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Tasting with the winemaker

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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.

  1. I love these stories from the trenches, and you had me at the Buber references.

  2. george kaplan says:

    Any day now I’m waiting to read that Mephistopheles can have your soul because a wine has made you susserate ” Thou hast no bounds!”

  3. As you pointed out, there are distinct differences between bounds and boundaries. While the “thou” relationship has no bounds, it’s up to each of us to set the boundaries in any relationship. This is especially important where there is a critical element to the relationship and that’s where your position as an *independent* wine critic comes into play. Yes, it’s best if you can establish those boundaries with a wine maker early on and they can get a sense of that via communication and your established writings and history.

    From the experiences that I’ve had tasting with wine makers on their turf, they’ve all understood that there is a critical element even if I’m going to acting as their sales agent (with me working for the distributor that carries their wine). I have to be “on board” to be able to effectively relay the information about their product in an enthusiastic and honest manner. So while I’m there to establish a business relationship with the winemaker, I’m also there to evaluate the wine with respect to the people to whom I will eventually try to sell the wine. I’m also the sales agent for the buyers of the wine and if I can’t honestly understand and endorse the wine (given typicity, style, regions and variations of grapes), then it’s going to be very difficult for me to sell the wine.

    So I think that we all have to establish what are the proper boundaries of the relationship, and how we (as business professionals) can interact with one another in a way that is honest, authentic and still gets the message across to the ultimate consumer — rather in the way that you, Steve, accomplish your assigned tasks, no?

  4. George Kaplan, I don’t know what your comment means, but any comment with the word “Mephistopheles” in it (and correctly spelled!) gets my approval.

  5. Sherman, I hear you. But I don’t think the role of the wine critic and the sales agent are remotely comparable. No matter what you think of the wine, you’re going to present it in the most favorable way. That’s not true of the critic.

  6. Martin Buber was not among the people I ever thought would be referenced in a wine blog. But, you made the reference work. Very thoughtful…and erudite. The I-Thou relationship in these tastings is dimension I have always felt, but have never taken the time to think through and articulate. The Buber reference added value and some scholarly appeal.

    Also, thanks for bringing up the Oakvile tasting of the higher end Bordeaux blend. I have had similar experiences, especially when rushed sommeliers or club buyers are tasting the wine with a tight schedule and power tasting multiple wines in a single sitting. Our high-end Bordeaux-blend is consistently rated in the mid to high 90′s, but is slow to open up. If they just pull the cork and taste, they miss the elegant nuances the wine delivers. That is why we no longer send samples to be tasted without one of us present. If someone wants to taste the wine, we try to schedule sufficient time to chat while wine breathes. This also gives us a chance to explain what is truly special our practices. Obviously, as an alternative, the bottle could be opened ahead of the tasting. But, I feel something is lost in the experience, if you do not open the wine with the taster and take the time to chat about what makes it special.

  7. Patrick says:

    Yeah, it’s great to drink with the winemaker; it’s always educational. But as a consumer and regular reader, I hope you are not tasting with the winemaker when you taste for rating or publication purposes. Do you?

  8. Patrick: No, I don’t. When I taste with the winemaker, I don’t rate the wine with a score.

  9. george kaplan says:

    Just getting into the spirit with erudite references. See, If one had an I-thou experience with a wine, it’d be like Faust’s finding an experience that was so wonderful that he’d want to stay with it and achieve surcease of sorrow(whoops, there’s another one) so he could give up his striving, and thus his soul. Or maybe not.I had an I-thou with the ’74 Martha’s on Christmas, but I’m still here. i think.
    But seriously folks, the context is everything, and getting a little high and talking is a more natural way of experiencing and judging a wine;it’s what wine is for. It’s also the mode of the best wine writing of old, and I suspect the best wine writing of the future.

  10. “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.”

    So not only do winemakers need to make wine with attributes agreeable to the wine critic(s), but they also have to “engineer” it to be at its pinnacle when it’s uncorked for a power tasting. No thank you!

  11. Scott: I don’t think what you said I meant is what I actually meant. But I will say that, when PR people ask me when to send their wines, I tell them to send it when the winemaker thinks it’s showing best.

  12. Your last comment is something I agree with Steve. I have had too many experiences where a wine is not showing as well early as it would after it had been in the bottle for another six months. It can be a variety, or a combination of things that drive wines coming to market (and to us)early; desire to be ‘on vintage’ with competition, barrel storage or bottling logistics, or the bank knocking at the door. Sometimes that first early impression isn’t enough for me to lose interest if I reckon it could be better with some bottle time and I will tell the winery to give it another shake in six months, others though may not get circled back to, again for a variety of reasons.

  13. Doug , agreed, which is why we must offer the caveat that these ageability issues are guesstimates.

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