In 1991 Peter passed all three parts of the Master’s Exam on his first attempt and in doing so became one of just 16 individuals to earn the coveted Krug Champagne Cup. What is all the more remarkable about Peter passing on his first attempt is the fact that in the months leading up to the exam he had just succeeded fellow Master Evan Goldstein as the wine director at the well-known Square One restaurant leaving little time to prepare. In addition to passing the Master’s Exam 1991 Peter also received the James Beard Foundation Sommelier of the year Award.
In January of 1995 Peter and his brother-in-law Robert Olson, a software engineer, launched Virtual Vineyards, an e-commerce pioneer and the first U.S. entity to sell wine on the Internet. I joined Peter at Virtual Vineyards in April of 1996 and was with the company until March of 2001. According to Wells Fargo Bank, Virtual Vineyards was the first business ever to process a secure credit card transaction over the Internet. It was also the subject of a Harvard Business School Case Study, and was cited in numerous business and e-commerce marketing journals and texts as a pioneer during that era. The company had a good six-year run and grew to $28 million in annual sales before what Peter calls “the dot.com era of ludicrous expectations” caught up with it.
Prior to Virtual Vineyards Peter spent 25 years in the hospitality industry as a food & beverage director, wine buyer, sommelier, bartender, and waiter, including two years in Burgundy and a year with a Relaix & Chateaux hotel in Switzerland. He is active as a speaker, panelist, judge, and educator in numerous wine consumer and wine industry settings, and has presented at professional wine and e-commerce conferences at American universities such as Harvard, Wharton, Rhodes, and UC Berkeley, and as far away as Switzerland, France, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. In 2002 Peter joined the Adjunct Faculty at the Culinary Institute of America’s new Professional Wine Studies Program, and was an active instructor until the demands of his latest business ventures forced him to take a hiatus. He also remains active as an examiner and lecturer for the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas.
Since 2003 Peter has been co-proprietor of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant & Wine Bar in San Francisco’s acclaimed Ferry Building Marketplace. In January of 2008 Peter and his current business partners opened Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant in the now landmark Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa, California. I caught up with Peter in September of 2013. We tasted at his place in Sausalito and used the 2009 RDV Rendezvous Merlot blend from Virginia and Riedel Vinum Cabernet/Bordeaux glasses. We started out by chatting about exam strategies.
I. Exam Prep
TG: We took the exam a long time ago—eons ago. But now when you coach people for exams, especially for tasting, what do you do? What do you find that works best?
PG: I think with students there’s a perennial problem which has to do with the moment of recognition, where something jumps out of the glass and their brain immediately constructs a case so they stop paying attention and listening. I think that’s the biggest pitfall for most people. Or alternatively, and it’s actually a variation of the same problem, they’ll describe the wine and conclude something completely bogus based on something they said early on or that they may never have even articulated. So they land on a conclusion that if they had just listened to them self they’d know would know is completely unsupported. But backing up for a second, that’s assuming their base of knowledge is good. What I see a lot, and especially at the Advanced, is people walking the grid but clearly without the theoretical knowledge to underpin the exercise. That inevitably yields the wrong results. Finally, people get way too verbose. They just spew descriptors they think will score points. We’re looking at our scoring grid as examiners and they’re going on for five minutes but we’re not marking down one thing. It’s like mental diarrhea.
I think it’s also partially a function of our wine culture. I emphasize this with my staff and it was something the Virtual Vineyards tasting chart was designed to do; to strip away all those descriptors for aroma and flavor. At the end of the day they are subjective so it’s important to get people to focus on the basic structure of the wine. If you can tell me that it smells like pineapple but you can’t tell me if it’s light-bodied, medium-bodied or full-bodied, you’ve completely missed the point. I feel like this can’t be stressed enough–to get the basic building blocks of wine down. Learn to identify and articulate them and then you can worry about if the wine smells like pineapple or papaya.
TG: What worked best for you when you think about way back to our tasting group and preparing for the exam? What could you pass on to students?
