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Young wine-loving students a breath of fresh air

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I did my annual tasting and presentation last night at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business Wine Industry Club. This is a group of students, numbering about 60, with an interest in wine.

This is always one of my favorite things to do all year. I like being in the company of smart, young, curious people, and Lord knows the MBA students at Haas are smart. Diverse, too. You always expect diversity in the Bay Area, but U.C. Berkeley is like a miniature United Nations. The only question I have is, where are the African-American MBA candidates? Maybe they’re just not into wine, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Black student in my four years of doing these classes.

They’re so curious, these young people, most of who seem to be in their twenties. They ask all the right questions: How do I taste? How do I decide on a rating? How do I keep my palate from being jaded? Do I feel badly when I give a mediocre score? One student in particular grilled me on why Wine Enthusiast won’t publish scores below 80. Don’t we have a responsibility, he asked, to warn consumers against flawed wines? (I told him I can see it both ways.) They wanted to know if I’m influenced by other critics, how I separate my own personal tastes from a wine’s objective qualities, about the relative merits of blind tasting vs. open tasting, about how many wines I can review at a time without tiring (I told them about Galloni doing 150 at a stretch), about whether my scores would be consistent if I reviewed the same wine over time, about reviewing wines that advertise in the magazine, about the merits of being a generalist versus a specialist taster.

In other words, they asked about all the things that this blog routinely deals with!

That was just the Q&A part. The actual content of the tasting was that the club’s chairman, who will graduate this Spring and go on to work at Deloitte, had asked that I talk about “What is the difference between an 80 pt wine, 90 pts, 95, 100?” So I got five wines, at five different score points, that we tasted through. They were:

80 points: Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (California)
85 points: Louis M. Martini 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley)
90 points: Rodney Strong 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley)
95 points: St. Supery 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford)
100 points: 2006 Cardinale (Napa Valley)

It was most interesting revisiting the Cardinale. In the tasting I actually liked all the wines more than when I had first reviewed them, i.e., I would have scored them all a little higher (except,obviously, for the Cardinale). I was honest with the students and told them. They wanted to know how that could be, and I explained that most wineries rush me (and other critics) their wines almost immediately on release, whereas the wines really would benefit from sitting for another 3-6 months or even longer to settle down. But most wineries can’t afford to sit on inventory for that long. So it didn’t surprise me that, for example, the Woodbridge seemed more complete and wholesome than when I first tasted it, six months ago. Plus, last night’s Woodbridge was in magnum, whereas the wine I tasted last October was in a standard bottle. So these things–age and bottle format–make a difference.

I told the students that I have no control over when wineries send me wine, so, if I hold them all to the same standard and taste their wines when they get to me, I can sleep at night knowing I’ve done my best to be fair. They seemed to understand that.

The students had their own opinions, of course. One guy, from India, found the Rodney Strong (whose alcohol is 15%) “porty.” I explained that, yes, I’m well aware that some people with “European” palates might experience that, but that I have a California palate, thank goodness, as it would be pretty odd if I didn’t like the ripe, expressive style of some California wines.

The St. Supery really stunned me. The students asked me a lot of questions about how I come up with my descriptive vocabulary (fruits, flowers,  etc.) and I told them that organoleptic terms are fine, as far as they go, but at some point with a great wine, you have to elevate your vocabulary beyond metaphors and enter into a conceptual realm, such as elegance, balance, classicism, even emotional impact. I told them the story of how Napoleon allegedly used to make his troops bow down as they marched past the Clos de Vougeot. That, I said, was a form of wine description that captures, in a single gesture, what the wine is like, or what it means to the taster.

And then there was the Cardinale. I must say everyone liked it, although the club’s president warned them that they were no doubt being influenced by what they knew of its price and reputation. Perhaps. This elicited a discussion of how a taster must separate himself from external bias to the greatest extent possible. For myself, the Cardinale was everything I remembered from when I reviewed it, at the Napa Valley Vintners, 2-1/2 years ago. It had perhaps closed down a bit, entering that funny middle period when a wine is no longer quite as fat and gorgeous as it is in youth, but has not yet approached anything resembling secondary bottle development. In my review, I had written it would improve for at least eight years. Last night, I told the students that I would now extend my window of prognostication out to 2022. That, in turn, elicited a conversation about ageability: How does a critic know? I replied that, as in all things, particularly the economic field into which these students are embarking on careers, there are known unknowns; and ageability is one of those.

So smart, these Berkeley students. So international in outlook. Next time you get depressed about the state of things, go hang out with some smart kids. Works for me everytime.

  1. Steve,
    I think it would have made for a far more lively discussion if you’d have identified the wines and their definitive scores, but served them blind and let the students see how closely they matched your order, w/o the influence of the label.
    Tom

  2. TomHill, I considered doing exactly that. Given the technical limitations (a lack of glasses, set-up time and pouring staff) it didn’t seem possible.

  3. doug wilder says:

    Steve, Did the question of relative price points come up in relation to the ratings?

  4. Steve, first of all, as a Haas grad and a former organizer of the class you spoke to (way back in 2008), thank you for taking the time. I spoke to the class back in February and I was particularly excited to see your name on the speaker list.

    What was the most surprising comment or question from last night?

    And yes, there is a dearth of African-American MBA students. I think it is a problem at most of the full-time MBA programs. Hard problem to fix but needs to be addressed in the coming years.

  5. Damon, the toughest question was “What don’t I like about the wine industry that I would change.” I declined to answer, since it would have taken the rest of the night–and we were there to taste!

  6. We are confused… Was the class teaching stundents how to taste and after that process was finished…how to score a wine?

    “What is the difference between an 80 pt wine, 90 pts, 95, 100?”

    So many questions

  7. I did the same presentation to that group last week and told them to say hi to you. Hope you had as much fun as I did. I share the love for their intelligence and enthusiasm to learn not only about wine but also about the wine business.

  8. Steve, I was there last night and just wanted to say that I had an excellent time, and learnt a lot from your experience! I really enjoyed hearing about all of the wines, and getting the opportunity to taste the Cardinal and St Supery – delicious! Thanks so much for coming along, and bringing such great wine!

  9. Emma Swain says:

    Steve,

    Thanks for tasting our wine with the group! Glad you enjoyed it.
    Emma

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