Over the last decade Emily Papach, MS has worked in several different areas in the wine industry. She started with a four year stint at Gramercy Tavern in New York and then returned home to Virginia to work for fellow MS Fran Kysela at Kysela Pere et Fils, the well-known national wine importer. In 2011 Emily relocated to Northern California and since 2012 she’s managed export and national sales strategies for the Chappellet Winery in Napa Valley. Emily received the Diploma of Wine Studies from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust in 2007. In 2009 she enrolled in the Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory Course ultimately passing the Master’s exam on her second attempt in 2013. She currently resides in Yountville, California with her husband and seven year old son.
Part I: Exam Strategies
TG: Let’s start by talking about exam prep advice for students. You had to take the service portion two times. What made the difference between your first and second attempts? What did you do differently that helped you to pass?
EP: The first time I took the exam I focused on theory so service was definitely on the back burner. But after passing theory and having it off my plate I could spend all of my time thinking about service in terms of producers, vintages, cocktails and things like that. I approached it differently because I had a whole year to study for it.
TG: Were you working on the floor at the Farmhouse at the time?
EP: No, I worked the floor at the Farmhouse the first year when I didn’t pass service.
TG: Where did you work this past year?
EP: At Chappellet.
TG: Did you put any time in on the floor?
TG: You didn’t? That’s completely the opposite of what we tell everybody to do. We tell everyone that you have to put time in on the floor.
EP: I know! But what I did was practice the Court’s service standards over and over again at home.
TG: So you practiced at home meaning you had a service set up?
EP: Yes, I had the candle, decanter and everything at home and I would visualize the task at hand. In other works, I would see walking over to the station, picking up two napkins, and polishing the glasses; from there, covering the tray with a napkin and putting my glassware on it. If it’s red wine service I knew I’d need three coasters but if they asked for a magnum I’d need two decanters and a fourth coaster. Then I pictured placing my glassware on the table and going back and set up my gueridon. But I did the set up the same way every time so that it became muscle memory.
TG: A question about that; when you say visualize did you see yourself performing the actions out of your own eyes or did you see yourself doing the things? One is associated, the other is disassociated and it’s a big difference.
EP: It was disassociated.
TG: So you saw yourself.
EP: Yes because I had to picture how the room was set up in Aspen and my home isn’t set up that way. I definitely pictured myself in the setting of the exam.
TG: Right because you were there the year before so you knew what it looked like. Wow, that’s pretty amazing if you think about it.
TG: You weren’t working the floor at the time but you obviously rehearsed enough to where there was a real confidence level– a comfort level may be a better way to say it.
EP: Yes, because in terms of the layout at the Farmhouse where I worked the year before I passed there was no gueridon for tableside decanting. So going into service the first year it was like I was going to wing it. I wasn’t really comfortable. Obviously it didn’t work because all my mental energy went into thinking about things like if I had set up the gueridon right and did I have enough coasters or did I remember to polish the glassware–things like that. This time around all that was second nature.
TG: Right, you had more than enough brain space to be able to answer questions. I remember you being at my table which was the Champagne service table.
TG: When you got to our table you were all smiles which I have to tell you is highly unusual. Normally students are somewhere between fear, dread and panic. But you were raring to go and wanted to be asked questions and everything. If you have advice for someone taking the exam in the future what would it be? What should someone do at least for the physical service part of it?
EP: Even though I didn’t work the floor I practiced with peers in that I had them sit down at a table and write up an exam. Then I would go through service for them. What I found by doing that is that the service is not a theory exam; it’s not necessarily being able to answer every single question you’re asked. It’s how you present the information and also how you maintain composure when you don’t know something. I think that’s something very important to work on for service.
TG: With the theory portion of the exam, what again is the best practice for you? How would you advise to someone taking the exam? What would you tell them?
EP: I would tell them not expect to learn everything in three to six months. As soon as you pass the Advanced exam keep building on that foundation. Never stop. It’s something I did daily and almost became kind of obsessed with it. I wanted know everything there was to know. You just keep building and building, but you have remember to go back and review because you can’t lose your foundation.
TG: That sounds like you planned some kind of schedule or curriculum for yourself.
EP: Absolutely. Before the Advanced Exam I started making notes on my computer in MS Word. I don’t like to use flashcards. I would start every country the same way. Take Germany for example; I started with the history and find out everything I could about the history of the country as a wine region. Then I read the about the laws and when they came to effect. Then I studied the grape varieties and then on to the regions; you can just keep subdividing into regions, sub-regions, and then single vineyards.
TG: But when do you know to stop because it can be too much?
EP: There is too much.
TG: So how do you know you when to stop?
EP: I often considered if something would be on a wine label; if it’s applicable and practical knowledge you see it on a wine label. But if it’s something nobody’s ever heard of or something that’s not necessarily widely available then you don’t spend too much time on it—although you might want to in order to master that particular area.