PG: There are certain aspects of technique that I think are very important. First, I think that swirling the glass without first smelling the wine is a mistake. I think wine can give you very important and subtle indicators just sitting in a glass and if the wine sat in the glass a few minutes before you got to it even better. The moment you swirl the glass you’re already potentially missing things. I see people sit down for the tasting exam and it’s like they swirl the hell out of the glass and beat the wines up. It just seems so overdone and almost desperate. For example, if I pick this glass up now—and it’s been sitting here for about five minutes—it’s already giving off some very typical aromas and those aromas are in line with what you would expect from this wine. Then I typically roll the glass slowly in my hand. So I’m much gentler with the wine and I encourage people to do the same when first picking up the glass. Then if the wine is not offering anything step it up and be more aggressive with it. Even cover the glass with your hand and swirl it. I think that subtlety is often missed and over the years I’ve tried to get students to pay more attention to those things because they can be important.
TG: Again, it was a long time ago but when you took the theory exam how was it for you? What did you find worked best for you in preparing for the exam?
PG: I feel visual is really important. Reading about a region without looking at a map makes it much harder to retain things for me personally. I feel that wine is so rooted in geography that trying to prepare for the theory exam without maps makes it more difficult. You need to read a paragraph of information while looking at a corresponding map to get it cemented. In the actual exam, when I found myself trying to remember something I was asked, it was often the map that would come into my head and not the text. From there would flow the specifics of the appellations. I think that with books like Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas the maps are fabulous and should always be a companion to the more lengthy text and descriptions of whatever is being studied.
I also remember meditating before my theory exam and the sense of clarity and calm I felt before going into the exam room. To this day I think it was a huge factor for me. I always tell people not to cram for the theory at the eleventh hour because it doesn’t actually serve you. It just creates noise and jumble. It’s like your head is a tin can filled with marbles or scrap metal in the form of all the information. If you cram it’s like you’re taking your head and shaking it up at the last minute before you walk into the room. Then you wonder why things aren’t in place. I guess what I experienced was that it was easier to access the information already there because I was in a state of calm. I think a huge part of any segment of the exam, be it the tasting or the theory or the service, is your mental state as far as being in a state of relaxation—or lack thereof (laughs). We’ve all seen people go into the exam really well-prepared and do a complete face plant. You know they’re prepared and then watch them freeze or do things that are just brain farts. That I chalk up to exam day jitters.
TG: So it comes down to audition skills.
PG: Yes and I think the difference between that setting and the typical high standard restaurant is that when the students are in their own restaurants everything is second nature and they don’t have to think about it. So they can focus on delivering the guest experience. Whereas walking into the exam setting is like walking into a brand new restaurant. You have to look for every tool for your mise-en-place. It’s not second nature so it becomes more stressful.
TG: Let’s get to tasting. Some of the questions I may ask might seem tedious but what we’re trying to do is figure out your internal strategies for tasting.
PG: It’s probably a good exercise to just to be forced to think about some of this stuff because it’s all so intuitive and second nature to me. It’s like the best way to find out if you really know something is to teach it to someone else. It forces you to actually articulate it.
TG: We’ll break tasting down into looking, smelling, and tasting. Let’s start with the sight. When you’re visually going to examine this wine what are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish?
PG: First I’d take the glass and roll it on its side to judge the depth of color; how opaque or translucent the color, the saturation of color, and the color at the rim itself. That will give me some general idea of the relative youth though not necessarily in chronological years. Then I would gently roll the glass back and forth again to see how much staining there is on the side of the glass. This wine stains fairly heavily so you’re already pointed towards a grape variety that has thicker skin and a more saturation and concentration. This wine is also a deep plum color and the color is constant right up to the last 10% as you approach the meniscus. Then it’s not really magenta but goes to a shade of rose pink and that would suggest perhaps some time in oak or a year or two of bottle age. The wine is not by any means mature but not just out of the tank either. Those are the kinds of things I’m looking for. But unless I’m being asked to articulate it it’s all in the background.
TG: Here’s a question; you mentioned the wine is a deep plum color but how do you know it’s that color and not some other color?
PG: I actually have a problem with color. In my notes, or at least in coming back to them say six months later, I’ll notice some of the wines have an inaccurate assessment of color. I use a spectrum of colors related to berries and fruit; when I say deep plum I’m talking about the skin of a Santa Rosa Plum. Ironically, the flesh of the Santa Rosa plum is closer to the color of some red wines.
TG: But my question is how do you know it’s not another color? How are you able to look at this glass and pick a specific color for the wine?
