In 1987 the first Advanced Course and Master’s Exam were conducted in the U.S. in Monterey, California. That year Madeline Triffon was one of five candidates who passed the Advanced Exam only to take the Master’s Examination the very next day. She alone passed all three parts of the Master’s Exam and in doing so became the first American woman to become a Master Sommelier as well as the first ever to win the Krug Cup.
In 1999 Santé Magazine named Madeline their Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year. Restaurant Hospitality awarded her their Vanguard Award in 2002 for industry leadership and vision. In 2008, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs awarded her their Golden Goblet Award for “Women Who Inspire.” Cheers Magazine gave Madeline their Award for Beverage Excellence in 2011. In 2012 Champagne Krug awarded her a Lifetime Achievement Award for exceptional achievement in wine service, education and hospitality.
Over the last 30 years Madeline has directed wine programs and events in the Metro Detroit area. In 2011 she joined Plum Market, a full-service grocery retailer with stores in Southeastern Michigan and Metro Chicago. She directs wine tasting events, hand selects wines for in-store and online retail sales, and serves as a corporate wine educator.
Madeline is also a Chairman Emeritus of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, and has also served as Scholarship Chair. She continues to mentor dozens of service professionals and enjoys nothing more than watching them grow and excel. I sat down with her during last May’s Master’s Exam in Aspen. We tasted the 2010 RDV Lost Mountain Cabernet from Virginia and used Riedel Vinum Cabernet/Bordeaux glasses. I started the conversation by asking about her experience taking the first ever Advanced and Master’s exams given in the U.S.
Part I: Exams
TG: When did you take the Intro Course?
MT: I never took the Intro Course because there was no Intro Course given at the time. I took the Advanced Course in the spring of 1987.
TG: How did you find out about the MS program?
MT: I found out about it through David O’Connor (MS). I was working for what was known at the time as Westin International Hotels. David was an MS working at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. I was told that he had this credential. I didn’t know much about it. I also participated in two tastings in Chicago at the National Restaurant Show where I met Fred Dame (MS). Fred called me afterwards and invited me to take the Master’s Exam in the spring of 1987.
TG: That was in Monterey?
TG: What did you know about the curriculum in terms of what to study or how to study?
MT: Nothing. I was told I’d be tested on blind tasting, theory, and service, and that the curriculum was everything. It didn’t rock me that much because I had been working at a formal white-table cloth restaurant for ten years. The thing that did rock me a little was that I had never blind tasted before other than at two SOPEXA competitions in ’85 and ’86. So I taught myself how to blind taste “inside out”. I had been a buyer at that point for a while and knew I was going to have to answer the question, “what is this?” as opposed to the question, “is this good wine?” So I just practiced it alone in my subconscious and out loud. But I had tasted a lot of wine by then and I was working at the London Chop House at the time where we had a great cellar. So I had everything accessible to me but what I had never done was ask the question, “What is this?” It was kind of like turning myself inside out but I imagined the exam a lot in my mind.
TG: When you say “imagined yourself” what do you mean? You saw yourself tasting or doing service?
MT: I never pictured myself doing service. What I did for the service is figure that I would just do what I did on the job. Because I knew that the way I practiced service was correct and polished because I was lucky to have learned from terrific career service professionals. As for as theory goes, I basically memorized the three encyclopedias accessible to me at the time, Sotheby’s, Hugh Johnson, and Frank Schoonmaker. But I had also been using them all along. As far as the blind tasting goes, I just imagined myself walking into this room and that there were going to be British Masters there. I didn’t even know if I would be sitting or standing. But I imagined picking up a wine that I was familiar with and that I could channel it even while not knowing what it was.
TG: This was in March of 1987?
MT: Right and I had taken the SOPEXA competitions the two years before and had done well at both of them.
TG: Was this the Advanced or the Master’s exam?
MT: Both. Fred called up 20 of us and when he called me he said, “You can do this.” I laughed out loud and said, “sure, why not.” I put the phone down and said, “Oh my God, what did I just do?” But I always knew with certainty that I couldn’t say no to a challenge because that would be a lack of courage. Evan (Goldstein) remembers it differently. He remembers calling me and saying, “I’ll do it if you do it.” But I know I said yes before Evan called. When Fred called me I said, “Sure.”
Then I literally had three weeks to prepare before I went out to Monterey. I went to the owner of the London Chop House and asked if I could take time to prepare for the exam. He said yes. He was very generous and fond of me and he let me go up to his office and I studied there for two weeks solid prior to taking the exam.
TG: Maybe that’s the way to do it (laughs). Maybe just give yourself a month and just do it.
MT: I remember the whole thing clearly because everything in my experience—especially the two competitions—came into play. I was very jihad-focused. I’ve always been the type that if I was going to do something, I would almost kill myself in doing it (laughs). But I never really cared if I succeeded or not. For me the punch line was did I do my level best. Could I face anybody and say I did my best whether it was messy or ugly or successful. For me it absolutely had to be a personal best.
TG: What was the exam like? Was there a class beforehand?
MT: There was a class. It was three days long with the Advanced exam at the end of it. Again there were 20 of us including Wayne Belding, Nunzio Alioto, Evan Goldstein, Fran Kysela, and Tony Taylor. I also remember we were in the basement of the Monterey Plaza Hotel. There were lectures with intermittent tastings. The instructors were Ronn Wiegand, David O’Connor, Fred Dame, John Cleavely from Clicquot, and Val Brown. There was also Brian Smith, a great service guy who has since died. He was legendary because he had gotten the highest score on the service exam ever. Of course Brian Julyan and Barry Larvin were there too.
