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Part I: Using Visual Constructs to Calibrate the Structure of Wine

In Master Sommelier classes and tasting examinations we ask students to assess the structural components of wine, specifically the levels of residual sugar, alcohol, acidity and tannin as well as the length and quality of the finish.  Further, we ask them to use a scale which ranges from low on one end to high on the other with increments in between.  The scale looks something like this:

Low / medium- / medium / medium+ / high

There’s a catch: we ask students to give us one specific answer and not a range.  Otherwise any wine could be described as medium-to-medium-plus across the board or almost close enough to be sort of nearly in the ball park.  Not much point there. So the pressure of trying to be as accurate as possible with structure for a student can be immense.  How do you really know how much acid is in the wine?  How much alcohol?  Tannin?  Imagine sitting there with some wine in your mouth and trying to figure out how much saliva your saliva glands are producing in reaction to the wine at the moment.  A little?  A lot?  A veritable cascade?  Or just medium? (Whatever that feels like.) And can you feel the acidity on your front teeth and gums? Or is that something else?  Or why is it you’re talking to yourself and hopefully it’s only one voice at a time or otherwise there could be arguments and then there could really be trouble.

Trying to figure out the structure of a wine as described above can only be called a “Beavis and Butthead” moment as in when those two delightfully dimwitted scamps are facing each other and chuckling vacantly for long periods of time.  Mind you, this is not to be confused with Beavis consuming anything containing caffeine which makes him immediately go berserk and gibber wildly about being “cornholio” and so forth.

The answer to the structural assessment conundrum might be easier than we think.  Recently I gave a presentation for the Society of Wine Educator’s annual conference on the first phase of a modeling project on tasting I’ve been working on for more than a year.  The project allowed me the unique opportunity to work with some of the country’s top tasters in order to discover their internal strategies–literally how they do what they do when tasting wine.  Ultimately the goal of my project is to replicate their strategies and hopefully be able to teach them to students.

The project included Brian Cronin MS; Doug Frost MS MW; Evan Goldstein MS; Tracy Kamens Ed.D., DWS, CWE; Karen MacNeil; Peter Marks MW; and Emily Wines MS.  Needless to say, this is a pretty stellar group and all of them possess a remarkable ability to taste.  In working with the group I used language patterns, eye movement patterns, and submodalities to deconstruct their tasting strategies and in doing so we made more than a few surprising discoveries.   Perhaps the most surprising of all is how visual the entire internal tasting process is for us; how we create and use very unique and personal visual constructs for practically every aspect of tasting, from ascertaining the color and age of a wine to recognizing the aromas and flavors in the glass all the way to calibrating the structure of a wine as described above.

To that last point, without exception I found that the tasters I interviewed for the project commonly used internal visual structures or cues to calibrate the physical sensations of sweetness, acidity, alcohol, tannin and finish in wine.  They literally use scales or other visual aids to calibrate—very precisely–the levels of all the structural elements in wine.  Here are some examples:

Tracy Kamens Ed.D., DWS, CWE

To assess the amount of residual sugar in a wine Tracy sees scale directly in front of her which she describes as a continuum with markers from dry on the left to sweet on the right.  To calibrate the wine for sweetness/dryness her attention moves on the scale until the right level is found and then a tick (mark) on the scale appears to marks the right point.

Doug Frost MS MW

All the scales for the various structural elements for Doug go from left to right, with “low” on the left and “high” on the right.  Doug tastes a wine and then internally “points” to a place on the scale.   It’s also interesting to note that Doug’s scales interface with internal questions, dialogue and memories of previous wines as in a wine with high tannins which he remembers as astringent or painful.

Emily Wines MS

Emily had one of the most complex systems of structural calibrations of all.  For acid she internally sees a bright yellow “school” ruler about 12” long with markers for low, medium, etc.  As she tastes a wine she points to a mark on the ruler for the correct assessment.  Calibrating alcohol is different.  Here the ruler is blue in color and about 24 inches long with the same kind bubble found in a construction level.  As she’s tasting to assess the alcohol level the bubble slowly moves to the appropriate mark for the correct answer.

For tannin Emily sees a piece of wool that’s stretched out in front of her at almost eye level, narrow at one end and much thicker at the other.  To assess the amount of tannin she runs her “hand” from one end of the piece of wool to the other and then stops at the right point.  But there’s a textural component as well: at the narrow end of the wool fabric is smooth while the thicker end is rough to the touch.  So Emily’s scale not only gives her an assessment for tannin but also the texture of the wine as well.  Finally, Emily calibrates the finish by seeing an internal image of the horizon and the farther she can see the longer the finish.

Tim Gaiser

In contrast to Emily my way of calibrating all the structural elements is about as straight forward as it gets.  To make an assessment I internally see a slide ruler-like scale or device that’s about three to four feet long in front of me at chest level.  The scale is graduated from low on the left to high on right with a red button in the middle on “medium”.   As I taste the wine the button moves until it matches the amount of acid or whatever element I’m calibrating.   Internally I point to the marker on the ruler and say “it’s medium-plus” to myself or whatever the answer is.  If I’m not sure about the answer I literally bring the scale in closer and more marks appear between the levels making it easier to get the right level.

Creating and Using Your Own Scale

If wine professionals subconsciously use scales to assess structure in wine can it help you?  I absolutely believe it can.  In fact, over the last year I’ve taught hundreds of beginners to use a scale much like mine.  In a very short period of time they’re able to get accurate information on a very consistent basis. Here’s how you can do the same.

Exercise: setting up your own personal scale

1. Stand up—it’s much easier to do any kind of visual work standing up and being fully present in your body.

2. See an internal scale in your mind’s eye in front of you.  You can use a simple one like mine or you can design your own.  Whatever you create just remember that it’s best to keep it simple in the beginning as you can always redecorate or upgrade in time.

3. Put markers on the scale for Low, Medium- , Medium, Medium+, and High.

4. Place a button or other kind of marker in the middle of the scale on medium.

5. Calibrate your scale: using your scale, practice marking off extreme “lows” and “highs” using beverages or foods that you’ve commonly experienced.  Here’s an example using acidity:

High acidity: imagine biting into a slice of lemon and how that would taste and feel.   Lemons have dramatically high acidity—as much or more than in most wines.  As you’re experiencing tasting the lemon watch the button move from “medium” on your scale all the way to “high” on the far right.   Point to the right end of the scale and internally say, “that’s high acidity.” 

Low acidity: imagine sipping water and noticing how little acidity is in water, if any.  As you imagine sipping the water watch the button move from “medium” all the way to the left stopping at “low.”  Point to the left end of the scale and internally say, “that’s low acidity.”

Now do the same for the other structural elements.  Here are some suggestions:

a. Residual sugar: tasting a chalky substance for bone dry and something like Caro syrup for shockingly sweet.

b. Alcohol: water for low alcohol and Port or other fortified wine for high alcohol.

c. Tannin: tasting a sports drink for low tannin and chewing on a used tea bag for high tannin.  Yikes.

d. Finish: tasting water again for a short finish (as in almost non-existent) and a fine whisky or brandy for a really long finish.

6. Try it with wine: now try using the internal scales with wine.  Repetition will really help your assessment of the scale to become consistent in a short period of time.

7. Practice! Here are the keys:

a. Always start with the button on medium.

b. Remember to follow the movement of the button and internally point to where the button stops.

c. Say the answer to yourself.

d. If you’re not sure about an answer bring the scale in closer to get a better look. 

8. Experiment: odds are you’ll come up with a better scale and/or system than mine.

9.Have fun with this!  Remember, it’s just wine.

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