TG: I know–I know, but think about it for a second; how do you know it’s one color vs. another?
PG: It’s all frame of reference based on experience.
TG: But how do you represent that experience internally?
PG: I think I know what you’re asking. This is one of the key problems with wine in general in that it’s often referenced to something else. You have to have to have this referential library correlation and it makes talking about certain things in tasting very challenging. That’s because you’re constantly referring to other things and these things may not call up the same experience for your audience as it does for you. It’s a very personal thing and I’m coming full circle back to something I said at the start; that’s the reason I feel the excessive verbosity of American wine writing is bullshit because it depends on everyone having the exact same library correlation. And that’s impossible.
TG: All true but my question is still how do you know internally it’s one specific color vs. everything else? Not to be a pain but I will probably ask you certain questions multiple times as we go along because all have to do with what are basically unconscious processes. With that and in the context of choosing a specific color for a wine, if I had to be you what would I do? What would I see? How would I do it? With color do you actually see the color internally and compare it to a range of other colors? Do you see gradations of colors? How do you know?
PG: It’s more that I’m trying to use a more consistent and concise vocabulary. Otherwise, my notes are inconsistent.
TG: What creates the vocabulary?
PG: It’s thinking about what a Santa Rosa plum looks like.
TG: In thinking about what it looks like do you literally see pictures of different kinds of fruits to get an idea of color?
TG: Is there some kind of gradation where you have smaller, lighter colored fruits on one side moving to larger, darker colored fruits?
PG: It’s not by size but with red wines for example, where does the color land in a spectrum from light pink to blue black that you can’t see through. There’s a whole continuum of color that correlates to Bing cherry vs. red cherry or Santa Rosa plum vs. blue plum.
TG: But again if I had to be you what would this look like? If I had this glass of wine in hand would I see some kind of gradation of colors internally? Do you see images? How does it work? I can tell you how I do it but that doesn’t count.
PG: I’m trying to think if I actually see the fruit or if the vocabulary I’ve chosen to describe the color is my established frame of reference because it’s something I’ve consistently used.
TG: But what generates that vocabulary? How do you choose one thing over another? What makes you say that, “I know it’s this color and not another color?”
PG: Because there are other things I’ve seen that are the same color.
TG: The question is still, how you know because a few moments ago you showed me with a gesture from here to here (pointing out in front from left to right) some kind of range. I guess what I’m asking is if that is some kind of range you use unconsciously.
PG: Yes I must be using it unconsciously. It would have to be unconscious because otherwise I wouldn’t have any frame of reference at all for the color.
TG: I’m just curious; hold the thought of that range of colors and what do you see? Are the colors segmented or is it more of a continuum?
PG: There’s medium red fruit, medium-dark fruit, and super dark fruit. But it’s more like compartments and not an infinite gradation because that simply would not be useful. You’d wind up struggling to come up with a word that for your notes would describe some degree of gradation that would be useful. So it’s divided into red fruit, black fruit, and some blue fruit. I think that’s how I’m compartmentalizing it because again a lot of the times when I taste with suppliers we’re not sitting around for twenty minutes talking about wine. We’re tasting 6-8 wines quickly and then it’s on to the next supplier. So the notes have to be crisp and not cryptic; and a given wine is going to be somewhere in the red fruit to black fruit range. The other thing I would also try to mention in my notes is how much rim variation there is.
TG: Do you think what we call “viscosity” is important?
PG: I don’t pay a lot of attention to it for the simple reason that the cleanliness of the glassware can have a huge impact on it. I find that it’s potentially an indicator of the richness of the wine but honestly I don’t pay a lot of attention to it.
TG: Now to the nose. When you smell wine what are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish?
PG: I’m trying to first of all see if it smells good and if it makes me want to taste it. So the first thing is if there’s anything wrong with the wine and if there is something wrong then it goes into that category. But if the wine is clean then there are secondary questions such as how expressive is it? Or is the varietal character is really distinct and immediately shouts its identity vs. something more muddied. What does the wine express? More youthful fruit vs. vinosity or age? All those questions. I don’t necessarily take them in any sequence but I think what I probably focus on first is, what’s the most obvious thing about the wine?
TG: Now I’m interested in your routine when you pick up a glass and first smell the wine. This is keeping with my assumption that good tasters approach a glass of wine consistently or almost the same way every time.