TG: Do you think your academic background helped you in terms of theory studies?
TG: Did you ever stop to think about how a lot of people in our program never went to college and worked restaurants their entire careers? And because they don’t have an academic background the theory portion of the exam is a real challenge for them. So anything else, any advice for people studying theory? What really helped you especially with memorization? Did maps help?
EP: Maps helped a lot. Once I built my foundation and had solidly composed notes on a country like Germany I would read it over and over and over again.
TG: So repetition was a key.
TG: People have different ways of visualizing information and retaining it. Some people pretend like they have to teach the material so they can talk about it. Other people record information in Mp3 files; they record themselves asking questions and then answering questions.
EP: My favorite thing to do would to be to read my notes at night right before bed then go to sleep. The first thing in the morning I would ask myself questions on what I had read the night before. If I couldn’t answer the question then I knew I hadn’t absorbed the information. But I would do the theory part all over again because it was my favorite part.
TG: Theory wasn’t hard for me because I studied music history for seven years in college and music history is even more trivial than wine theory. Think about studying medieval and Renaissance music history–wine theory couldn’t possibly be more dense or complex. That made studying for the MS theory exam easier for me in that it was just simply memorizing more stuff. The software to memorize a lot of things was already there. I didn’t think it’s a big deal because it was just like taking another exam or writing another term paper. But I completely sucked at tasting and really had to work hard for a couple of years to get it. How was tasting for you?
EP: That was the hardest part for me too. That’s the part I didn’t think I would pass last year.
TG: So what happened? With the Master’s tasting exam I really think you have to work hard but then you also have to have a good day when it comes to the actual exam; you have to be in the zone when you’re in the exam room because there is no room for error with a minimum 75% passing score. At the Advanced, with just 60% required to pass you can have an OK day and be very methodical, score enough points, ID enough grapes/wines and pass. But with the MS exam you have to have a good day on top of all the work you’ve done. How did you have a good day?
EP: I didn’t taste flights of six wines in the 25 minutes over and over again. I didn’t want psych myself out because you can have an awesome day and think you’re a rock star and then crash and burn on the next tasting. I didn’t want do that so I didn’t taste wines the entire week in Aspen before the exam. It was a mental thing; I knew they (examiners) were only going to pour classic wines for the exam and that I’d tasted all the wines before.
TG: Did you rehearse tasting in your head?
EP: Yes—a lot. When I was driving around in the car I’d pick a grape variety and I’d go through the grid in my head with it.
TG: Did you talk through the wines out loud when you practiced like that?
EP: Absolutely. I did it on the way down here because I thought we might have to taste and I wanted to make sure that I remembered the grid (laughs).
TG: Today we’re doing to do something completely different. We’re going to figure out what you do internally when you taste. Let’s get to that now.
Part II: Tasting Strategies
TG: In in the context of being a professional, when you’re tasting what are you trying to do? What are you goals? These can be general goals or relatively specific goals. What are you trying to accomplish?
EP: If you’re tasting for your beverage program in your restaurant?
EP: First, is there room on your list for a given price point? Is there a need for it? The second thing is do you have an audience for the wine; whether it be the price point, the variety or the style of wine. Do you have a space in your cellar? All those things. Last of that would be whether or not I like the wine.
TG: But in terms of assessing the quality of the wine, what’s your goal?
TG: Balance meaning?
EP: Balance, complexity and the finish. Whatever the wine it is, how the components of acidity, tannin, alcohol and weight all interplay with each other in a beneficial way. That’s what makes the wine balanced and taste good.
TG: Good answer. Today we’re tasting the 2009 RDV Vineyards Rendezvous, a Merlot blend from Virginia. Let’s start with the sight, the appearance of the wine. In terms of looking at wine what are your goals? What are you trying to do?
EP: I’m looking at the concentration and tone of the color. If it’s orange or brickish it could be an indication of a certain grape variety or it could also mean some oxidation in the wine. From there I would look at the viscosity which gives me an idea about the alcohol content.
TG: You mentioned color; do you have any expectations about the wine from the color and intensity?
TG: How do you define those?
EP: For me the color is a good indication of the thickness of grape skins; lighter color means you’re going to get thin-skinned grape varieties. There are other grape varieties completely the opposite that give you a black, opaque core and still other wines that have brickish/orange rim which also can indicate certain grape varieties or aging.
TG: How do you know when you are done looking at a wine?
EP: Usually I don’t spend too much time looking at it.
TG: So you’re not big on sight.
TG: Which makes sense given the context of our exam in that we only give students four minutes and ten seconds per wine—which is why we tell them to get the sight out of the way in 20-25 seconds.
TG: Now we get to the nose which is the fun part—the main event. What are you goals for smelling a wine? What are you trying to do?
