TG: You mentioned previously that you have a unique way of smelling wine. Could you say more about that?
SL: I take the wine in my mouth and let it sit for a second or two before swallowing it and the residual wine in my mouth begins to react with my body chemistry. Then I take the air left inside my mouth cavity and push it by closing my jaw and channeling it through my bottom lip up into my nose as I’m breathing very slowly. So I’m not breathing out through my mouth—I’m closing my mouth cavity and channeling the air up into my nose then logging what my breath smells like. Every wine I ever taste I log with my body chemistry; I’ve tasted thousands of wines in my life so I’m able to use body chemistry as a marker for wines that have intrinsic properties such as mineral, pyrazines, wood or whatever. When those characteristics hit my palate my body’s going to react to them. I want to log these reactions and it’s like there’s a big log somewhere in my brain. I use it by taking the wine from in my throat out through my mouth up into my nose and smelling my breath vs. just smelling the wine itself.
TG: Do you smell the wine as well?
SL: Absolutely. Some people will put their nose into a wine glass and take really short, quick sniffs. That doesn’t work for me. I make my short quick sniffs by raising and lowering my bottom jaw and that brings air in and out. Once you open your mouth a little bit it tends to draw in air. I also realize that everything in the world is affected by gravity and wine will be as well in terms of how it sits in the glass; so the volatile aromatics are going to smell quite a bit more primary and concentrated at the bottom of the glass. Then as you smell up the glass and farther away you can pick up secondary characteristics. I’m using something like a whole rounded picture from two inches above the glass to about an inch below the glass. I’m opening my mouth in between and taking in snapshots that aren’t really even tangible.
TG: I’m curious, at any point do take the glass and rest it on your upper lip directly beneath your nose (like practically everyone)?
SL: Sure, some times.
TG: But it seems like what you doing is pulling the glass away, moving it and smelling in different parts of the glass in a circular-arc motion. True?
SL: Yes, I’m trying to get a full spectrum of the wine. When I put my nose into the bottom of the glass down at the bottom I’m getting dark, primary characteristics; with this wine (Sabon Chateauneuf) I’m getting alcohol and dark ripe fleshy fruit. When I move up from the bottom I get more smoke, cured meats, pepper and dried flowers.
TG: What happens when you pull the glass away from your face?
SL: The fruit becomes more primary again.
TG: Interesting. For me, I keep the glass about an inch away from my face and smell wine through my mouth and nose at the same time. The glass is never resting on my upper lip; that’s like having a huge stereo speaker on full blast right next to my ear. It’s too much. I also breathe in through an arc just like you’re doing because I can cover the entire range of aromatics better. I start at the top of the glass and breathe down in an arc. If TCA is in the wine I’ll always find it right at the bottom of the glass where the edge of the wine meets the glass. That’s where I look for it.
What’s interesting to me is that you’ve probably played around with this smelling technique a lot to get to where you are because I have to tell you that you’re the only one I’ve ever come across that uses something like it. Back to the wine. Go ahead and smell it again and as you’re smelling it what’s the first thing that pops for you?
SL: A pretty intense smokiness—kind of like a smoked plum. Everything has a kind of round quality.
TG: Let’s establish something before we go further. When you first pick up a glass where do your eyes go? What’s comfortable?
SL: Straight ahead and down. Generally I’m going to be tasting with a white table cloth so that the canvas is blank and I can create my picture there.
TG: When you say create your picture what does that mean?
SL: I can begin to log that the fruit in this wine smells baked.
TG: OK but if I had to be you, what would that look like? You’re looking straight out in front of you slightly down; you say that it’s kind of a white blank canvas? Then you smell ripe, smoky plums? What does that look like? What happens?
SL: I get flashes of pictures of plums. If I’m trying to ID a fruit I’ll immediately try to categorize it. I don’t look for the perfect descriptor so I don’t want to say something like “this smells like camp fire smoke with roasted sugar plums on an autumn day.” I’m looking to just put the wine into a category of fruit.
TG: So speaking of the category of fruit, you have your hands straight out in front of you at arm’s length and slightly down. What does category of fruit mean? What does it look like?
