Learn to Taste Like a Pro – or Just to Enjoy!

27 Sep

“I have a terrible palate!”
“I don’t get any of those fancy things he/she says they are tasting, it just tastes like wine!”
“I just like what I like so I don’t care!”

These are among the most common defensive things I hear from people overwhelmed by the whole “wine tasting” thing. And is it any wonder in the often-snooty world of wine tasting?

a-a-gallo-pinkThe truth is that acquiring a respectable degree of wine knowledge is daunting even for those of us who have spent years studying it, which is hardly surprising. There are literally thousands of wine regions, each with its own rules, grapes, terroir, winemaking techniques and distinctive characteristics – not to mention the rigors of the ‘Old World’ (Europe), where labels are aggressively mysterious, and wine consumers are expected to know exactly what’s in a bottle that is labelled, for example Sancerre (white? red? what grape?) Vouvray (is it dry? Is it sweet? Is it sparkling) and don’t get me started on ‘Smaragd’ or ‘Trockenbeerenauslese.”

Back in the day (somewhere in the 70s) in the US, it was easy. You entered a restaurant and ordered a carafe of ‘chablis’ (synonymous with white) or ‘burgundy’ (synonymous with red). You want bubbles? You ordered ‘champagne’. Of course, the odds were great that you were getting none of these and, eventually, our friends in France prohibited the use of these regional names, that had been cultivated and renowned for centuries, on any wines but the real deal.

Ah, but how things have changed – and I must say for the better. Although the great diversity on today’s wine lists can be dizzying, a little thing called Google has dramatically improved a wine consumer’s ability to cut through the confusion – plus wine apps and a wide array of easily accessible (online or in class) wine education classes have also armed the average consumer with the tools to navigate restaurant wine lists and wine store shelves.

But, you cannot google your palate! Once you have discovered your wine and found out what the grape is and where it is from, you are then confronted with wine ‘scores’ and a multitude of tasting notes from anyone moved to leave a comment. But what does your own palate tell you about the wine in your glass?

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With the “How to Taste Wine Like a Pro” seminar that I will be teaching at the November Garagiste Festival, my goal is to help you create your own tasting notes and your own point system – a context that will enable you to give your instincts an actual methodological foundation.

I used to think that I had no palate, but what I have learned is that it has always been there, I just didn’t know how to access and use it. Now, it is true, that there are those among us who have naturally gifted palates (Garagiste Festival’s Lisa Dinsmore is one, as is my wine mentor, Monica Marin who runs The Wine House WSET program in Los Angeles) – but, it must be said, they have each tasted a lotta wine – which, of course, is job one to train your palate!!

SeminarPic2Like them, I trained my palate using the WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) systematic approach to tasting which, as the name states, offers a system for breaking down a wine’s components to enhance tasting, as well as a lexicon for aroma and flavor descriptors. Almost all the exams require a blind tasting of multiple wines, so being able to quickly analyze each wine was mission critical to passing. What was most important to passing was not necessarily being able to identify a wine’s provenance, but being able to write on-point tasting notes that supported each conclusion.

Like snowflakes and diamonds, no palate is the same… to prove this point in the food and wine pairing section of the WSET Level 1 Award course I teach, I hand out ‘bitter’ strips and ask everyone to place one on their tongue and then sit down as soon as they taste something. What usually happens is that a percentage of the class will immediately taste something bitter and unpleasant and sit down, others will take longer … and still others, like me, will continue to stand. Those who sit down first are ‘super tasters’ and are the ones who probably would never drink their coffee black, if they drink it at all and are incredibly sensitive to tannins; then come the medium tasters… and, finally, those left standing like me are ‘non-tasters.’ Now, that doesn’t mean I can’t taste, it simply means my tolerance for things like spice and tannin is higher than a super-taster – and all of this can impact how you assess and react to wine and to food. How boring if we all tasted the same things and felt exactly the same way about our food and wine?

However, there are some basic principles that will help any wine taster, whether super or non, assess wine quality and enhance their enjoyment of wine

510058-vin-jaune-cotes-du-jura-2005-620ml-800x1200.0f911e6da8ff2c4d88a0b7289348af55.imgTo be clear – assessing wine quality is a different thing from whether or not you like a wine. For example, one of the world’s great and rare noble wines, Vin Jaune from the Jura (never found for less than $60 and usually much, much more) – with its oxidative, sherry-like quality, is definitely an acquired taste that not everyone appreciates – but with a palate that has been trained on basic principles, understanding that it is a wine of quality is not a great stretch. Its balance of acid, body, alcohol, intensity and complexity of flavor keep it in the top ranks of wine. Meanwhile, a basic, lower-priced wine from your supermarket that balances tannins, acid, alcohol and fruit can also come out of the gate with a good quality assessment. And who hasn’t had a very expensive Napa Cab that is thick with oak flavors and afire with alcohol? Now you may like that – many do … but is it balanced? My answer would be fighting words in parts of California – but isn’t that part of the fun?

Developing an understanding of how to identify the critical elements that make up the structure and character of a wine – alcohol, tannin (if red), acid, sugar, body and flavor components – not only enables quality assessment, but can help wine lovers deepen their enjoyment of every taste of wine and help them find – and refine – their palate. One of my favorite things is to hear an enthusiastic student taste, discover and sing out the most creative of descriptors. That is part of the fun of wine tasting– and part of the collective joy of sharing the alchemy of a bottle of wine.

The title of my seminar, ‘How to Taste Wine Like a Pro,’ is a bit tongue in cheek (right where you will feel acid in a wine!), because while I will teach you some of the ‘tricks’ of the trade I have picked up along my wine journey, what I really want is to enhance your tasting enjoyment, to help you discover your own wine palate and to engage with your fellow wine lovers on what they are tasting. The miracle that turns grape into the elixir of wine will always be something of a mystery beyond the facts of climate, soil, yeast and sugar – but understanding how to assess it once in the glass doesn’t have to be!

The “How to Taste Wine Like a Pro” seminar on Saturday, November 9th at 11:30 am as part of the 9th Annual Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles. VIP Tickets are limited. For more information, CLICK HERE. To purchase tickets, click the button below.

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Melanie Webber holds a Diploma in Wine and Spirits from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, and French Wine Scholar certification with honors. She teaches in and runs The Wine House Paso Robles WSET Satellite held at Broken Earth Winery. Melanie also has been part of the Garagiste Festival team since inception, running its communications and public relations. Her work with The Garagiste Festival inspired her to broaden her wine education.

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