Thomas Price, MS is the head sommelier and educator at the Metropolitan Grill, Seattle’s premier steakhouse. Price came to Seattle in 1988 from Anchorage and managed beverage programs for some of Seattle’s top restaurateurs. In 1997 Thomas and his wife Jessica opened their own restaurant, Luau Polynesian Lounge. After selling Luau in 2004 Thomas started at The Met as a banquet server by night and by day began the arduous process preparing for the Master Sommelier examinations. Price was promoted to head sommelier at The Met in June of 2008 and passed the Master’s exam on his fourth attempt in May of 2012.
I tasted with Thomas in January of 2013. We used the 2009 RDV Rendezvous Merlot blend from Virginia and Riedel Vinum Bordeaux glasses. I began the interview by asking Thomas about his strategies for the three parts of the Master’s exam. I’m always interested in what strategies different students use to prepare for the exam. Thomas’ were unique and didn’t disappoint.
TG: Let’s talk about the exams first and what worked best for you. We were talking about theory a few minutes ago. You said that you tried maps but they didn’t do it.
TG: Most students say that they work but you said that working with sounds files was really good for you.
TP: That was a better method for me. I was probably overstating it when I said that maps didn’t work for me. But focusing solely on visual learning was not successful for me. Once I went to audio bombardment and very exhaustive note taking it really began to work.
TG: Going to the service exam, what part of the practical was hardest for you?
TP: Something you said once when you came up to Seattle to work with my group finally got me in the right mode. Before I just couldn’t get into character. I really struggled. I’d think this (the exam) isn’t real, I’m so stiff and wooden. Then you said something like, “we just want to be taken care of like we’re at a restaurant.” And that made all the difference in the world. So when I drop a little bit of red on the table cloth or I’m less than perfect at the job, I rise above and embrace the fact that I made a mistake and get better and keep going. That was really useful for me.
The whole thing for the exam is that people worry about what’s going to happen and they think about “what wines are they going to pour me” or “what questions are they going to ask me.” If you’re thinking like that you’re just not going to be successful. I found that out the hard way as it took me four times to pass the exam. Ask me anything you want and make me do anything you want and I’ll persevere. I’ll persevere with style and class and I may not answer every question but I’ll carry myself like a Master. That’s when you know the difference.
TG: Sounds like being in what I call “game mode” for the service exam was the hardest part. Was the physical service difficult for you?
TP: Yes because as I mentioned earlier I get nervous. I think part of it for me too was that I never achieved any academic success. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself. When I was successful at service my technique was extremely smooth. I think the last time I did the decant it was a magnum which I do a lot of at the restaurant. We rarely use a cradle at the Met (Metropolitan Grill in Seattle). I practiced a lot with one but it never did feel natural to me. But really it was just a combination of everything. I would get nervous to perform in that medium which I think was the most difficult and unpredictable of all for me.
TG: And what again made the difference in terms of not being so nervous that you could really function well? Was it the feeling that you had to take care of the table?
TP: Yes, I got into character. I kind of channeled our colleague Shayn Bjornholm who was a trained actor in a previous life. I’m not an actor, but I was that day and I was so in character that this was my restaurant and these are my guests. They’re not Master Sommeliers who are judging me on my performance. I’m going to wait on them because that’s what I’m really good at. So that was really helpful.
TG: What about tasting? Was tasting difficult? It was by far the most difficult part of the exams for me. How was it for you?
TP: It was difficult for me because again it was about nerves. But in Aspen when I passed (May 2012) I took each wine individually. I remember working with Fred Dame MS and him saying to approach a flight like it was six different examinations. So I tasted the heck out each wine and then moved on to the next one. I think that if you can go wine by wine it’s much better. I was also not thinking, “They’re going to pour Grüner or Grigio and Chablis next to each other and I’ve got to figure it out.” For the first few exams that was my mindset. But in Aspen it was more like, “pour me anything you want. I trust my process and I’m going to evaluate the wine to the best of my ability.”
TG: That’s a big shift.
TP: (laughs) well the other way wasn’t working!
TG: So for students in tasting, if you had advice for them what would it be?
TP: In my practice I actually got away from Court-like tasting and did a lot of comparative tastings. My group always talked about the “why” and not just the end result—almost like a metaphor for the whole exam. So I really worked on why I would confuse Grüner with Chablis. We (the group) would do that and sometimes we’d see the labels and discuss differences. All this helped me in the examination format to be able to speak to the characteristics of the wine in a much more informed way.