EP: Typically if I’m not going to blind taste through a wine I don’t deconstruct it. I don’t think about the fruit, oak, non-fruit, etc. If I’m just drinking a wine it’s a question of whether the smell is pleasant or not. When you think of smelling perfume you don’t think about all the different essential oils that might be combined to make it–you just know you either like it or you don’t. For me it’s the same thing with wine.
TG: So the first thing is whether or not you like it?
TG: What happens next? Do you have goals like trying to find out if the wine is sound and not flawed? Are you trying to get an idea about the variety or the quality of the wine? What are you trying to do?
EP: After I’ve registered if the wine smells good or not I can deconstruct it from there as far as the fruit, non-fruit, and the rest.
TG: When you first put your nose in the glass what do you do? What starts your tasting sequence? I’m watching your eyes and they move really fast, they go here–down into the glass—then almost immediately up in front and finally up and to the left. But again it all happens really fast.
EP: Right, first I’m looking at the center or the core of the wine.
TG: So you’re looking at the wine?
TG: When you look at the core of the wine do you say anything to yourself?
EP: No, I don’t.
TG: Hold it for a second. When you looked into the core of the just now did you say you anything to yourself? How did your eyes know when to go up?
EP: I think when I first look into the glass and smell it that’s when I make the decision if it smells good to me or not.
TG: But do you say that to yourself? Stop and hold for it a second because again you do it really fast. Your eyes are down and it’s almost like a rebound when they move out front and then up. So for your there’s a starting point but I want to know if there’s anything that prompts your eyes to go up.
EP: I feel like for me to process what my nose is taking in my eyes shoot off out front and then to the top left hand side of the room. That allows me to really concentrate on what I’m smelling.
TG: OK but smelling and looking way up there are two different things. Something happens that makes your eyes move. Try this: smell the wine and keep holding your eyes down in the core of the glass. What happens?
EP: I feel like I can’t process what I’m smelling if I keep looking into the wine.
TG: This time put your nose in the glass and go to second eye position right away.
EP: I have to look down to make sure the glass makes it to my face! (Laughs)
TG: Right but what happens if you don’t look into the glass to begin?
EP: There’s a certain place I like to have my nose in the glass and I think that’s why I start down there; I like to position my face in the glass a certain way and part of that is looking into the glass.
TG: I have a theory about that. I think the hardest thing for beginnings is not knowing how to start; not having a starting sequence. But practically all of us pick up a glass and look down to accomplish a couple of things. First, that’s where we look when we talk to ourselves and second, that’s how we shut the world out. But you do it almost instantly. You have no problem shutting everything out. I think that’s what’s going on; you don’t need a lot of time to get into the zone.
But what I still want to know is if you say anything to yourself when you first look into the glass—before your eyes go up. I always say something like “what’s there?” to myself. Then I immediately start to recognize things in the glass. Let’s see if we can find out what you do. Once your eyes bounce up from looking into the core of the glass to second position are you seeing things internally that you smell in the wine?
EP: No, there’s no visual.
TG: Are you sure? Let’s try something. When you smell the wine, what’s the dominant fruit?
EP: Black cherry and plum.
TG: How do you know it’s black cherry/plum and not green apple? How do you know? What’s out here? (Pointing eye level directly out in front of her) Hold it for a few seconds and see what happens. The question is really how do you know what you’re smelling vs. anything else.
EP: (laughs) because you see the picture of the cherries or whatever?
TG: You tell me; this is your experience and not mine.
EP: You know what’s happening in my brain is that I’m not seeing a piece of fruit, it’s more like I’ve smelled this before and what’s the association I make with this aroma.
TG: What do you mean by association?
EP: Like biting into a fresh black cherry and smelling it at the same time.
TG: OK but when you look out here what happens internally? What do you do? Are you running a movie of yourself biting into a black cherry?
EP: Before that can happen there has to be that reaction in your brain that “I’ve smelled this before.”
TG: What’s that like? If I had to be you, what would happen? What would I do? This is the part we want to figure out. This is your strategy for how you remember what things smell and taste like. There’s only so many things you can do internally: you can make pictures or movies, you can talk to yourself or you can feel things—or any combination of all that.
EP: I would say there’s more than a picture or a movie; there’s an emotional reaction to the aroma like the feeling of I’ve had this wine before or at least I’ve smelled this before and then what is it.
TG: But how does that work? How do you the recognize black cherry and plum?
EP: Because you have a lexicon when you’re tasting and you already know certain fruits are in certain kinds of wines.
TG: I understand that but how do you know in this particular wine that those aren’t white wine fruits? How do you know they’re black cherry and plum and not something else? What’s the ID process? What happens?
EP: Because I’ve smelled and eaten those fruits before.
TG: But how do you remember them? That’s the key.
EP: You have to make that mental imprint.
