Everything I know about tasting, I learned from Michael Broadbent
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.