PG: As I said earlier, I definitely do not swirl the glass when I first pick it up. I try to be really gentle because I don’t want to lose the aromatics that are sitting there in the glass. Any agitation of the glass will result in their disappearing. From there the first thing I do is to stick my nose in the glass and gently sniff. Then if I’m being very deliberate about it I might roll the glass on its side to amplify the aromatics. With this wine we’re tasting I get a lot of cedar whereas before I got more of a red and black fruit character.
TG: I have to stop you for a second; when you’re standing and smelling a glass of wine what’s comfortable for you? I notice you put your head really far down and you’re looking down. That seems to work.
PG: It does initially.
TG: It’s like your starting point.
PG: Yes because again I don’t want to agitate the wine or necessarily change the angle of the glass. I’m adapting my physical posture to the environment of the glass instead of the other way around.
TG: As I’m watching you I’m observing that your eyes are down. I want you to try something; I’m not sure if you are familiar with something called eye accessing cues. It has to do with consistent eye positions for accessing different memory functions. With that, what happens if you stick your nose in the glass and move your eyes up to the horizon which is the auditory level?
PG: (Tries it) It doesn’t work. I’m so used to looking down and I often close my eyes when I’m initially trying to focus. It’s like filtering out everything else.
TG: So it’s like shutting the world out?
PG: Yes because often when I’m tasting it’s in really busy settings like at the shop with different suppliers. There could be music on and customers around at the tasting bar and it’s really busy. You have to filter things out. When I’m tasting in a more disciplined setting then I might have time to take a different approach. But even then I tend to just go with something like what the wine is bringing me vs. anything else.
TG: With this wine you mentioned that cedar is the first thing that you picked up.
PG: Cedar is the main thing I’m getting now but earlier I got high-toned fruit. I also get baking spices like cinnamon and nutmeg—all oak influence.
TG: To ask a rhetoric question, how do you know it’s those things vs. everything else?
PG: Because I’ve done a lot of baking before and I’ve stuck my nose in spice jars and remember what they smell like.
TG: But as you’re smelling the wine right now, how do you know it’s those things vs. anything else?
TG: Correlation to …
PG: Experiences I’ve had in the past. You draw experience from other parts of life.
TG: But in drawing from previous experiences, what are you doing now in the moment? If I had to be you what would I do?
PG: You’re asking about a synapse that’s immediate.
TG: True but we’ve got five senses to work with both externally and internally.
PG: Right but this is how sense memory works. I know what cinnamon smells like or ginger smells like or cloves or whatever. I’ve stuck my nose in spice jars and baked with them.
TG: But what triggers those memories now when you smell this wine?
PG: The smell!
TG: But how do you know it’s not something else?
PG: The experience! (Laughs)
TG: I know but there’s something that obviously triggers the memory of a previous experience that results in recognition.
PG: I can’t tell you how that works in my brain.
TG: It may not be as difficult as you think. I can tell you exactly how I do it; it has to do with images I have for associated memories of aromas. So I’m curious if there’s an image associated to the things you’re smelling.
PG: Not necessarily.
TG: If it happens it could be really fast so you may not be aware of it.
PG: But when I say the wine smells like cinnamon I don’t see cinnamon.
TG: Humor me and try it again because this all happens quickly.
PG: But now the experience is filtered because I’m looking for my own brain to see an image of cinnamon and that’s not necessarily what I do. When I pick up a glass and smell something that’s similar to something else I don’t necessarily see that other thing. A word pops into my head that’s the correlation.
TG: So do you see the word related to the actual thing you’re smelling?
TG: Is the image of the word triggered by an image of the actual thing itself?
PG: Not necessarily.
TG: But how do you know the word is actually related to what you’re smelling?
PG: Because it’s linked to an experience—and the experience is the smell of cinnamon.
TG: But how do you know? How do you know you’re not smelling a garage door or a catcher’s mitt? That’s the question.
PG: Because it doesn’t smell like a garage door! (Laughs)
TG: Sorry to be a pain in the ass. Everyone I’ve interviewed without exception uses images for olfactory memory. Those images could either be words for the aromatics or the actual aromatics themselves. With some people it’s straight forward while with other people it’s very complex.
