Getting into the tasting zone
I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m a slow taster. I can’t do the wham, bam, thank you ma’am thing (no sexism intended). Some people burn their way through a hundred wines in an hour. Not me.
When I start with a lineup of 12 red wines (let’s say Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon), it always stuns me to realize that, on my first sniff- and taste-through, they all seem pretty much alike. Unless one of them is obviously flawed in some way, it’s almost like I’m drinking the same wine, poured into 12 different glasses.
Common sense alone would suggest it’s not possible for 12 different wines to all taste alike. That’s why I realized, years ago, that it takes me some time to get into my tasting zone.
I used to be a competitive runner. Runners understand the concept of getting into the zone. When you begin running, especially in the stressful circumstances of a competitive race, your heart and lungs immediately feel the strain. You’re going from a resting heart rate and equilibrium to one in which the entire system is suddenly shocked into hyper-performance. It takes a while for the body to adjust to a hard run. For me, it wasn’t until the one mile mark that I finally felt in the groove — relaxed, steady and breathing easy.
Tasting is the same kind of thing. I can’t go from nothing to a highly detailed sensory analysis of a dozen wines in an instant. I know those 12 wines are different, and I know that I have to play with them for a long time to discern precisely what those differences are. Of course, it’s not just my palate and brain adapting; the wines, too, are breathing in air, slowly softening and changing, opening up and releasing their essence. So the tasting process for me is more like a slow dance with the wines, or a series of slow dances.
Sometimes, even after 20 minutes, I still can’t quite make heads or tails of those 12 wines. When that happens, I take a break. I might turn to a couple white wines to review. That helps to calibrate my palate (I don’t like the word “calibrate,” but it’s useful). Another term I’ve heard is to “season” the palate. I’ll nibble on a crust of bread, to wash my mouth of extraneous tastes. In fact, I’ll do whatever I have to do to get into the zone, for without it, I couldn’t taste.
I know I’ve begun to enter my zone when the Aha! factor sets in. That red wine #3 that was so good 30 minutes ago? It’s actually showing some pruniness. That #7? There’s a lot of acidity in there, but not as much fruity concentration as I originally thought. On the other hand, #5 is still really, really good. And those tannins in #6? It’s most likely an ager, whereas that tannic #11 probably isn’t. And so it goes. Distinctions pile up, similarities fall away. I’m able to experience each wine as it really is.
It easily takes me two hours to go through 12 red wines, and I could go even longer than that, but at some point, you have to move onto other things. I’m going down to Santa Barbara next week for several tastings of 50 or 60 wines, and I’m prepared for them to be marathons, lasting for 4 hours if not longer. It will take me a while to get into the zone, but once I’m in it, everything else seems to disappear. Time and space fly away, all the stupid stuff I’ve been thinking about all day fades, and I turn into a tasting machine.
I think readers of wine periodicals and blogs are entitled to ask the writers precise questions concerning the circumstances of how they taste. Here are the questions I would ask:
- Do you taste blind?
- How long do you spend on each wine?
- What kinds of flights do you set up for tasting?
If the taster tells you he or she comes to a snap judgment about a wine all by itself, in the absence of a comparative flight of its peers, and without long and arduous contemplation, then you probably shouldn’t be paying that critic any attention.
Shoutout to Paul Gregutt
and the reissue of his book, Washington Wines & Wineries. This is the authoritative book on the subject. Paul of course is my colleague at Wine Enthusiast, responsible for reviewing the wines of the Pacific Northwest. He’s also the longtime wine columnist for the Seattle Times, and is the Dean of wine writers up in that part of the country. As if that’s not enough, Paul authors the Unfined & Unfiltered blog, which was co-nominated with my blog for Best Writing at this year’s American Wine Blog Awards. And he plays a sweet guitar.