Tasting with the winemaker
I’ve been tasting a lot with winemakers lately, at their wineries. It’s such a different experience from tasting by myself, at home. In both cases, you’re doing the same things objectively: looking at the color, swirling, sniffing, sipping, rolling the wine around in your mouth, letting just the tiniest amount dribble down the throat so you can sense the aftertaste, then spitting most of the remainder out.
It’s what’s in the mind, however, that makes the two experiences utterly different.
When I’m tasting by myself my mind is largely empty. I mean, I’m obviously thinking about what I’m doing, coming to preliminary conclusions, correcting myself, anticipating what to do next. But I’m not thinking about anyone else. In this, my mental existence is more or less what Martin Buber called the I-it relationship: with an external object.
When I’m tasting with the winemaker, that mental existence moves into the more complicated territory of Buber’s I-thou: instead of interacting with an object, I’m interacting with another consciousness. The I-it relationship has bounds, but “Thou has no bounds,” Buber wrote.
This absence of bounds when tasting with the winemaker means that the objective act of of winetasting now shares center stage with the drama of a personal relationship with the winemaker. And, as we all know from our own experiences, personal relationships can be complex and uncertain, demanding of us whatever skills we possess to navigate through them. This is especially true when you don’t know the other person well, as is the case most of the time when a traveling wine writer sits down with a winemaker. I know some winemakers quite well, but with most of them, that’s not the case, and in many instances, we’re meeting each other for the first time.
First meetings are usually occasions for both sides to put their best foot forward. They’re generally pleasant, with informal chit-chat served up to break the ice and probe one another for areas of possible agreement, to find out where the boundaries are, and what sort of relationship might ensue.
When you’re a wine critic, however, this normally pleasant exercise becomes distorted in major ways. For you, there critic, are there to pass judgment on the created product of the other person–a product that may be as important to him, nearly, as his child, insofar as he’s put a huge amount of time, effort, ego and vision into producing it. The other person, the winemaker, may profess not to care what you say or think, but really, he wouldn’t have invited you to taste unless he did. You, meanwhile, know all this, and he knows you know, but there’s no getting inside either one’s head, so there’s a lot of guesswork going on. And when the tasting session extends over an hour or more, it can turn into an exquisite pas de deux, with full choreography.
I’ve had very successful tasting sessions with winemakers and some less successful, but I can truly say most of them are good. Getting a little buzzed helps both parties relax. For me, the best approach is to gain the other person’s trust and even affection by being myself, injecting a little humor into things, and not come across as too sanctimonious or conceited. Of course, there’s risk when you’re a wine critic. Part of you wants to show the winemaker that you know your stuff. You’re not just some boob off the bus, pretending to be the all-knowing guru but in actuality an idiot. I have enough self-doubt to prevent that from happening, but I also know what I know, or what I think I know, and sometimes, when what I know differs from what the winemaker knows (or thinks he knows), that can lead to tension. Tasting in Oakville the other day, there were two instances of this: one where I thought the less expensive wine was pretty much as good as the more expensive (although, after 20 minutes of airing, the latter proved itself), and one where a Bordeaux blend tasted surprisingly mute right out of the bottle. This, too, corrected itself after about 20 minutes, but I did share with the winemaker that, had I been power tasting (as many critics do), I might well have missed the beautiful nuances the wine showed once the air woke it up. I wondered if this statement indicted all wine critics, but I’ve found over my career that it’s helpful to share with winemakers my understanding of the (sometimes severe) limitations under which we work.