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.
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.
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.