SL: In terms of red wines it means lean, tart red fruits to ripe, juicy red fruits to purple and blue fruits all the way to black fruits—it’s a spectrum.
TG: So going left to right there’s a spectrum. Do you see pictures of fruit or colors or what? How does it work?
SL: I see more colors but there are quick pictures of fruit. I don’t necessarily get flashes of specific things like kiwi or melon; I’m not as concerned about that as I’m concerned about the energy in the wine.
TG: Energy meaning …
SL: For me the profile of this wine right in front of my mind is a more murky and smoky. All the characteristics are stewed together and intertwined; they’ve come to one flavor profile together but they’re also connected to each other.
TG: Is that because this is Chateauneuf vs. some other wine? Or is it this specific wine?
SL: I get more definition and delineation from a wine like Chinon which is really clean, sharp and pointed with pyrazines and red fruit. I see much more division and angularity.
TG: Does this go back to the shape of the wine?
SL: Yes and the shape comes from the energy I pick up off the wine. When I say energy it’s how I smell the wine. When I put this wine on my palate and smell it, it feels full, rich and lush; it feels round, heavy and dense. If I pick up Cote du Rhone that has a bit of carbonic maceration in it, it’s more bright and lifted. I can still come to Grenache but I see a different picture of Grenache. It’s the same with a California Chardonnay vs. Chablis. I can still see Chardonnay and get to Chardonnay but it’s just a much different picture.
SL: The picture is more like a shape of colors.
TG: Again we’re talking about the two different axes with the width meaning richness …
SL: And alcohol and volume.
TG: It seems like all this is driven by structure. If that’s the case I would imagine that calibrating the structure of a wine is pretty easy for you because you have an actual picture of it. True?
TG: So are wines with less alcohol going to have more lift and be more narrowly defined?
TG: As opposed to this Chateauneuf which has less acid but more alcohol?
TG: Going back to this gradation, do you get flashes of pictures of fruit? As in in two-dimensional pictures? Or are they 3D where you could reach out and touch them?
SL: I can’t reach out and grab anything. I see colors and the colors are more representative of the fruits. I’m don’t worry so much about picking up a true raspberry or a pure cherry because I think those are going to overlap in a lot of different wines. I could say that “cherry” is going to be in most red wines that I taste. I’m more interested in the shades of the colors. The energy on the aromatics and intensity of aromatics give me different shades of colors. Those give me more clues than any actual specific fruits.
TG: But how does all this work? How do you get aromatics from the shapes?
SL: I get the aromatic properties in terms of the fruit composition generally from the shades of colors that I see moving within the X and the Y axis. Again I don’t necessarily see cherries or blueberries or other specific fruits, I see shades of colors on the X–Y axes. But I don’t really think of the X and y axes as being present in this picture, I just see the shapes of the colors and how they move.
TG: And the shape is coming from you? Where does it come from, your head? Your chest? Where?
SL: It comes from my chest and my head. Whenever I smell something I can feel it coming from here (motioning from his chest up to his face), definitely the upper part of my body. Again, I’m much less concerned about getting descriptors like a specific fruit vs. a category or range of where a wine is.
TG: But how do you know something is cherry and not strawberry, for example?
SL: The texture and feel of it. Strawberry is going to be flesh and opulence for me and raspberry is more tight, bright and high-toned. Even the fruits themselves feel differently on my palate. For me it’s like biting into a ripe, sweet strawberry with the high sugar content vs. even the sweetest raspberry which is still going to have more lift for me.
TG: Just so I have the sequence down, as you pick up a glass you look down and in front of you. Do you say anything to yourself at the point?
SL: I generally start to look at the wine. I don’t saying anything to myself. I hoping at that point things start saying things to me.
TG: You’re making a circular motion with your hand backwards. What does that mean?