PG: I think it’s more ambiguous with me like with orange for example; sometimes it’s the word and sometimes it’s the idea of an orange. It can be a very abstract thing or it could be a strong idea so that it can only be what it is and nothing else. There are certain smells that are instantly recognizable or that can be pulled out of wine even though they’re intermingled with other stuff. But with cinnamon I don’t see a cinnamon stick or spice jar on the shelf or in a drawer. I don’t see a cinnamon tree either but I might see the word in my head.
TG: I’m just trying to figure your sequence; what you do. If I had to be you what would I do to recognize cinnamon?
PG: I understand you’re trying to figure out what I do but it isn’t that clear cut. It’s not that crisp where I have consistently have the same experience. I’m sure there are times where I see a mango in my head if that’s what I’m smelling in the glass. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc often smells like guava and sometimes I see the surface of a guava sliced in half.
TG: But not always?
PG: No, not always.
TG: So other times you see words? Are there colors or shapes or anything else?
PG: Sometimes I see colors; with certain fruits the color can be coordinated. Now that I actually think about it a visual is more often associated when the smell is very distinctive and really clear cut as in, “wow, that’s freshly sliced guava.” So yes, I sometimes see an image if the descriptor that comes to mind is not just guava but freshly sliced guava.
TG: In three dimensions?
PG: Yes, right in front of me. But it’s not consistently my experience.
TG: Got it. This wine has a lot of stuff in the glass and another thing I would be curious to know is if you think about the MS grid in some way as you work through the wine. Do you see it internally in any way as you taste the wine?
PG: Only if I’m trying to be very disciplined about the structure or if I’m trying to teach someone else. Then definitely I would see it.
TG: If you were to see it where would it be in your mind’s eye?
PG: On a screen in the back of my head or like on a sheet or a piece of paper on a flat surface in front of me.
TG: The other question I had was that with all this information—as in all the aromatics in a glass of wine—how do you keep track of it? With this wine you’ve got the fruit as well as the cedar/oak notes and a little bit of earthiness. How do you keep track of all of it to where you can stand back and say, “This smells like X.”
PG: That probably depends on the context. If I’m physically taking notes I’ll use the notes as an organizing focal point. If I’m just talking about the wine or just tasting a wine and thinking about it, then I would probably go to the most salient markers. Otherwise it becomes cluttered. I think that my own convictions about the process of tasting again have to do with avoiding excessive verbosity. So as a part of my daily discipline I try to filter out anything that’s not really helpful; things that could be nuance or extraneous information but not actually helpful in getting a clear sense of the wine.
TG: Back to my question: when you think about how much stuff can be in a glass of wine, how do you keep track of it? If you’re seeing words or images of things, are they static or do they move? Do they form some kind of an arrangement so at the end when you stand back and look at everything you have an idea of what the grape and/or the wine could be?
PG: It’s not on a grid but more of a holistic sense of where the information lives in my mind. But to be honest I’ve never thought about it.
TG: But just now you made a circular gesture with your hand while talking. Do things stay around in your field of vision so you can still see them?
PG: Yes, it’s like the key things keep circling around or they stay stationary; it’s like a ball of information.
TG: What’s floating around in the ball? Words and images?
PG: It’s mostly words—no, it’s actually both. Some things are much more clearly identified with visuals than others. Structural descriptions are much harder to do with visuals although I use visuals a lot in trying to help novices understand structure.
TG: But it seems like all the words/images don’t go away. You have a system for storing them or keeping them around.
PG: Provided I’ve stayed with the process and not been distracted by a phone call or staff asking me for something or whatever.
TG: With the case of something that’s the most important thing in the wine like the sliced guava, is the image big, bright and in 3D?
PG: Yes, it can be.
TG: But when you taste the wine and the guava is much less intense than on the nose, does your representation of it change internally?
PG: It does change because it doesn’t follow my expectations which is a big part of what we’ve been trained to do. Does the nose follow the visual and does the palate follow the nose? If something shouts in the nose and it’s not there or less obvious on the palate then the whole thing gets recalibrated.
TG: In that case, what happens? Does the image change as in getting smaller or going farther way?
PG: I feel like it goes farther away and sometimes I find myself trying to find it (laughs). It’s doesn’t literally disappear but it’s more like trying to find where it’s gone to. At that point the descriptor is also changing into something else so the visual becomes less dominant.
