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On super-tasting

17 comments

Doing gigantic tastings isn’t my favorite thing. I know how to, and have done so many times. But as I’ve written, it’s not the ideal way to taste.

However, as with everything else, there are pluses and minuses.

The minus side, of course, is the wham, bam, thank you ma’am syndrome. You have, what? A minute or two with each wine, and have to come to a quick and dirty decision before the clock inevitably ticks and you move on to the next wine. There’s little or no opportunity to return to a past wine, which at any rate won’t be the same wine you originally tasted, because it’s been exposed to the air and has had a chance to chemically change, for better or for worse.

I don’t totally condemn this method of tasting. It has the advantage of quantity. Among those who taste like this are my good friend, Wildred Wong, at Beverages & More, and, purportedly, Robert Parker. Under the forced circumstances of a gigantic tasting, you enter the “zone,” a mental and physical arena in which your total senses are concentrated on the wines before you, and the most subtle differences are highlighted. That is a distinct advantage, presuming you are able to hit this zone of peak performance and stay there for more than 100 wines. I can. But it is tiresome, and you pay for it afterward. Following my blind tasting of 106 wines, at 4 in the afternoon, I fell into a deep sleep. My body seemed intent on clearing and cleansing itself. But despite that penance, I would never reneg on any of my findings during the tasting.

108-wines

106 wines in their bags

My preferred method of tasting is 12-15 per flight, with one flight a day. This gives you a lot more time with each wine, and also lets you go back and forth between the contestants in the “beauty pageant.” You can second-guess yourself, alter your impressions, decide that a wine that had seemed shy and austere is actually more interesting than you thought, or, alternately, that a big, powerful wine that originally impressed actually is overbearing. The more time you have, the more opportunity to trip yourself out, negotiate with yourself, change your mind. Is that good or bad? I prefer it, but philosophically speaking, I can see that it has a weakness. First impressions, as we know, are usually the most trustworthy. The more you think something over, the greater the risk of stumbling, of tripping yourself up the way the centipede did when it was asked, “How do you know where your 47th leg is when your 94th is going forward?” In the fable, the centipede became paralyzed with indecision.

There’s really no answer, beyond personal preference. I could not physically do this type of tasting every day. It would harm me. If I were a robot, maybe I could.

I did come away with the impression that Paso Robles’ best red wines are its Bordeaux blends. I’ll have much more on this in my upcoming article in Wine Enthusiast, slated for this Fall. Paso Robles is a young winemaking region with some ambitious and aggressive people at the helm, and it is making enormous strides. It’s best days clearly lie ahead.

Here’s a tip to bloggers and other up-and-coming tasters. If called upon to do super-tastings, get plenty of rest beforehand. Eat well, but not to the point of gluttony. Be in good physical shape. If you find yourself losing perpective during the tasting, get up and take a walk. Have some coffee. Smoke, if that helps. (I detest and condemn tobacco, but recognize it helps some people center themselves.) Make sure that the people who set up the tasting are aware of your needs (water, spit cups and buckets, crackers, napkins, comfortable physical conditions). You’re playing at the Olympic level of tasting, and you’ve got to be in Olympic condition.

blind-elements

The elements of tasting: paper and pens for notes, spit cup and bucket, napkins, crackers. Not shown: water.

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michael

You thrilled us, Michael. RIP.

  1. I am genuinely amazed that you feel the need to do such big tastings as if it is some grand solo mission. Who would be worse for wear if you chose a subset based on any logical criteria — price range; blended or unblended; even most catchy labels — to reduce the sample size? It’s not as if you are going to be able to cover every-single-thing about Paso Robles in one article anyway.

    Another logical approach, if you absolutely HAD to somehowe analyze all 106, why not bring along some fellow pro tasters (sommeliers, retailers are eminently capable), and you each did 35 wines and then cross-referenced notes and then retasted one another’s favorites?

    Blind-tasting by a solo practitioner of the Wine Critic’s art has become almost a parody when you present it like you do here, Steve. {“Following my blind tasting of 106 wines, at 4 in the afternoon, I fell into a deep sleep. My body seemed intent on clearing and cleansing itself. But despite that penance, I would never reneg on any of my findings during the tasting.”}

    Really now, where is the common sense in doing the super-human thing when you and everyone else who has ever tried 25+ wines in one session know full well that the chances of replicating the results from wrestling with 100 wines are laughable?

    Meanwhile, what you said about being most impressed with the “Bordeaux blends,” I am curious: were the true Bordeaux-style blends separated out from the Rhone blends and kitchen sink blends, or were the blends all together? I have found Paso to be a great source for all three types, e.g. Justin Isoceles (BDx-style); Westside Red (Rhone); Proulx Merveille (kitchen sink).

