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Gillian Ballance, Master Sommelier, has spent over 20 years in the hospitality industry with stints at several well-known restaurants including Picholine, Cello Restaurant, and Windows on the World in New York as well as the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara. Gillian has also worked in the Bay Area as the Plumpjack Group’s wine director, the sommelier at the Pacific Union Club in San Francisco, and the Bottega restaurant in Napa Valley.

In 2012 Gillian passed the final portion of the Master’s Examination becoming only the 19th woman to ever do so. Aside from her CMSA training Ballance received the Higher Certificate of Distinction as well as her Diploma in Wines & Spirits from the British Wine and Spirits Education Trust. She also received a BFA from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.  Most recently she joined Treasury Wine Estates as an education manager.

I met up with Gillian in May of 2013 when she was still the wine director at the historic lodge at Cavallo Point near the Golden Gate Bridge.  We tasted the 2009 Double Bond Syrah from the Larner Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley and used Riedel Vinum Zinfandel/Chianti glasses.  I started the interview by asking her about the strategies she used to pass the three parts of the Master’s Exam.

Intro and Exam Strategies

TG: You passed the exam in 2012 in Dallas.  What parts of the exam did you have to take then?

GB: I had tasting and service.

TG: So you got theory out of the way before then.  Was theory the easiest for you?

GB: Yes.

TG: How was it the easiest?  Did you have an academic background?

GB: I studied philosophy at NYU but I think that it was more of completing the diploma for the WSET. I finished the diploma shortly before I sat for the MS Advanced Exam. I think it gave me the study regimen, the tools and the approach that made theory not as impossible as most people make it out to be.

TG: If you had to give someone studying theory for the Advanced or Master’s exams what would it be?  What was your best practice?  What worked for you?

GB: I would say to take a course like the WSET. The thing I see people studying for the MS theory exams doing is a lot of flashcards and Q & A.  They study these questions for years without ever understanding why the questions exist. That’s what the WSET diploma program does for you. There’s no short cuts. You have to be able to write full length papers on carbonic maceration or any other topic.  That forces you to study the subject in depth and find out the “whys” behind everything. I’m a very visual person as well so visual tools also helped me a lot. My study place would be filled with maps and colored pencil drawings.  I also used a smart pen that allows you to record yourself asking questions.  I would study a subject for a few hours and then use the smart pen to go over everything I’d just studied. Then when I was driving to work or where ever I’d listen to the recordings over and over again until it became part of me.

TG: What about service?  What was challenging for you with service?

GB: I’m working on the floor now but I think that the places I’ve worked at over the last few years haven’t really been the super fine dining in terms of the detail of service, say like the French Laundry. I would get nervous because my approach to service day to day was more casual.  So I had to become really polished and really comfortable with more formal service.  We have a gueridon here at the restaurant and Jesse Becker MS would come and work with me until it became second nature. Then I could focus on my demeanor and ask myself, “What is my demeanor going to be like when I approach a table of several Master Sommeliers and have to answer questions?” You really have to get the mechanics down before you can do that.  I think for a couple of years beforehand I was just trying to get it all down at the same time.

TG: That’s great.  What about tasting?  How was it for you?  Tasting was by far the hardest part of the exam for me.

GB: I worked really hard for two years on blind tasting with the group at the French Laundry once or twice a week.

TG: But when you think about tasting and those two years, was there something that changed or snapped at some point where suddenly tasting became easier? Where you could get in the zone before the exam and taste really well?

GB: I think it became easier but only because of the work I did. When you’re working on tasting you don’t really step outside and see what’s changed in terms of your process. I also think that getting the opportunity to work with and listen to other tasters, especially Masters, was big. Just listening to different people’s approach was very educational. You can’t just rely on yourself, you have to collect things from everybody.  But having had a support/tasting group for two years was so important. I feel for friends of mine who have tried to pass the exams but live in places where there’s no network or group like the one I had.

TG: So the group was that important?

GB: Yes it was, for support and building each other up. I can’t imagine not having that group during the process.

Tasting: Overall Goals

TG: When you’re tasting as a buyer, what are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish?

