never really dawned on me because it was so much of an internalized feeling. I never thought of it as a picture element.
TG: Not a surprise to me. Being able to calibrate physical feelings in your body in terms of degree is really difficult without a visual aid. Do you do the same thing for acid?
MC: I guess I do.
TG: Think about the acid on this wine. Where is it?
MC: It’s not very high so it’s way over there (to the left).
TG: What about something with insanely high acid like a Jura white?
MC: If the acid is high it feels like it’s curling up through my jaw and really making me salivate …
TG: You’re also squinting at the thought of it.
TG: But do you use the same silver scale? Because with some people each of the scales is different.
MC: If I think about acid and try to make it medium it goes flat in my mouth.
TG: But do you see anything?
MC: Same set up with the ball moving.
TG: What about for tannin? Same set up?
MC: Same thing and for this wine it’s over here (points to the right).
TG: Where would Barolo or Petite Sirah be?
MC: Way over here (to the extreme right).
TG: And Nouveau Beaujolais?
MC: Way over there (to the far left).
TG: What about complexity? What do you do for complexity?
MC: I start adding up all the things I see. Do I see a lot of different elements going on or just a few?
TG: So you visually take a count what you’ve seen internally?
MC: Right and with a grape like Nebbiolo there’s so much that there’s no space left; things are piled on top of each other. With this Cabernet and most Cabernets for me I see fewer things so there’s less complexity.
TG: But is there some kind of scale for complexity?
MC: No it’s a matter of how many elements I see.
TG: Getting back to what you said a few minutes ago about bringing the structure into all the elements you saw on the nose; how does that work? Does it have to do with making a conclusion?
MC: Yes and with the conclusion I guess I look at the stuff that’s out there (gestures out front) and where the scales fit. If I have certain aromatics combined with certain structural elements then theoretical knowledge tells me that I’m looking something grown in an area that’s capable of producing high alcohol, lower acid, and a grape variety that’s dominated by black fruit, herbal components and some pyrazines. Theory tells me what the grape is. From there I don’t get any kind of earth or mineral components meaning I don’t see any earth/mineral components. So I’m looking at something that’s new world-driven and can make a logical conclusion that I have a new world Cabernet Sauvignon from a moderate to warm growing area.
TG: Just curious, what happens if something on the nose changes radically on the palate? What is there’s more red fruit, for example? What happens then?
MC: Whatever is dominating will always take center stage and then other things take shape around it.
TG: Are the other things farther away if they’re not as strong? Or smaller in size?
MC: I don’t know if they’re further away but they’re definitely smaller.
TG: So if something changes drastically on the palate then it gets bigger in size and other things get smaller?
TG: What do you do when you add the structure to all the elements you got on the nose? What’s that like?
MC: It’s a checklist like a matrix of grapes. So I have a Cabernet model that I look at to compare to what I’m smelling and tasting.
TG: So there are models for different grapes?
MC: Not sure.
TG: The way to get to it is to either hold the thought of a Cabernet model for a few seconds or try to make the wine into something it can’t possibly be. Try to make this wine into Pinot Noir. What happens because your brain is going to say, “No way in hell.”
MC: It doesn’t look like or feel like Pinot Noir. It looks and feels like Cabernet. The images I see and the tactile feelings all tell me that this is Cabernet. It doesn’t fit any other profile or matrix.
TG: Do you have some kind of system for looking at red grapes? I’m thinking that even when you first looked at the wine you had expectations for fruit qualities and structure, and probably all the thin-skinned red grapes went away.
MC: Right, they disappeared.
TG: So you’re left with a universe of thick-skinned, dark fruit dominant grapes?
TG: What does that look like?
MC: To me it’s just a realm of possibilities.
TG: Are they visual possibilities? Do you see labels, grapes or sets of conditions?
MC: I guess it’s sets of conditions. It’s like I’ve drawn three different pictures and this picture says Cabernet and this picture says Pinot Noir and this one Zinfandel.
TG: What are those pictures like?
MC: The pictures are basically the fruit set, the oak set, and the non-fruit elements. It’s like a picture of all those things.
TG: Is there any writing on the picture?
MC: No, I don’t see any writing.
TG: So how do you know which one is which?
MC: I guess the picture becomes solid when I know what the wine is. It becomes cemented. And when I assess the acid and the tannin they’re no longer movable. So that becomes my Cabernet picture and it has the scales of acid, tannin, and alcohol with it.
