Tasting Protocols

PROTOCOLS OF TASTING

 

I see little point in reviewing wines my readers can’t buy, so all other things being equal, I’ll favor wines being offered by their importer.  But a contrasting principle is to discuss whatever wines the producers opted to send me, though I have suggested they focus on wines available in the American market, or at least wines they madeavailable to the American market. In the event I find a gem that escaped the importer’s notice, they might do what was done in my “era” and make the wine available on a special-order basis with a (small) volume requirement, to justify the admin entailed.

I don’t expect to find very many wines I don’t like, but when I do I’ll tell you. I offered the importer a heads-up if I was cold toward a wine I knew was commercially significant for them, and they preferred not to tie my hands, and for this cordial professionalism I am most thankful. While I’m certainly not their PR-arm, I know these growers and their wines, and expect to find much that is praiseworthy, and little that isn’t. Otherwise, unless it is plainly indicated otherwise, you can infer that the wines I review are all very good. Having heard from many people that they miss my catalogues and tasting notes – and pausing a moment to contemplate how drab and wretched their lives must be – I’m motivated by a wish to be helpful.

But I won’t use points. I disapprove of points. I don’t recognize measuring wines against a notion of “perfection,” I think it’s a fool’s errand to assign absolute value to an ephemeral impression, and the more precise a scoring system purports to be, the more it actually misleads.

That said, my mind forms hierarchies of its own volition, and special wines warrant special attention. So I’ll revert to my deliberately inexact system of plusses – one, two, or three -  to recognize the most remarkable wines. My plusses are sort of like Michelin stars. One plus is a wine that stood out. Two plusses is a wine that made me stop and consider the depth of its beauty. Three plusses is a wine that tingles with greatness, and offers a moment of profundity. Feel free to superimpose whatever scoring system you deploy; the point-systems are harmful but the folks who use them aren’t evil, so if you want to conflate my three plusses with a scoring range that makes sense to you, be my guest.

It has grown clear to me that I look at wine through two prisms, and that they are hard to combine. What I’ve discussed above is a professional’s determination of “quality,” but there is also a guy’s determination of WTF he likes to drink, and I don’t have a symbol for that.

So maybe I’ll try something like glug-glug-glug for those wines, what the magazine VINARIA calls “Trinkspaß,” or fun-in-drinking. Watch for these, please!

As I’m not a merchant (for these purposes) I will only remark on prices or “value” if either is noteworthy. Nor would it be very smart to do so in a marketplace with so much flux; tariffs on or off, shipping costs gyrating crazily, exchange rates hiccupping, so if I posted “suggested retail prices” I’d very often be off base.

I will hedge my bets on aging forecasts. For Rieslings, a basic rule applies; drink them young (1-3 years) if you like their chubby-baby stage (which can be really lovely and charming), and if you miss that stage then you’re on your own. Rieslings do not (as a rule) show their tertiaries for many years, and even decades. When I seek to guess how a wine will develop – however educated my guesses may be – I am too often wrong to ask readers to take my words on faith.

TASTING REPORTS – AN UPDATE

These reports are only indirectly (or implicitly) “buyer’s guides.” Those I wrote for decades, and while I layered a lot of stuff over the top, the basic purpose, the skeleton if you will, was intended to help potential buyers with their choices.

I’m not really trying to do that here, though it happens regardless of my explicit intent. The alert reader can easily discern the wines I’d suggest they ought to buy, and I am satisfied to be useful. 

But I have a bigger purpose. That is, to make use of the luxury of time to establish the kinds of relationships to wines I always wanted to have and never really had the time to have. And if I could do that, I wanted to see what flora and fauna lived in that environment. What might be learned about a wine – and a winery – if the reporter had all the time in the world? More important, is that knowledge valuable?

There are layers of immersion in play. Each wine is given time to stretch its legs, and its “self-ness” is respected by tasting and drinking it from different stems and at different temperatures and sometimes with food. There is even a distinction between the morning and afternoon palates. In the process of making companions of the wines I taste, I deepen and broaden my understanding of myself. And not merely as a taster or reviewer or a commentator, but simply as a person. It’s more than just learning “new things.” It’s walking with the things I already know and seeing what they are when they have space in which to breathe.