I remember they asked us if anyone wanted to walk through decanting. I was decanting every day on the job so I raised my hand. I wasn’t the only woman in the class; I think there were two or three others. Otherwise I just remember spending every waking moment studying with no expectation of anything. But I parked my fear like it was white noise. When I speak to candidates today I’m speaking from that base of experience. I think it applies to them too.
Twenty of us took the Advanced exam and five of us passed and then took the Master Sommelier exam the next day. The end of it was like the Miss America contest. The results were announced during the Monterey Wine Festival and there were 200 people in the audience. Barry Larvin announced the five of us who sat the Master’s exam and everyone passed two out of the three parts. I was the last one he announced and I had passed all three parts. He said, “America has its first lady Master Sommelier.” I remember going up to the podium and making some comments, and the Brits were so kind. They were all right behind me and one of them said, “Don’t worry, we’re right here.” Barry Larvin stayed with me during every interview. It was very cool.
TG: So what was it like to not only get the news that you passed, but that you passed all three parts of the exam? What did that mean to you?
MT: It wasn’t a mental concept. The only thing I can compare it to is the Navy SEAL part of Zero Dark Thirty.
TG: So you were on a mission and just doing your job?
MT: Right, I was just doing my job and I wasn’t concerned with the results. It wasn’t like a competition against the others. We were all studying together in our hotel rooms and sleeping four hours a night. It was very much team prep and then personal best. It was very cool because three of the others passed within the next year or two. Evan and Nunzio passed that fall in London and Fran (Kysela) passed within a year.
TG: That’s pretty legendary stuff.
MT: It was an extraordinary time and I was with an extraordinary group of people. Today I get slightly annoyed when I hear people saying the exam was easier then. We were told nothing in advance—not about the exam, what was expected, or what we were going to do. It was jumping into the unknown.
TG: At least when I started in March of 1990 there was an Introductory Course. I think it was the second one ever given in the U.S. and it was also in Monterey. At least I had an idea about the curriculum. I had also talked to people who had gone through it.
MT: The other thing I get annoyed at when I talk to students today is when I hear complaints about not being in a major market and not having mentors accessible. I was in Detroit at the time and there was no one to coach or mentor me. But the job taught me, the wine taught me, the guests taught me, and I was committed.
TG: I have to say that the title and credential was intended for someone like you at the time who was working in a top restaurant like the London Chop House and doing fine dining. You weren’t working for a distributor or a winery, you were a working sommelier on the floor of a top restaurant.
MT: Right and I didn’t pull back from the challenge and gave it 150%. Could I have not made it? Absolutely but I was positioned properly and I didn’t betray the opportunity. There was an innocence and a purity at that time for all of us and I’ll never forget it–and that actually extended for a really long time.
TG: Now that we’re actually to tasting the wine what are your goals? What are you trying to do? It seems like for you the overall act of tasting has two parts: first, perceiving what you consider to be the “soul” of the wine as it reveals itself to you. Second, at some point you engage and start analyzing the wine.
MT: Yes, I’m going to be more “mental” about the wine on the palate. To me the number 75% comes up a lot as in at least 75% of the wine is the nose. The palate is either going to confirm the nose or expand it or even explode it—or disappoint and flatten it. It’s almost like opening the door to a room and I don’t know what’s going to be inside. So I get myself even more quiet internally when I taste the wine because I’m about to “see” the surprise. But I always make it a point of smelling the wine again just to get that impression (she smells and tastes the wine). I like it. It tastes good but it’s a little bit of a surprise to me because it’s higher-toned and has more fruit than I thought it would have. There’s also more vibrant acidity than I thought it would have and the alcohol is not bothersome. It’s delicious–and a surprise. There’s actually a disconnect between the nose and the palate which I’m happy to say is not a negative thing. It’s telling me that the wine is complex and age-worthy. The finish is more textural than it is flavor-wise so it’s a bit short—which also indicates youth to me. The wine is also mouthwatering and I didn’t expect that! All of which means the wine will be good at the table.
But I’m also starting to get a sense of what you want. My brain has learned that I get really pissed at it if it engages when I don’t want it to. So it’s dipping in and out and defining things I want to know intellectually. Things like the alcohol is more balanced on the palate, there’s more red fruit, mouthwatering acidity, and the finish is slightly short which bodes well for the long term. The oak is also more apparent on the nose than the palate and I want to taste it again. It’s good wine. It doesn’t scream its grape variety which I also like. I’ve also just realized something that I’ve never thought of before. When I taste I open my eyes.
TG: So when you open your eyes you’re engaging?
TG: You’re also looking up and to the left which is visual memory for most people. I would hazard a guess that you have a pretty good impression of everything you’ve smelled and then visually confirm it when you taste the wine.
MT: Going back to the wine again it’s almost like it’s two entities; the nose is distinctly different from the palate. But it doesn’t make me dislike the wine–it makes me intrigued. I would want to taste the wine again tomorrow to see what it does. But again I’m realizing that when I actually taste the wine, that’s when my professional self kicks in.
TG: What’s interesting to me is that there is a very selfish part of you in terms of what you call perceiving the soul of the wine and doing it justice. That seems to be mission one for you. After that Madeline the professional taster takes over and you engage your brain to analyze the wine in case you have to write a shelf talker or something like that.
MT: Yes but the shelf talker would be like a separate third part. At this point I haven’t even gone there yet. When I finally taste the wine there’s a part of me that I’m unleashing in a way to see if the palate matches the nose. I’m actually perceiving the surprise of it and then defining it.
TG: How do you get your mind not to do that in the beginning? How do you tell it to stop?
MT: I don’t; it’s just practice.
TG: So if something starts up you just silence it?
