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Sacto, Are you ready? It’s The Sur Vs. Steve Show!



Off to Sacramento early this morning for a trade tasting the organizers are billing as “The Critic Vs. the Somm.” It’s kind of a M.M.A. smackdown beween Master Sommelier Sur Lucero and myself—or, at least, that’s what it’s purported to be.

They expect a big turnout, I’m told. We’ll taste through a half-dozen or so wines. Sur, like myself an employee of Jackson Family Wines, will do his M.S. thing and explain his analytical process. I’ll do mine.

The M.S. grid (I think this is it – I got it off the Web)


certainly looks helpful; it encapsulates just about every quality you could find in a wine, and thus helps you identify what the wine is in a blind tasting in which you’re using deductive logic to identify what’s in the glass. Deductive logic, you’ll remember from philosophy class, is where you take a top-down approach to reasoning: starting with the premises, you reach a conclusion that must be true, provided that the premises are true. Thus, if the wine satisfies all the parameters of a fresh young German Riesling, then it must be German Riesling—or so the Master Sommelier grid would have it.

That’s all well and good, if your objective is to pass the M.S. examination. But it’s not the way I taste wine. I always say that the way you taste depends on your job. Master Somms learn to taste the way they do because they want to be Master Somms; their job, as it were, during the period they’re studying, is to taste like an M.S., hence the grid. They learn to taste in order to deduce what’s in the glass and pass the test.

That seems to me a kind of closed-circle way to taste wine. I have no gripe against it, and I can appreciate the amount of hard work that goes into tasting a wine double-blind and being able to say it’s Bordeaux or whatever. That’s pretty good. It’s the Cirque du Soleil of winetasting: flashy, entertaining, a crowd pleaser.

I might have gone that route, except that the way I learned to taste wine was entirely different. It was basically the old British way, transferred to our shores via the media I read when I was coming up (the San Francisco newspapers, wine books) and, most importantly, Wine Spectator magazine. The latter was my Bible in those early years. I thought it was the greatest magazine that ever existed: I couldn’t wait to get my copy in the mail (this was when it was a tabloid, not a big glossy ‘zine the way it is now). And from Wine Spectator, I learned to taste wine using the 100-point system, in a way that—let’s admit it—is not nearly as rigorous as the M.S. grid.

So exactly how does the amorphous 100-point system work? Well, to begin with, it’s a subjective impression, but it’s not subjective to the point of random incoherence. The proper use of the 100-point system depends on extensive experience, the kind needed to draw upon a sense-memory of what “perfection” is and then comparing all subsequent wines with that rarely-encountered Unicorn. The way I taste is like a shortcut around the M.S. grid. It’s a lot easier: you don’t have to go through all those complicated line items, but then again, the sommelier doesn’t taste for quality; she tastes to be able to deductively identify a wine. I taste for quality. Those are two different things.

When I taste a wine single-blind, it’s not important for me to figure out what it is. That concept never even occurred to me when I was coming up. It would have seemed senseless. I tasted then, and now, with respect to the overall impression the wine made in my mouth and brain. Was it a Wow! or a Dud, and where on that continuum does it fall? After all, that’s the way actual human beings taste: do they like the wine, and if so, how much do they like it, or do they loathe it? It never seemed important to me to taste deductively; I wanted to learn to taste hedonistically (as Mr. Parker might put it). I wanted to get a job as a wine critic, and when I was coming up, wine critics got successful jobs based on criteria such as writing ability, knowledge of wine, and team skills, and not on deductive tasting. In fact, such deductive tasting is, to the best of my knowledge, a comparatively recent practice. Wine professionals never tasted the way sommeliers taste. Throughout history they have tasted the way I taste.