TG: A mental imprint meaning what? I’m trying not to be a pain in the ass but this is the key we’re looking for. Smell the wine again and hold your idea of black cherry and see what happens. I think the challenge is that you do this so quickly it’s hard to slow it down and find out how you do what you do. So what happens when you hold the idea of black cherry while smelling the wine?
EP: I immediately start thinking there’s more to the wine than that.
TG: I know but tell your brain to wait! (Laughs)
EP: My instinct would be to smell the wine and if I were to really focus on one thing I’d want to expand from there.
TG: Let’s go back to the black cherry for a second. Smell the wine and what I want to know is it under ripe black cherry or is it perfectly ripe or is it black cherry jam? Which one?
EP: No, it’s just black cherry.
TG: OK but smell the wine and hold the black cherry; how do you know which one it is–the condition of the fruit? Try to make it greener and then try to make it really ripe, almost raisiny. Do you get images for all those?
EP: I can only associate with flavors I’ve had before so with black cherry it’s more about the way black cherry juice tastes to me vs. tart cherry juice. It’s like being in the juice aisle at the store.
TG: OK but is that you drinking the juice? What’s the memory like?
EP: Yes, it’s me tasting the juice.
TG: So you in your body tasting the juice?
EP: Yes! I smell this aroma and I picture myself either eating the fruit or drinking the juice.
TG: So you don’t necessarily picture the thing, you experience a memory of eating it or drinking it. But what about something like oak? This wine definitely has new oak on it. What do you smell in the wine for oak?
EP: Cinnamon, clove and nutmeg.
TG: So what are those like for you? You’re not exactly going to be eating any of them.
EP: I think with these spices there’s more of a visual association like an actual cinnamon stick or when you bake cookies and add clove or nutmeg. So there’s the little jars. It’s what it smells like when you put a little ground clove in your hand and smell it and then toss it into the cookie recipe.
TG: So that’s the whole thing? With these spices is there actually a jar there?
EP: Yes it’s like the little red McCormick’s jars with spices.
TG: Just to be completely random, do you see any words associated to these things you’re smelling or just movies and pictures?
EP: No, not at all.
TG: So it seems like all these aromas are like little movies and you’re inside your head tasting or drinking things or doing things associated to them.
TG: You’re one of the first people I’ve come across that does that combination with aromas, and it’s also really fast so it’s probably hard for you to slow it down and track it. What else … what about non-fruit aromas like flowers? Does this wine smell floral to you?
EP: That’s where I have a hard time with wine if it’s screaming minerality…
TG: But wait, we’re not to earth and mineral yet. I want to know how you get flowers in wine.
EP: I often don’t unless it’s a really aromatic wine.
TG: What about something like Alsace Gewurztraminer?
TG: So think about that and how do you experience the flowers? How would you know that if the wine is floral?
EP: It’s the same thing with food; I’ve smelled that or I’ve tasted that. So it’s like I’ve smelled the rose or gardenia before.
TG: Is that literally the act of you smelling the flower? As in an internal movie of you bending down to smell a specific flower?
TG: But then you’d have to see the image of the rose to know it’s a rose so you can run the movie, correct?
EP: Yes, correct, but the floral thing in wine is not very strong for me.
TG: True but the interesting thing to me is that any of these aromas are like complete internal movie experiences for you. And just a theory, if you made the structure of your experiencing flowers the same as you do for fruit might be a lot easier for you. But back to this wine. What happens with earth? There’s not a lot of earth in this wine but how do you represent earth in wine internally? Using your system, how do you know there’s earth in a wine?
EP: That has to do with relations to actual things I’ve smelled before. Take leather; it reminds me of having a new pair of leather books and I haven’t waterproofed them and then get caught in the rain and they get wet. There’s always associations like that. I think about leather saddles too like when you’re outside and there’s a horse and hay and other things around and what all that smells like.
TG: I’m getting a lot of pictures when you’re describing all this. Do you get images as well?
EP: When I smell for earth? Yes because with leather you ask is it a wet shoe or a leather saddle on a horse when there’s hay involved? Then there’s the components to what you’re smelling (as she’s explaining she’s motioning to several locations out in front of her).
TG: As you’re describing all this to me you’re showing me with your hands by pointing to different locations out in front of you—actually where the images are. What about earth in a wine where you have things like mushrooms, forest floor and the like? What’s that like for you?
EP: I think about walking through a forest. When I think about smelling Nebbiolo I think about walking through a forest in the fall after it’s rained and there are damp leaves on the ground.
TG: Once again it sounds like you’re walking through it or walking in it as opposed to just a still image of it.
TG: You’re one of very few people I’ve interviewed that experiences wine this way—as a series of totally associated movie memories where you’re in something doing something. With most other people the images they—we—create are fairly static although they have a lot of depth, dimensionality, and structural qualities to them. But I also think you’ll find as you play with this more that you generate images that prompt these associated movies. In other words, an image triggers the experience. It seems like when we got to earth and oak there were images that triggered the file.