MT: If it starts going I ignore it completely. Not easy to do but that’s why I keep using the words practice and meditative. It may not be true for someone else but for me meditation is very much about practice. It’s sitting and sitting and sitting until it gets to the point that the organism—no matter how rogue it may be—knows that it’s inevitable so it may as well cooperate (laughs).
TG: When you taste the wine and engage are you then going through everything you had initial impressions of? Are you confirming everything? Or is confirming everything even important?
MT: If I’m watching myself from the outside in, I’m not imposing anything on the wine. I’m more like a silent witness to the wine. But there’s no real check list.
TG: So there’s no grid?
TG: I think that may be a part of why you are so different from practically everyone else I’ve interviewed. I learned to taste with an early form of the grid and it’s how I’m hard-wired.
MT: For me it’s more like there’s a silence and a blank canvas. There are images that may come into focus but I’m not consciously looking for anything and I’m not searching for anything either.
TG: So again you don’t have the grid as some kind of pre-program?
MT: Not at all.
TG: That makes you different from the rest of us because most of us learned to taste with the grid and we’re very visual people. For me the grid always lives in the background and if needed I can make it enormous like a billboard.
MT: For me not at all. When I took the Master’s exam it was clear to me then and for several years after that the exam more than anything measured the depth of someone’s experience. I remember one of the Brits telling me why we blind taste. He told me that we don’t blind taste because it’s a party trick, we blind taste because it’s the only way to judge someone’s experience accurately because they can bullshit us. That resonated with me because I successfully passed the blind tasting exam that measured my experience. To a degree I’m somewhat unconvinced of what we do now in terms of teaching people how to judge quality. I think that’s always been a problem with the grid. But as for this wine, it’s funny because now as I’m thinking about it I’m getting a picture of it.
TG: What’s the picture like? How big is it?
MT: The picture is pretty big (motions out in front of her).
TG: It’s right out in front of you about arm’s length away and seems to be about 2.5 x 3 feet in size.
MT: As much as the wine has been round now it’s more linear. Now when I step back and engage my professional self the wine is more linear. I usually see it almost like a wave.
TG: In following your gestures it’s like a wave that goes slightly up in the middle. Is that the mid-palate?
TG: So is that a shape? Does the shape have dimension? Or is it just a line?
MT: It’s just a line.
TG: Does the line have color to it?
TG: How would the shape be different for a Mosel Kabinett Riesling?
MT: I think with the Riesling it would be a bit smaller—and it would be translucent, sharp, and white.
TG: Does the line sit on a background or is it suspended in space?
MT: It’s just a line suspended in space.
TG: Is there color to it?
MT: There’s no color to the line. But it has a beginning, a progression, and an end to it.
TG: Does a long finish in the wine make the line go farther off to your right vs. a shorter finish?
TG: When do you make the shape?
MT: After I physically taste the wine I step back and the shape makes itself.
TG: So it becomes almost like a palate profile of the wine.
MT: Yes and at that point I either literally get up from tasting or at least mentally pull back from the wine. So initially what I’m doing is very intimate and then the whole process becomes more detached. But I may make the decision to go back to the wine after an hour or even the next day to check myself. I always want to know if I did the wine justice and do I still agree with what I perceived at the time
TG: Before you said when you were smelling the wine for the first time you had all these gentle images. When you detach what happens to all those images? Any change?
MT: The whole thing stays and it’s very much like meeting people for me. With people the older I get the more I approach them with as little preconception as I possibly can. Because even though I know I can recognize quality in people I’ve learned that sometimes I’m wrong. The whole tasting process mirrors my getting to know someone in either a short or a long period of time. In the beginning I ask myself if I’m being a silent witness of this person and am I giving them their due–or am I imposing anything on them.
TG: But do the images become more distinct when you taste the wine? And are the images still there after the shape appears?
MT: Everything is there.
TG: Got it. At this point I have two more questions for you. The first has to do with calibrating structure. Think about the difference between medium and medium-plus acid. How are you able to calibrate the difference between the two accurately? How do you know?
MT: I can feel it and I trust my perception of it.
TG: Does it have a visual aspect to it? When you think about medium vs. medium-plus acid, how do you know the difference between the two?
MT: I actually have to look through everything that’s around it especially if it’s something like Riesling that has residual sugar in it. Sometimes I have to work hard to find the acidity and make sure that I’m perceiving it correctly—and that I’m not distracted or faked out by the other things in the wine.
TG: Is there a way that you visually calibrate it?
MT: I don’t know if I see it but I definitely feel it.
TG: Again this may be one of those “I do it so fast that I don’t know what I’m doing” things.
MT: I don’t know what I do in this case.
TG: With the alcohol level think about vodka for over-the-top high alcohol and then Moscato di Asti at the other end with low alcohol; how do you represent those extremes in terms of the level of alcohol? What’s that like for you?
MT: It’s like the spine thing with vodka and with the Moscato it’s almost hollow. It’s like my chest is empty.
TG: So with the Moscato your chest is empty; is it full with the vodka?
MT: Yes, it’s like the backbone thing.
TG: Does the backbone thing go away with the Moscato?
MT: Yes (laughs).
TG: What about acidity? Is it the same kind of thing?
MT: It’s a spine thing again.
TG: Is the spine thing behind you or in you?
MT: Actually with acidity it’s in my mouth. For a wine like Hermitage Blanc with less acidity it’s almost too round and soft vs. a dry Riesling with much higher acid which visually is more linear.
TG: So a round shape vs. a linear shape? Does the shape stretch out with a high acid wine?
TG: What about tannin? Think about Nouveau Beaujolais vs. Barolo. How does that work?
MT: There’s a drying aspect in terms of how it feels and even a pain aspect if the tannin is really high.