TG: The next part has to do with your goals in tasting wine. First, let’s take you in the MS tasting context. What are your goals? What are you trying to achieve?
TP: I’m trying to evaluate the wine as thoroughly as I possibly can all the way down the line. But also–and this is another piece that I started to incorporate into my actual tastings–I ask myself, “Do I like it personally? Do I like the texture? Do I like the flavor?” Obviously we all have wines that we like and wines we don’t like as much as others. I changed my tasting from just wanting to get the wine right to starting to think about if the wine would work for me or the guest in my restaurant. I let a little of that creep into my method for the exam and I think that was helpful too.
TG: What are your beliefs about tasting in general? Equipment-wise, what do you need to have a successful tasting?
TP: I think you need good light and proper glassware. For Court-specific tasting I love to keep my own time. Some people don’t like to do that. But if you get the banker Chablis of all time and blast through it in two minutes it’s good to know that have that time in case you get a wine you have no clue about. Then you have some extra time to spend on it. Otherwise, lighting is big but then so is glassware. I love specifically the Riedel Sangiovese/Riesling glass for tasting. I think from an aromatic perspective it really concentrates the aromas. Also make sure you’re hydrated, make sure you get some rest.
If I can give one piece of advice to Master’s candidates it would be “don’t taste ten wines before you go in for your tasting.” I made that mistake a couple of times. Also, don’t over-taste before you go to the exam. I was so geeked before I went to my first couple of tasting exams that I tasted too much. You’ve got to taper off and trust your ability especially right before the exam. I tried a lot of different strategies but the one I went back to was one I used for my Advanced exam. Before I went in for my tasting I tasted three wines: Vouray, Rioja and Zinfandel. I know those wines and rarely get them wrong so tasting them was just a positive thing. It’s a better calibration for me than trying to taste other wines that I might struggle with.
TG: What are your beliefs about yourself as a taster?
TP: I’m think I’m very strong. I started with some ability but with a lot of practice and some shifting of my approach I’ve become really solid. I’m think I’m really good at establishing a rhythm when I’m in the practice of doing it exactly the same way every time. Now when I work with students I tell them, “Come to the church of low, medium and high.” Not sort-of or slightly or a bit or kind of. Everything is low, medium or high. If it’s minerality sure there are gray areas because wine is a constantly morphing, changing thing. The wine you start with four minutes in may be showing some different characteristics. But low, medium, high is uber important. Then doing the wines in the same order every time. That’s a discipline because every wine has a different expression. Doing it the same way every time is an enormous part of the discipline.
TG: Finally, what do you think makes for a great wine?
TP: Great question. I have this discussion with my guests and also with my colleagues. There’s a few things: price to quality ratio is big in the real world. DRC is a dream for a lot of people, myself included. Also if the wine costs four dollars a bottle or four hundred dollars a bottle if it tastes real. I know that’s an ambiguous term but what I mean is that the wine tastes like it was made in the vineyard and not like it was genetically engineered or manipulated. That’s a huge factor for me. Something we don’t discuss a lot but I try to use in my notes is texture. How does the wine feel in your mouth? I think that we are so busy with the structure—the acid, alcohol and tannin—that mouthfeel gets left behind. When I’m tasting for the restaurant or for pleasure that’s a big factor for me. It doesn’t have to be dense and plush but it’s how the texture works with the fruit and the structure that’s a key component for me.
TG: In terms of looking at wine to evaluate it either for professional purposes for your list or the MS context what are you trying to do? What are your goals when looking at a wine?
TP: For both it’s making sure there’s no intentional flocculation whether the wine is old or however filtration or cold stabilization fits into the picture. I think you’re looking at the wine initially to try to get your feet underneath you in terms of where the wine might be, where it might come from and how it might taste. For the CMS tasting format I don’t spend a lot of time on sight. I think there are some wines like an aged Rioja or a Barolo where it can be a huge tell. But for me it’s more important to say all the things about the sight in 20 seconds tops. It’s different for everybody but certainly I would say to Advanced or Master’s candidates, if you’re 30-45 seconds into the sight you’re already behind.
TG: Any other thoughts about the sight, the appearance of wine?
TP: With this wine that I’m looking at right now, viscosity is your friend. With the color description-wise, my ruby might be your garnet might be somebody else’s red. I think those descriptions are useful but the viscosity and staining of the tears in a red can be really important clues right at the start.