TG: How do you know when you’re done smelling a wine and it’s time to taste it?
PG: It’s something I don’t think you can easily know. There’s definitely a sense of when fatigue starts to set in and you’re not getting anything new. Then you just need to taste the wine. In thinking back to the exam setting, one of the mistakes I think people make is overworking the wine. The fact that the wine isn’t giving them any more than lemon and apple is a huge clue. Don’t find shit that isn’t there! (Laughs) Just stop! I think there’s a tendency to over-extract. If the wine is really straight forward and transparent in the way it presents itself let it be that. Don’t try to make it into something else. I try to listen to the same advice myself and not overdo it. So if a wine seems fairly simple and straight forward in the nose then I’ll smell it a couple of times, make key words, and go on. On the other hand, if a wine keeps offering up new things sometimes I’ll stay with the nose for three or four minutes. Part of the fascination of a great wine is that there’s so much that continues to be offered up. Each time you go back to the glass there’s something else and before you even taste it you have a wine of considerable complexity.
TG: This is another rhetorical question but when you first put your nose in the glass do you ask yourself a questions like what am I smelling or what’s there?
PG: Yes, there’s an initial question along the lines of what’s the most obvious thing or does the wine trigger any immediate associations or correlations. Something like that.
TG: Let’s taste the wine. When you were talking about trying to teach students structure, what kinds of things do you do? You mentioned visuals for structure. How does that work?
PG: I think body is one thing some people have trouble getting their heads around. They have trouble separating it from intensity. Imagine a really good Sancerre with incredible minerality and amazing acidity. The intensity or the assault on the palate is confused with body by a lot of novices. But it’s not body because it’s linear and angular–it’s piano wire. I use milk as an analogy for body a lot. Also for example, we have a Zinfandel from Fernando Candelario in inventory right now that’s like sinking into a plush double-stuffed velvet sofa. People get that kind of stuff and it has nothing really to do with wine. People have an association with the quality of the experience like a particular wine that is more structured, more serious or severe while another wine is like, “Let’s watch TV!”
Another strategy I’ve used extensively in classes that has been very useful is in trying to explain the difference between physiological maturity and sugar. Imagine you have a teenage son. When he’s sixteen he’s taller than his dad and putting on weight so he thinks he’s mature. That corresponds to sugar. But his emotional maturity corresponds to physiological maturity in the grape. The teenager is 10-15 years away from emotional maturity. When I use that analogy people laugh and they get it right away.
TG: What’s great about your analogies is that they’re extremes and so easy to understand. They’re also based on contrast and I think people snap to contrasting extremes as they are so easy to get. If you show someone both extremes they can usually find the middle quickly.
PG: When you’re trying to explain something like body to someone who doesn’t have a lot of wine knowledge subtlety doesn’t work. You need to show it in bold black and white. It’s why you use a control wine when you do a component tasting and doctor the shit out of it with acidity; people will taste it and immediately get it. Or when you’re teaching a food and wine pairing class have the people in the class suck on a slice of lemon. You wouldn’t ask your dinner guests to do the same thing but when you see what it does to the wine that follows it’s extreme. You’ll never understand gray if you don’t understand black and white.
TG: Back to structure; when you taste this wine how do you pinpoint the level of acid, alcohol, and tannin?
PG: I look at how mouth-filling the wine is; how rich it is. Then I assess my physical sensations. If the wine is really velvety, soft, and round, that’s an immediate indicator of two things–the acid and how much viscosity and richness the wine shows. Those two things can buffer each other. If the acidity comes back at the end then I know it’s a rich wine with a lot of fruit but still balanced by enough acidity. On the other hand, if the wine disappears on the end I know it lacks acid. In a way I dissect the frame of the wine and sometimes with young wines it’s almost like the fruit is hung on the frame.
TG: But think about structure in the context of our exams; how do you personally pinpoint the difference between medium and medium-plus acid? Or the difference between medium and medium-plus tannins? How do you calibrate that?