TG: True but there are degrees of being unpleasant.
MT: With tannin more than anything else it’s somewhat of a mental concept. Tannin is critical to the structure of the wine and without it the wine can’t play on the team. If the tannin is deficient the wine is not getting into the game, so to speak. So to me tannin is a judgment call to some degree.
TG: So you don’t get a visual thing for it like acidity and alcohol?
MT: I guess it’s visual. If I imagine Barolo vs. Gamay there’s an edgy aspect to the Barolo that’s angular and not particularly friendly. Again, it’s angular and a little bit boxy with sharp edges. But at the same time as it’s Barolo it’s correct and it’s good.
TG: How would you know it’s correct and good? Does that come from theory and previous experience?
MT: Yes, the whole process.
TG: What does the Gamay look like?
MT: It looks like it almost lacks character (laughs). It’s soft, round, and cushy—even lumpy.
TG: Last question: how do you know when you’re done tasting a wine? How do you know when you’re finished?
MT: I guess it’s like knowing a person in that you’re never really done. There’s definitely a time factor involved because there are instances when I have all the time in the world and keep sitting with the wine. But then there are other times where the wine flattens out and doesn’t want to talk to me anymore in which case I’m done. There are also times when I flatten out and am not getting anything else in the wine which case I’m also done. With this wine (the RDV), I feel like I’ve given the wine its due even though it’s got enough depth to keep going indefinitely. But I’m done based on the time factor being imposed on me. What makes me sad sometimes is that I don’t have enough time to really give the wine its due. It’s like I can’t give someone their due because of whatever situation I’m in. That’s why I often re-taste and contemplate my notes.
TG: So from you’re notes you’re trying to bring up the wine again and re-experience it?
MT: Yes, I’m trying to re-experience it and then the question is still, “Is this a good wine and will it make the cut for whatever list I’m working on?” That could be a list of three wines or a 500 entry list I’m working on. So when I’m looking at my notes for a specific wine I’m trying to conjure it up and bring back the experience of it. I’m also asking myself if my quality call on it still works in the context of whatever the need is at the moment. Is the wine the right for the job? It may be a wonderful wine but not appropriate for whatever the need is in that moment.
TG: One more question: what advice do you have for students preparing for exams?
MT: The more time goes on the more I know to my bones that the most important thing people taking the Master Sommelier exams have to do is practice—and with like-minded people. You can’t hang out with people whose intent doesn’t match yours. But there are also times when you’re actually required to be selfish because you’re serving your higher self and a higher purpose.
TG: Can you say more about that? In terms of studying for the exams, what does higher purpose mean?
MT: Although it’s different for everybody, when you’re studying for exams you’re sacrificing countless hours and you’re also asking the people that love you to put up with you. You have to ask yourself if the end game is worth it. If you decide it is then you owe it to yourself to be as cold-blooded and analytical about the entire process as you can. You need to be brutally honest about yourself. If you’re going to go through the exams you have to be prepared to do it even on a bad day. I tell candidates all the time that the exams are not a game where you play to your strengths. The Master Sommelier exam is an acid test to see if the weakest part of you is good enough. If you can’t be brutally honest about your weaknesses, then don’t do it. At the end of the day you have to be surgical about the journey you’re going on. Whether you’re in Las Vegas or in Michigan or Iowa or where ever you are, it doesn’t matter. Is it doable? Absolutely. But are you willing to do whatever it takes? Only you know that.
A candidate preparing for a tasting exam also has to know how to function under that particular kind of pressure. You have to make it harder on yourself than it will be when you step into the exam room. My advice to people who are going through blind tastings is this: if you’re going to invest a lot of time, money, and everything else, make sure you’re picking the right people to taste with. Because in the end it’s just you and the wine. The only thing that’s going to get you through is relentless practice with great wine and people who are like-minded and situations that serve your best interests. Because at the end of the day there are no guarantees and we both know people who are spectacular tasters but don’t have the M.S. credential.
TG: Thanks, Maddie, this has been fantastic. Much appreciated.
TG: Now we’ll talk about your strategies for smelling wine. First question is when you’re smelling wine, what are your goals? What are you trying to do?
MT: First of all I want to be sure that I can perceive it clearly. My subconscious concern is always how well I’m able to smell wine on a given day. I want to perceive the wine clearly because I know smelling is at least 75% of my being able to answer the quality question. So I’m always conscious of myself as a tasting tool. I look at myself dispassionately when it comes to this as far as keeping in condition where I’m fit to be able to perceive the wine clearly and fairly.
TG: It seems like it all goes back to the beginning for you which is asking if the wine is good or not.
TG: So the whole purpose of tasting for you is to be able to assess quality and answer the question of whether or not the wine is good and of quality. True?
MT: Yes, that’s the question. But also, am I in good enough shape in this moment to be able to recognize the wine for what it is?
TG: Show me what you do when you smell.
MT: First, I never stand when I’m tasting. But I do swirl the glass before smelling the wine.
TG: Could you hold your stance for just a second. What’s important here is that we learn what I call your glassware stance. From what I can initially see, you put your nose all the way into the glass and your mouth is closed; what I call passive inhalation which is smelling just through the nose. You also smell with your eyes closed.
TG: But I’m curious, when you open your eyes where are you looking?
MT: I don’t open my eyes until I pull the wine away.
TG: But try smelling the wine again and after a moment—without pulling the glass away or moving your head—open your eyes and see where you’re looking.
TG: In watching you, and you’re opening your eyes now … you’re looking directly out in front and slightly down. Even with your eyes are closed you position your head pretty far down when you smell wine. Just curious, let’s try something. Go ahead and smell the wine again and keep your eyes closed. Then with your eyes still closed move your eyes as far up in their sockets as possible. When you do that what happens to your ability to smell?