TG: What color would you call this wine? (2009 RDV Rendezvous Merlot blend from Virginia)
TP: I would call that a dark purple going out to some ruby notes; holding its color with a little bit of change at the rim; moderate-plus staining of the tears and high viscosity.
TG: We’re going to get into some abstract questions, but how do you know it’s that color vs. something else? How do you know it’s not the color of Pinot Noir?
TP: That’s a great question. It goes back to thing I was talking about; having confidence anchored in because I almost see the staining of the tears and the viscosity first. In my mind I know that this can’t be a light-skinned grape varietal.
TG: But in terms of picking out that color and being able to identify it, how do you know?
TP: I don’t know. A lot of people will look at ruby red in an art book. I just never did that.
TG: But there must be some way that you know. So as you take a look at the glass, in your mind’s eye how do you know it’s that color vs. something else?
TP: I think that is just repetition of tasting a bunch of wines.
TG: How would you represent all that experience?
TP: That’s a great question. I’m not a very visual learner or visual person.
TG: Let me ask you this: if I say think of the difference between something like Mendoza Malbec that’s purple and Rioja Gran Reserva that’s 20 years old. Do you get two images in your head?
TG: So when you pick up this glass is there some way in terms of a series of images or colors that you’re able to match the wine to a color you’ve seen before? That’s the question.
TP: I’m more abstract than that. I don’t want to sound like I’m winging it but I have a really good memory and I’m drawing on tastings that I’ve done in the past.
TG: OK but how do you represent all that? Think about other Cabernet and Merlot-based wines and how do you know?
TP: I don’t know.
TG: I think it’s more that you do it so fast that you’re not aware of how you do it. But let’s slow it down for a second. And if I had to be you, what would I do? What would I see? What happens?
TP: I think that I’m so excited to get into the wine that I do it really fast. I don’t really want to get locked in on it. It (the wine) looks ruby purple enough so we’re moving on.
TG: I have to tell you that watching in watching you, you’re looking at the glass first and then you’re looking out here at several different points (out in front and slightly to the left of center and slightly up in several places). So I’m wondering if you hold your eyes out here, what happens? Take a look at the glass first and then go there and see what happens. What feels comfortable when thinking about color?
TP: It’s almost like in this format the train is on the track.
TG: When you say the train is on the track it means …
TP: It means it’s time to start evaluating this wine and I have a visual memory of what I call purple or ruby.
TG: What are those memories like? Images of colors or images of glasses of wine?
TP: Glasses of wine. 100%.
TG: Are the images in a row?
TP: This is great. So Stevenson’s book (Sotheby’s Encyclopedia of Wine) has pictures of everything from the lightest, brightest, cleanest wine to the deepest red. That series flashes in my head.
TG: Do you have separate white images and red images? Or is it just one color gradation?
TP: It’s one.
TG: Are they separate images like the Stevenson book?
TP: They’re like little slide images in my head.
TG: So what happens? Do you take a look at the glass and then the image continuum and match it up?
TG: Does anything happen when you find the right match? Does something light up? Something happen? Does the slide change somehow?
TP: It’s almost like I go straight to it. It’s like your computer when you click on something and it gets bigger. It’s like I’m scrolling through and then match it up.
TG: So the image gets bigger?
TP: Yes, it gets bigger and I know it’s a match.
TG: Do you say something to yourself at that point?
TP: I say, “That’s it.” I also may say to myself the four or five things it could be. But some days I’m in the zone and not aware of any of this.
TG: Just curious, when you say you’re in the zone and you look at the glass, ID the color and say here are the three or four things it could be, where do those things go? Do you say those possible things to yourself? Do you see images? How does it work?
TP: It’s words.
TG: At that point is it your voice saying it or someone else’s?
TG: How do you get around the pitfall of pigeonholing the wine?
TP: Because I’ve got so much left to evaluate. Those potential things are floating through my head as I taste the wine but I really try not to force the wine into something. I think that’s something I’ve become really proficient at—really focusing on what the wine actually is and not trying to force into something it isn’t. Otherwise, there’s a lot of people living in my head at the same time.
TG: That’s right because you have to acknowledge that kind of thought but then park it to the side and get back to it at the conclusion to see if it makes sense. Otherwise, you definitely will try to make the wine into something else.
TG: Now for the nose. In terms of overall goals in smelling wine, what are you trying to do?