  2. Steve, very informative post. As much as I like wines, tasting 100+ would be quite a chore. I appreciate your perspective on first impressions and re-visiting wines. I think you’re right about first impressions being most important, but there would be a certain degree of arrogance if a taster believed he or she could reduce the fruits of several years of labor to a few sips. The benefits of re-visitation outweigh the risks of second guessing in my mind, particularly if one considers most wines are consumed by the glass. (Though the expensive small production 95+ point wines may be an exception; first impressions best mirror a scenario where collectors pour each other small tastes of their trophies.)

    Without giving away too much on your upcoming article, can you offer any general suggestions on Paso producers who are doing well with Bordeaux blends? I’m curious because, at least in my price range of $20 to $40, I didn’t taste any Bdx that really inspired me from the few wineries I visited a month ago. I think I came to the conclusion that anything with more than 1/3 Mourvedre was what I liked most.

  3. Greg, I’m still figuring out what I want to say in the article, so you’ll have to wait.

  4. I guess if I became you, Tish, you wouldn’t find anything to criticize me for. But then, I’d have to be you.

  5. I’m no fan of 106-wine tastings either. But the type of wine makes a huge difference. 106 Sauvignon Blancs, no problem. If you got through 106 Paso Robles reds, wow. My palate hurts thinking about it.

  6. I generally don’t go to these giant tastings, but if and when I do, I find the need to be selective. I don’t see how anyone, even a brilliant taster like you, Steve, can learn anything of consequence tasting a hundred wines in a short period of time.

    I do go to the UGC tastings because the wines are so important, but last year I pre-identified 43 wines to be tasted out of the 120 available. Sorry about missing Ch. Bonnet white.

    Even at that, and with four hours, I got through about 35 and simply called it quits. If you take more than a two minutes per wine, and you allow time to spit, clean your glass, have a cracker from time to time, etc, there is no way to taste all the wines.

    Alder Yarrow of Vinography offered point rankings for every wine. He could not have spent more than a minute or so per wine. That is his choice, and clearly he offered a very early and comprehensive reference point. It is just not the way I choose to taste. And while I agree with Tish’s point of view, I have to say that if one goes to such a tasting and is not trying to take notes for publication but is just looking for a bit of learning, then who is to say what works and what does not.

  7. Blake, actually it was a pleasurable tasting. I’d have a waaaay harder time with 106 S. Blancs!

  8. You see, my problem with mega tastings, (and trust me I’ve been to more than my share) is our notes mean almost nothing to the consumer. They will not be tasting that wine, after another….which ever wine, they will spending more than a few minutes with it, and that wine that “popped” in a lineup of 100+ might just be a little over the top on it’s own. Cannot tell you how many times one of our staffers gets a wine in, that they thought was lovely, (while tasting at a trade event) and then finds it flabby or too sweet, because it stood out at the event….”red tag on isle 3 please” such a bummer.

  9. I couldn’t imagine tasting that many wines at one time. That said, I’m not going to deny that someone else can do what I can’t. I would certainly agree that 12-15 per flight is a far more manageable amount of wine.
    I think the biggest single problem is fatigue. After tasting a number of wines, your palate becomes desensitized. At that point, a wine’s subtlety gets lost, so it’s the biggest wines that tend to stand out from the crowd. I’ve often wondered whether Parker’s liking for those big wines results from tasting so many wines at once.

  10. I don’t think very many people who aren’t in the biz understand just how many wines there are in the world to taste, and just how desperate wineries are to get them into the mouths of influential people. I’ve tasted thousands of wines in one year, and that amounts to a minuscule drop in the gigantic bucket. What Steve has done in Paso Robles is done all over the world on a daily basis by hundreds of wine writers, sommeliers and other dipsomaniacs. It’s a lovely fantasy to think that every review, every score has been arrived at by careful, daylong analysis, but it just doesn’t happen that much. Having been in Steve’s situation many times, you just focus, do your best, call on previous experience and then make the call. Though I don’t know Steve personally, I trust that he is very rarely far enough off in his judgment, even after 105 wines, to doubt his general perceptions of the wines. But there isn’t really a single blogger I would trust that far that isn’t already a wine professional with ten-plus years of experience.

    Wow, a whole paragraph and not a single joke. My bad.

    I do recall, however, some excoriating remarks Steve has made in the past about judges in wine competitions judging 100 wines in a single day…

  11. merlotman says:

    Steve, smiling with you, not at you! I have done more than a few tastings like that, and …always said WHY? Oh well, After every tasting… had to shave my tongue every time

  12. Morton Leslie says:

    Nothing is more depressing that busting your ass in the vineyard for a year and then in the cellar for two years to get a wine in the bottle, only to have it sniffed, slurped and spit in a one minute drill by a self appointed critic who has, seemingly, no understanding of the realities of wine tasting or any respect for your efforts.

    Most critics find facts regarding sensory analysis (facts that were known as far back as Pasteur) inconvenient to their profession. It’s not just the label drinker like Parker who is susceptable to suggestion, it’s anyone who engages in tasting practices that long established research has shown to be problematic.