MT: The wine becomes more high toned.
TG: It changes?
MT: Yes and more alcoholic too.
TG: For many people—and usually they smell wine with their eyes open—when they move their eyes up as far as possible their sense of smell either diminishes or disappears entirely. I think it has to do with eye positions and brain function in terms of perception and memory. But in watching you, your head and torso are really far down when you smell the glass and your eyes are closed. Does this allow you to shut the world out?
TG: You do that about as well as anyone I’ve seen before.
MT: I’ve done it intentionally for decades.
TG: Not only that but you also go into your zone very easily. When you hold the glass and put your head down it’s probably a very comfortable position to be in. By the way, we tend to look down–either down-center or down-left–when we talk to ourselves.
MT: It has to do with feelings too. I feel like I have a deep responsibility—whether it’s a second or five seconds—that it’s just me and the wine.
TG: How do you do that? As far as I can tell it has to do with closing your eyes, going inside, and then what else?
MT: Paying attention.
TG: What’s that like? How would I do that?
MT: It feels nice (laughs). It’s very private.
TG: But if I had to be you what would I do? Would I say anything to myself? Feel a certain way?
MT: I’m aware.
TG: What does that mean? How would I do the same thing?
MT: I’ve practiced it for many years. I had to practice it because I was always in situations where people were talking to me or I had to be somewhere in ten seconds and I had to make a decision for a direct import or was in front of an owner who was pissed off or whatever. So at that moment I had to give the wine its due. I owed the wine my attention and my correct call on it.
TG: If I try to be you I get a sense of making everything really small, compact, and right out in front of me.
MT: It’s not like that. It actually feels like I’m in a quiet, peaceful place.
TG: What’s the place look like? Are you somewhere outside? Inside?
MT: I’m inside of myself or a room and it’s very peaceful and quiet—it’s just me and the wine.
TG: If I do that it’s like I’m in a cave with very still water and it’s absolutely silent—so I can shut everything out.
MT: I like it a lot—it feels nice. It’s very quiet and it’s just me and the wine. It’s silent and dark but not ominous at all. I can see shapes.
TG: Just curious, do you go into that place to do anything else?
MT: Yes, I meditate with regularity. I can’t imagine not meditating. I don’t leave my house without meditating. It’s dangerous (laughs).
TG: For us?
MT: No, for me. It isn’t even an issue of the result of the meditation, it’s an issue of the intent to make an effort to still the mind. It’s almost a protection because otherwise what I’ve experienced is that I’m a magnet for difficulty and things going wrong. But if I’ve done my job, sat, and made an attempt, everything changes.
TG: Got it.
MT: For me tasting wine is an extension of that. I really feel like tasting is a discipline, even if meditation didn’t exist for me. I think that’s because I was raised with a sense of duty, being true to your highest self. I think that as someone who meditates, it’s connected to that.
TG: But you seem to be able to connect to that place and get into your zone really quickly and probably as a result of meditating. Maybe a reason why many people struggle in terms of their concentration with tasting is because they don’t meditate or do something similar to shut the world out.
MT: Maybe it’s also that they don’t want to. You have to want to do it. I’m very non-judgmental about this but really want to do that for myself. Because when there’s too much chatter and too much of what I call the horizontal plane it’s very disturbing to me. I get anxious and I can’t see Waldo—as in what’s true and real.
TG: It seems like it’s not a matter of being right. It’s literally just the practice of doing it.
MT: That’s very perceptive and I agree. For me it’s almost like the zero-dark-30 thing. It really is. They (soldiers) don’t know if they’re coming back but they practice their butts off and they give it 150%–and they are aware. They also know they have to play their part in the end game and probably will never get credit for it. I love soldiers because I was raised by an officer and I come from that ethic. If I were to say there’s one ethic that would be it for me.
TG: Great stuff. Back to smelling the wine. Once you’ve shut the world out what do you do next? What happens? Do you look somewhere else?
MT: I don’t look for anything, I perceive and discover. This is something else I have to tell you because it’s not like I’m looking for the fruit, the wood etc. I’m not necessarily looking for anything.
TG: What are you trying to do?
MT: I’m trying to be a witness to the wine.
TG: But at the same time if you’re practicing blind tasting the grid has to be important.
TG: So it’s like two things are going on at the same time.
MT: I practice the grid but I really dislike blind tasting for myself because I had to learn to do it far too late in the game. I had to learn the grid in isolation ten years after I’d been in the business tasting wine and buying at a high level. It was like skinning a cat—very uncomfortable for me.
TG: So it’s like you had to take a really intuitive way of tasting and …
MT: Had to turn it inside out.
TG: And force it on to what is really a top to bottom framework.
MT: I know plenty of people who are crackerjack blind tasters but I don’t necessarily trust them to pick out a bottle of wine for me because I don’t think they can recognize quality consistently. The perfect storm would be enough experience combined with the ability to taste quality.
TG: So let’s figure out how you actually do that. To start, when you put your nose in the glass and you smell this wine for fruit, what do you get?
MT: It’s nice wine. I smell coffee and I smell black plummy fruit. I’m doing what I call perceiving and finding.
TG: Apart from perceiving and defining, how do you know it’s black plummy fruit and not something else?
MT: If wasn’t taking notes I wouldn’t have to perceive and define. What I’m doing—and it’s a quick thing—is just perceiving. The wine doesn’t need words and it doesn’t need concept or form.
TG: Sorry to be stickler, but when you put your nose in the glass and smell black plummy fruit how do you know it’s that and not something else?