SL: I have a hard time picking up a wine and giving the whole grid then right before the conclusion having to start deducing it. I’m using my instincts to call out categories of fruits and the condition of the fruits. I’m using my ability—my instincts– to assess the wine. I feel like I’m using my instincts the entire time for why this wine is acting the way it’s acting. I remember working with Jesse Becker MS in Boulder and he was on me all the time about my structural calls. I was getting wines right fairly frequently but the structure calls were off. He’d ask how I could get a wine like Chablis right and yet call the acid moderate. I didn’t know at the time because that kind of deduction pattern is not my strong point. But I’ve worked on it since and now it definitely is. But it wasn’t in the beginning because I’ve always used my instincts.
TG: Back to the sequence: you pick up the glass, look ahead and slightly down and then do you go into your breathing routine of moving the air and smelling in different parts of the glass? Are you waiting for the wine to start talking to you which will create the shape of colors? From there it seems like there are flashes of different fruits, spices etc. Is that how it works?
SL: It’s more like categories of fruits.
TG: But are those flashes like two dimensional pictures?
TG: When you get them, how big are they? If you can hold one for a second, how big is it? And what does it look like? Is it like a still photograph?
SL: It’s a very vague of what let’s say plum is. It’s not like a high resolution picture of a plum sliced in half. It’s vague recollections of things I’ve smelled and tastes I’ve tasted.
TG: But it seems like it happens really fast so it’s a flash. But why don’t you try holding one to see what happens. Hold any of the aromatics you smell in this wine for a few seconds and see if you can get some definition on it. You can even try bringing it closer.
SL: It’s tough! I’m trying to bring up a picture of something like a piece of sliced plum, maybe baked or something like that. At this point I got this heavy tar kind of sensation and I was trying to get away from it–I couldn’t. It wouldn’t let go.
TG: So is the dark, smoky tar thing even stronger in the wine now?
SL: Yes–so much for that exercise. (laughs)
TG: I think a lot of it is the fact that you’re doing this really fast; that there are all sorts of micro-associations that happen to create these shapes and colors and you’re just dialing some of them in. And the shape you’re creating literally tells you what you need to know about the wine.
SL: The aromatics give me the colors and intensities too. With this wine there’s lots of richness and smoke. For me that picture becomes a wine that doesn’t have a lot of vigor in it but has a lot of breadth. This wine definitely has breadth; it has concentration but it doesn’t have youthful, vibrant intensity. The wine’s energy seems like it’s baked out or sun-bathed.
TG: So maybe the wine is broader in terms of its shape in that it’s not as high and there’s not a lot of lift to it. What about the colors? Are the colors richer and darker as opposed to something like a Chinon or a Burgundy?
SL: With Chinon I can see shades of red and it’s almost transparent. If I get really strong green pyrazines and tobacco notes then it gets a little bit darker. But with really pure, clean Cab Franc I get the color red across the board.
TG: With these shapes, how do they move? What’s that like?
SL: They move based on how they feel on the palate. This Chateauneuf gets on my palate and sits and relaxes like it’s in a big lazy chair; then it begins to flatten out.
TG: Does it move forward at all?
SL: It does to some degree because the wine has a really long finish. It’s got concentration too because I’m still tasting it. But it’s more about the weight and the feeling of how it resonates on my palate vs. how it races down my palate and shoots in one direction or the other or lifts. It doesn’t do that for me; it blankets and rests like it’s tired.
TG: How does that compare to a Barolo or a Barbaresco?
SL: A really fine, elegant Barbaresco can have the same volume as the Chateauneuf for me because it’s really expansive; the acid’s also going to be higher most likely.
TG: So it’s going to have the same breadth but also more lift?
SL: Yes and with the Y axis the wine can expand in all directions vs. just flattening out in front of me.
TG: How’s the shape different from Chateauneuf?
SL: If you take a basketball with very little air in it and you flatten and round it out that would be Chateauneuf. But if you take one of those red rubber balls that’s really thin—the kind you play dodge ball with– and blow it up until it’s almost ready to burst, that’s Nebbiolo. It can expand in all directions.
TG: Does the shape of a wine change from the nose to the palate? Do you make any kind of adjustments?
SL: With Nebbiolo, for instance, you can get baked, sweet fruits on the nose but when you get it on the palate there’s a sharp linearity to it.