Is one method better? Well, like I said, the way you taste depends on your job. Wine writers of my generation never troubled themselves to think deductively (although there’s a certain amount of deduction involved in my kind of tasting). We either tasted openly, in which case deduction was completely pointless, or we tasted in single-blind flights, in which we knew many things about the wines (region, vintage, variety, etc.) and were simply comparing them qualitatively. That’s still the way I taste, but there’s something else: since I came up as a magazine writer, the object of my thoughts whenever I tasted wine was the consumer. I always thought of those anonymous people out there who might buy a wine based on my recommendation. They don’t care about the M.S. grid. They don’t get into that level of analysis. They just want to experience pleasure, and perhaps some good wine-and-food pairing too. And so that’s how I taste: Does the wine give me pleasure? Because if it gives me pleasure it should give most consumers pleasure. And if it gives me pleasure, how much pleasure does it give me? That’s where the points come in. Ninety points is a lot of pleasure. One hundred points is pleasure unbounded—a wine that’s right up there in my sense-memory with the greatest I’ve ever had. I might be less able than a somm to say “This is a Cabernet Sauvignon and this is a Merlot” but that sort of thing doesn’t matter to me, nor do I think the readers of wine magazines (or diners in a restaurant) care about that in a writer or server. They want someone who cares about them, who is able to predict for them what they’ll like, who can tell them stories about the wines. You don’t have to taste deductively in order to be that person. I think, ultimately, the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier are exactly that: the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier. One develops expertise at that sort of thing in order to climb the sommelier ladder and append those magic letters, M.S., after one’s name. That helps to get a job nowadays, in this intensely competitive environment, but how it helps consumers isn’t clear to me.

  1. Very good and informative way of describing this difference.


  2. Bob Henry says:

    “The proper use of the 100-point system depends on extensive experience, the kind needed to draw upon a sense-memory of what ‘perfection’ is and then comparing all subsequent wines with that rarely-encountered Unicorn.”

    What if you have never tasted a so-called “perfect” wine for its type? What internal reference standard do you use as your “assay test”?

    Stephen Tanzer has given only one 100-point score in his entire reviewing history. (Some might ask: what’s holding him back?)

    Whereas Robert Parker has given out over one hundred 100-point scores:

    I’m confident in declaring James Suckling has likewise given out over 100 hundred.

    I’m not sure how many James Laube has given out.

    Or Antonio Galloni.

    Nor how many Steve Heimoff has given out. (Do tell.)

    “. . . Readers often wonder what a 100-point score means, and the best answer is that it is pure emotion that makes me give a wine 100 instead of 96, 97, 98 or 99.”

    Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (unknown issue from 2002)

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Here’s how one Master Sommelier breaks down the deductive process.

    “How to Taste Wine Like a Pro;
    Using the Deductive Tasting Technique”
    (© 2010)

    By Tim Gaiser, Master Sommelier

    “In the blind tasting portion of the Master Sommelier exam a candidate is confronted with six wines and has 25 minutes to identify the vintage, grape variety(-ies), country, region and appellation using a very specific tasting technique called ‘deductive tasting.’ That’s four minutes and ten seconds for each wine. The bad news is that I can’t teach you how to pass the exam in this brilliant missive. The good news is that I can walk you through this deductive tasting technique step-by-step, and in doing so you’ll become a much better taster regardless of your level of expertise — whether it be novice or skilled expert.”

  4. Bob,
    I watched Tim’s DVD over a yr ago. It purports to offer up a whole new paradigm on how to taste wine. The DVD was produced by the Everyday Genius
    Institute of Tim Hallbom/Behavorial Scientist. It uses sub-modalities…of which I could not understand whatsoever. But, then, I’m not enough of a genius to understand such things.
    If this revolutionary tasting system is taking the World by storm…I’ve not seen any signs of it. Only when the use of sub-modalities is fully embraced by a Monktown attourney will I believe it.

  5. KC Phillips says:

    Thank you Steve for one of your most informative articles (for me anyway) and to Bob Henry for his usual insight and the Gaiser article.

  6. Bob Henry says:


    Back in the early 1990s, I had wine retailing and restaurant waiter friends in Los Angeles who aspired to attain the Master Sommelier credential.

    They invited me to sit in on their blind tastings designed to hone their skills. Through those sessions I was introduced to the MS approach.

    So glad to disseminate this guideline from Tim.

    Is “guessing” a wine’s full identity a parlor trick?

    If you have sufficient experience tasting a particular wine (say, the minty-eucalyptus character of 1980s Heitz Martha’s Vyd. Cabernet, or the voluptuous fruit aromas and flavors of 1990s Williams Selyem Pinot Noir), then the odds are pretty good you can pick it out of a tasting line-up.

    Acclimation hones such skills.

    And that’s why my mentor Robert Lawrence Balzer instilled in his wine appreciation course students this credo:

    “Memory is a wine taster’s greatest asset.”

    Here’s a Los Angeles Times article on a great wine taster who has a prodigious talent for using his memory to identify wines. And if you are in the Sacramento area, pay him a visit.

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