MT: You’re asking me and that’s what I’m perceiving.
TG: Yes and I have to tell you that you’re tasting using a really different context; most people I work with taste in a similar way in terms of how they represent things internally. So when you put your nose in the glass and say there’s coffee and black plummy fruit I want know how you know it’s those things and not anything else. If had to be you, what would that be like? How would I do it?
MT: So how do I know when I walk into a room that bacon is frying?
TG: Good question; so how do you know? You smell something and then what do you do to recognize bacon?
MT: It’s like there it is.
TG: There what is?
MT: Tell me, when I walk into a room do I have to ask myself, “is that Tim Gaiser?”
TG: Not so fast! This is smell memory. I know the connection I use and I would hazard a guess it’s the same for you but I want to find out. It’s an awareness—it’s a snap! So when you say black plummy fruit, what’s that like?
MT: I do actually imagine form.
TG: You’re looking way up and over to the left. What’s there?
MT: I’m imagining the form or creating the form. It’s what I’m seeing because I’m seeing the thing.
TG: What are you seeing?
MT: I’m seeing a form of somewhat this wine looks like. It’s opaque and it smells like coffee and black plums.
TG: But how do you tell those two things apart? When you say that you see them and see a form, what does that mean? Remember this is like me having to be you; how would I do that?
MT: It sounds so simple, but if you were going to be Madeline for a minute then just be quiet, listen and watch.
TG: Watch what? Watching implies something visual. When you put your nose in the glass and recognize things, are those things images? That’s my question.
MT: They’re general images; they’re not strong images.
TG: Fair enough but if you hold your perception of coffee and black plummy fruit in the wine for any length of time do the images get clearer or stronger? I say this because my sense is that you do this all so quickly that it’s a challenge to slow it down and be aware of it. There has to be a way that you first recognize things in the glass and then keep them around because you’re not concerned about whatever it is going away. Does that make sense?
MT: Yes and I don’t worry about them going away because I know the wine won’t betray me when I go back to it (laughs).
TG: Right but we’re still trying to get to the first step. When you perceive the wine and say that there’s coffee and black plummy fruit, how do you recognize those things? I’ve also noticed that you’re looking here and here—in two places out in front of you. Is that where the images are even if they don’t stay there very long?
MT: Yes but they are gentle images.
TG: Gentle meaning …
MT: Meaning soft and indistinct.
TG: So if you hold them for any length of time will they become more distinct?
MT: Actually I don’t want them to. What’s behind all this is my intent to be a silent witness to this wine. You’ve read “Stranger in a Strange Land”?
TG: Yes, a long time ago.
MT: That to me is my role in this whole relationship of tasting. I am the perceiver.
TG: But I’m still trying to figure out the strategy of Madeline the professional taster. What’s her strategy for figuring out what’s in the glass? You say gentle images but if I again had to be you what would that be like? What do they look like? Are they flat and 2D? Or are they 3D? What do they look like?
MT: They’re three dimensional images that are gentle. I keep using the word gentle and what I mean by that is that until I taste the wine it hasn’t come into focus yet.
MT: I’m holding the feel, the thought, the image, the smell, and everything in this wine gently because I still haven’t tasted it.
TG: So for you tasting is the bottom line.
MT: Right and the palate is going to either confirm everything or not.
TG: I’ve been watching your eyes over the last several minutes and when you mention black plummy fruit you’re looking 8-10 inches right out in front almost at chin level. When you say coffee you look slightly to the right. Both are very close to you, it’s very intimate. From there what else do you smell in the wine? What about the oak?
MT: The whole oak thing is sort of one and the same; I smell a little vanilla that melts into the black plummy fruit.
TG: What’s the vanilla like?
MT: The vanilla is more of a picture of a lighter color.
TG: But how do you know that it’s vanilla?
MT: I just smell vanilla and recognize it.
TG: But there’s got to be a way you do that. Try to hold the thought of “vanilla” consciously and what happens?
MT: I’m not holding it consciously.
TG: Try it, humor me.
MT: OK (laughs). I know it’s vanilla because I’ve experienced it before. I’ve perceived it, isolated it, and identified it.
TG: But you just mentioned that there’s some kind of delicate picture of the black plum and coffee and then the vanilla is in between.
MT: The black plum came first then the coffee and then the vanilla. It’s almost like several people are coming into the room at the same time. I try to not to go back to the wine too quickly and I’m careful about how much I’m smelling it because I don’t want the wine to shut down on me.
TG: So the oak for you is the vanilla you’re smelling. What else is there?
MT: There’s alcohol and it’s intrusive and commands your attention. I intentionally shove it back a bit.
TG: What is the alcohol that you have to shove it back a bit?
MT: I have to shove it back because I feel it in my nose and lungs. I have to put it aside like white noise.
TG: Is there a visual representation for it? Is it a color?
MT: It’s almost a spine and it’s cold; it’s strong.
TG: What does all that look like? Is it something you see in front of you?
MT: No, it’s actually behind me. I feel it in my lungs and back.
TG: You say it’s cold but alcohol feels like warmth.
MT. True but it feels cold.
TG: What color is the spine?
MT: It’s clear, see-through white.
TG: When you say you put it aside, do you move it out of the way?
MT: No I just ignore it a little bit so it doesn’t command my attention. But then I also know that the alcohol in this wine is slightly out of balance because it again is commanding my attention.
TG: Got it. So this spine thing, do you get it on all wines or only when the alcohol might seem out of balance?
MT: Only when it seems out of balance.
TG: Is there anything else in the wine you’re smelling? I think that perhaps you do create images for all the different aromatics but the images may not come into focus until you actually taste the wine. Does that seem right?
