It’s All in the Blend

Every Sunday night at work Quinn, the sommelier and wine buyer, and I blind taste each other. He hides a bottle somewhere on the wine rack, and I bring a bottle hidden in a thick wool sock. Although we don’t follow the Court of Master Sommeliers’ tasting grid to a “t”—generally there is a lot of hustle and bustle, as I’m still bartending and he is still running the floor, so time in the office to taste is sparse —I find these Sunday night tastings to be very important practice. The blind tasting portion of the Certified Exam is the scariest part for me. How does one learn to blind taste? Not only do you have to have your theory down in order to know what varietal the evidence is pointing you towards, you also have to have your palate “calibrated,” as Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser pointed out to me during a conversation about submodalities (check out his article for Sommelier Journal). Tim says that some people have a scale in their mind’s eye, and when they taste they are able to visually see this scale, and an arrow on it, and pick out exactly where the levels fall, be it tannin, alcohol, acid, etc. But this also means that my idea of “medium” might be another, more experienced taster’s “high” so it’s important to taste with other people so I can calibrate my sense of low, medium and high.

This is why it’s helpful to blind taste with Quinn. After I’ve tasted the wine, and thought about it, and given it a go, he talks to me about why my answer is right or wrong. For example, in the past he has tasted me on a German Spätlese Riesling, which I called “off dry” only to discover, of course, that I should have said “sweet.” The distinction is crucial to my final conclusion on the wine.

This week, my blind tasting was a red, and I couldn’t decide whether it was Merlot or Cabernet. I smelled, and tasted, and thought, and did this over again, but still couldn’t decide. The wine had very high alcohol, with both black and red fruits and a strong presence of black dirt and a bit of an animal characteristic. I finally went with Merlot, and Quinn said, “Well, you’re wrong. I want you to think about everything you’ve said. You know what this wine is. Think outside the box.” So I went back into the bar and thought some more. When I was about at my wits end it came to me. “It’s a meritage!” Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Of course, a blend of both Cabernet and Merlot.

Although getting the wine wrong is always a disappointment (and humbling—Quinn is a great blind taster and I’m still at the beginning stages), there’s no better way to learn. As another sommelier here in town always says, it’s almost better to get your blind tastes wrong because you learn so much in doing so. Although I didn’t get the correct answer, I learned a very important lesson. Next time, I won’t forget to consider blends when I blind taste!

I will also never forget what Mr. Gaiser says about why blind tasting is so important (and why it’s not just a fancy trick). “Blind tasting is a skill that’s practiced and it’s all about memory, lots of internal memory. Major olfactory memory, which is attached to visual memory, but kinesthetic memory too, in terms of feeling and calibrating the structure of the wine. So even though we talk about getting the wine right, being able to talk about the wine intelligently is not a parlor trick, it’s skill and it’s accumulated with experience and time.”  At the end of the day, if I can speak to people about wine and help them find a bottle they’re going to enjoy, I’ll be doing my job well. And I’m happy to keep practicing—getting to taste a lot of different wines is the best part about my job and my studies!

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