TP: I’m trying to get the blueprint of what the wine is which will hopefully be confirmed on the palate; what it’s going to taste like, what its age is and if there’s minerality and the like. I’m just trying to get a snapshot of what the wine will be. We’ve all been there when you get the wine on your palate and all the things you’ve said about the nose seem really dumb. But I think for the most part as you become a better taster the nose is the main thing. In my experience, when I put my nose in the glass and smell it for the first time, I try to think about what it is and 95% of the time it’s right for me—I know what it is. When I was a less accomplished taster I would try to find ways to talk myself out of that. Occasionally it doesn’t work because I still need to evaluate the wine.
TG: Now it’s time to get to work. For the record we have the 2009 Rendezvous Merlot blend from RDV in Virginia as the wine we’re using today. So go ahead and smell the wine and focus and get in your zone. What I’m curious about is where you’re looking when you put your nose in the glass which is almost straight down in front. Is that where you usually look when smelling a wine?
TG: Just curious about something. So as you smell the wine what happens if you move your eyes up to about horizon level? What happens? Anything change? Smell better? Worse?
TP: I get more lift, more high tones.
TG: I ask only because if I describe what you do, you hold the glass at a fairly steep angle straight out in front and then pretty much look straight down. What happens if you move your eyes to the left or right? Brain-wise, does that feel better or worse?
TP: It doesn’t work. I need to be right in the middle.
TG: OK, so as you smell this wine why don’t we start with the fruit. What do you get for fruit?
TP: Blackcurrant, black plum and black cherry.
TG: Couple of questions: how do you know you’re smelling those things? And if I had to be you what would I experience?
TP: To begin I didn’t do a lot of “go get some gooseberries” to learn what gooseberries smell like. It’s almost a life memory. I know what blackberry and black plums smell like.
TG: Agreed. But when you put your nose in this particular glass of wine, how do you know you’re smelling those things vs. anything else? How do you know? I also notice that you’re holding the glass with both hands.
TP: Yes, that’s how I do it. A lot of times I want the temp of the wine to be warmer so it’s a way of doing that. Otherwise, it’s been my method. But that’s such a great question and it’s awesome to delve into this.
TG: Let’s go back and do it again. You put your nose in the glass and your eyes go here (middle and almost straight down). At this point do you say anything to yourself?
TG: Anything like “what’s there” or “what’s going on?”
TP: It’s like I talked about doing it the same way every time. The initial scent on this wine is new oak. I get a very plush, lush, nutmeg, vanilla sort of aroma. But of course I have to be careful to stay in my method so that’s not the first thing I would note.
TG: Having said nutmeg and vanilla, how do you know it’s those things vs. something else?
TP: Because of all the wines I’ve evaluated over the last 9-10 years.
TG: Not to be a pain but if I had to be you what would nutmeg and vanilla be like? How would I experience them?
TP: I’m going to have to somehow convey that information to you.
TG: Exactly! But again, how would you know? So if I had to be you I would hold the glass with both hands at this angle, look straight down here and then smell a lot of new oak influence. What would I experience for new oak? How would I remember that it’s new oak?
TP: Baking spices, apple pie, everything. I’m a cooking fanatic. It’s my favorite thing to do. Ever since I’ve been studying for the exams, every time I make something I try to identify the smells as much as possible—fruits, vegetables or whatever. So if I’m making a salad with arugula I’ll crush some in my hands and smell it so the next time I smell Grüner Veltliner I’ll be able to recognize it. Even if I say the word “arugula” this memory pops into my mind. It’s mostly driven by foods I’ve worked with. I’ve never been much of an aroma wheel person either.
TG: OK, so pick up the glass again and go to all the oak aromas. From here I’m just trying to see what your eyes do. They go down here initially but I’m looking for the other place they go when you recognize something in the glass. All of this is to say that you have to have a way of drawing on all the memories you were just talking about—memories that help you identify something. So when you smell vanilla and spices in this wine how do you represent that to yourself? That’s what we’re after.
TP: It’s all smell memories.
TG: Memories like …
TP: Like apple pie filling.
TG: So apple pie filling and you’re looking out here to the left and about chest level. What’s there at that location where you’re looking? Is that a memory of you making an apple pie as you in a movie making apple pie?
TG: So with the nutmeg and vanilla, what do you get for those?
TP: Like making béchamel and putting a little nutmeg in it.