MT: It could be. But in getting back to this wine, it seems very complete. At this point I would engage my mind and start to pick it apart trying to find what else is there. There’s a green element and it smells a little bit like dried herbs or pine trees. I even see a bit of green.
TG: As you’re saying that just now you’re looking down and slightly to the left.
MT: When I do that—looking away—I’m getting rid of you (laughs). I’m actually going back to being alone. I’m trying to be true to the image of it.
TG: But I also want to note that when most people look up and to the left they’re trying to access visual memory. You do that almost every time you smell the wine—and very quickly.
MT: Interesting. But with the wine there’s the green element and the spine of alcohol; the black plummy fruit is still there and the coffee is melted into it. The vanilla is dancing on top
TG: How are all these positioned?
MT: The vanilla is on top, the spine of alcohol is in the back, and the green is fluttering throughout it.
TG: Are these shapes or images?
MT: They’re mild shapes but the whole thing is indistinct.
TG: Does it get distinct after you taste the wine?
MT: It does but don’t forget that behind all this is my intent to make sure I do the wine justice–and I know I can’t until I experience it as a whole.
TG: So it’s the idea of perceiving the wine as a whole. How do you know when you’ve done that and it’s time to engage and think about it; to get a complete picture of the nose?
MT: I start getting bored because the wine isn’t giving me anything else. It’s like when I’ve perceived all that I can possibly perceive in this particular time in whatever shape I’m in then I taste it. Just now a bit of Brettanomyces popped up that I didn’t get before. There’s also a strength and a density to this wine.
TG: Meaning …
MT: Meaning the wine smells like it looks and that’s not always the case. It looks like a dense, oval, almost egg-type thing.
TG: When you say that is it out in front of you? Somewhere else?
MT: It’s in my head.
TG: Is it an actual egg shape?
TG: So if the wine was a German trocken Riesling what would the shape be like?
MT: It’s a different image; it’s translucent, and it feels like a ballerina.
TG: So there’s a picture to the feeling?
MT: Yes and it’s pale lime green and it’s translucent. It’s also silvered and sharp. It’s almost like an icicle or a snowflake. It’s an image of something that is ice-like.
TG: That’s interesting and I have a couple of questions: it’s almost like you get the whole gestalt of the wine. When you think about Northern Rhone Syrah, what’s that like? Think about a great Côte Rotie; what’s that like?
MT: I love Northern Rhône Syrah but it’s less the shape and far more the smell of it. The perception of it visually flattens out a bit. If I channel a Northern Rhône Syrah what I see is a medium-bodied red wine in a glass. It doesn’t so much create an image for me as there are layers and layers of fragrance.
TG: What’s that like?
MT: It’s like opening several boxes one inside the other. That wine defines the term complexity for me. When I think about Côte Rotie everything comes in a flash; images of pepper and smoked meat. The images come in a flash and usually one at a time.
TG: I have to note that just now you were gesturing and everything was positioned from center to right in front of you at arm’s length away. For you that’s probably important. If I asked you to move some of these things to the left it probably wouldn’t work. What’s also interesting to me is all the work—and the intent—you put into tasting before you even actually taste the wine. In my experience that’s very unique.
MT: Maybe it’s because I learned in isolation. The wine taught me and I didn’t have another teacher other than that Andre Gagey experience.
TG: Are you ready to taste the wine?
TG: I can tell.
Part II: Tasting
TG: The wine we’re using today is the 2010 RDV Lost Mountain Cabernet from Virginia. In the beginning we’re going to talk about the wine tasting experience from two contexts; one as a buyer for a retail outlet and the other from the MS tasting standpoint. First, as a buyer, what are you trying to do when you taste? What are your goals?
MT: The first mentor I ever had was André Gagey of Louis Jadot. One night he was in the dining room at the hotel early on in my career and I asked him to please tell me how to taste. He said, “I always ask myself the same questions: “Is this a good wine? And is it a good example of type? Do we have a market for it or do we have to create a market for it? Does the wine have a good price/value relationship for what we have to charge for it? And finally, again, is it good wine?” I’ve used that template ever since. If a wine doesn’t get past the “is it a good wine” question, it goes nowhere. But then I’m also thinking of the consumer. I have this person in mind I call “Aunt Minnie” and she’s no dummy. She’s a very sharp woman although she could also be a gentleman. I assume she’s smarter than I am and she can recognize quality. In my subconscious I ask, “can I finesse this to her? Can I be a midwife for this wine in 15 seconds or less—either in print or more dangerously and more appropriately in front of her?” If I can’t, then the wine doesn’t get past me.
TG: Midwife is an interesting term. You’re like the connector or the enabler.
MT: Right and the receiver for me is Aunt Minnie who is the Common Man with a capital “C” and capital “M.” These are the people for whom I’m tasting. I might actually end up selecting a wine if I can’t finesse it with Aunt Minnie, if it serves another purpose, on a wine list or at an event. But the whole buzz for me is first, “is this good wine,” and secondly, making it easy to understand for a customer or someone I’m working with. I think of it as a distillation of what I do; being able to take something complex and communicate it without dumbing it down.
TG: So if I had to be you, how would I know that a wine is good? What makes a wine good? What are the criteria? Balance?
MT: Balance yes but the issue of balance can go out the window if other elements are strong. A long time ago I asked a good friend if the outfit I was wearing was OK. Did he think the shoes were right? He said that no one looks at your feet (laughs).
TG: (laughs) He was definitely a guy.
MT: I remember telling the same friend that I couldn’t decide whether or not to buy a set of wines for the restaurant because they really weren’t the best. He told me that the common man needs wine too. Back to your question; the first thing I ask myself again is, “is this good wine?” I don’t think I have a lot of gifts with tasting but one thing I know I’m good at is being able to recognize quality in people and in things in general. It extends to wine and I know I have it. I may not know what it is, but I know if it’s good.
