For the record, I think 10,000 hours is somewhere between arbitrary and pie-in-the-sky. My version of how long it takes to master an activity is something along the lines of, it takes a really long time, a lot of repetition, and paying close attention to what the hell you’re doing. No doubt that my theory is anything but sexy, and lacks the required hook to sell zillions of books and to be paid uber thousands of dollars to speak at conferences the world over. I could just as well write the next mega self-help booked called, 10,000 Days to a Better You! (Thanks, Rudy Harper) Who knows? Maybe the next big thing in self-help-improvement will involve making subtle, conscious changes over a long period of time while maintaining a balanced life. Hmmm. Could be a huge trend. I digress…
It was precisely this topic of mastery on which I presented at the recent Society of Wine Educators conference in Seattle. The objective of my session was to outline components of what one could call “mastery” in tasting wine. My presentation included several key criteria that top tasters do that separates them from everyone else who tastes wine; criteria that everyone else either doesn’t do as well—or doesn’t do at all.
I began the seminar by posing the obvious question, “What is mastery in the context of tasting?” My answer was, “tasting with a high degree of proficiency and consistency.” But that begs another immediate and equally obvious question: “What’s required to achieve mastery in tasting?” My answers were as follows and they are not unlike my mildly sarcastic remark above:
a. A duration of time: how much time? Haven’t got a clue, but judging from the careers of my friends/fellow MS colleagues in the business, somewhere between five and eight years seems to be a sort of minimum. Mind you, there are always exceptions.
b. Extensive repetition: as in tasting thousands of wines over said duration of time. This also presupposes keeping detailed notes either in notebooks or on a laptop or iPad; keeping notes so one can not only reference wines tasted in the past for the sake of comparison, but also so one can also track one's response to various grapes/appellations and how it changes over time.
c. Consistency: is absolutely required; one can’t be consistent unless a tasting method is used consistently in the form of tasting wines the same way every time. Sounds anything but creative but perhaps a large part of what we tend to call mastery has a lot to do with massive repetition of basic elements that form a longer sensory sequence; doing something so much that you “own” the process and could do it in your sleep. In fact, at some point you probably did do it in your sleep as a part of an unconscious learning process. To this end, using a tasting grid like those used by the Court of Master Sommeliers or the WSET is vital. If you’re not using a tasting grid/technique consistently, your results will also be anything but consistent--and lab rats will be smarter than you because they know the cheese isn’t there anymore.
d. Heightened sensory acuity: a fancy-ass way of saying “paying close attention to what you’re doing, how you’re doing it in the moment, and whatever else is right in front of you.” While you’re spending a lot of time—supposedly years—tasting thousands of wines the same way, hopefully you’re developing internal programs from global to microscopic as you sort for similarities and differences in the wines. In doing so, you develop memory strategies that hopefully will help you improve as a taster.
That’s it. That’s my recipe for “mastery” in terms of wine tasting. But there’s more in reference to my point above about top tasters doing things the rest either don't do as well or don't do at all. Here are best practices taken from my interviews over the last several years. What do top tasters do? Here’s a list.
1. They use a consistent starting sequence in terms of how they hold the glass and their starting eye position.
2. They taste using a very focused state of concentration; you could even call it a tasting trance. Experienced tasters are very good at shutting the world out and focusing on what’s in the glass even with serious distractions around them.
3. They consistently use a tasting grid or method at the unconscious level; meaning they’ve taken the MS or WSET grid and have used it so many times (yes, thousands) that they’re not even aware they’re seeing it internally--but it’s always there. Thus they also always know what’s next in terms of a sequence of tasting.
4. They have highly developed olfactory and palate memories. But as we all know, smell accounts for over 85% of the sense of taste.
5. Practically all* of them use image-based memories for smell and taste. Translated: they make pictures in their heads of the things they recognize in the glass. For the most, part they do it at light speed and without conscious awareness.
*I say practically all, because about 10% either generate very detailed associative movies (as in they’re in the movie seeing everything out of their eyes) or they project shapes and colors out of their heads/bodies to reflect their experience of a wine.
6. Top professional tasters are able to keep a lot of sensory information in their field of awareness, either simultaneously or in rapid sequence. Scientists tell us that we can supposedly keep 5-9 things in our heads at the same time. I think a good professional taster can exceed that number in terms of keeping a myriad of aromas in their field of awareness, or their personal internal iMax theater as I like to call it.
7. Wine maps: how is the above accomplished? By using highly individual wine “maps” or, as good friend Gilian Handelman likes to call them, “dashboards.” Translated: they make a multitude of pictures of the aromatics they recognize in a glass of wine. Once generated, all these images go somewhere and live in a kind of highly unique arrangement. Purpose? So the pictures don’t go away and can easily be reviewed by the taster.
8. They calibrate the structural elements in wine consistently and do so visually. How? They see internal scales or dials or wheels (or who knows what) so they can precisely calibrate how much acidity, alcohol, and tannin they’re experiencing in a specific wine.
9. They have processes or sequences to identify grapes, wines, regions and vintages. Top tasters use any number of internal comparative processes to “look” at the important markers in a glass of wine to determine the grape variety, region of production, and more. What kinds of processes? Most are visual and have to do with memories of labels, photographs, meals, winery visits, and travel.
10. They “own” the major grapes and wines, meaning they have both tasted and internally rehearsed/practiced important grapes and iconic wines so many times that they can bring up detailed and vivid memories of said grapes/wines on command. A large part of this is practicing tasting wine without a glass in hand.
With all this in mind, here’s are links to blog posts I’ve written in the past about many of the points above. Read and enjoy.
1. Glassware stance: addressing the glass consistently:
2. Establishing an inner “zone” using overlapping
3. Using a grid consistently; moving the grid from conscious to the unconscious
4. Using submodalities for olfactory sensitivity and to install olfactory memories
5. Awareness of the internal wine “map”
6. Calibrating structural elements with visual construct
7. Recognition strategies: label check & calibrating with extremes
8. Using a decision matrix
9. Lieder ohne Worte: associative rehearsal and tasting
One final thought about the concept of mastery and tasting: I’m not resorting to kitschy cliché here, but perhaps part of whatever mastery in tasting is, is about getting there—the journey, if you will. In my tasting interviews, I’ve been surprised to learn that many top tasters don’t consider themselves special when it comes to tasting. It’s just something they’ve worked hard at for a long time, and, more importantly, all said that they feel the need to continue to work to improve their craft. I'm reminded of what the legendary cellist Pablo Casals said when asked why he was still practicing daily at age 93: "I'm beginning to notice some improvement." Enough said.