I aspire to be a caring, reasonable, attentive, and competent writer about the wines I taste.  This is different than it was before. Then I was like most wine merchants and writers; I wanted to “get” as much out of what I tasted in the tightest amount of time, so as to both describe and evaluate, and for the writer, to tell readers exactly how good a wine was. I have unqualified respect for that skill. I tried hard to be good at it. Given the often severe time limitations under which most of us have/had to work, it forced the taster into a remarkable virtuosity. The price was the sacrifice of leisure, of time to see what a wine might have to say after it played – and we heard – its overture of flavors. It requires an incredible brilliance, and no heart at all.

Don’t mistake me; plenty of wine people bring plenty of heart to their work, but in the feverish crux of tasting under time pressure, heart is unwelcome. It’s in the way. If it arrives it has to force its way in, and if it manages to break down the doors, within moments you’re looking at the time and regretting that you’re late for your next appointments. You paused to feel something, and as lovely as it might have been, it was inconvenient for the schedule.

So I am hugely grateful to let the wine set the tempo, to let them lead the way. I heard once about a jazz audition whereby the player had to solo over something, maybe “Giant Steps,” at quick tempos and in different keys. Because in that split second on the stand, you have to be able to cook when the music says GO!  I do like to imagine the successful applicant mentioning to the leader that she has a ballad she’s written, and could she play it? And could she solo over a few meandering, deliberate choruses, and use her chops to tell a story? One thing is a demonstration of what she’s learned, and the other is a revelation of who she is.

STEMWARE

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These are the white-wine glasses I use. On the left is the old basic Spiegelau “white-wine” stem, which they have never improved on and which is the single most useful and flexible glass I have ever had. While it’s only occasionally the best glass for a wine, it is always a good glass and never a poor one.  The next glass over is the “improved” version, same shape and a little larger, and this glass is a conceptual mess, both too big and not big enough. In fact I most often use it for simple light reds, though it is called a “white-wine” glass by its producer. The last glass is actually a wonderful surprise; another Spiegelau and also (and confusingly) termed a “white-wine” glass, this has proven to be a favorite for important dry wines, if you want to suppress precise diction in favor of fruit and umami. I often have it alongside a Jancis glass, enjoying the contrast.

The aforementioned Jancis glass appears in the next photo. I use it for whites and reds both, and find it a smidge more particular and a wee bit less “universal” than perhaps was intended. It can be too expressive in its insistence in articulating a wine to the nth degree, but for that very reason it is a default glass to which I subject nearly every wine I drink. If a generality can be made, I’ve found I like it a little better for reds than for whites – but don’t hold me to it. The next glass if from the Oneida series designed by Karen MacNeil, and based not on color but on a general concept of texture, so that the glass you see is for “silky creamy” wines. I find it almost always does the job. It’s a generous glass designed more for hedonic pleasure than for fastidious study. The curious fellow on the far right is for “light, crisp” wines (and also for sparkling wines, ostensibly) and again, it seems to work as designed.

MOSTLY USED FOR REDS:

On the left is the Riedel “Chianti Classico” glass, once marketed (in a spasm of cognitive misapprehension) as a “Zinfandel” glass, but which I find a perfect default-glass, especially for “vertical” sorts of wines. It seems to soften the texture of anything poured into it, and if anything it’s a glass that promotes elegance and subtlety. The other glass is the Spiegelau “red-wine” glass, which I also like. It makes a wine more brash and explicit. These are a fine duo to contrast.

The next pair shows MacNeil’s “big-and-bold” stem for big strong wines of either color, and the bulbous brute on your right is some silly balloon glass I got in a swag-bag at a Beard Award gala one year. We’ll pour Burgundy into it and it kind of works, especially for wines of a certain amplitude.

FIZZ:

I am a bit of a luddite; I like flûtes, and that in turn is because I love the sight of the mousse. I respect the trend to drink Champagne from “wine” glasses, and in restaurants I very often do (because most restaurant flûtes are way too narrow), but I’ve managed to resist the blandishments of Riedel and Spiegelau (among many others) offering their various “perfect” stems for Champagne, because the glass you see below is the best I have used – overall and generally. It’s the Richard Juhlin glass, and when it was first available it was sensibly priced. Then it grew rare and the price went insane. The glass really reconciles articulation and body, detail and generosity, leaning just a bit toward the studious.

But I still keep some normal flutes, as you see. The one on the left is better, bigger and wider. I got it from a tiny shop in Freinsheim in the Pfalz, I don’t know who made them, and I doubt I’ll ever find them again. And finally there’s a basic flûte from Spiegelau that I use strategically, if I want to suppress oxidation, or emphasize minerality (at the expense of fruit), or if it’s a bottle that’s been opened a few times and I want to preserve whatever mousse is left.

And so into the fray!