GB: First and foremost I think of pricing and necessity; where the wine could fit in the program right now. Say if we were in need of Pinot Noirs to put on the list for $60 I’d be looking at wines in that price range and taking it from there.

TG: Makes sense but in terms of actually tasting it, what are you trying to assess?

GB: Overall quality is probably the most important thing.  Any wine drinker knows quality. They may not know how to define it but they still know it. Our clientele here at the restaurant loves oaky, buttery Chardonnay, for instance. It’s our number one selling wine by the glass. And even though it may not be my personal favorite style of wine I still need to find something that is really high quality in that category-which I believe I can do. But it takes time to learn that process.

TG: All true.  What are overall important criteria for a good tasting?  What do you need to have for a good tasting environment?

GB: Just wine (laughs).

TG: That’s a given.  But what else do you need in terms of glassware etc.?

GB: We do a lot of tasting in the cellar because that’s where my desk is and where salespeople can lay out 20 wines if they need to.  So we can’t unfortunately be that picky about the environment.  But we have good quality glassware.

TG: What are your beliefs about tasting in terms of you as a taster?  Is it easy for you?  Difficult?

GB: I think it’s important to do every day to some degree.  Maybe it’s just tasting ten wines or tasting through everything that you’re pouring by the glass or whatever.  There’s no shortage around here because we have an onslaught of distributors and brokers.  A lot of people in the business live in this area so we end up tasting every day.  I think that’s important. It’s like singing or dancing where you have to keep your body trained.  You have to keep your palate trained in the same way. I also try to take the same approach every time even though I may not be writing notes or tasting according to a grid. I still try to have the same rhythm every time.

TG: Do you think you’re a good taster?

GB: I used to think I was an awesome taster (laughs).  I had a fired up period when I was working at Windows on the World with Andrea (Andrea Immer Robinson MS); we had a 150,000 bottle cellar and we could taste anything we wanted as long as we recorded what we were opening. I was younger then and at that time you couldn’t stop me with blind tasting. When I got into the Master of Wine program my tasting was even more elevated.  But then I got a big job with Plump Jack that consumed all of my time so I dropped out of the MW program. Three years into that job I decided to take the Advanced Course. I was out of practice and wasn’t feeling as confident.  But over the last year before the Master’s exam I started to feel that way again.  So it’s like anything else; you practice and build the skills. But I also think you can be an amazing blind taster, pick up a glass and say exactly what it is but not know why the wine is the way it is.  I think that could be the most important thing.

TG: What’s interesting is that I’ve asked the question, “Do you think you’re a great taster?” to practically everyone I’ve interviewed and no one has said yes.  Everyone—without exception—says that they are good tasters but have to work at it constantly—self included.

GB: That’s because we’re wrong a lot! (Laughs)

TG: True.  Last question before we talk about the sight/appearance of the wine.  How do you know if a wine is a great wine? What makes a wine great to you?

GB: Having all the elements in balance.  Having the structure, the aromatic qualities, and everything on the palate all coming together and really resonating.  I really like wines where I can see layers of flavors before I even taste the wine.

TG: It’s interesting that you use the word “see” in describing your experience of a wine.

GB: I do.  I see layers of flavors in wine.

TG: We’re going to get to that.

Tasting: Sight

TG: Now let’s talk about tasting, specifically the sight.  We can use the context of tasting for an MS-type exam setting.  When you look at wine what are you trying to do?  What are your goals?

GB: I think it depends on what I’m trying to do.  This wine (Double Bond Syrah) has a beautiful sheen to it. I’m also looking at the depth of color and concentration of color; things I can get from the wine just by looking at it. So in looking at this wine I know that it’s bright, youthful, fresh young red wine from a full-bodied grape variety.

TG: Knowing the grape variety is Syrah, do you check the color to make sure it’s appropriate for that grape?

GB: Yes, like I said there’s a sheen to it and it has a dark ruby core that fades gently to a really beautiful pinkish-purple rim.

TG: But as you look at that glass and know it’s Syrah how do you know it’s the right color for the grape? Is there a way that you check it internally against other colors?  How do you know?

