How I taste
By “how,” I mean the actual, physical mechanics of tasting. This is as much an attempt to understand my own processes as an attempt to explain it to you. And I’m sure I’ll get some questions that will force me to delve even deeper into my tasting mechanics.
I do it in the classic three-tiered approach: visual, olfactory and gustatory. First I look at the wine, its color and clarity. I suppose some critics make a bigger deal about color than I do. For me, if the color’s right for the wine, I’m ready to move on–and for the most part, the color and clarity of most California wines are correct. If a wine is eccentric in color–say, unusually light–I might take note of it and mention it in the review, which I write a little later.
Then I smell, deeply and long. A wine’s aroma is in some senses even more important than anything it does in the mouth. That smell (smell is a “bad” word that we critics try to find synonyms for, but “smell” is what it is) gives an amazing amount of information. It reminds me of the way Gus will sniff anywhere and everywhere, amassing reams of data unattainable to humans.
The smell of a wine can be divided into two main categories: Either it’s clean, or it’s off in some way. If it’s off, it’s very difficult for the wine to recover its reputation once I taste it; and usually, the off-smell is echoed in off-tastes. If it’s not off, I look for levels of interest. It’s pretty easy to find a wine that’s varietally correct without being complex. I refer to such wines as “V&E 101,” meaning you could use it in a beginning winemaking class to define the variety. It’s harder to find a wine that’s varietally correct and yet has extra layers of interest, which, after all, is what it’s all about. That’s why high scores are rarer than average ones.
Then we come to tasting. The actual tasting experience has at least as much to do with texture and mouthfeel as the specific flavors. I look for many things:
Sweetness. Calfornia wines are gong to taste a little sweet. That’s just how it rolls at our latitude. The question is, is the sweetness natural and appropriate, or is it insipid and sugary? Big difference, and a huge influencer in my score.
Fruit. Another given. It’s easy to put fruitiness into a California wine. The sun and heat do that, even in our lately cool vintages. The question is, is the wine merely fruity–a bomb? Or is the fruit part of a more complex array of qualities?
Complexity. I want a good wine to offer layer upon layer of interest. I often think of visual art in this regard. A painter like Renoir certainly pleases on the surface, but he offers such vastness below the “mere” beauty that he is justly regarded as a master. What is the difference between “mere beauty” and vastness? Ahh. That’s the secret.
Mouthfeel. Is the wine smooth, rough, edgy, sharp, silky, velvety, round, mellow, astringent, harsh, hot? This is where so many wines lose points. They may score well in all the above parameters, but if that all-important mouthfeel is off, the score goes down.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned alcohol up to this point. The reason for that is that, unlike some critics, I’m not freaked out by high alcohol. If it fits into the wine’s overall personality, then it’s fine–just another character trait. If it makes the wine hot, that counts against the score. But I’ve tasted wines that were hot at 14.5% and wines that were mellow at 15.5%.
Lastly I determine the QPR: quality-price ratio. This doesn’t change the numerical score, but it does affect my text. Part of my job is to let readers know if I think something is overpriced, priced just right, or a good value. An 85 may be really great for the price. A 90 may be overpriced. That’s all a function of QPR.
Obviously I could write a book on this, but let me just sum it up this way. Tasting is a very complicated set of behaviors. I daresay anyone who doesn’t do it for a living can hardly understand the physical, intellectual and creative skills it mandates, not to mention the ethical standards that some of us have to deal with on an everyday basis. Tasting wine involves four of the five human senses: sight, touch, smell and taste. Only hearing is not a part of tasting–although you could argue that the pop of the cork and the fizz of Champagne also are part of the tasting experience!