TG: Does the shape change at the point?
SL: Yes, it begins to expand.
TG: Do the colors change at all?
SL: It depends. For the most part when I pick up a glass of wine I taste it within the first 10-15 seconds so I’m beginning the activation of everything I have, almost simultaneously. It can change. Sometimes you have to adjust to the acid and tannin profile. It’s like you have to taste farther into the wine. I would hate to get a beautiful Nebbiolo on my palate and not truly begin to assess its structure until I’m 90 seconds into it. Then I’d be left with two-and-a-half minutes in exam time to get all the Nebbiolo points. Or even worse to get to the palate and realize that it’s Nebbiolo having described something else like Pinot Noir. Then I’ve put myself in a hole. I’ve always believed in getting the wine on your palate a soon as you can. That way you can use everything you have. You’re also going to help your nose out because when you taste the wine and swallow a bit of it you’re going to use some retro-nasal. It’s your 25 minutes and you need to take advantage of it however you can.
TG: True. Let’s get back to the shape of the wine. I’m curious about how it moves. Does it come out from your head and chest? How far does it go? If it’s a great wine with a really long finish does it go on forever as opposed to having some kind of end point? Sounds like this Chateauneuf doesn’t go very far at all.
SL: I feel it. The concentration of the wine will change the color. With this wine, even though I can see through it for the most part, it feels like it has a slightly different color on the palate; it feels darker and richer and that has to do with the amount of energy and vigor that I get off the wine. That will deepen or lighten the color. This as opposed to a really elegant pure Côte Rotie that begins to expand and the colors can become lighter or darker. With Hermitage they might become darker.
TG: Could a wine do both? Say a wine with richness but a lot of acid as in both light and dark colors?
SL: I would say yes. You taught me a technique one time when I was tasting here at your house. We were picturing our circle in front of us (Circle of Excellence) and we attached any color to it. I used this technique when I was in the exam. I created my circle after I felt really good; I figured out which direction my energy was moving and then I stepped into my circle which was like Chablis with pale straw and streaks of green in the center and then reflective platinum radiating out in all directions. Then depending on how big or expansive the circle was it had a burnt orange Nebbiolo rim to it; my two favorite wines. Not sure if that answers your question and I don’t know if I’ve ever had a wine that shows two different colors in the structure.
TG: All we’ve talked about is fruit but what about earth definition and other things like flowers and spices? How do you represent those and know they’re in the wine? Fruit seems to be attached to the colors of the shapes you create. How about the other aromatics?
SL: They are different shades of color that will go through the shape. The shape doesn’t have to be one particular color and rarely is it just one color.
TG: But let’s say we have Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and Chablis. What’s the difference between the two?
SL: In terms of their color?
TG: In terms of their minerality. What’s in the Chablis that’s not in the other Chardonnay?
SL: Whenever I feel chalk on the palate or some kind of white mineral/stone, the wine for me becomes more transparent. It’s almost like I can begin to see through the colors. When I feel things that are round, creamy and weighty the colors I see begin to darken. So things like butterscotch and wood notes in a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay are going to give me a darker, more golden color.
TG: What about this Chateauneuf compared to an Aussie Grenache? There’s a lot of stone, game, leather and meat in this wine vs. an Aussie Grenache that would have a lot of fruit and mint/eucalyptus. How are they different to you?
SL: The color would be more primary for the Aussie Grenache, a more pronounced red. This wine has more overtones and shades of smoke, meat and all those other things which gives me different shades and kinds of dullness; a kind of tawny color, if you will. Even the dried herbs and violet on this wine are going to give me different streaks and those colors will go across my mind.
TG: Colors going across your mind meaning …
SL: I’ll see the overall general impression of the color. For me this wine is a smoky reddish-purple. It’s not purple, not quite that dark. But the picture of Aussie Grenache I have in my mind is more of a primary red. It’s more candied red plum color vs. purple plum that’s been baked. Zinfandel would be like almost sweet, compoted mulberries and blueberries with different shades of violet.
SL: Yes and those are triggered by the olfactory sensations that I’ve had. I’ve created all these pictures based on the smells that I’ve had in the past.