GB: I don’t really know.

TG: Stop and think for a second, “this color is right for Syrah because …” How do you know it’s not Pinot Noir?

GB: (Laughs) that’s a good question. Because it’s opaque.

TG: I’m just curious because if you stop and go inside for just a second, is there a way you compare what you’re seeing in the glass right now to other wines you’ve tasted before.

GB: I’m sure that there is but I don’t know what it is.

TG: Pause for a second and see if you can figure it out.  I know what I do but we’re after your strategies.

GB: I probably flash through color memories of every Syrah I’ve ever tasted.

TG: What about colors for red wine?

GB: Yes, even colors for red wine.

TG: Think about it for a moment because if that’s what you do I’m curious to know how you do it. Are there images of colors? A color gradation? Glasses of wine?

GB: I think it’s a color gradation.

TG: Can you point to it?  Can you show me where it is? In your mind’s eye. The easy way is to try to deliberately make it wrong.  Say to yourself, “this is Pinot Noir,” and see what happens.  Usually you’ll get a strong “no” of some kind.

GB: I guess I see a color gradation right out here (points directly out in front of her face). The left side is lighter in color and right is deeper.

TG: Where is this gradation?  How far out in front of you?

GB: It’s right here (about six-eight inches directly in front of her face).

TG: How wide is it?

GB: It’s only about two inches wide.

TG: So as you look at the gradation do you then look at the glass and try to match up the color?

GB: Yes.

TG: What happens when you find the match? Does something happen?

GB: I think a little light goes off when I find the match. Wait, it’s like I see the paint strip in back of me.

TG: You mean behind you?

GB: No, it’s still in my head.

TG: So still the same dimensions?

GB: Yes.

TG: Go ahead and find the main color of the wine and try to match it to the gradation.  What happens?

GB: A little light goes off.

TG: What color is the light?

GB: its yellow (laughs). It’s like a small light bulb.

TG: Where’s the light bulb?

GB: It’s right in front of the gradation.

TG: If we’re talking about a white wine, is the color gradation in the same place or different place?

GB: Same place.

TG: Does it go light to dark, left to right like the red wine gradation?

GB: Yes.

TG: What about the yellow light? Still in the same place?

GB: Same spot.

TG: Wow. Did you know that you do that?

GB: No!

Tasting: Smell

 TG: When you first smell a glass of wine what are your goals?  What are you trying to do?

GB: Like I said, I like to see layers in the aromas of the wine.

TG: OK but before we get there, what’s important in terms of goals when smelling wine?

GB: Is the wine good or not.

TG: So you’re checking the wine for quality. For hygiene?

GB: Yes, checking to see if the wine is clean or not. But also does the wine smell good.

TG: What do you mean by “good?”

GB: Delicious.

TG: That’s pretty subjective. By delicious you mean …

GB: Like something you would really want to drink, to enjoy.

TG: Got it.  But also in terms of being a professional, what would your goals be in terms of smelling a wine.

GB: I want to make sure that it’s true to the varietal.  I think there’s a lot of wine out there that smells good and tastes delicious but it doesn’t taste like the grape should. Then you just have to assess it for whatever it is.

TG: So what could prevent a wine from tasting good or tasting like whatever the grape is?

GB: Quality of the fruit; winemaking practices …

TG: Such as …

GB: heavy oak, too long maceration on the skins giving a coarse or gritty tannic structure in a red wine. Picking fruit too soon.  Picking fruit too late.  You can really tell if the winemaker is still experimenting when you taste the wine (laughs).  I’ve never made wine but I think that as a winemaker you have to evolve in your style.  And who are you practicing on?  Us!

TG: Go ahead and smell the wine.

GB: I can actually smell it from here without lifting the glass and we’re not in a specifically neutral environment.

TG: Wow, OK, pick up your glass. I’m curious, when you first pick up the glass, where do your eyes go? Is there a place that’s consistently comfortable for you?

GB: My eyes go out and over the glass.

TG: Right, they’re pretty much center and looking out at a 45° down but over the top of the glass.

GB: Yes.