PG: I think that’s actually a very hard thing to do. I look at the impact of those two things together while I’m still swirling the wine around in my mouth especially as they go into the finish. But it’s both; I need both to really get a sense. With this wine I would call it medium-plus in body, medium-plus in acidity, and medium to medium-plus in tannin. I think a big part of the problem with tannin and acidity is the way they reinforce each other. Whereas it’s the flip relationship with the fruit. That’s also something that’s hard for novices to get their heads around. Right now, and it’s been over two minutes since I swallowed this wine, I’m still getting a tactile sensation which is like sawdust from the tannin. At the same time at the back of my throat I have this tart black fruit sensation that’s the acidity talking. They’re almost like a tag team together. In a wine like this that’s still very young both things aren’t yet seamlessly integrated. Also, does the wine feel like it’s one kind of continuum in the mouth as it unfolds? Or does it feel like the acidity is in one place and the oak and fruit are somewhere else? Very young wines that have aging potential often feel like that. They feel like they’re not yet woven together; like they’re physically broken up.
TG: Back to my question again: how do you tell the difference between medium and medium-plus acid? Or the difference between medium and medium-plus tannins?
PG: At times I think that’s one of the most fragile premises of the entire exam (laughs). I think there are times when a candidate says “medium” and we’ve decided it’s “medium-plus” and it’s so close it could be either.
TG: The reason I bring this up is because I was always mystified about how I did it until I did the film work I did in 2009. During those sessions I had a behavioral scientist standing next to me while I was tasting on camera. He was watching my eye movements and stopped me at one point when I was assessing structure and said, “What are you looking here? When you look here (out front and at chest level) what are you doing?” It turns out that I see a scale whenever I go to assess the structure. It’s literally a scale I see out in front of me that’s about four feet wide. There’s a red button that starts on what we would call medium and it moves as I’m tasting the wine. I simply wait for it to stop moving and then I point to medium or medium-plus or whatever level it is. So I use something visual to calibrate what I’m feeling in my mouth.
PG: I probably do something similar but I’m seeing medium and medium-plus in terms of the letters in my head. I’m also trying to figure out where the level is on this continuum. It’s somewhere in my head and I’m seeing something (points directly out front).
TG: At eye-level?
TG: Are the words there? How does it work?
PG: It’s more like I have an early assessment and I’m trying to figure out if it goes to plus or medium or stays right at the level. Early on I have a sense of where the wine is on this continuum because most wines are going to fall somewhere towards the middle. If there’s something about the wine that immediately pushes the acid or whatever to high then I’ll really know it.
TG: What does the continuum look like?
PG: It’s the letters. But it might change if I think about how I would characterize acidity as a descriptor. For example, with a white wine if I start to think about if it’s green apple then I might see a Pippin apple or a Granny Smith apple. But if it’s a matter of where the wine is structurally then it would just be a letter on the continuum.
TG: Is the experience different for white wines or is it pretty much the same?
PG: It’s pretty much the same. I might also make an assessment of the extent to which I think the temperature is impacting the way the wine presents itself in that it’s either dumbed down because it’s too cold or it’s warmer than it would otherwise be normally served. I’m factoring all that in as well.
TG: Smell and taste the wine again. I want to know if there’s a predominant fruit or something in the wine that causes you to create an image internally. Is there anything that generates a picture?
PG: I see blackberries.
TG: What’s that like? Two-dimensional? Three-D?
PG: Three dimensional—like they’re on a plant. I literally see the blackberry vine. But that might also be contextual in that there are blackberries all around where I live that I see when I take a walk.
TG: So let’s try something. As you smell the wine and the blackberries I want you to make that image black and white. What happens to the wine?
PG: (Laughs) it won’t go there.
TG: It won’t go to black and white?
PG: No, it’s too real to go to black and white.
TG: OK so try to make the 3D image like a flat photograph. What happens then?
PG: It diminishes.
TG: Reset it and take the image of blackberries and push it really far away. What happens to the wine?
PG: It smells like red cherries now.
TG: That’s all submodalities—all structure. There’s a handful of structural qualities that if you alter them the experience changes.
PG: I can see that. When you said to turn it into a photograph it’s almost as if the wine went flat—literally flat. Some of the things are clearly three-dimensional but I don’t consciously think about it.
TG: But also figure that you’ve tasted thousands of wines over a long period of time so most of this is happens quickly and at the unconscious level.
PG: Which is why it’s hard to articulate it much less slow it down.
TG: I think we did a fair job in getting an idea of what you do. In the next few days you might see if or how things change as you taste wine now that you have some conscious awareness of your internal process. Any parting thoughts, especially for students preparing for exams?
