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A wine critic’s rituals

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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.

  1. At the San Diego International Wine Competition over the weekend, Chief Judge Michael Franz and Host Robert Whitley had us taste reds in the morning and whites in the afternoon, first time I’d done that in judging a competition. I think the whites in the afternoon, after a mid-day break, were fresher, and got a fairer evaluation. Interesting to take a run at it that way, at the very least.

  2. When I’m leading a Burgundy seminar I always pour red first. More often than not the wines are on the young side, so the reds are leaner with tangy fruit and show less wood than the whites, which when poured after red, show plushy, richer and more opulent.

  3. Nice post, Steve!

    It makes me think of ‘ritual’ too. I do my best to control styrofoam burden by explicitly requesting wineries or PR firms to send my sample wines in recyclable packaging. I opened a box packed in styrofoam last night and the first thing I saw was a yellow stickie with a hand written note that read “sorry for the styrofoam, we ran out of recyclable packaging”. Clearly, the message is getting out there. I still breakdown cardboard but bring the inserts back to my UPS store where I receive deliveries. For glassware I too prefer to do one stem design, opting for the Eisch breathable glass, it is lead-free and dishwasher durable.

    Because I have always done it this way, I prefer to taste through an entire winery lineup, non-blind. Last night it was a Sauvignon Blanc, followed by a Chardonnay, three Pinot Noir, and a pair each of Syrah and Petite Sirah. After a flight is finished I recork and shove aside before setting up another flight. The next day I will quickly run through the wines to see how they evolve. I put all of my notes in a book, before organizing into a spreadsheet. I learned from spilling a glass of wine onto a laptop one time. During the writing phase if I need inspiration I can walk around the corner to the old head-pruned vines or take a bike ride passing Montelena, Aubert and Araujo, or in the summer spend an hour foraging blackberries in a number of thickets. Tasting can happen anytime during the day as early as 630AM but most often from 7-11 PM. I will taste solidly for 15 days, then spend the next two weeks writing and doing photography of labels. My desk doubles as my photo studio for bottle shots. I do all my bottle recycling at once as it is the final act of putting the last issue behind me and clear the decks for what comes next. Enjoy your day in wine country! it is raining hard up here.

  4. Phil Grosse says:

    Steve–

    I’ve always wondered about letting a wine breath for a couple of hours, or even overnight (a problem in the fruit fly season, to be sure). Mr. Wilder re-corks, and tastes again the next day. Wouldn’t that be of interest to a reviewer?
    I work in a tasting room two days a month, and one of my favorite things is to pour the last of one bottle and the first of the next–same wine–side by side for guests. It’s invariably educational. Do you ever revisit a wine the next day?

  5. James McCann says:

    “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.”

    If you know that there are very expensive wines and a super-cheap wine, and arrange for them to be in the same flight, how is that a blind tasting?

  6. Steve, just two comments: I agree with how wonderful it is to give a great review to an inexpensive wine. e.g. Kenwood Jack London Vineyard Sonoma Valley 2007 Zinfandel, $11.99, 92 points (You didn’t like it nearly as much as I did).
    This is a curious note on the Douglas fir: my natural history professor (John, you are still one of the best Prof. I ever had) believed that the tallest trees ever were Douglas fir, but that they had been cut down; maybe someone in your vast audience might know more?

  7. Love the post Steve, and some of the comments relating to the tasting customs of wine writers/critics. It is interesting to compare the tasting rituals and traditions of the critic versus that of a winemaker. In most instances, the critic seeks to react to a finished wine. The winemaker’s lot is different. The winemaker tastes repetitively the components that may or may not come to be part of the finished wine. In that search, we seek to understand the impact of vintage and vineyard. We try to intuit the role of a small lot of wine into the whole of the blend. It is an enduring process, and if you are like me, one that rarely comes to a natural end.

    I begin any given year with over 100 separate small lots of Pinot Noir–each kept separate due to vineyard of origin, clone, aspect, etc. The challenge is to ‘get to know’ these wines, and their ultimate role in one of our bottlings. To that end, we taste each separate wine repetitively and blindly at least seven times. We also adhere to a numerical score to assist in segregating and stratifying our interpretation of the wines. We use a 9-point scale, but the most decisive part of that score are the “soul points”, which are a potential 3 points out of the total 9. As for notes, mine are typically minimal with constant focus on weight and texture, which are two areas I find most compelling in the determination of blendable wines.

    As for ritual, I always taste at 7:30 am. I’ll admit it, I get tired after 30 wines.

    The most important part of my tasting ritual is the cracker. I feel the need to give a shout out to the Neva-Betta Specialty, “a cracker for all reasons”, according to their packaging. Tasters everywhere, seek them out.

  8. Zach, great insights! And you are obviously making some seriously good Pinot noir. Thanks.

  9. Dennis, I don’t know, but now my “vast audience” has seen your question.

  10. James McCann, it is single blind, not double blind.

  11. Phil, I could retaste the next day, but that would effectively double the number of wines I review. I think the most important thing is not how one tastes, it’s to taste everything consistently, in the same manner.

  12. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve. Hi.

    Not long ago i read a great article wherein one of the most expensive noses in the world would teach people how to sniff perfumes. She was/is employed by one of those huge corporations of the perfume industry. Just so you know she can sort out over 15 different types of roses while most of us can barely identify roses (i remember that rosso conero has a very strong rose aroma).

    It turns out some wine “experts” were in the audience too. To their surprise the conversation turned into wine tasting, testing.

    She said the whenever sniffing perfume samples she starts placing some tissue between the, say, bottle and her nose in order to tame the alcohol that is present there. The alcohol she says, would destroy her nose for the sniffing purposes.

    Ok, the amount of alcohol in wine isn’t the same as in the perfume, BUT after testing 40, 50 wines and some with that “crazy to be in the air fast alcohol”, couldn’t we say your tasting habilities wouldn’t be at the same level as they were in the beginning of your journey?

    And yet i read that some critics say they palate improve as they hammer down wine after wine during a day’s work.

    Old topic, i guess you’re the only one who’s going to read this…

  13. Hi Carlos, I’m not the only one who will read this. My readers will, too. I think every taste has his own limitations concerning the # of wines. My own is around 50-60. But as you know (I wrote about it here), Antonio Galloni told me he can do 150 and that he’s actually stronger at the end than at the beginning. So, as the French say, chacun a son gout!

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