TG: Just curious, smell the wine and then move your eyes to either side.  What happens?

GB: It changes a little bit but it feels the most comfortable when my eyes are straight ahead.

TG: I notice your eyes also go up to the left briefly as well.

GB: Yes and I also look to the side a lot when I’m smelling.

TG: Do you say anything to yourself when you first start smelling the wine?  Any kind of verbal prompt?  I’m trying to figure out your sequence.

GB: I say something like, “what” or “what’s there?”

TG: And what happens after you ask that question?  You mentioned that you “see” layers of flavors. Does that happen then as in immediately? Or does something happen in between?

GB: Yes it does. It’s like a cake.

TG: If I had to be you, what would I see?  What would I experience? What does that look like?

GB: It’s not like a physical cake. It’s just brown lines like in my brain is making layers.  And then I fill them in with what I get in the wine.

TG: Is it like a wooden frame or just lines? What color of brown?  Are the lines thin or thick?

GB: Just a frame and it’s tan brown with thin lines. And it’s like a layer cake in between the lines (she motions to the layers about ½ inch apart).

TG: So it looks like the layers are only about half an inch apart. In your mind’s eye, how far away is these layers? (Gillian motions to about 10 inches right in front of her face).  How big is it?

GB: It’s about eight inches tall and it’s square.

TG: Is there a border on the square?

GB: No.

TG: Does it just fade out?

GB: Yes.

TG: What surrounds it?

GB: It’s just sort of neutral, it’s white.

TG: Just curious, what would happen if you made the square larger?  Would that make it easier for you to recognize aromas?  Try it and see what happens.

GB: I’ve never thought about expanding it but it would probably change what I’m smelling.

TG: Fair enough but let’s figure out what you do first and then come back to this. To recap, you see this square that’s about eight by eight inches. Inside the square there are layers.  What do you see inside the layers?  Colors?  Images?

GB: Brown layers with off-white in between; I fill in the layers with what I’m smelling in the wine. With this wine in the first layer I would probably have a blueberry in my head.

TG: Can you draw that for me? Motion with your hand and draw the square and show me what it’s like.

GB: It doesn’t really have a border but here’s the first layer (motions out in front of her face about 10 inches away and slightly to the right). And it’s tan brown with a thin layer of off-white or cream color in between—just like a cake.

TG: But then these layers get filled in with various things.  Does it start off blank and then you fill it in, populating it with different things you smell in the wine?

GB: Yes.

TG: That’s a pretty cool system. So as you’re smelling this wine, the Syrah, what starts to populate in the layers?

GB: I look for fruit first so at the base I would see blueberry and blackberry.

TG: Does that become an image before it goes into the layer?

GB: No.

TG: So how does that happen?  How does that get into the layer?

GB: I don’t know.

TG: Hold the glass and smell the wine for a few seconds focusing on the blueberry and blackberry.  See if you can figure it out because this is one of those things you probably never thought about or were aware of.

GB: The frame is already there and then I fill it in with an image of blueberries.

TG: In the cream-colored part?

GB: Yes.

TG: How does that happen?

GB: I just smell the wine and then it’s there.

TG: Do you say anything to yourself at that point like, “that’s blueberry.”

GB: I do and then I move on and try to build up the other layers.

TG: So you start at the bottom and build up?

GB: Yes.

TG: So as you smell the wine again what else comes up besides blueberries?

GB: Violets—crushed violet pops into my head.

TG: When you say it pops into your head does it appear in one of the layers?

GB: It came in a little higher up …

TG: Can you show me where it is? (Gillian motions out in front of her face about 10 inches away and about 10 inches off to the right of center).  Hold the image of the crushed violets for a moment.  What does that look like? Is it 2D or 3D?

GB: It’s flat and like dried crushed petals that are sitting right there.

TG: Once you see that image does it go into the second layer?  What happens then?

GB: It actually moved up another layer because it’s more of a top note.

TG: I was just going to ask if there’s some kind of hierarchy in terms of the position in the frame of the image of the aroma as it relates to the specific kind of aroma.

GB: Yes so floral being a more delicate aroma is higher up.

