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Everything I know about tasting, I learned from Michael Broadbent

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Most of how I taste, I learned from Michael Broadbent. Not the man personally—from his little guidebook, “Michael Broadbent’s Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting,” whose 1982 edition, the fourth, I bought for $5.95.

That book brought me from a dilletantish approach to tasting, in which I simply poured the wine, tasted it and thought about it, to a more structured, one might say scientific approach.  Michael took the reader through the actual mechanics of swirling, sniffing and tasting, explaining what to look for, how to know what you were experiencing, what to expect from different wines, even how to write a proper note. I devoured that book, over and over, re-reading it time and again to ingest its wisdom. It remains, in my humble opinion, the best guide to wine tasting ever written.

I wonder how others came to learn how to taste. We call it “tasting,” but it’s so much more than that, really. First of all, on a perceptual level experiencing a wine involves all the senses, from the Pop! of pulling the cork to the feel of the wine on the palate. But there’s so much more to the wine experience than “mere” perception. There’s the intellect, which never stops thinking, and briefs us on other aspects of the wine: If we’re tasting blind (for instance) the intellect scrolls through its database and tries to determine if the wine might be a Cabernet Sauvignon, from Bordeaux, a new release or maybe one with some age on it.

There is also the esthetic sense that only humans seem to possess. (Do animals have an esthetic sense? Gus certainly appreciates certain things, like warmth, dryness, food and water, my lap, a belly rub, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call those “esthetic appreciations.”) Humans, however, have the capacity to be captivated by the artistic mastery of created things. We may stand before an El Greco in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (which I used to do when I was an art student) in absolute awe, mindful of how hard it is to create such complex beauty with nothing more than an arm and hand, paintbrush and paints. To think that human intelligence and taste, with all the education, practice and understanding that inform them, was capable of painting “View of Toledo” is part of appreciating it: that painting appeals to us on every level of being human. Same with wine.

But understanding wine needs more than an esthetic appreciation, for all its importance. It needs a structured understanding, and this can be achieved only by study and application. Which is exactly what Michael Broadbent gave me, thirty years ago: the practical tools to take what was essentially an inchoate experience and translate or elevate it into something that could be written about, described, repeated and remembered.

Every time I taste a wine, every wine I have ever experienced is in some mysterious way evoked in my memory. Not consciously, of course, because there have been too many, numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But in some alchemically subtle way, that wine I am now experiencing stands in relation to every other wine, finding its way into the pantheon and taking its place, in just the proper order, beside all the others. The population of memory-wines in my mind is a very orderly one, where the inhabitants behave properly, according to their place in the hierarchy.

It is for this reason, among others, that I remain comfortable with the 100-point system of scoring, which actually is a 21-point system in Wine Enthusiast’s way of doing things. When we were kids in grade school, our teachers used to make us “line up” by size place: smallest kids in front (usually, me), then medium sized kids, and finally the big guys in the rear. Each kid knew exactly where to take his place in the line, like atoms arranging themselves into molecules according to some greater force than themselves. Wine, in my mind, is like that. As soon as it enters the “schoolyard” of my head, it finds its way to its proper place in line, which in this case means its place in the 21-point system. Michael Broadbent himself did not subscribe to the 100-point system, but neither did he rail against it. “Points are awarded” to wines during tastings, he wrote, adding, “Maximum possible can be 7 points, more often 20, sometimes 100,” meaning that he was intellectually open to the validity of the 100-point system. Then Michael went on to ask all the right questions: “Are words necessary? On what sort of occasion? Great wine—for whom?”

Michael framed the conversation more articulately than anyone before him ever thought to. We are still asking the same questions today.

  1. veronique rivest says:

    ok then, just one question: can you put a score on “View of Toledo”?

  2. Nice observations, my copy is the 1977 Christie’s edition – though tremendously dog-eared, it still serves me well – I followed this, when I began to make wine, with Emile Peynaud’s 1987 ‘The Taste of Wine’ which came in handy when I worked for French Winemaker, Bernard Portet – beyond the tasting calisthenics both provide a shear appreciation of the best way to use language to convey the intricate nature of wine. They both gave me a way to combat the ravages of the, later to arrive, ‘Flavor Wheel’. thanks for such a thoughtful piece.

  3. Cher Veronique, oui. I give it 100 points!

  4. Ron Saikowski says:

    I have been told that wines should be judged according to their varietal characteristics. I have seen several versions of what is supposed to be the true varietal characteristics. Since there is conflicting varietal standards, on what basis should wines be judged?

  5. Ron, wine is judged according to the judge’s educated standards.

  6. anthony buree says:

    I bought my used 1992 copy in 1994, and like you it was eye opening and invaluable to a beginner like me, I always recommend it to people who ask me for a good wine book. I cant thank him enough.

  7. Joel Peterson says:

    Nice article Steve. I think that Michael Broadbent was required reading for those of us honing our wine tasting skills in the 1970′s. I think for a certain group in Berkeley it ranked right up there with “Doors of Perception” by Huxley, “Delta of Venus” by Anais Nin, and the works of Abrey Beardsley. All classics of appreciating and understanding the senses in their own unique way way. While we constantly find ourselves evaluating our experiences in all sorts of ways, there are very few of us who assign a score (100 point or otherwise) to our perceptual experiences. A score is esentially a by product of the market place, as opposed to the personal, which is probably one of the reasons that it is controversial.

  8. Dear Steve

    That is really very nice to read from someone so respected. I thank you.

    My father doesn’t have a computer, so I cannot share it with him that way, however, I will print it and give it to him when I see him later this month.

    His book Wine Tasting is still in print. In fact, I just looked on Amazon and they have three different editions. I think it was first published in the 1950s or 1960s.

    I also happen to notice that there are two different editions of his book Wine Vintages, a second edition of his Great Vintage Wine Book and two different editions of his Vintage Wine.

    I wish the publisher had been more creative with the titles as they all sound alike!

    Anyway, thanks again.

    Bartholomew

  9. Sebastian Bausinger says:

    Thank you very much for your article. Broadbent’s book is and always will be of tremendous value. As others have already pointed out, the open-minded and relaxed yet scientific writing style is without comparison. If I had to rely on just one book to introduce someone to wine, he would be the only author I would rely on. No matter how much I learned about wine since I started, I still go back to Mr.Broadbent books. His way of writing tasting notes is the most useful I have ever encountered.

  10. Ah Steve….thanks so much for this tribute! I too learned how to taste wine from Michael Broadbent. I just dug out my dog eared autographed 1973 edition, and a flood of memories came rushing back…I read and refered to this little book over and over. Additionally, he was a frequent guest speaker at the Wine Exp. back in the 80′s…in person, he was diplomatic and engaging. His method is joyful and objective. He is responsible for inspiring me, and learning from him, gave me the tools to forge ahead with determination and confidence!

  11. Steve, inspired by this post, I concluded that Broadbent’s book was definitely one I should read. Alas, it appears to be out of print. I hit the internet and found a seller with a good reputation offering a used copy for right around the $5.95 you paid in 1982. A good condition copy of the 1999 reprint arrived today. Interestingly, this copy was at one time a library copy and has a stamp from October 6, 2000 from the Winnipeg Public Library. I look forward to reading it. Thanks again for the interesting post.

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  1. Daily Wine News: American Terroirist | Wine 2020 - [...] Heimoff explains how he learned to taste wine from Michael [...]
  2. NEWS FETCH – DECEMBER 5, 2012 | Wine Industry Insight - [...] Everything I know about tasting, I learned from Michael Broadbent [...]

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