February 24, 2021 | Scott Kelley
Yesterday I was catching up with a friend who is recovering from COVID-19. He had a pretty mild case but like a lot of people who have had COVID, he lost his sense of smell and taste. Five weeks later it still has not come back 100%. It made me realize just how important my sense of taste and smell is. As a winemaker, my livelihood depends on my palate and more specifically, my ability to sense the aromas, flavors, textures and taste of a wine. Customers often say, “You must have an amazing palate!” like it is some sort of gift I was born with. The truth is we are all born with the same biological abilities to smell and taste. What separates those that are deemed to have “great palates” is the individual’s ability to connect their brain with their olfactory and reference a previous smell or taste. Remember, none of us were born with a memory bank of smells and tastes, nor were we born with the ability to put language to describe those senses.
This concept of what wine tasting is really became clear one day while watching the “Actor’s Studio” with James Lipton. He was interviewing Dennis Hopper about his many great films and he brings up “Easy Rider”. He asks Hopper what being on the set was like and the many rumors about the drug use during filming. Hopper laughs and explains that while he was never high while acting in the film, he could have never acted out those scenes if he had never experienced being high in real life. He said the essence of acting is relying on your “Sense Memory”. That really resonated as the same idea of wine tasting; we are calling on our sense memory to recall flavors experienced in our past to describe a wine.
Becoming a great wine taster takes two things in my opinion, experience and clarity. Experience comes from our everyday life. Since the day we were born we have been taking in the world around us. Since almost all of the flavors in wine are associated with those in the natural world, our vocabulary of wine terms is often associated with things found in food and nature. I had the pleasure of working with a great chef at one of my first jobs with the Robert Mondavi winery. Her name is Denise and she taught me a lot about the importance of fresh ingredients in cooking. She would often invite me along to purchase the items needed for an upcoming luncheon we were putting together at the winery. As we strolled the aisles at the market, Denise would pull out a pocketknife and started cutting into fruits and vegetables. “Close your eyes” she said, “here smell this tangerine…now this orange, see the difference?” I had never really taken the time to smell the difference and let it register in my brain. It was a turning point in my career. From then on, I spent more time taking in the smells of the natural world and storing them for later. We all come from different areas of the world and different cultures. Based on your experiences in the world you have specific set of personal sense memories that you can use to describe wine. I will never forget the first time I was invited to sit with the winemakers at my first job, we would taste 6-8 wines blind, then discuss. This particular tasting was chardonnay from our cellar that was being blended for bottling. As I let my pen flow with whatever came to mind, I started listing smells, flavors and tastes. When it came time to discuss, the head winemaker called on me to tell everyone what I saw in the first wine. Looking at my notes I was quite nervous, “lemon curd, pear, yeast, and mother’s makeup” everyone laughed. When asked what “mother’s makeup” was I explained that the wine smelled exactly like the base makeup my mother used to apply. I would sit on the end of her bed before school while she got ready for work…. the wine reminded me of that experience, it was my sense memory.
Another important idea in being a good taster is emotional clarity. When you are experiencing emotions such as frustration, nervousness, worry or anger, I believe our ability to sense aromas and taste wines is greatly diminished. Most days I have a routine where I come in have my coffee, answer emails and then go downstairs to taste through monthly QC, competitive sets or blend tastings. I have found that if I am still thinking about an email or if something is bothering me, or in general my head is not clear, my tasting notes are simple and nondescriptive. Over the years when I have found myself in these situations I put on some music, the sense memories start to connect, and I am once again able to connect the dots between what I am sensing and my ability to describe it with language. I find Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” is particularly good for Pinot Noir tasting days! Quite often we see first time tasters in the tasting room, and they are worried about the etiquette of wine. Unfortunately, wine has had its fair share of snobbery over the years that makes many people uncomfortable when tasting wine. Tasters are often so worried about how to swirl the glass or what they are supposed to be tasting that they never really get to experience all the great things about wine. We preach non-pretentious education in the tasting room and really try to help people learn and become comfortable with the terminology and etiquette, all the while having fun. I urge you to do the same when sharing wine with friends and family. We can educate without being snobs!
Remember at the end of the day wine is supposed to be fun. We all experience wine differently and there are really only two terms you need to know Yum and Yuck!