TG: As you think about this square, what would be at the top?

GB: Flowers.  I would put all the fruits at the base.

TG: Where would the oak go?

GB: The oak would be somewhere right above the base, above the fruit.

TG: Let’s finish the wine.  What else do you smell?

GB: Black pepper.

TG: Interesting; your eyes first went here (out front and slightly up) and then here (to the right where the layers are. Does the image first pop up here in front and then move to the layers? Is that what happened with the violets?

GB: Yes.

TG: Did you also say to yourself, “black pepper?”

GB: Yes.

TG: Is the black pepper above the fruit?

GB: Yes and it’s in the middle between the fruit and the violets.

TG: What else do you smell?

GB: Tobacco.

TG: You did the same thing with your eyes so that seems to be your system: smell the wine and the image pops up here in front and then moves into one of the layers.  Is the image of tobacco flat and two dimensional?

GB: Yes.

TG: Is there a shape to the picture of the tobacco?

GB: It’s round.

TG: Where does it go in the grid?

GB: It’s in the middle; it’s where I see warmth.

TG: What do you mean by warmth?

GB: I consider tobacco to be a warming aroma.

TG: Does warming mean heat or warm feeling or …

GB: It’s warm feeling; it’s where the sensual part gets filled in.

TG: Say more about that.

GB: Tobacco kind of strikes a sensual chord inside of you. You smell the wine and then think that at the base there’s this fresh vibrant fruit–so you see it at the base layer of the “cake.” In the middle is where all the warm sensual things are like oak, cedar, tobacco leaf, and coffee. At the top is where the floral and black pepper will come into play.

TG: Smell the wine again and check for any earthiness.  I’m not sure if there’s any earthiness but go ahead and check for it.

GB: There is a faint stony mineral component.  I know this vineyard.

TG: So knowing that do you get a picture of the vineyard? If so, where is it?

GB: It came up all over.

TG: Like you’re standing in the vineyard.

GB: Yes and I’m actually there right now looking at the soil. It’s very chalky and stony.

TG: Where in your “layers” does the earthiness go?

GB: It’s between the warm central part and the fruit probably because it’s the earth component and it holds everything else up.

TG: Just curious, hold it there underneath the fruit for a few moments and see if it feels right. What happens?

GB: No, it’s above the fruit.

TG: OK but what is the earth like? A picture or a texture?

GB: It’s the crushed stony soil that I see.

TG: Like a picture of the wine.

GB: Yes, this it’s literally a picture of the wine.

TG: Smell the wine one last time and see if there’s anything else.

GB: There’s vanilla; it looks like a vanilla bean suspended in air.

TG: Where does it live in the layers?

GB: It’s also in the warm layer with the tobacco.

TG: Having said all that, are there any parts of the “layer” cake that are left blank for this wine?

GB: From an aromatic stand point yes, but it will complete itself when I taste the wine.

TG: Got it.  Last question about this section: how do you know when you’re finished smelling the wine and it’s time to taste it?

GB: I feel like I can always come back so I don’t ever feel like I’m “done.”

TG: Back to your layers.  Is the set up for the layers different with each wine the same?

GB: Yes.

TG: Are the layers something you’re consciously aware of what a picture of a wine actually looks like? In other words, do you have an idea of what the layers for an Alsace Riesling look like compared to those for a Rioja Gran Reserva?

GB: Yes.

TG: Have you ever thought about practicing tasting by practicing with your layers and not tasting?

GB: No but I think it would be very interesting to do. I’ve never verbalized this before so it’s hard to explain.  At the same time it’s something that I would want to develop further.

It’s funny that you mention the eye thing.  When I took the theory exam Fred (Dame) said that I kept looking up—and that’s where I kept getting my answers from.

TG: Up and to the right or left?

GB: Just generally up.

Tasting Palate

TG: Now that you’ve smelled the wine you have a pretty good idea of what it’s about.  When you finally taste the wine what are you trying to do?  What are your goals when you taste vs. smell?

GB: I think about whether everything that was pleasing aromatically is there on the palate. Does the palate match the texture in terms of what I thought it would be visually?  When I think of texture I think of things like sweaters or wooly blankets.

