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How I taste

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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!

  1. When do you expose yourself to the wine’s brand? How much do you think that plays into the review? Insightful read

  2. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve wrote: 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?

    The sun and heat do that, besides the lab or artificial yeasts, these little creatures programmed to add the flavour and aroma one wants. Funny to say they can be “artificial”.

    I´m sure as hell you know about that, Steve…but i’ve decided to audit your writing today…

    Saúde!

  3. The problem here is that you are taking criticisms of what you have said in the past and now assimilating it as your own philosophy and methodology (at least on paper).
    It’s particularly dishonest not to acknowledge that these statements represent you taking a number of criticisms and correction of you by others in the last couple of years and lump it together as yours.
    I’m glad you say you do things a certain way now.
    You have made statements (privately and here) that, to one degree or another, contradict what you have written here.

    I don’t think you are fully “there” as far as *assessment* of wines goes. There are fundamental dimensions and parameters missing from your construct. So, lastly, to claim you could write a book about the subject is preposterous.

    The one question I have is:

    Did you subject yesterday’s wines to the same protocol as you subjected ones you tasted four years ago?

  4. Dear Carlos, thank you!

  5. Patrick, I don’t know the wine’s brand until I form my judgment.

  6. Kurt Burris says:

    Steve, I liked your comment about alcohol. When someone pours me a glass of wine I don’t automatically reach for my reading glasses to find the microprint alcohol statement. But, being in the industry and living in Sacramento, quite often friends bring over local wines that they think I will like. I do look at the alcohol level of these wines before I decide when and where to open them. Am I being fair?

  7. Kurt, I think looking at the alc level is just a habit most of us have, like looking at the appellation. As long as you don’t rigidly make up your mind before tasting it, you’re being fair.

  8. Patrick Frank says:

    Renoir!? You must mean early-period Renoir, because that late stuff after about 1884 is really awful. Calendar pages. Pinups. Cheesy stuff.

  9. Steve, you knew the identity of the AVV Cyrus before you had a chance to form your judgement. Knowing “beyond all doubt” what you are tasting influences your assessment of a wine. How can you say that influence doesn’t factor into your review?

  10. I like the “V&E 101″ description. I’m totally going to steal that.

    I found it interesting that you don’t use the Mast Somm checklist, which uses categories like “intensity, complexity, balance” or “fruit, earth, wood”. I suppose it is part of being a professional critic, that you have to devise your own way of tasting wine, rather than use a generic checklist. I might not understand, or might not agree, with the person who criticized you for taking various strategies and putting them together to create your own unique process. I really appreciate you sharing that with us.

    I was surprised that acidity, tannin, and aging potential do not play a larger role in your reviews, since you tend to score wines that are fairly young. I feel that is the area where lots of expensive, high-scoring wines tend to loose me…they’re like high-school prom queens – attractive when young, but they lack the qualities that will allow them to age well. Maybe that’s all included in complexity?

    Also, I would like to know how food friendliness plays into your assessment. Do you consider that during a review, and does it affect the overall score? Is there a strategy you use to determine if a wine would be food friendly, or do you have to pair it with food to really know?

  11. That’s a fairly complex analysis. I noticed at the end of your post, and other posts prior to this one, that you put a lot of emphasis on how complicated tasting is and how only trained professionals can really do it. I do see your point… but I believe many wine drinkers/lovers want to learn to taste and review wines like the pros. Are their efforts in vain? Can they ever be considered a “scholarly” wine drinker even if they are not doing it for a living? Just a few thoughts. Thank you.

  12. Dear Lara Chapman, sure wine lovers can learn to taste. Anyone can, if they’ve motivated and have the opportunity, which isn’t always easy. I do think it’s like anything else: the more you do it the better you get.

  13. gabe, you raise good points. My post wasn’t meant to be encyclopedic. I do consider ageability. At the magazine we have 3 special designations, including “Cellar Selection,” for wines we critics think will age. As for the prom queen thing — a lot of people agree with you. A lot of people don’t. I wouldn’t make the sweeping statement that “lots of expensive high scoring wines…lack the qualities that will allow them to age well.” Some will, some won’t. As for food friendliness, it doesn’t really play into my assessment, but sometimes I’ll call a wine food friendly if it seems like it will work with a wide range of foods.

  14. Kyle, you’re incorrect. I knew the Cyrus based on its qualities. Most good winemakers will recognize their own wines. And specialists will recognize the wines they specialize in. Knowing that it’s Cyrus doesn’t influence my assessment, it confirms it!

  15. Patrick Frank, well I like Renoir! I could have used Picasso or Cezanne or any great painter. The point would have been the same.

  16. Thanks for the response. Sorry about the sweeping generalization…I definitely have one specific Oregon winery in mind, but will leave it at that. I am glad to hear that ageability is a factor, and would love to hear how you determine that (if that’s not too broad a question). The same goes for food friendliness…I would love to hear how you determine that. I don’t mean to be pushy, or open a pandora’s box, I’m just taking the opportunity to get free tasting lessons from a pro!

  17. gabe: food friendliness is easy. If the wine is affordable — well structured, with good acidity — not too powerful in alcohol or ripeness — and restrained, but clean and pleasant — then it’s food friendly! On ageability, it’s a lot harder for me, personally, to nail. Since my specialty is California wines, I look for reds (in particular) that are densely packed, dry, tannic, well-structured and otherwise impressive in all respects. I might formulate an idea in my head that the wine is an ager, and then confirm that impression when I discover that it’s, say, Diamond Creek, which is known for aging. On the other hand, I don’t automatically label wines as Cellar Selections just because they’re from wineries known for ageability. Finally, I would not extend my aging forecasts to extremely long periods in the future, as some other critics do. I generally limit myself to 8 years, with an occasional stretch beyond that. Otherwise, it’s too risky.

  18. I too love the V&E 101 but also really appreciated this:

    ‘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.’

    One bit of data is alluded to but not in the point of blog. That confirmation on the Cyrus. The idea that a wine taste like what is made from is in the V&E 101 but what about the idea that a wine taste like where it is from too? For me that is one of the data points in the reams of info that I look for. Gus does it, I’m sure he smells you walking up the walkway and smells that evil neighbor that he hates when they come up the walkway too!

  19. CSMiller, if I understand you correctly, the Cyrus does taste like where it’s from–Alexander Valley, with that herbal, dusty earthiness and soft tannins. You rarely find that in Napa Valley. As for Gus, he doesn’t hate anyone! He’s a very friendly little dog, although he does have some fear issues from before I adopted him.

  20. Steve,

    Agree with you regarding alcohol levels, I report them in notes but rarely do they have more than a sliver of influence. If the wine exhibits balance at 13 or 15.5, I can’t fault that. I tasted a new release Russian River Zinfandel last week that was as good as any I have ever experienced (16.9% alcohol, and not a trace of heat). I would suggest that hearing is a sense that is important for a wine critic, if only for hearing the questions we ask ourselves when pondering a wine.

  21. doug wilder, thanks for the comment!

  22. Alcohol only matters if it is obtrusive. 16.9% abv without a trace of heat should be a problem. Numbers (and points) shouldn’t matter. It is what’s in the glass that counts.

  23. William Egosum says:

    Of course, one person’s “not a trace of heat” is another’s marred by excessive alcohol.
    Just like anything else sensitivities and tolerances differ from person to person.

  24. William Egosum, of course! We’re all different and experience things in different ways. Thanks.

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