TG: It’s almost like a map of a wine.
TG: What happens if you try to make the map into something else? Can you do it? Try to make this into the Pinot Noir map. What happens?
MC: Nothing changes so it doesn’t work.
TG: So it becomes solid and you can’t change it.
TG: I have to circle back to having the fruit set and the picture happening, how do you know you’re done with the grid? Do you actually see a picture of a grid and use it like a checklist? And how do you know when you’re done?
MC: Because I’ve done my initial and final conclusions (laughs).
TG: But how did you know if you forgot to say something?
MC: I guess I’ve done the grid for so long it’s just an order I start looking at.
TG: I’m watching your hands gesture and it’s like you’re pointing to different things on a list. True?
MC: I guess there’s a check list here (points out front to the left).
TG: Does the checklist come after the picture becomes solid?
MC: No, it’s always there but I don’t pay attention to it because I’ve done it so many times.
TG: You probably don’t have to think about it but it’s off to your left and you’re going top to bottom like it’s a grid.
TG: One thing we didn’t talk about is the length of the finish. Does that also have to do with the scale you use for structure?
MC: Yes, it’s basically the same thing but there’s an astringency to the finish so the ball on the scale has spikes on it.
TG: So there’s texture to it. Is one end smooth and the other end spiky?
TG: Do you actually put your hand along it and feel the texture? Or is it just a visual?
MC: It’s just visual.
TG: You also mentioned that the texture is really important for you. How do you represent tart vs. silky vs. astringent?
MC: Silky is different from tart because tart is an actual taste feeling making my mouth salivate. Silky is like rubbing your hand over a blanket—something that’s smooth and soft.
TG: Do you see something as you doing that because you making all these motions with your hands.
MC: I guess I see a blanket.
TG: I’m not autosuggesting but if you’re making all these gestures and you hold one of them for a few seconds what happens? What do you get?
MC: I just keep going back to the fact that it feels like something. The only way I can say that it feels like something that’s soft as opposed to tasting something. Because it’s not triggering the sweet-sour-bitter taste buds, it’s a tactile feeling.
TG: I’m just curious if there’s a visual cue when you get a feeling in your mouth and then you see something to confirm it. And maybe that’s part of the picture of the wine that’s becoming solid. What point does the picture become solid? After you finish the structure?
MC: Yes, it really locks in when I finish the structure. I have all these pieces/images and the structure solidifies them.
TG: I’m thinking that you’re also trying to match what your current picture is to a map you have for a specific grape or place. And once you do that you’d identified the wine.
MC: Right, it matches a set that I have for Cabernet.
TG: So with the picture is the structure underneath the images?
MC: Yes, underneath.
TG: With the structure do you know which one is alcohol vs. tannin vs. acidity? Is there a particular order?
MC: Tannin, acid, and alcohol.
TG: Where does finish go?
MC: Down at the bottom.
TG: There you are! That’s a really logical, very pragmatic way of piecing together a wine to end up with a best possible conclusion. What also comes to mind is that way back when you’re were studying for the exams what probably locked this system into place was tasting great examples of grapes and wines. And when you thought about them after tasting them you probably came up with the maps that you now still use as references. So if you think about great Barolo or great Chablis the map of those for you is probably very solid and easy to compare other wines you’re tasting against. And it also means you could practice tasting without actually having wine in hand. Did you ever do that?
MC: Yes, I used to recite my Chablis or my Nebbiolo-Barolo or whatever. Sometimes I didn’t even understand where a lot of the words came from but I would recite and go through the wines; this is what I’m seeing, this is what I’m smelling, this is the structure. I would go through a wide variety of grapes over and over again—and put myself to sleep doing it sometimes.
TG: I did exactly the same thing and I’m convinced it’s one of major reasons I passed the exam. I had a horrible cold before I took the exam the second time and the only thing I could do for the three days leading up to the exam was to practice the best examples of all the grapes and wines I’d ever tasted internally.
MC: I agree with the internal experience because when I would recite those wines it was an internal understanding of what I was experiencing. I could see, smell, and really taste the Nebbiolo.
TG: Right and at the Master’s level I’m convinced students need to do that with major grapes and wines and on command. They need to own them.
Matt, thank you so much for your time. I have to tell you that your system and internal strategies are the closest to mine I’ve ever found.