Eating the Elephant by Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser
Editor’s Note: Each month, Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser MS pens a missive to our past, present, and future SommDay School community. He is also available for one-on-one coaching sessions. Inquire about that right here.
I hope all is well. This is the first in what will be a regular article dedicated to the SommDay community (and future prospects!). Periodically, I’ll be in touch with short pieces about tasting, studying for exams, and wine in general. The focus of this first missive is about learning tasting.
For the SommDay courses, we cover a great deal of information in just one day—especially in the advanced tasting class. The process of becoming a professional taster (for exam purposes or not) is a journey with many steps. That journey requires a duration of time and lots of tasting practice—with wine in hand and not.
There are no short cuts. There is no hacking becoming a professional taster just as there is no hacking being an opera singer or a downhill skier. All require a lengthy learning curve, coaching, and lots of practice.
That’s the bad news—there are no short cuts. The good news is that this is wine we’re dealing with and not widgets. Wine, as in one of the greatest gifts from nature mankind has ever stumbled upon. That said, when you first start out on a wine exam track like the WSET and all the tasting it involves, it can seem overwhelming.
It brings to mind the old proverb about eating an elephant, as in the only way to eat the proverbial elephant is one bite at a time. In learning about tasting (and wine in general), this ancient quip applies in the form of incremental learning and practice.
With that in mind, here are some tips on tasting—and wine in general—in the form of incremental learning:
Memorize the Grid
Regardless of whether you’re using the WSET or the MS tasting grid, the very first thing you must do is memorize it. Break the grid down into groups of three criteria and memorize them—and their meanings. Be able to explain your tasting grid to someone who’s not in wine. Famed physicist Richard Feynman once said that if you can’t explain something to an eight-year-old you really don’t know it. Nothing could be truer.
Learning Wine Terms
Find a good glossary of wine terms and begin to chip away at it daily, again in three-to-five-word increments. In the beginning focus on terms that have to do with tasting. And again, be able to explain the terms to someone who’s not in the industry.
Improving Memory for Basic Aromatics and Flavors
There are about 25-30 aromas and flavors in a majority of all wines. Things as basic as lemon, green apple, and vanilla. Work on your memory and recognition of these elements for a few minutes every day—without wine. Tasting will become much easier if you do.
Practice tasting for structure alone—the levels of acidity, alcohol, phenolic bitterness, and tannin in any given wine. In particular, isolate the elements on your palate. Separate what each tastes and feels like as in the bitter taste and astringent feeling of tannin. And when you taste for structure connect the dots to cause and effect: high alcohol with ripe fruit and warmer growing region vs. high natural acidity with less ripe fruit and cooler growing region.
Write Your Own Varietal Descriptions
There are many lists of grape variety descriptions available, but you need to create a personal list with your own “tells” about each grape and what makes them easy to identify—for you. Start with the easy descriptions and write one or two a day—or any time you taste an appropriate wine.
Get a Coravin
The one wine accessory you must own for tasting practice is a Coravin. Using a Coravin will allow you to purchase the best examples of classic grapes and wines and save you untold thousands of dollars.
Binary Tasting Practice
In using the Coravin, taste wines in pairs. Always compare a more challenging wine vs. a wine easy to recognize. For example, a dry Chenin Blanc from the Loire vs. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
In reading the above, it still may seem like a lot to cover. However, taking each section in small bits—increments is the key.
Finally, Napa Valley Wine Academy now offers one-on-one coaching via phone or skype. I will be among the coaching team available to chat about tasting, exams, study and prep.