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How to taste? Let me count the ways

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There are as many different ways to taste wine as there are to roast a chicken, and, like roasting a chicken, every taster will have his or her favorite approach.

And I’m not even talking about the single blind-double blind-open thing.  I’m talking about the specific wines you include in your flight. A “flight” is, of course, the wines to be tasted on that occasion. It can have any number of wines in it. I’m comfortable with a daily flight of fifteen, more or less.

I’ve said and written before that my preferred method of tasting is in peer groups of similar wines, but what does that mean? In theory, it could mean any of several things. A classic arrangement would be all the First Growth Bordeaux and their equivalents [let’s say eight in all], with some Super-Seconds.

A classic equivalent in California might be a flight of the top red wines of a region in Napa Valley such as Eastern Oakville or Pritchard Hill or even a larger area, like the Stags Leap District. That would be comparing apples to apples.

Another version of a classic flight might be tasting all of the 18 or so Pinot Noirs Bob Cabral makes every year at Williams Selyem. But he once told me he’d rather I review his wines by appellation, so that, for instance, I’d taste his Russian River Valley Pinots against other RRV Pinots not from Williams Selyem.

These are all examples of classic flights, but unfortunately, it’s not always possible to arrange a classic tasting due to functional realities. That means I might taste 15 Cabernets in a flight, but they might be from all over Napa Valley–maybe even one or two from Sonoma County, the Santa Cruz Mountains and even the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. That’s un-”classic,” but it does have the upside of directly comparing a Happy Canyon Cabernet to an Oakville Cabernet. Maybe it performs favorably. Yay for Happy Canyon!

Every once in a while I like to shake things up with a wacko flight. I’ll do, say, two Petite Sirahs, two Cabernets, a Merlot, a Petit Verdot, a Syrah, a Barbera, two Pinot Noirs, two Sangioveses, an off-beat blend of Tempranillo, Merlot and Petit Sirah from Paso Robles, and a Zinfandel. I can see some of you shaking your heads. WTF? But listen to me, this can be really cool.

For one thing, since it’s blind, you have the instructive pleasure of trying to determine what each wine is. You can’t do that if you know you’re tasting all Oakville Cabernets. In the wacko flight, you have to concentrate hard. Some of these California Pinots are big, dark, extracted wines, so peppery and meaty, they’re easy to confuse with Syrah or Grenache. Zinfandel or Cabernet? At 15.4%, it can be hard to tell the difference. But what I like best about the wacko approach is that, since you don’t even know what the variety is, you might award a wine a very good score even if it’s bizarrely atypical of its region and variety.

Still and all, I think the best way to go is with flights of peer groups.

I’m off to Santa Barbara now for The Chardonnay Symposium and my great panel on terroir.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty of good stuff to report on. Meanwhile, have a great weekend, no matter where you are.

  1. Steve, though this is your occupation it’s nice to see that it’s also your avocation, and that you’re still having fun; “But listen to me, this can be really cool.”
    I enjoyed your tasting permutations, but I think the youthful/explorative state of mind shows that ‘one’ can be at this for a very-long time and still find new and satisfying approaches.

  2. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve, you may have written the answers for my questions a few dozen times here, so, forgive me.

    Do you swallow your more or less 15 wine samplings?

    I´ve read some peers of yours saying that after a long (a very long day!) day tasting wines their palates get much better by the end of the day. I can’t buy that. Thoughts?

    Best wishes.

  3. Carlos, yes, I have answered this question approximately 1,657,873 times. Of course I don’t swallow! I spit. Galloni told me, in this blog, that his palate gets stronger at the end of the day after 150 wines. If he says so, we have to believe him.

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