TG: I have a feeling we’ll get back to that when we talk about calibrating the structure of the wine.  But go ahead and taste the wine and I’ll so as well.  First, when you taste the wine do you say something to yourself like you do when you first smell the wine? Or do you bring the layers back in?  What happens?

GB: I bring the layers back in but now they’ve gone this way, 90 degrees to the right. They’re still in layers but now it’s more what about the texture, the alcohol and the acidity are like.

TG: So do you literally ask yourself, “What’s the texture like?” or “what’s the acidity like?”  Things like that?

GB: That’s when I think of a sweater or a piece of chalk.

TG: So taste the wine again.  How would you describe the texture? What’s it like?

GB: It starts off kind of velvety.

TG: How do you represent that?

GB: A kind of red velvet top or something like that.

TG: Where is that?

GB: It’s here (directly in front about eye level).

TG: Is it an actual picture of it?

GB: No, it’s more like the material.

TG: Does it change as the finish goes on?

GB: It changes to a more slightly chalky feeling.

TG: After you get the chalky taste/feeling what happens to the material?  Does it go away?

GB: Yes.

TG: How is the chalk represented?

GB: It’s like crushed white chalk suspended in the air.

TG: What about the layers?  Do they change if the intensity of the aromas change on the palate?  Or do they stay the same?

GB: They stay in the same place.

TG: Let’s talk about structure; the alcohol, acid and tannin. How do you calibrate the structure in a wine, the difference between medium and medium-plus acid, for instance.

GB: The tannin is medium-plus.

TG: How do you know it’s not medium?

GB: Because it’s slightly elevated; medium would be right here (points out in front of her).

TG: What’s right there?

GB: Medium.

TG: Where’s low? (She points down lower) Where’s high? (She points higher but in line with where medium and low are). Aha! So there’s a scale of sorts.

GB: Yes, there’s a visual scale of sorts.

TG: What does the scale look like?  Does it look like a ruler?  Like a dial?

GB: It looks like hash marks.

TG: It seems like they’re right out in front of you in the center about 15 inches away; medium is right at eye level with “high” up higher and low below eye level.  How wide are the hash marks?

GB: About 4-5 inches wide.

TG: Are the marks on a ruler?

GB: No, they’re suspended in space.

TG: How do you use them to calibrate?  Is there a button that moves?

GB: No, my eyes move up and down them.  So if I’m tasting a wine that has medium-plus tannin my eyes start at medium and then move up.

TG: So there’s some kind of marker for medium-plus? Or does it light up someway so you know?  I’m trying to figure out how you do it.

GB: Not sure.

TG.  Try this: taste the wine and try to make the tannin medium or medium-minus.  What happens?

GB: The hash mark pops up (laughs).

TG: Fair enough. What about acidity?  Do you calibrate it the same way as tannin?

GB: No and this is so hard because I’ve never thought about it.

TG: Not a surprise given that you do it so fast and for so long that you’re not aware of how you actually do it. Try doing it the same way as tannin and see what happens.  If it’s totally off your brain will show you how you actually do it rather quickly.

GB: The acid part is more round like a circular scale.

TG: Where is it?

GB: Right in front about a foot away. It’s about the size of a basketball.

TG: How does it work in terms of low, medium and high? Where is low acid on the circle?

GB: Low is right in the center and high is on the outside.  Medium-plus is close to the outside.

TG: So how do you calibrate a wine?  Are there concentric circles?  Do the inner circles move? How does it work?

GB: It’s kind of like a target.

TG: Are there different colors?

GB: No, it’s all blue—like peacock blue.

TG: OK but how are you absolutely sure that a wine is medium-plus acidity and not medium? How do you know?

GB: I think I start in the center and then move out as the acidity elevates.

TG: As the acidity elevates do the different concentric circles light up?  What happens?

GB: Yes, they light up and get more intense in color.

TG: Taste the wine again and let’s figure out what you do for alcohol. First, how much alcohol do you get in the wine?

GB: Medium-plus.