PG: Don’t miss the basic building blocks. I think that also comes from trying to teach consumers. We teach a basic tasting technique class at the Ferry Plaza store several times a year. I’m convinced that part of the problem is that we throw consumers into a sea of wine descriptors and we give them no way of organizing all of it. So what you’re probably picking up on is my desire to do that for them. And if I can’t do it for myself first then how can I possibly do it for them? It’s what’s worked for me so it’s become a core conviction that seems to be an essential stepping stone on the way to becoming a good taster. You have to be able to take in these essential elements initially and not over-complicate it. When a wine comes along that naturally inspires a lot of descriptors then you know you have a really complex wine and something worth spending some additional time on. Most of what we call wine descriptors have to do with structure so putting a manageable frame around the wine is important. That’s basically what it’s about. When you pick up a cinnamon stick you don’t say it smells like blackberries or Pinot Noir—it smells like cinnamon. We’re constantly making references to something else. But if that list of descriptors is infinite how do people find their way through the maze? They usually don’t.
TG: Right. With complexity I often think of something like a cheeseburger because it inherently has six out of the seven major taste elements—everything but bitterness.
PG: I use a similar analogy—music—to describe complexity. Imagine you have a guy up on stage playing the flute. That means you can only play one note at a time. But take a solo instrument and change it into a chamber quartet and then to an orchestra and you then you have all these different voices and complexity. People easily get that analogy. The same idea also works when you’re trying to get across the idea of subtlety vs. bombast. Ask students to imagine a concert hall with an Andres Segovia-level guitarist playing Bach or whatever. Right next to him is a chamber quartet playing and right next to them is the Boston Symphony playing the 1812 Overture and next to them is ACDC. And they’re all playing at the same time. Are you going to be able to hear the guy playing guitar? Probably not but does that make him any less of a musician or the music he’s playing any less worthy of your attention? Of course not! That’s an extreme example but by using extremity people get what you’re talking about. It’s funny because the very word “complexity” makes it seem like it’s difficult for people to understand. It’s complex! (Laughs) It’s almost like our brains play a trick with us.
TG: That’s really true. I also think there are disconnects inherent in wine; it’s a beverage that smells like other things and, to your point, wine doesn’t have its own language. We have to borrow nomenclature from other fields and so often we borrow words from other sources and they don’t quite mean the same thing as they did in their original form. People also approach first learning to taste wine as somehow completely different from how they learned everything else—which is predominantly visual. There’s a huge internal visual component to wine and learning how to taste that isn’t generally known about much less taught–especially in regard to olfactory memory. Most people access their smell—and taste—memories visually but aren’t aware of it.
PG: Right, they don’t make the connection. That’s a good point. By the time you get to adulthood you have this huge repository of smell memories but what’s missing is the ability to connect the dots. That’s something gained as you build your skills at tasting.
TG: Right, it’s the theory part of tasting.
PG: So how has this compared to other people you’ve interviewed?
TG: Similar—but completely different! Everybody has a routine that they start with and yours is very precise in terms of shutting the world out. I think that’s one of the most important things we can teach students. They have to be able to go to a place where everything else goes away almost like a funnel of attention. The best tasting exams I’ve ever seen all had one thing in common: the student had amazing focus or concentration and once they started the exam everything—including the examiners—went away. Sabato Sagaria’s exam was probably the best example of that I’ve ever seen.
PG: That reminds me of the late Michael Bonacorsi’s tasting exam years ago when he passed. It was like nothing else in the room existed. I’ve seen other exams since where the student was really focused and not bouncing around all over the map; they were very disciplined and precise and they tended to very successful with their exam.
TG: When you think about it four minutes and ten seconds per wine is not much time and you have to be disciplined.
PG: There’s no time for bullshit.
TG: True and I think that makes us some of the most disciplined tasters; people who pass our Advanced or Master’s tasting exams can function in a very disciplined way and under a great deal of stress.
PG: I also notice the reverse on days when I don’t feel focused and can’t bring the discipline. My notes are all over the map and I can’t make any sense of them later.
TG: So we’re not teaching people how to taste wine, we’re teaching them how to think.
PG: And to be consistent.
TG. Thank you, my friend. This has been fun.