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Getting into the tasting zone

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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.

  1. “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.”

    Really, Steve? So if someone doesn’t taste in the same way that you do, it’s not worth entertaining? Man, I cannot buy that. That makes no sense to me. And it would make me toss out the opinions of a dozen people who I know are really good writers and have really good palates. For the most part, those folks don’t make snap judgments, but they might not be setting up tasting flights, either…

  2. Um comment on 1winedudes …. Dude you know writers that have really good palates…How do you know these writers have really good palates? <<<i like asking this question :)

    Now Dude, I can agree with the rest of your comment to Steve. My opinion is simple…. Readers (consumers) will listen and can listen to whomever they choose. It's like going into the store and meeting the staff or a server in a restaurant, if you connect that is great and over time there opinion will become like gold (until they f up…lol ) to you and if you do not connect you simply will not go back and therefor not listen.

    So if you really connect with a critic you will love almost everything they say… I wish it was not this way but it is. I also feel there are too many people in our business that should not be. Many Writers / Blogger's have no reason to be writing about wine. It takes a long time to develop a palate and more importantly educate ones palate. Its not just tasting it is learning from your peers in the business and this is where many are lacking…. it take a very long time and it should be this way to become a respected critic or one can say a professional in the wine business.

    I could so go on and on and on and on and on : )

    Miller

  3. Joe, I would hope that those who are able to taste in similar flights do so. Obviously, if a critic isn’t getting enough incoming wine, they’re going to have to taste whatever comes in: a California Chardonnay with a South African Chenin Blanc, an Austrian Pinot Noir with an Australian Shiraz and a Lodi Zinfandel. I don’t know any serious critic who thinks that’s a good way to taste. It’s a way of tasting, but it’s not the best way. The argument that if somebody doesn’t taste the way I do, they’re wrong, is specious. It’s valid to say that serious critics can disagree with each other about a wine, but not about tasting methodology, IMHO. Tasting in similar flights has had a long and respected history among all serious wine critics, in Europe and the New World, for centuries. There’s a reason for that: it’s the only way that works.

  4. Steve, I appreciate the mention of the book, but it is most definitely not a re-issue. It is an almost-entirely new, reconceived and rewritten from scratch update and expansion of the original first edition, published three years ago. Just want to set the record straight!

  5. Dude, I agree that there will be some people who naturally taste faster than others. But even a fast taster will benefit from added time. It’s pretty simple in my mind. When you double-check your work, you catch mistakes. It’s mainly ego and no real way to check a critics’ work that allow the mondo-tasters to get away with what they do.

    I do believe that if a critic is ‘on’ the first impression can reveal the key components of the wine. But wine is really too complicated to stop at this. What about time evolution when open? Or layers that are not obvious? It’s a scientifically backed observation that a human can only differentiate 3-4 aromas at once. How can one construct a long list of aromas (honestly) without contemplating a wine more than once?

  6. Paul: You are right, of course. Thanks for setting the record straight.

  7. I’m moved to ask Keith what is the purpose of taking a “long time to develop a palate and more importantly educate ones palate. Its not just tasting it is learning from your peers in the business and this is where many are lacking…. it take a very long time and it should be this way to become a respected critic or one can say a professional in the wine business.”

    This level of sophistication may be appropriate for the 5% of the population who might be considered wine enthusiasts, hobbyists and collectors, over on the right tail of the bell curve. But connoisseurship isn’t the goal of the great majority of “back seat” consumers, those in the middle of bell curve. Like a concert, they needn’t know about the instruments and the mode of composition, only whether the piece pleases their senses. Like American Idol or America’s got Talent or Dancing with the Stars, let the “experts” judge inidially, but let the people determine the final choice.

    It pleases me, therefore, that Lodi, Lake County and the Santa Cruz Mountain AVAs now include consumers in their local competitions, since they put out the funds to purchase the product. And their response is fairly quick, though it can change when they return to the wine after a bit of time.

  8. Tom Merle–

    Anyone who hangs out a shingle as a professional wine critic needs to follow good, sound tasting methodology. No one expects people who eat at The French Laundry to know how to cook complex dishes, but the chef needs to know how to do it, and the critics of the restaurant need to know how to understand the complexity of what has been done, not just “do they enjoy it”.

    Moreover. just who is it that you think professional writers are writing for? It matters not whether it is Joe Roberts with his witty one-sentence quips or Charlie Olken and his 75-150 word descriptions. We are not writing for the other end of the bell curve or even those folks at the median. They are not running around searching for wine reviews. The people who read me or who read Joe Roberts, although not exactly the same, care enough about wine to pay attention. And by definition they have moved towards the knowledgeable, “I care” end of the spectrum.

  9. Steve.. interesting to hear your process.. I understand the traditional methodology, of course, and have done it a number of times–fortunately, at most I only have to share my thoughts with my friendly wine tasting club; more often only with my wife. but I liked reading how you go through it. I always enjoy your comments and critiques..

  10. Bob, thanks. It’s my pleasure to share transparently how I do everything.

  11. Thanks, folks – I wasn’t trying to say that speed tasting is better (it’s not), but did want to point out that it’s still possible for someone with a palate that I trust to taste in a different manner than Steve described and still have the results be worthwhile. cheers!

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