TG: Once again I have to ask, how do you know it’s not medium?  Do you use the hash marks or the concentric circles? What do you do?

GB: I use the gradations—the hash marks.

TG: Do they look the same as the tannin hash marks?

GB: Yes.

TG: So medium is straight out in front of you, “high” is up higher and “low” is lower?

GB: Yes.

TG: How about the length of the finish?  How do you calibrate that?

GB: The finish is more like a runway and you’re on it and seeing how far you’re going on it.

TG: So if it’s a really short finish, what’s that look like?

GB: It’s right in front of me and stopped.

TG: Where’s a medium finish?

GB: Several feet out in front of me.

TG: And a long finish?

GB: A long finish really doesn’t have an end. It goes all the way to a vanishing point.  I like that.

TG: Great.  One more thing: back to the layers.  If a flavor really changes from the nose to the palate, what happens to it in the layers?  For instance, if there’s more red fruit on the palate vs. the nose do the layers change to reflect that?  What happens?

GB: I think I add layers or even take away in some cases.

TG: One more question about the layers; if you’re getting blackberry in the wine is there literally an image of blackberries in one of the layers? Or is it 3D where you could reach out and grab the blackberries?

GB: I could reach out.

TG: Once it’s time to identify the wine what do you do? Do you bring the layers back and take a look at them again?

GB: In an exam situation structure seems to come to me first. I’m not sure if that’s because I like to get the structure out of the way to make room for the layers or if it’s because that’s how I approach a wine.  I think it’s a little bit of both.  Structure as in alcohol, acid, tannin, body and finish come first for me.

TG: We didn’t talk about body.  How do you calibrate something like light-bodied vs. full-bodied?

GB: I guess it’s a circle.

TG: So if it’s something light-bodied like a glass of Champagne, what’s that like?

GB: It would be a bright circle.

TG: What about something like a Chardonnay?

GB: Yellow.

TG: And this Syrah?

GB: It’s almost purple-black.

TG: What about something that’s medium-bodied?

GB: More red.

TG: It seems like this circle is right out in front of your face.

GB: Yes.

TG: What’s interesting to me is that you use all these structural visual devices, if you want to call them that, really quickly and unconsciously so you probably aren’t aware of using them at all.

GB: Yes and maybe it’s because I want to get structure out of the way so I can rearrange all the furniture if I need to.

TG: Meaning the layers?

GB: Yes.

TG: But do they stay relatively static? Or do things change a lot?

GB: It can change lot because the palate of this wine is very different from the nose.

TG: With the layers, are they all the same width? Or if something is really dominant, is it wider than the other layers?

GB:  If something is really dominant it’s almost like the base of a pyramid.  It’s wider.

TG: Did you know you did any of this?

GB: I knew about the layers because it’s how I “see” wine.

TG: It might be interesting to see if somehow, either visually or on paper, you could create different layers for all the classic grapes and wines.

GB: That would be really interesting.

TG: I say that because as time goes on I tell students that they first have to figure out what strategies they use internally and then they need to practice these strategies in terms of memory but without actually tasting wine.

One more thing; submodalities.  Let’s play with the structural elements of your layers to see if and how they can change your experience of the wine.  So let’s try a few things.  First, what happens if you smell and taste the wine and then move the layers across the room and make them small?

GB: It makes the wine a little fainter. It’s like you’re trying to distance something that’s internal.

TG: Now reset and then make the layers huge—the size of a billboard.  What happens?

GB: The wine expands and gets much more intense.

TG: Does it get harder to pick out the individual things?

GB: Yes! Much harder.

TG: Reset and put the layers back.  Now make the image of the layers black and white.  What happens?

GB: The wine becomes much more muted.

TG: OK, reset again.  Now take the layers and put them over to the left side.  What happens then?

GB: More muted.

TG: Put it back where it belongs and leave it!  Last thing: how do you know when you’re done tasting a wine?

GB: That’s interesting because I’m still tasting this wine as we speak. I guess if I’m taking notes I’ve said everything I wanted to say.  I guess that’s the point of completion.

TG: Thanks!  This has been a lot of fun.

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