TG: Like making the sauce?
TP: Literally me making the sauce.
TG: Great. Just so you know, this is what you did just now: when you mentioned nutmeg, you put your nose in the glass and looked down to your starting point then went very strongly out and slightly to the left to your memory of making the béchamel.
Just for some detail, when you see making the sauce do you see the actual ingredients or the process of actually making the sauce?
TP: I see the ingredient that I’m using and also smelling in the moment.
TG: Does the ingredient sit on something? Is it by itself? Remember this is in the context of me being you and experiencing what you are in the moment.
TP: The ragu is almost cooked down, the cream is almost cooked in and I’m grabbing a pinch of nutmeg and about ready to add it to the sauce.
TG: What about the vanilla, what’s that like?
TP: Vanilla extract. As a kid I liked to open a bottle of vanilla extract and just smell it. To me it’s just a beautiful smell. That’s a very powerful memory for me. But I’m not necessarily accessing this memory while I’m smelling the wine because I’m so focused on what I’m doing. But to your point I have to get there somehow.
TG: Go ahead and smell the wine again; what about fruit? Tell me about the fruit.
TP: Black fruits: black plum, blackcurrant and almost a kind of blue or boysenberry thing too.
TG: That’s a lot of fruit. Which one is the strongest? Let’s pick one and figure out how you got there.
TP: Black plum.
TG: So for black plum, what do you get? How is that represented to you?
TP: I’m thinking of a place where we used to toss the disc around in Seattle; on the rare occasion of warm summer day where there were plums that were so ripe they were almost rotten on the trees. You could smell them in this orchard where we played.
TG: So this is like a movie of the memory and you’re in it? Like you could reach out and grab the plums?
TP: Absolutely and we would never eat them because they were so ripe they were almost turned. But that’s the level of intensity of the black plum on the nose of this wine—uber ripe.
TG: What other fruits to do you smell?
TP: There some blue fruit too: boysenberry, blueberry and straight blackberry.
TG: So all those other fruits, how do you represent them to yourself? We’ve got the movie for the black plums and what happens for the rest?
TP: This if funny because I really don’t eat very much fruit—I don’t really like it. So how I access these memories is almost going back to when I was growing up in Juneau, Alaska. There wasn’t a lot of fruit growing there but we had blueberries. I remember having to eat them but not enjoying them. Now living in Seattle blackberries grow rampantly all over the place. My wife tries to get me to eat them and I still don’t particularly like them.
TG: Anything else for fruit we should mention?
TP: No, I think the wine is very expressive and straight forward.
TG: OK. So pick up the glass again and think about all those fruits. Can you pick them up sequentially quickly or keep them in mind all at the same time? How does it work?
TP: It’s sequentially. But I’m thinking that when I get to the palate the intensity or the amount of each fruit will probably change. There may be more blueberry vs. more black plum or whatever. I kind of card catalogue it.
TG: When you say “card catalogue” what does that mean?
TP: In my brain I remember the three primary fruits.
TG: Are there literally cards? You’re pointing to the right side of your head by your ear.
TP: Yes, it’s right back there. It’s like the purpose of my whole process is to not only get the wine right but to also evaluate it completely. So on the palate–if my nose didn’t let me down and those fruits are still in the wine–I need to let to let whoever wants to know, be that an MS panel or a distributor, about what’s going on in the wine.
TG: OK but what I’m trying to do here is build a sequence of what you’re doing. It seems like you smell the wine, your eyes move up here and then you get total body memories of things in the wine. That’s at least what I’m picking up so far. But then does that information become a card that you store in your head? That seems to be where the info is going.
TP: This is interesting because I’ve never thought about it analytically. At that point what it feels like in my head is that I do make an image because I might need it later but then put it away. I’ve pulled the memories out, I’ve got the cards and I don’t need the childhood stuff anymore.
TG: Not to sound silly but what do the cards look like?
TP: Like little flashcards.
TG: Like 3 X 5 cards?
TP: No, really small. They have to fit in my head! (Laughs) It’s almost like dragging your mouse on your computer over an image and it gets bigger. I can make the images bigger if I need to. With the blue fruit thing, if I taste it then the image will get bigger automatically because it’s so intense.
TG: But these images are to the side. How can you see them?
TP: It’s inside and like a voice and an image.
TG: But you still got an image, correct?
TG: Is the image flat and two dimensional? Or is it three dimensional?
TP: Flat and two dimensional.