TG: It seems like you have very quick flashes out here (in front) of fruits and things like that as they relate to the shape.
SL: As they relate to the shape I begin to look down a little bit more.
TG: So they’re flashes like two-dimensional pictures of things you remember from the past?
TG: How do you know when you’re done? How do you know when you have all the information you need to make a conclusion. Or does that arrive earlier on when you’re smelling/tasting the wine?
SL: Hopefully it happens early on (laughs). Sometimes it happens when I’m about to run out of time. About two years ago we had a tasting at the French Laundry with a big group of us. Anthony Anselmi came in right after he’d passed his exam and he gave us his flow chart with different things like pyrazines, wood, botrytis and whatever else it might be. These were all intrinsic factors having to do with what a wine might be. You look at the chart and it had all the classic wines with the different properties so each grape/wine had different boxes. So if a wine had X and X and X you’d ask yourself if it were one of five classic wines that showed these characteristics. It was a great deduction tool but I had a hard time trying to grasp it.
TG: It sounds like a decision matrix that’s very complex because there’s a lot of variables.
SL: I think what’s good about it is that it began to give people a foundation of important things to look for.
TG: With the classic wines and grapes, are the shapes of the wines so different that once you have the shape you can nail a specific wine?
SL: I always hope so (laughs). I still make mistakes. But I would say more often than not I pick out a wine 80% of the time.
TG: We didn’t talk about structure much at all but it seems like the structure of a wine is represented to you by the depth and volume of the shape and what you’re feeling/sensing in the wine affects the shape. Does that seem right?
SL: Yes, I call the structure based on the shape and the colors that are taking form, whether they’re moving straight ahead like Sangiovese or whether they’re beginning to expand like Nebbiolo. For me Sangiovese is much more linear. It’s like Riesling vs. Chardonnay.
TG: More narrowly defined?
SL: Yes, more narrowly defined. The Riesling, for example, is higher-lined and more north-south. The Chardonnay begins to expand in all directions. The Riesling can also be more luminous.
TG: What about tannin? How does that manifest?
SL: Tannin gives an impression; I can feel it. Outside the colors and shapes I can feel tannins in different palate interpretations. With the astringency that tannin sometimes leaves behind I try to take note of where it is on my palate to determine if it’s fruit tannin or wood tannin (wood tannin being in the back and fruit tannin up front). But it definitely does leave a tactile impression and it’s noted.
TG: But how does tannin relate in terms of the colors and shapes?
SL: It brings them in tighter. Thinking about it just now the fruit tannin brings them in tighter. But if I’m thinking about something really tannic like a Napa Valley Cabernet that might have a few grams of residual sugar in it, it may have a rich lush voluminous side to it but it’s still pretty linear in terms of how the colors move.
TG: I’m still trying to get a sense of movement and the shapes. Is there movement within the shapes or colors? This almost sounds like everything is weaving within the shape.
SL: Yes, the great wines have more volume. The great wines are the most expansive. The first wine that ever got me truly excited about wine was the ’89 Guigal La Mouline. It’s sounds cliché, but with that wine I kept closing my eyes and seeing it. I was in the middle of lunch service at the French Laundry and having a hard time focusing on anything other than the wine. It seemed like it shot out in every direction and kept going and going. But it was also voluminous, elegant and contoured; it wasn’t sharp, lean and more direct like a Jasmin Côte Rotie. So even within the same category the wines can sometimes have different shapes.
TG: When you were preparing for the exam, did you do much mental work practicing with the wines? It seems like you have very defined profiles for all the grapes and wines. Did you practice mocking up shapes and colors to practice the wines? Did you practice that way?
SL: My instincts were my instincts so I didn’t really know how to practice that way. But I definitely practiced making sure that within the frame of my instincts I really knew what to say.
TG: It might be interesting for you to play with this; to practice creating shapes for classic grapes and wines. For example, can you create the shape of Nebbiolo on command?
TG: That’s great. I’m convinced that students, especially at the Master’s level, need to practice tasting without actually having wines in hand using their own representational system.