Tasting Like a Pro: What’s the point?

18 Sep

By Melanie Webber

“Fresh-Cut Garden Hose!”

wineglassesIn the documentary Somm, that phrase is used as an aroma descriptor for a wine by one of the Master Sommelier candidates. Really?

I don’t know, call me crazy, but I have a hose and a garden and yet would still be challenged to recognize that aroma in a glass, let alone in real life… and it is just this kind of esoteric silliness that causes some to disdain what can, in fact, be a fun and enlightening process for understanding wine – what the WSET certification program (of which I am a level four diploma student) calls the ‘systematic’ approach to tasting, and which measures about 23 different factors to assess/identify a wine.

In Somm, to pass the MS test, the candidates go through a rigorous blind tasting and emerge with radically different, and yet adamant, assumptions: “Alsatian Rielsing!” “Albarino!” “Chenin, yep, definitely Chenin!!” In the end, they all felt clueless (the actual wine is never revealed). As someone who has had to pass a blind wine tasting, I found that moment in the film very comforting. When I took my exam, the white wine shot my ‘Pass with Distinction’ down to a ‘Pass with Merit.’ My error? Mistaking an Argentinean Torrontes for a very French Pouilly Fuise, i.e., I mistook a tropical and very fruity/floral wine for a relatively austere and non-aromatic white – a tasting that on the surface would appear to be a no-brainer. But it was a very similar mistake to the ones apparently made in Somm.

So why bother training your palate? It’s all subjective, right?

Well yes and no. My tasting notes for the Torrontes were good enough to get me that pass, I just fell down on identifying the specific varietal. And although the actual blind tasting exam is surely something to dread, I find the process of tasting and identifying in daily practice not only great fun – something akin to being a detective with a trail of clues – but also an excellent way to intensify my appreciation of wine.

I’m not surprised that many people are intimidated by, or completely spurn, all those crazy descriptors. Until I actually smelled ‘wet dog’ on the nose of a wine, I would not have believed that descriptor made sense. Yet once you smell ‘wet dog’ is it good or is it bad? While some ‘experts’ say that ‘wet dog’ is indicative of a flaw in the wine, others insist it is a key indicator for TCA (corked wine)…and there are those that confuse it with positive notes like ‘wet leaves.’  In other words, one man’s wet leaves is another woman’s wet dog! And what about ‘cat pee’? Well, it doesn’t take an expert to have the light bulb go off when smelling that on the nose of a Sauvignon Blanc, but it does take a cat owner! And it takes a Brit to recognize ‘gooseberry’ (another common aroma for SB)… and probably someone who is Chinese (or someone who eats dessert in Chinese restaurants) to recognize ‘lychee’ (a key descriptor for Gewürztraminer) — and heaven knows about ‘blackcurrant leaf’. Has anyone out there actually smelled ‘blackcurrant leaf’?


So, what is the average wine consumer to do, other than to sip back and enjoy? That is a good practice, but how do you know how to judge whether you will like a wine when you are buying it or reading a review about it? What does one make of all those wine scores, which can be equally confusing since no one seems to agree there either.

Most wine stores proudly display a wine’s points on the shelf and most consumers assume that anything above an 89 is going to be fabulous. But is that true? How does the inherent subjectivity of tasting play into these points?  It is true that scores are tallied/assessed, usually blind, by experts. But surely I am not alone in being at a wine tasting and listening to what the guy in the cravat next to me says he smells and thinking, ‘I got nothing, dude!” After all, even Robert Parker (who popularized the point system) ran amok in a blind wine tasting in 2009 when he tasted an assortment of 2005 Bordeaux: not only couldn’t he tell which wine was which, but he assigned them different scores from what he had originally.

So, does that instantly render scores invalid or undermine any attempt by the average wine lover to pronounce a wine as being redolent of fresh cut – or maybe day old – garden hose?  I say No, no, and a thousand times no. My belief is that a little (or a lot of) knowledge is NOT a dangerous thing; that scores are a really good guide to quality in the ever-expanding wine world. There are plenty of different people reviewing/scoring, so find an expert/publication whose tastes match yours, which is a fun experiment in itself.

tastingAlthough I do not always go through all 23 factors when tasting, the systematic approach has helped me take more time and care when I approach a glass of wine. Slowing down enables me to sift through a variety of complexities in the glass and guess at the provenance of that wine all the way down to the soil those thirsty roots have reached into (and I am wrong more than 50% of the time!). In the end, being more present when you taste is always worthwhile, as long as you have faith in your own palate and are willing to explore. After that, just drink what you like and spit out what you don’t!

But I equally love tasting with friends who have NOT studied wine (who shyly demur “I know nothing about wine”) and who, more often than not, come to the same conclusions as me – or find their own, with their own particular and unorthodox vocabulary! Your life experience/memories dictate your sense of smell (and thus what you taste), which is pretty damn cool when you come to think about it. One man’s “fresh cut garden hose” could be another’s “leather belt” or “sidewalk after it rains.” There are NO right answers. What you have to decide is whether the bottle notes (and ultimately the flavors in the glass) appeal to YOU.

This is all why we are so lucky to have Matt Kettmann helping us shed a little light on all this tasting/scoring craziness in our “Taste Like a Pro” seminar at The Garagiste Festival on November 8th. Matt has written insightful and helpful tasting notes for years for The Santa Barbara Independent, including reviews about quite a few of our garagiste winemakers. These days he is also a Contributing Editor for The Wine Enthusiast, tasting and scoring the wines of California’s Central Coast. In this seminar, Matt will unravel a few tasting/scoring mysteries, tell us how he tackles sampling wines at big tasting events and then he will guide us through how a professional blind tastes a wine, from first whiff to final score. Sounds to me like this is the best of the wine world – a bit of learning, a bit of tasting and a lot of fun! Come join us!!

The “Taste Like a Pro” Seminar will be led by Wine Enthusiast’s Matt Kettmann at our 4th Annual Paso Robles Festival on November 8th, as part of the Premium All-Day Pass.


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