TG: So what we’ve figured out so far is that when you look into the core of the glass that starts your tasting sequence and then you immediately look up and straight out to process the wine by experiencing these associated memory movies. Finally, you look up and to the left to probably store the information. What I want to know now is what’s up there and to the left?
EP: I think “up there” are things I’ve smelled and that’s where I piece it all together.
TG: I have a hunch about that; what if you look up there and hold it for a few seconds; see what happens. What do you see? Because that’s generally where most people look to access visual memory–up and to the left.
EP: That’s the big picture; that’s “I’ve had this before.”
TG: What’s the big picture? What’s that like?
EP: The big picture is what’s in the glass—what I’m smelling.
TG: But how does it work? Do you list what you’re smelling somehow? Are there images that go up there? Again, if I had to be you how would it work? If my eyes go up there what happens? What do I see?
EP: When your eyes go up there it’s like you have an instant memory; there’s an instant recall of what this smell is.
TG: When you say instant memory what’s that like? A picture? A movie? How does it work?
EP: I think it’s either me drinking a wine like the one I’m tasting or eating a fruit or something that I’m recognizing.
TG: Got it. So it’s like you look here and the aroma triggers the file in your internal memory which you then file by looking up and to the left—and again it happens incredibly fast. That’s a really interesting system. One more thing; do you see the grid anywhere?
EP: No, never.
TG: So how do you know to do wines in order the same way every time?
EP: I probably don’t (laughs).
TG: Oh come on, it has to be close! If you think of the grid when you’re tasting where is it?
EP: What you’re talking about as the grid I don’t see it because to me that’s distracting. It’s not about hitting the bullet but it’s more of why do you say the wine has moderate-plus intensity of aromatics vs. moderate-minus. Why do you say that? I’m not thinking about the grid while I’m saying something like that but more about whether the wine is from an aromatic grape variety or not. It’s like you’re already shuffling around possibilities in your brain at that time.
TG: True, but you have to know how to do all that in some order whatever that order may be for you. I’m asking if during the process of going through a wine, do you ever check in with the grid to make sure you get everything and didn’t leave anything out.
TG: So if you did check in with it where would it be? If you suddenly thought, “did I forget something,” where would your eyes go?
EP: I look straight out.
TG: Do you see the grid?
EP: No, I don’t. It’s just me and my brain thinking.
TG: Again, hold that eye position straight out for a few seconds and see what pops. It might be the grid and it might be something else. Who knows?
EP: I’m thinking about what I’ve already said; did I get to the complexity, did I get to the balance.
TG: So you’re remembering auditorily things you’ve already said?
EP: Yes, exactly. It’s more of what I’ve already said about it and then realizing that I didn’t talk about the tannin, for instance.
TG: OK, but I’m still suspicious. With you everything happens at light speed so I wouldn’t be surprised if you flashed the grid out in front of you if you needed it to make sure you’ve covered everything.
TG: We’ve got a pretty good idea of what you do when you smell the wine. Now my question is once you taste the wine does anything change and if so, how does it change. Or do you use the same system.
EP: It’s the same system but with differences. With the fruit it’s more like I bought a bushel of black cherries and they’re not quite ripe enough yet. I just bit into one of them.
TG: Do you see an image of the bushel of cherries first and then bite into one of them? What happens first?
EP: No it’s me in the act of doing it again.
TG: So it’s literally the physical act of eating cherries again.
TG: What happens if it’s something that you don’t normally eat? Like oak barrels or earth or something like that.
EP: With oak you’d have the baking associations again which are really strong for me; baking spices like vanilla, caramel and cinnamon. I love to bake so I have a lot of pleasant aromas associated with oak.
TG: Got it but there are things we smell and taste in wine that you can’t eat—like dirt and clay and chalk. So how do those things work?
EP: I would say things like that are one area where I’ve trained my brain to smell something like Chablis or Champagne and to make the association of “chalk” to what I’m smelling.
TG: Think about Chablis and chalkiness and how does your brain know what it is? Think about a really good Chablis and hold the chalk thing for a few seconds and what happens?
EP: My brain knows because I’ve tasted that wine before and I’ve been told to make that association. If I’m trying to explain to you why I get chalk or seashell, I’ve never been to Chablis but I picture this white crusty, chalky field.
TG: How big is the picture? Is it like you’re suddenly standing in this panorama of what you think Chablis looks like and you’re looking at the ground?
TG: So it’s like you’re literally in Chablis standing in a vineyard.
EP: Right! And I think of pictures with white soil like in Chablis or Champagne—pictures with the soil cracked apart. I also picture these fossilized seashells, this white bed of chalk and vines growing up from it.