TG: Are the images in the order that you smelled them? Or is it whatever is the most intense?
TP: It’s whatever is the most intense is first.
TG: Does the MS grid have any bearing in terms of how you organize all this?
TP: Definitely. But right now with the nose I’m just compiling evidence. By the time I get this wine on the palate I’ll put all the evidence in a perfect linear order.
TG: When you do that it sounds like you pull everything outside and put it right in front of you. You’re going from up to down right out in front of you about a foot away.
TG: When the images are inside can you look at all of them or do you have to look at things one at a time?
TP: I look at categories of things in sequence.
TG: What about minerality? Smell the wine again and see if anything pops up for minerality. Then I’m curious if you use the same process that you did for fruit.
TP: Yes, I actually picture rocks inside my head.
TG: You mean rocks out here (out in front) or an image of rock inside your head?
TP: That’s out front.
TG: Then that goes internally and becomes one of those cards that you store?
TG: So what does the image of minerality look like?
TP: If it’s Chablis it’s like the white cliffs of Dover or it’s galets for Chateauneuf. I’ve never walked the vineyards in some of these places so I have to rely on images I’ve seen in books. But the images are definitely there.
TG: So the last thing is non-fruit; what do you smell in this wine?
TP: There’s a lot of purple flower-violet happening in the wine.
TG: What’s that like?
TP: It’s an image of the flowers.
TG: Is it 2D or 3D? Movie? Still image?
TP: It’s 3D and like a vase of violets. But it’s also like a flower that grows in Alaska called fireweed and it has a very similar aroma to this.
TG: But the image is like a vase with flowers in space out in front of you?
TG: It seems pretty close like you could reach out and touch it. Is it life size?
TP: Yes and yes.
TG: Once you create that image does it get filed in your head like the rest of the images? What happens to it?
TP: They go back into the file.
TG: What does the file itself look like? It’s a collection of images but what does it look like?
TP: It’s like a box with cards in it. This if funny because this is what I was finally able to do in the Aspen exam—and what I’ve been able to do since—is I’m able to empty out the box once I’m done with a wine and then refill it with the next wine.
TG: That’s brilliant. But can you get that information back if you need it?
TP: Yes and this sounds so nuts (laughs) because there’s another box—a hedge box.
TG: So the first box is in your head and at some point you empty it; but you also want to keep the information when you’re done with the wine. Does it go into the “hedge box?”
TG: Where does this hedge box live?
TP: It’s sitting right in front of me, right by the glass of wine in case I have a question about it.
TG: So it’s there and you can pull up information/images if you need it?
TG: Finally, how do you know when you’re finished smelling the wine?
TP: When I’ve filled in all my boxes; when I’ve talked about everything I feel there is to talk about.
TG: Do you actually see the MS grid when you’re tasting to make sure you’re not missing anything?
TP: Yes, very much so.
TG: Where do you see it?
TP: It’s out in front.
TG: Yes, you’re looking right out in front of you 3-5 feet away almost at eye level. So periodically, you’ll flash it up and make sure you’re getting everything?
TG: So go ahead and taste the wine; in fact you should probably taste it a couple of times. First, what are your goals for tasting? Now that you’ve smelled the wine and pulled out much of the information you need, what are you trying to accomplish when you actually tasting the wine?
TP: Matching up everything—or not—that I’ve already spoken about. Now it’s time to get everything collated or assimilated or say my nose file isn’t matching up to my palate file. Most of the time when I’m tasting I can use straight sensory input. But I’ve got the theory if I need it in case things don’t match up because theory always informs tasting.
TG: Go ahead and taste the wine again. I would be interested to find out what you do with the images of things you smelled that you’ve filed internally. What do you do with them? Do you bring them out and look at them as you taste the wine to confirm things? How do you compare what you’re tasting in the moment to what you’ve already smelled? What do you do?
TP: Right now, and it’s happening pretty fast, I’m going through all the fruit I smelled and the blue fruit isn’t nearly as important—it’s all black plum all the way.
TG: What’s interesting is that you’re looking at and motioning right out in front of your face about ten inches away; it looks like you have all the images there. Is that true? Stop for a moment and check. Are all the images there? Flowers? Oak?
TP: Yes and they’re all in the grid sequence.
TG: OK and you said this time there’s more black plum. Did that image change in any way? Did it rise to the top? Get larger?
TP: Yes, it went to the top but it’s still about flash card size.