TG: Is that a gut feeling? How do you do it?
MT: It’s not mental. It’s not even a feeling. It’s just that if something of quality is given to me I can generally recognize it. It’s like “Where’s Waldo?” You’re looking for Waldo in a huge puzzle. With regularity I seem to be able to go to a huge walk-around tasting of 180 wines and be able to sit down afterwards and remember the really good ones. It’s a recognition. Sometimes I’m wrong but I always re-taste to be sure. That’s also why most of time if I’m going to write about a wine or buy it, I’ll re-taste it.
TG: If you’re tasting in the MS context what are your goals?
MT: Am I teaching or tasting?
MT: I hate blind tasting myself so that’s why I’m committed to teaching it. For me it gets back to Gagey as in “is the wine a good example of type”. I’ve been lucky enough to be immersed in classic wines since 1977 so I can answer that question. So I’ve watched the so-called classics evolve over a very long period of time. But the questions remain the same, is the quality there and is the wine balanced and free of flaws? Is it complete? Is it whole? Does it represent its clan, be it White Burgundy or whatever? I don’t think about pricing until I’m four or five layers into it. Initially I’m tasting looking at both the big picture and the little picture and whether or not I recognize the wine’s quality even though I might not even like the style personally. So that’s recognition. Then I telescope down into the wine, picking it apart and looking at it visually. I look to see if there’s anything discordant. In this particular case, if a potential wine is going to be used for coaching, how will it affect someone in the exam mode speed tasting under great duress. I’m asking myself if there’s anything that might send a wrong message in which case the wine absolutely would not work.
TG: How does all this work? You have both hands out in front of you about eight inches apart. What are you doing internally? What does all that mean?
MT: First there’s the recognition which has nothing to do with feeling—it’s just recognition. The circular motion I’m making is the wine as a whole. I think about wine in that context as anything complete—even a living being. It’s a presence, if you will. What’s so ephemerally funny about what we’re doing in terms of how we approach tasting is that we’re taking a picture of something that is going to go away so quickly. Even the next few hours or the next day the wine will be different. So what we’re doing is taking a snapshot of the wine as a whole but in a single instant.
TG: Does that have anything to do with the MS tasting grid?
MT: No, it’s just how I perceive the wine.
TG: But is it like a picture for you? I still see you making the same kind of gesture about the wine.
MT: It would be like holding anything—a puppy! (Laughs)
TG: Sorry to be a pain but I’m trying to get a sense of how you do what you do. How do you get a sense of if a wine is what you call “whole”?
MT: It’s like wine is a complete, living thing and it breathes like a person does–and it changes all the time. In that respect it’s almost got a pulse; and it’s ephemeral, it’s going to change from moment to moment.
TG: Again you’re making the circular gesture; what’s that?
MT: It means the wine as a whole or complete.
TG: What would a wine be like if it was incomplete?
MT: It’s still a wine—but it can be an ugly little thing (laughs).
TG: Is there a color or a shape to this? What’s it like? If I had to be you what would I see?
MT: It feels like I’m holding the wine.
TG: Is there anything there or is it just a feeling?
MT: It’s a feeling.
TG: So how does the feeling differ if the wine is not complete?
MT: I don’t talk much about wines that aren’t good. What’s the point? I’ll show you my tasting book because I write everything down. I started in the business at a time when it was important to write everything down in order to make a buying decision. I’m trying to get out of the habit of writing when the wine is obviously not good but the exercise of writing still helps me decide. My notes have gotten really simple and the part of the MS grid I use is the color, nose, palate, and the finish. This to me is a snapshot of the wine I can look at later. When I take notes I’m instinctively only writing things down that are for me and not anyone else; but it’s also so I can write a shelf talker or go back to decide if I want to buy it for a wine list or whatever.
TG: Back to tasting; when you’re looking at wine what are your goals? What are you trying to do?
MT: When I look at a wine I always swirl it because I like to see how it moves in the glass. That gives me a feel about the weight of the wine. I always tell candidates that the sight doesn’t give you a lot about the wine definitively but it gives you clues that might help later. I’m also looking to see if it’s opaque or translucent and then I’ll write a couple of notes. Again, I’m not thinking much at this point.
TG: But you having been in the business for a long time and tasted so many thousands of wines, do you form expectations about a wine from just looking at it? This wine—the RDV—has a really saturated, opaque color. Does that give you expectations about the wine in terms of the structure and quality of fruit?
MT: This is what I keep telling you; I’m not thinking at this point because the older I get the more passionately I feel that you have to avoid preconceptions when tasting. How will I remain alive and valid in my profession and still be surprised if I’m putting stuff in boxes from the moment I look at a wine? I’ve practiced holding on to my mind with a very strong reign and releasing it only when it’s needed. I trust my practice and I trust my ability to recognize quality. As for this wine, I’m just looking at it and if I were to write a note it would something like, “opaque and thick.” I might also write something about the color as in, “black to the rim.” That’s about it.
TG: Do the tears or legs mean anything to you?
MT: I’ll note them in that the wine will probably have elevated alcohol.
TG: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you have a lot of unconscious processing going on while you’re initially looking at the glass. And even though you don’t want to be ruled by the part of your mind that wants to get the identity of the wine right, you still do a lot of processing to that end.
MT: That may be true but what I’m focused on is simply good/bad. Like/don’t like doesn’t exist that much for me but good/bad is really important.
TG: Just curious, do you like most wines?
MT: I do—but then I like most people as well. I relate it to that.