by Tim Gaiser MS

This is part one in a five-part series of articles by Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser, which will appear consecutively here, on Pouring Points. Tim’s SommDay School Workshops are designed for students in the food, beverage, and hospitality industry who are just starting their Sommelier education journey, and ideal for those looking to further improve their service and tasting skills.  

Sometimes, I think the process of smelling and tasting wine is a lot like playing golf. Both are very complex sequences involving the use of multiple senses while processing a good deal of information in the moment. To point, addressing the golf ball consistently before making a good shot in golf is probably the single most crucial factor for success in the game. Likewise, consistency in technique when picking up a glass to smell the wine is incredibly important—but something rarely, if ever, discussed or written about. I call the process “glassware stance.”

Here’s a breakdown of the essential steps:  

  1. The angle of the glass
  2. Smelling technique—short sniffs vs. one long hoover
  3. Passive vs. active inhalation
  4. Starting eye position

Instructions:

    1. The angle of the glass: every wine glass has a “best angle” or sweet spot for smelling wine—the angle where the aromatics can be most easily perceived and recognized. To find the best angle, start by placing the glass vertically just underneath your nose and slowly tilt the glass up. Don’t go too far! You’ll hoover the wine. At some point when the angle of the glass is between 45 and 50 degrees, the aromas of the glass will really begin to “sing” and be easy to detect. It’s important to note that different kinds/shapes of glasses (think Bordeaux vs. Burgundy stems) have different “best angles.” Remember to check for this every time you pick up a different glass.
    2. Smelling technique—short sniffs vs. one long hoover: practically every source on tasting I’ve ever read suggest smelling wine using several short and gentle sniffs. I completely agree. The opposite—smelling wine with one prolonged intense hoover/inhalation is anything but effective. For one, the alcohol in the wine can quickly overwhelm your sense of smell. It’s also completely awkward.
    3. Passive vs. active inhalation: most of the human race smells wine by placing the lip of the glass directly on the upper lip just beneath the nose, then sniffing. I call this passive inhalation as it relies almost entirely on orthonasal smelling, or technically speaking, detecting the volatile compounds (aromatics) in wine by inhaling through the nasal passages. For the record, I can’t smell wine this way. It’s overwhelming to my nose and sense of smell. Instead, I use a technique I learned at a Cognac master class several decades ago. I call it “active inhalation.” When smelling wine, I pull the glass away from my face by about a half-inch, open my mouth slightly, and then breathe in (and out) through my mouth and nose at the same time. By doing so, I’m able to smell exponentially better because I’m using a great deal more “internal real estate” to process the aromatics in the wine. Neuroscientists call this combining ortho and retronasal olfaction or inhalation. Try the active inhalation technique. It may—or may not—work for you. It’s especially effective when smelling higher alcohol wines like Port and Sherry as well as spirits.
    4. Starting eye position: for me, this is arguably the single most important part of glassware stance in terms of being consistent in one’s tasting. Some years ago, I worked with Tim Hallbom, a behavioral scientist, on a project that involved tasting wine on camera with him standing next to me. Our goal was to deconstruct what I did internally when I smelled and tasted wine. One of the first things Tim noticed was that every time I picked up a glass to smell a given wine my eyes initially went to the same place. He told me about eye accessing cues, literally eye positions we consistently use to access different kinds of sense memories (visual memories, auditory memories, etc.). For example, most of the human race looks up and to the left for visual memory. Likewise, most people look down-center or down-left when talking to themselves. This is called digital audio—and is precisely what I do—and most people do—when initially smelling a wine. In the years since Hallbom pointed this out to me, I’ve noticed that with precious few exceptions, everyone looks down, usually but not always to the left, when smelling wine. That said, I’m convinced that finding one’s starting eye position is vital to being a consistent taster. Here are steps to find your starting eye position.  

Finding Your Starting Eye Position

  1. Stand up—you’ll be able to focus much better than you do when sitting down.
  2. Pick up the glass and smell the wine.
  3. While smelling the wine, focus your eyes downward at a 15-20° angle above the floor and straight ahead.
  4. While continuing to smell the wine, take your free hand and point to the location where your eyes are looking.
  5. Now move your eyes and free hand together, slowly, from left to center to the right—all the while continuing to smell the wine.
  6. Gradually find the one place that feels the most comfortable and familiar—it shouldn’t take long to locate it.
  7. Once you find your “best” or starting place, be sure to mark it clearly in your memory.
  8. This is your starting eye position and be sure to use it whenever beginning to smell a wine.
  9. Important: remember that it’s just your starting place. After you begin to examine the wine, your eyes will move to various locations as you analyze the wine. However, what’s important is that you remember to start in the same place every time. You’ll be glad you did. Cheers!

Learn more about Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser’s SommDay School Workshops at Napa Valley Wine Academy.