TG: Perfect! That’s a great system. The last thing we have to talk about is structure. We have to figure out how you calibrate the structural elements in a wine. Let’s start with acidity. Taste the wine again and check for the level of acidity.
EP: I always evaluate structure first when I taste.
TG: I can’t do that. With me the structure is delayed response so I have to wait for 10-15 seconds.
EP: I like to do it first because tannins build. So the more times you sip and swish the wine in your mouth the more the tannins build. I also feel like I get the most accurate snapshot of the structure of a wine from my initial gut instinct. My tasting got a lot better once I started doing the structure first. Before I would confirm the fruit and everything else and by the time I got to the structure everything became muddled.
TG: So what do you think about the acidity in this wine? How much?
EP: It’s medium-plus.
TG: How do you know it’s not medium or high?
EP: Because of how much my cheeks water after I taste it. Acid also lends a sense of tartness to the fruit and the fruit here is very tart on the palate. So it’s definitely not medium acid. But it’s not high acid because my cheeks aren’t screaming with that astringent feeling.
TG: Is there anything else you do to calibrate because otherwise this is not really precise at all. There’s also something else I do to calibrate the structure which is what I’m trying to get at. But for you it seems to be very precise because it definitely fast.
EP: It’s very precise and fast (snaps fingers); that’s medium-plus acid, medium-plus tannins, medium-plus alcohol, and medium-plus body.
TG: But how do you know? You do it so fast that I’m hazarding a guess that something visual is going on. Your calls seem to be very calibrated and this (points to mouth) is not precise at all.
EP: How do I know? With the nose the first thing I smelled in this wine was green bell pepper and if I had to describe the wine to someone that would be one of the first things I’d mention. It’s the same thing when I taste and the reason I like to make a gut call is because if something’s a bit out of whack—like the alcohol is hot or the acid is out of whack compared to the other components in the wine—it becomes a good starting point for me.
TG: Just curious, when you’re smelling the wine are you building expectations about the structure?
EP: Not at all.
TG: But back to my original question: what if you’re on the fence on whether a wine has medium or medium-plus acid and you’re not quite sure? How do you make a decision?
EP: By asking if the wine is in balance. So if the wine has bigger tannins, higher alcohol, and riper fruit but lower acid, then the wine is not going to be in balance.
TG: Is that something where you’re talking to yourself asking those questions?
EP: Yes, absolutely.
TG: But do you see anything internally that helps you calibrate? That’s the big question. If you think about acidity, for instance, is there anything you see that helps you point right to it and say, “that’s medium-plus acid.”
EP: If anything, I’m thinking about my mouth.
TG: So in thinking about your mouth, what do you see?
EP: My tongue and cheeks (laughs). I picture my mouth and think about what is being engaged.
TG: If I were you, in doing that what would I see?
EP: Right now I can picture my mouth …
TG: Internally or externally?
EP: Internally. You know when they do brain scans and certain parts of the brain light up with different activities, it’s like that. I think about where my mouth is being lit up right now.
TG: If it lights up, what color is it?
EP: No color, it’s just lighting up.
TG: If there’s a lot of acidity what does that look like?
EP: You picture what the inside of your mouth looks like and it’s like your cheeks are lighting up.
TG: What if there’s low acidity?
EP: Then that doesn’t happen.
TG: What about medium acidity?
EP: Depends on the other components in the wine.
TG: But how would you separate that out so you don’t confuse the acid with the tannin?
EP: Because for me acid is the cheeks, tannin is tongue, and alcohol is in the throat.
TG: So in other words you literally get a picture of all that and measure the level of acid, tannin, and alcohol by the degree of lighting in all those places in your mouth?
TG: I’ve never come across anyone else who does that. But when you say you see all this, do you see it internally but out in front of you or is it something you see inside of you? How does it work?
EP: It’s an internal register.
TG: What color is the light when things light up?
EP: I don’t think it’s a color, it’s more where I feel it.
TG: But when you say it lights up, what does that mean? Is it an illumination of some kind?
EP: I just picture that part of my mouth, my cheeks. With a really high tannin wine where the tannins get up into your teeth and gums I picture my teeth and gums.
TG: OK but I keep trying to be you to figure this all out. With acid alone, if the acid is really high I picture the inside of my cheeks. Are they lighting up or what’s happening?
EP: No I just picture them salivating and watery.
TG: What if there’s less acid? Is the picture smaller or what?
EP: I still picture my cheeks but I don’t get the sensation to pucker.
TG: Are there any sounds to all this?
TG: Are you sure?
TG: How fast does all this happen?
EP: Quickly because I like to make a fast assessment on the structure.
TG: So what’s the alcohol like?