TG: Is it 3D? Can you reach out and touch it? If you can, what happens to it?
TP: No, it’s 2D because it’s the grid to me which is a piece of paper that I had on my fridge with a magnet for three years.
TG: So you have all these images out in front of you. Can they shift? Get larger? Change in any way?
TP: The more intense they are the more they go up to the top; they also get larger. The black plum image immediately got larger right when I tasted the wine.
TG: Then what happens?
TP: It goes back.
TG: Is this like the way you described dragging a computer mouse over an image and it getting larger?
TG: So what else to you taste/see?
TP: So I’ve got the grid out in front and I’m going right down it as in this wine is dry and full-bodied.
TG: So you’re working completely from the grid?
TP: Yes, so again it’s dry, full-bodied, black fruits and there’s also some ripe blue fruit in this wine as well; not much minerality.
TG: If there was a lot of minerality where would it be? Underneath the fruit where it matches the grid?
TG: What about the non-fruit?
TP: That’s the next thing because I’m sticking to my version of the grid. So this wine has lots of purple flowers, fireweed and violet.
TG: And all these are underneath the fruit?
TG: Then what about oak?
TP: My order is always fruit, earth, other oak.
TG: Just curious, is there a grid that you’re seeing as you go down that order of things; an actual grid with writing on it where you place the images?
TP: The grid is like memory tied to the images. So I don’t actually see the writing.
TG: But how do you know which order in which to do things?
TP: I don’t know.
TG: Just hold it there for a couple of seconds and see what happens.
TP: Actually there is—it’s a reminder for me not miss anything.
TG: So you’re reading the grid to yourself as you taste?
TP: Yes, I’m saying “fruit” and then the pictures of the fruit come up; then “earth” and the pictures come up for that.
TG: Do the pictures populate out in front of you?
TG: That’s a really elegant sequence. Now something occurs to me; pick up the wine and smell it again. Are you doing the same thing with the grid when you smell the wine as in saying parts of it to yourself then generating the images? Do you say something on the grid to yourself which generates a memory that then becomes an image?
TG: OK I think we’re putting together your strategy for tasting. From there the images go into the file box in your head. When you taste the wine you see the grid again and say the various things to yourself and then the images appear in front of you in an up/down arrangement with the most intense flavors at the top having the largest images. Does that sound right?
TG: That’s a very organized way of thinking about tasting. Fantastic. The best part is that you probably never mix things up that way.
TP: True. It’s all driven by time management because I ran out of time in the previous exam in Vegas. It was the worst feeling ever. You’re never going to pass if you run out of time.
TG: Your tasting trance wasn’t quite there …
TG: Let me review your sequence. This is what I have so far: you pick up the glass with both hands and look almost straight down and to the center. As you smell the wine you see the grid out in front of you literally read it to yourself; as you recognize things they initially take the form of whole body memories but then become images on cards that move to the inside your head which you then file. When you taste the wine you again read the grid to yourself and images from your internal “file box” move out in front of you about 10 inches away from your face. The images are arranged in a strip and if something is more intense on the palate vs. the nose the image gets larger and moves to the top of the strip. Does this sound about right?
TG: Once again I have to say that this is a very elegant system for tasting. So now I’m interested in how you calibrate structure. So taste the wine again and pick something about the structure, acidity for instance. How much acidity does the wine have?
TG: How do you know it’s moderate and not moderate-plus? For that matter, how do you know it’s not high?
TP: This is fascinating. So now a whole separate set of cards comes up.
TG: But this is just structure. You’re not trying to ID the wine.
TP: But Nebbiolo is high acid so I bring up a card for Nebbiolo and know that this wine doesn’t have the same amount of acidity. This is more like a California Cabernet or Merlot. With that I haven’t tasted many of those wines that have more than medium-plus acid so I know that this is medium acid.
TG: I agree with your call of medium acidity. But how do you know it’s not medium-minus or medium-plus? What happens if you taste the wine again and try to make it medium-plus?
TP: It’s just medium.
TG: How do you know?
TP: I’m going through a file of every class wine in the world.
TG: But then does it take you a long time to get through structure? Are you flashing a series of glasses with names on them or what?
TP: No, it’s more like words.
TG: Is there a picture of an actual glass of wine?
TP: More just like a word on a card.
TG: So you read the word Nebbiolo on a card to yourself? As opposed to something with lower acidity?