    Olfactory familiarization sometimes referred to as sensory adaptation is a serious problem in tasting just six wines at a setting and has to be accounted for by the design of the tasting. Any particular sensation tasted after another can only be accurately judged if the subsequent sensation is stronger. You smell a heavily sulfured wine, your olfactory adapts to it and you won’t notice sulfur dioxide in the next wine unless it is stronger than the first. Same with tastes where for accurate analysis wines have to be grouped lowest alcohol to highest, driest to sweetist, and lightest to strongest in flavor. And this is a problem when six wines are tasted at one sitting. We are talking severe fatique in the marathon tasting.

    Yes, critiquing a hundred wines in an afternoon is idiotic. But then, what critic has shown truly professional tasting practices? Is it a matter of not knowing what they don’t know or is it that accuracy is not important to the job? I suspect is is the latter. Afterall, they’re actions say to the winemaker, “We just need a quick number to report and then we’re done with you.”

  13. I have learned over the years what works best for me. If my palate is reasonably representative of wine professionals, then tasting more than a dozen or dozen and a half wines is a good way to get inaccurate tasting results–and thus inaccurate recommendations to the very people who look to me for recommendations.

    My own regimen is to taste blind and to taste eight wines in two flights with a break in between. These tastings run for about three hours by the time the wines are tasted and the conversations about the wines are finished and the labels revealed. The process severely limits the number of wines I can get into print but it feels right to me in terms of getting the best information I can gather in order to write a cogent tasting note about each wine tasted.

    I long ago gave up being a participant in Fair judgings in which I have to taste 100 to 200 wines per day. The only time I break that rule is when I get a chance to travel to some distant land like Oregon or Australia to judge wines. Then the pain of inaccuracy is overcome by the joys of discovery. I will admit, however, that being asked to taste 35 Sparkling Shiraz at nine in the morning with a fair bit of jet lag almost changed my mind.

  14. Couldn’t agree more w/Charles. Twenty wines tests the limits of the palate, let alone hundreds. At last year’s Wine Literary Awards, we were presented with 1000 wines (none-blind), I’m sure which helped promote the event, but it’s preposterous to think that even in the six hours alloted time, one could get through the lot. I “struggled” through about three dozen or so of what I thought might be the most interesting in the group before palate fatigue set in and I had to quit. And even if you spit every wine, minute amounts of alcohol still are absorbed into the body. 106 times the smallest amount of wine is going to have an impact on the senses and acuity.

  15. Daunting, yes. But those large tasting events also offer a great opportunity for range–suffice your ability to gauge said range after multiple wines. It’s something you must have to build up to and a talent to acquire. Like Steve said, the Olympics of tasting requires Olympic condition.

  16. Dylan–

    It all depends on the purpose and the intensity of what you are doing. It is not impossible to sample a hundred wines and to come up with general concepts of what was tasted.

    It is next to impossible to do it accurately when tryint to take detailed notes worthy of presentation to others and therefore to hold up to any reasonably critical standard of professionalism.

    That is why so many of us refuse to participate in those kinds of judgings. They are like the swim-suit competitions at a beauty pageant in which intellignence, nuance and depth are lost in exchange for upfront attractions.

    Sorry, but Olympic tasting is, to me, a misnomer. Death march may be too extreme, but any time tasting acuity is compromised, the tasting format is less than perfect for detailed professional judgment.

    Sure, I go to UGC, ZAP, Rhone Rangers, but I do not try to post tasting notes on everything I taste there. For me at least, that is an invitation to inaccuracy that needs to be avoided when possible and understood for what it is and is not when it cannot be avoided.

  17. First off, I wish to thank Steve for taking the time to come to Paso Robles, and at have all of us get a chance to have a real wine critic taste our wines. As Steve said, Paso has made enormous strides and our best days are ahead of us. Let me think…has anyone else offered to come to Paso and taste our wines? Hmmm…no, i don’t think so. Steve DID come to Paso, and for all of us here, we thank him for doing a job I can not imagine ever being able to do. Do I believe Steve can do 100 wines at one sitting? Actually I do, but would put it in the category of an Olympic feat, and obviously intense training over yrs allows him to do it. By his own admission, he prefers 12-15 “like” flites, but even that can’t always be perfect.

    There are some 200+ labels here in Paso, many of which most folks have never heard. I have been here a mere 32 yrs now, and the caliber of a number of wines in Paso is extraordinary. My guess is many really good vintners live here who nobody has heard of. 32 yrs ago we had not much. Now we do, but still struggle with Rodney Dangerfield’s “I don’t get no respect”. Having a respected critic, who actually makes the effort to come here and taste 9 dozen wines doesn’t deserve the negatives i read above. In fact, he deserves recognition for a Heruclean feat. I repeat, we in Paso thank him. There aren’t many other folks who would have attempted such a thing…let alone , actually have done it.

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