EP: I think about the back of my throat and the effect of the vapors or ethanol has on it. That’s why I swallow the wine when I taste it. It’s hard for me to spit because I don’t get a good gauge of alcohol that way. I have to swallow the wine to really understand the structure.
TG: With alcohol are you internally seeing part of your throat?
EP: Yes, the very back part of my throat.
TG: If it’s high alcohol what’s that like?
EP: There’s more vapor.
TG: What’s the vapor look like? Steam?
EP: It’s not steam, it’s clear–more like a mist.
TG: What about tannin?
EP: I see my tongue, dead center.
TG: Sorry to be a pain, but do you see all of this out front here (motions directly out in front) or do you see it internally?
EP: I see a picture of my mouth internally.
TG: But think about it for a second; is what you’re seeing in your mind’s eye but out here in front or is it somehow something you see inside of you?
EP: I’m picturing it inside my own head.
TG: Your system has economy of scale in its own way. But practically everyone I’ve interviewed or spoken to about this—myself included—sees some kind of internal scale or dial or device to know how much acid, alcohol or tannin we’re tasting. But you calibrate in a different way in that you see different kinds of pictures for different amounts. I’m curious, if I say imagine biting into a lemon, what kind of picture of your cheeks would you get?
EP: I just see a picture of a lemon.
TG: But think about the acidity of biting into a lemon.
EP: I see salivating and my cheeks going crazy.
TG: I think when we’re teaching beginners structure we have to show them how to calibrate extremes visually as in low and high. Once they have that down they can find the middle and other gradations pretty quickly and finally put wine into that context.
EP: Going back to tannin, I would say that if anything I’ve often pictured an oak barrel.
TG: Where would you see that? (She points out front) So right out in front.
TG: Moving on: how do you know when you’re done smelling and tasting a wine?
EP: In a blind tasting I’m done when I’ve fairly evaluated and assessed the wine. But you’re going to have a lot more to say about an aromatic white grape variety vs. something like Pinot Grigio. You might go through the Pinot Grigio pretty quickly because there’s not much to say about it; there’s not that much going on with it.
TG: I mentioned this before with a question about the grid; is there any way you check to make sure you got everything?
EP: Definitely. When I was first learning this I counted things I was supposed to think about. When I was on my initial conclusion I needed to talk about the age range and the country of origin; I also needed to talk about the possible grape varieties and the climate—four things. So I’d go through and count on my fingers. That’s also how I got through my structure when I was learning the grid. There’s five structural components and I would literally check them off on my fingers when I was tasting.
TG: A simple system but it works. So then what’s your process for making the conclusion? What do you do to review all the information about that you’ve learned from the sight, nose, and palate?
EP: As you’re building your case blind tasting and drawing these conclusions you’re selectively eliminating things out of the pot at the same time. So when I get to the end and have one to three ideas in my head about what the wine could be, I usually set the glass down and think about the three grapes it might be and then ask myself questions about them; questions like does the wine have enough color to be Malbec or does it have the tannin to be Cabernet Sauvignon or does it have the color to be Barossa Shiraz. If I’m still uncertain I pick up the glass and give the wine a quick sniff and sip and try to see if it recalls a memory of my having tasted or drank that wine before.
TG: So it’s a process of elimination until you pick something from a previous memory?
TG: And you’re matching up the experience in terms of the whole tasting process?
EP: Definitely. I think about Brunello vs. Nebbiolo and I think about drinking Nebbiolo and times I’ve had it in the past even if it’s just tasting a wine before serving it to a guest. I think you need to drink all these wines to really know them.
TG: Are you a big Nebbiolo fan?
EP: Yes but I also really like Australian Shiraz; I just like wine.
TG: White wine more than red wine?
EP: Red wine more. So again I’d think about when I’d had the wine before and ask myself, “Does this really taste like the Barolos I’ve had before?” If not, then it’s not Nebbiolo and I don’t try to force it to be Nebbiolo.
TG: Again, if you had to explain that to me or if you were going to explain that to a student, how would you do it? How would you tell them about your experience in a way of giving advice?
EP: It’s all about my experience in drinking it and my having eaten the fruits or whatever that I’m smelling and tasting in the wine. I’m not going to talk about things I haven’t smelled or tasted before.
TG: Got it. I have to say that you have a very unique system for tasting. Mine is boring by comparison.
EP: Mine is very food-oriented. For Zinfandel, people told me for years to look for peach yogurt and I would say to myself, what are they talking about? So for a month last year I got up every morning and ate peach yogurt. I hate peach yogurt but I forced myself to eat it.
TG: So is it easy to recognize Zinfandel now because you don’t like peach yogurt?
EP: I can’t say that I can ever smell peach yogurt in Zinfandel, but there’s something in it that smells like fruit punch you had at a party when you were in kindergarten. It’s like the Capri-Sun tropical fruit punch. Whatever the peach yogurt association is, I view it as tropical fruit Capri Sun.
