Back in Class
So the summer is over. I know this to be true for two reasons. First, we are starting to get that cold air blowing in at night in Chicago, that shows that the seasons, they are a changing. It comes on suddenly. One week it is warm and humid by day and by night. It is hard to sit outside as it feels as though you are sitting in a bowl of soupy air. The next, the wind shifts and suddenly, it is cool, crisp, and a great time to sit outside in the evenings, in front of a fire pit. We chose to grab Grams and marshmallows and make smores last night.
The second, well, school started for my kids, but also for me. This time there are two other students in my class, and I am the only one who has completed a semester. Last time I started, I had butterflies, this time, I am the BMOC (Big Man On Campus). Or am I? One of the newbies is a server in a restaurant. He knows food and wine, and works around it day in and day out. The other, like me is a marketer. I sensed what he was feeling. OVERWHELMED. I told him that the first four or five weeks is like a whirlwind, but that things will slow down for him as the class goes on. He seemed relived.
Today's topic, wine tasting. Weird. I have kind of been doing that since the beginning have I not? It became apparent to me why it is suggested that one take new world wines first, and old world second. It has nothing to do with the regions per se, but rather, it has to do with the up front tasting, and service related topics that one can learn prior to actually having to taste wine, which will help them to Ahem...TASTE WINE.
Today, we tasted two whites and two reds from California. The whites were both lackluster at best, and the reds were quite good. We followed the tasting methodology established by the Guild of Master Sommeliers. First, you look at the wine, next you smell the wine, and finally you taste. Along the way it is important to notice things like color, clarity, brightness and viscosity. Next as you smell, you look for faults (Too much sulfer, overly reductive, cork taint. Next you smell for fruit, non-fruit, and other tell tale signs of the wine. Next you taste. Here you are looking to confirm what you have discovered on the nose, and then to determine if you might have missed anything. You are also determining the body of the wine, the acidity of the wine, and finally the tannins (astringent compounds that make your teeth feel funny in red wines), or phenolics in whites which are bitter.
I have done this hundreds of times. If you don't believe me, friend me on twitter (JKAPPY) or find me on Vivino. You can read all 500+ wines that I have prepared tasting notes on. So I sat and thought about why we should care. It really comes down to two reasons. First, people need to communicate with customers (Or in my case friends) about the wines we drink, and why they should enjoy them too. With an Albarino, you will taste stone fruit and a salinity that will pair well with the seafood you are eating..., or it is light and similar to a Sauvignon Blanc, but I think you would enjoy it more... or if you only like big reds, this one will be amazing and it is not a Cabernet, so you will be tasting something different, and still be able to enjoy your "Big Red". None of this would be possible without establishing both a vocabulary for wine, as well as systematic way of assessing it.
The second is a parlor trick of sorts. By systematically assessing wine, a Sommelier can taste blind and do a better job than the average person at guessing the type of grape, the region and the age of that wine. Why is this important? Because, as an expert, it is important that a sommelier can start to understand what is possible with place, and with grapes and to categorize things that they have tasted so that they have a catalog with which to compare wines within a category. Oh and also, you can't get certified as a Somm unless you gain some level of proficiency at tasting blind.
In making wine so important, and elevating its status, I worry that often times we turn off people who might otherwise be interested. Might otherwise want to be a part of the party. So how do we find that balance? Be able to converse, and teach, and peak interest, and not scare our guests and friends away? How do we tell people what they should taste, without making them feel bad that they in fact can't taste it?
Illustrative Story: A friend walks in and I mention to them that they are going to taste a mineral driven Sauvignon Blanc by Massican (One of my favorites). They ask, what does mineral driven mean? My response, it tastes like licking a rock. They might look an awful lot like the guy on the left. How many of us have licked a rock? I hadn't until I started this crazy Somm program and now I have licked many. (Indecently all rocks taste the same) I have also licked seashells, and many other things to see what they taste like, but most of my friends have not. As a result, they say, I don't taste it and get discouraged. Have I taken some of the enjoyment out of their experience? Do they care that it is mineral driven. If they put too much pressure on themselves to taste those things, what does that do to the rest of the flavors. Worse yet, has my mere suggestion of what they are to taste changed their perception of what the wine is "Supposed to taste like"? Hmmm.
So what should matter? For me, the tasting notes are a catalog that we should be using as internal speak to simply compare between wines. We also may use them to communicate or teach. For the average wine drinker however, they can be overwhelming, and suggestive. For the average drinker, what matters at the end of the day, is what types of wines they like, how adventurous they are, and what they are planning to eat. Our hope is to have the catalog that lets us say, "if you like that, you will likely enjoy this too because... Or, if you are interested, I have something that tastes totally different, and might be something for you to try...Or, with that dish, I really like that this wine balances or contrasts with this food because... I am not sure at the end of the day that the technical speak is needed. I think one of the goals of a good Somm should be to make wine approachable, and so frequently, we do not. It doesn't elevate an educator to make their students feel stupid, and we risk doing exactly that if we are not careful. I know when I first started in the program, I went home often feeling like I was missing something, and today I saw that in one of my peers in the program.
My goal will be to make people feel comfortable, make them excited, geek out when they want to do so, but stay grounded when they don't. After all, what matters at the end of the day is one thing. It is not if there are apple flavors, or if there are pyrazines in the wine. What matters is that our guests are in a safe learning environment, that they feel safe asking questions, that they understand at the end of the day, that the only thing that matters, is if they like what they are drinking. It really is that simple.