TG: Are the cards in a sequence from low to high acid?
TP: No, I don’t see everything I just see what’s relevant to this wine I’m tasting.
TG: You’re also holding your right arm at arm’s length out in front of you just below eye level. Is that where you see the words? Do the words flash and say Nebbiolo or how does it work? It’s almost like search and identify as in higher-lower, higher-lower, back and forth and then you have it.
TG: So what other words might come up for this wine to identify the acid?
TP: Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Also at this point I’ve already tasted the wine and identified it as new world so other things don’t come into play. It’s like Nebbiolo is here (points out front), over ripe Zinfandel is down here (points lower out in front) and this wine is right in the middles.
TG: So there are locations where the words live?
TG: Is there some kind of gradation or a sequence that all the words live in?
TP: Yes: Nebbiolo, Cabernet-Merlot and Zinfandel.
TG: So that’s acidity. What do you do for alcohol? What’s the alcohol level in this wine?
TG: Again, how do you know it’s not moderate-minus or high? Do you use the same kind of system of cards with words? Do you do something different?
TP: With a wine like this that’s either moderate-plus or high, I channel into a fortified wine kind of a scale just because of the alcohol in the retro-nasal and how the wine feels on the sides of my tongue. I’m thinking that the wine’s not port-like but it’s not Burgundy either. The wine is delicious, by the way.
TG: But is the same kind of system with words? Do you have Port over here and Burgundy over here? The middle would be something like Cabernet or Merlot?
TP: Yes and yes.
TG: But are there any markers in and around the words on the cards that make it so you can really calibrate precisely? Or is it using wine types?
TP: It’s wine types and how the wine hits me in the moment. Part of it was born out of the desire to be timely and linear but it also the way I’ve always done it.
TG: What about tannin? Do you do it the same way?
TG: Just a bit more about this series of words. Is it a strip of words out in front of you? A white strip?
TG: Is it the same scale for all the wines or do you have different scales for different wines?
TP: Good question. I’m really focusing wine by wine so if I’ve got Clare Riesling then that’s at the top for acidity, Condrieu would be at the bottom. I’m calibrating off that.
TG: So different scales for whites and reds.
TG: What about the finish? How do you do that? Say a short finish vs. a long finish.
TP: Just mouth feel and texture.
TG: OK but how do you know? How do you calibrate it?
TP: I’m going back to the contributing factors to the finish which are tannin, alcohol and acid. I’ve already established what I believe those to be. So if I called a wine medium-plus alcohol, medium acid and medium-plus tannin, then the finish couldn’t be short. It would have to be medium-plus or long.
TG: Got it. Where you do store these words?
TP: It’s in a grid.
TG: So when you get to where it says acid and you say Cabernet, what does there? The word “medium” or just “Cabernet?” Does the answer go there too?
TP: It’s a combination of both. Again, if I called the wine medium-plus alcohol, medium acid and medium-plus tannin, I look at my grid and all the cards and know the wine has to have medium-plus complexity and a medium-plus finish.
TG: You mention complexity; what is complexity like? Think of a basic jug wine then think of a heroically complex wine; what’s the difference? How do you represent those to yourself? Do you see labels or bottles?
TP: That’s a tough one. It’s like a textural thing; if I’m falling face down on the floor it’s not a complex wine. But if I’m falling face down into a big lush pile of pillows then the wine has to have higher complexity. It’s a body-feeling type of a thing and again at this is the point during my tasting where I allow myself to ask if I like the wine or not. As for this wine, it has a velvety texture and the tannins are in balance so it’s a really good wine—and very complex. So the pleasure center for the first time might come into play. That’s always been my complexity thing: do I like it or not.
TG: So at the end of it when you have all this information on the grid in terms of images and answers, how do you identify the wine in the MS context? What do you do?
TP: I’m going all the way back everything I’ve said. So the grid is laid out and I have all my markers and evaluations. I’m reading down the grid and seeing all the various images and the structure words. At this point I have no choice but to call this a new world wine from a moderate to warm climate.
TG: Why can’t you call it old world? What stops you?
TP: Low minerality. I don’t even have a picture for minerality, literally a picture of a rock in my head. I’m not saying that the absence of minerality automatically makes it new world but in the case of this wine I’m 99% sure.
TG: Got it. So I think we pretty much have your sequence down. I have to ask you, did you know that you did any of this?
TP: No, not at all. Thanks, this has been pretty amazing.