TG: I want to try one last thing called submodalities. Smell the wine and pick anything that really stands out. It could be fruit or oak or whatever.
EP: I’m going to pick black cherry.
TG: So with black cherry, if there’s an image of black cherry where do you see it? We’re going to play with the image.
EP: It’s up there (to the left)
TG: Keep smelling the wine and what happens if you move the image down and right in front of you? Does the black cherry in the wine change? Get stronger or less strong?
EP: Less strong. It’s like it’s out there but in my peripheral vision. It’s out there but it’s not right in front of my face.
TG: What happens if you take the image of black cherry and move it in closer until it’s really huge? Does the wine change?
EP: Less black cherry because I’m not thinking about the wine anymore I’m thinking about the image.
TG: Reset it. What happens if you make the image black and white? Does that change it?
EP: It’s less of that association.
TG: Reset. Is the image 2D or 3D up there?
EP: 3D definitely.
TG: Smell the wine and make it a flat image. What happens?
EP: It changes—it’s less—but not as much as the color makes it change.
TG: Reset. What happens if you take the image and push it all the way into the next room? What happens?
EP: Not much because I’m only looking at the image peripherally.
TG: Is there anything about black cherry here out in front?
EP: No, just up there and to the left.
TG: So what’s up there? Is it like a big movie screen where everything is? Is there more than black cherry up there?
EP: How you go about tasting is to compartmentalize everything you’re smelling. That means when it’s time for your brain to shift away from fruit and think about other things in the wine like cinnamon sticks.
TG: So are they out here or up there?
EP: No, they’re up there (to the left).
TG: Do you initially see them out front and they go up and to the left?
EP: Yes, that’s exactly what happens.
TG: That’s what I thought! When you do this rapid eye movement thing I think the pictures happen quickly and then bounce up and to the left where you file them. Once they’re up there you don’t worry about them because you know that they’re there. When you’re thinking about the conclusion of the wine do you go back and review everything up there?
EP: No, not at all.
TG: True because you’re looking down. What are you seeing?
EP: I’m seeing a map.
TG: Where’s the map?
EP: Right here on the table (points to my dining room table right in front of her). So if I’m thinking this is a Merlot and Cabernet-based wine I instantly visualize California or Bordeaux.
TG: Do you visualize the actual place or the place on the map?
EP: The map of Bordeaux and it’s out on the table. So if I’m tasting two Viogniers and I think about whether they’re from Condrieu or Santa Barbara; I picture exactly where Santa Barbara is on a map of California and exactly where Condrieu is.
TG: What happens when you see the place on the map and know it’s there?
EP: You pick one or the other and you zero in.
TG: Meaning the map?
TG: What happens to the map after that? Does it go away or do you keep it around?
EP: It goes away.
TG: We’re coming back to some really important things that you do. The sequence is the eye rebound thing with the images forming out in front and then being stored up and to the left. But you’re looking for things hyper-fast and things just pop. I imagine that four minutes and ten seconds is a long time to taste a wine for you.
EP: No because I’ve always used all 25 minutes that you’re given. I don’t know if you remember sitting in on my Advanced tasting, but you called half way and I was only on my second white wine and I had four wines to go. I was struggling with the first two wines and then you called half time and I sped up and did a much better job.
TG: I have to ask then, if you process things at light speed, what takes so much time?
EP: I have strong associations with some wines but not as good with others semi-aromatic white grapes and wines.
TG: Association being one of those whole body movie files?
EP: Yes, but also where there’s a food experience related to something in the wine.
TG: So what you might do as an experiment is take a wine you nail all the time. What would that be?
EP: Classic Rioja.
TG: What you need to do then is go through your file of Rioja and really slow it down. You’re looking for structure here and however the size of the experience, the movement, position of it, if you’re saying something to yourself—all of it. Write it all of it down from beginning to end. Then wipe out all the content and try dragging and dropping wines into the “template” that you don’t do as well. The content can be totally different but the structure has to be the same. Just try it because you’re taking something new and unfamiliar and making it familiar. Play with it.
So in closing Emily, just having passed the Master’s tasting exam, what would you tell someone in terms of the best way to practice for tasting?
EP: Drink everything!
TG: Got it. But in terms of being disciplined and practicing for the exam, what’s the best thing for them to do?
EP: Everyone is so different, but for me what really helped is that once I had a lexicon of the world of wines from years of having worked in restaurants, selling wine and drinking it at home, I knew I had enough experience. But what also helped a lot was to drive around in the car and talk about the wines out loud over and over again.
TG: Associated rehearsal.
EP: Yes and that helped me more than anything else than actually sitting down and going through a flight of six wines.
TG: There you are. Any other words of wisdom?
EP: No. (laughs)
TG: Thanks so much—this was great.
EP: My pleasure!