A wine critic’s rituals
People like me who do a lot of tasting as part of our jobs develop some peculiar habits and rituals. But they’re particular to their times and places. For instance, when I do large (40 or 50-plus) tastings on the road, I like to start early in the morning, when I’m freshest. Big tastings are physically strenuous. I once did one in Santa Barbara County near the end of a long day, after I’d already visited and tasted at a couple of wineries, and it was exhausting. Never again. Big road tastings will now start at 10 a.m. or so.
I also, when I’m on the road at these large tastings, ask the people who arrange them for me to start with white wines, then transition through the lighter reds into the heavier ones, like Cabernet Sauvignon. That is the traditional way taught in so many books.
But it’s weird, because when I taste at home, I never start with whites. I like to start with reds. And I don’t begin in the morning, I wait until mid-afternoon. Why do I prefer to start with whites on the road and reds at home? Why do I taste at different times? I don’t know. It’s irrational, as so many of our rituals are. It’s extremely important for a professional wine taster to be comfortable with his or her protocol, and this is what makes me feel comfortable.
I like to mix up my wines in flights. I might include a very expensive wine with a super-cheap one, be it Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or whatever. The more expensive wines usually score higher, but not always, and I take pleasure in advocating a $20 or $15 wine that’s as good as a $50 or $80 one. That’s more common these days than it used to be: the recession is forcing some famous wineries to dump their grapes or wine on the market, making these great days for negociants and for wine lovers.
Another tasting ritual I have is to wash every used bottle twice before recycling. (I usually pour the remainder down the drain after taking my tasting portion.) Double-washing the bottles is the only way to avoid fruit flies. Any environment that contains a lot of wine inevitably attracts fruit flies in the summertime, and it’s unpleasant to have them flying around. Hence the bottle washing. Then there’s the breaking down of the cardboard boxes and recycling them, one of the less glamorous aspects of being a wine critic. I think I know every single variation on cardboard wine boxes that exists. There’s the single pack, the double, the triple, the four-pack, the six-pack and the case pack. Each comes in different designs and styles. I hate styrofoam, and I hate boxes that are sealed with metal clasps, which can cut the fingers. Yes, I’ve shed blood for this gig.
I do most of my reviewing at my desk, which is next to my patio deck, which looks out onto my street which contains many trees of different kinds: redwood, flowering magnolia, Doug fir, pine, plum. After arriving at a score and a general type of review in my mind, I’ll often sit in my desk chair, stick the tip of my right thumbnail between my front teeth, and stare out the window, looking at but not really seeing the trees, framing my review words with more accuracy. The human brain is an amazing thing. I think of mine as a kind of vast Rolodex, with every word, image, picture, experience and sensation I’ve ever had stored there. When I’m trying to find the right way to express the wine’s style and quality, it’s like flipping through that Rolodex. Sometimes–not often–I’ll use the dictionary, if I can’t come up with just the right term. But I don’t want to get too esoteric in my choice of review words. If anything, over the years I’ve adopted Thoreau’s maxim, from Walden: Simplify, simplify.
The final ritual following my tasting is to wash the glasses. I never wash them in a machine because I’m afraid they’ll break. I wash them by hand, carefully, lovingly. A good glass is a taster’s friend. I don’t like those little sommelier tasting glasses, although I own some. I prefer a big, roomy bowl. I use the same glasses for everything, red and white, although I use flutes for sparkling wine. I know some tasters who prefer a red glass and a white glass, but I want everything to be the same, all the time. That’s another ritual, and probably attests to a little OCD on my part.
Tomorrow I’ll be tasting at Screaming Eagle and Harlan/BOND. They’re quite close to each other, both in Oakville, although SE’s on the Silverado Trail and Harlan’s up in the Mayacamas foothills. I won’t be reviewing the wines formally for Wine Enthusiast because the tasting won’t be blind, but it will be an enjoyable and educational experience nonetheless. It’s just my luck that, after the mildest, driest winter we’ve had in years, heavy rain is moving in that will be at its height tomorrow, which means I’ll have to drive up and down some of the most crowded highways in California during a big, windy storm. I have no rituals to deal with that, except to drive extra carefully and hope some idiot doesn’t spoil my day.