Some thoughts on wine tasting and training
Doing tastings with sommeliers and wine buyers or conducting wine training is part of the job for the common-or-garden wine merchant. You buy the wine; you get the talking instruction kit. “Thank you for purchasing your day-glo orange wine. Here is how it works…We hope you will be very happy with your purchase and enjoy freaking out your unsuspecting customers.”
Tasting with somms is one kind of wine transaction which involves adopting the right body language as much as anything else. No matter how formal and standoffish the milieu, you need to ensure that everyone present is as relaxed as possible and tasting the wine in the right spirit, rather than forcing cue cards on them. Sharing information with a portion of humour and humility shows an easy confidence rather than flogging a product qua product for the hell of your turnover. If you attempt to big up a wine that is plainly not showing well, then expect to lose the confidence of your audience, for you are, in effect, reinforcing the adversarial seller/buyer relationship and casting yourself in the role of desperate huckster.
Sommeliers are highly trained tasters who have studied their specialist subject long and hard. Their wine lists are an expression of their taste (which, for them, is good taste). The question is whether they see themselves as gatekeepers or taste-discoverers, open to new things.
“Thank you for purchasing your day-glo orange wine. Here is how it works…We hope you will be very happy with your purchase and enjoy freaking out your unsuspecting customers.”
Wine, for many, is an esoteric subject. Although there is no reason why it should be. We’ve come a long way from the Thurberesque snootbag wine waiter. There is a great deal of information out there for those that are interested. However, when you work in a restaurant you may find that wine training as being force-fed dry information, when it should be relatable and pleasurable (in the sense that information empowers one to be better at one’s job which in turn makes you feel good about yourself).
When training, however, you have to remember that you are teaching to the back of the class as well, as preaching to the more informed taster. You don’t want to bore one listener and disenfranchise the other. The utilitarian part of training is to give your audience the tools to sell wine by helping them to find a language which they are confident to use. In some cases, these tools will be functional, in others, more sophisticated. For knowledge to be imprinted, so to speak, the recipient should be engaged on a number of levels. Ideally, wine training should be an immersive experience involving some element of discovery (and self-discovery). When you make the subject about the person themselves and their experiences, you intrinsically make that subject more interesting (or relevant) to them.
Even in the company of expert tasters it is worth taking extra time to define one’s terms. Having to talk a lot about organics and biodynamic and, more particularly, natural wine, has given me the opportunity to refine my approach in this regard. These are weighty subjects, after all, touching on agriculture, geology, history, chemistry and microbiology, and invariably discussion of them raises philosophical issues as well as conveying the more factual information to do with viticulture and vinification. There is no point being didactic or abstruse, as that will alienate your audience. There is no point in merely slipping these terms into the discourse as buzzwords as that may reinforce misconceptions about the subject. A more democratic approach is to teach tasters to understand that what is being discussed is both simpler – and yet more complex – than they might think– and that there is always more to learn. By knowing that there are no right or wrong answers, that taste can be shaped by continual practice but still be a personal thing, our students can approach their learning with open minds.
For knowledge to be imprinted, so to speak, the recipient should be engaged on a number of levels. Ideally, wine training should be an immersive experience involving some element of discovery and self-discovery.
When tasting wine with either professionals or amateurs, I try to bring forth some context, describe (as lightly as possible) the processes that brought the wine into existence, and then move to the taster and get them to disengage from their preconceptions (we all have them!). Superfluous technical information can be distracting. Knowing the size of a tank or a barrel, or the name of the trellising system in the vineyard, is only useful if you relate why such knowledge of such details might be useful when you come to taste the wine. The primary focus should be on just a few things and the lesson /theme should be that wines are different for different reasons and that we need to understand and accept these differences. It is important not to oversimplify; to ascribe differences to grape variety or region or country as if we can only cleave to broadest of broad truths (which are not complete truths in any case).
Your role as tasting cicerone is to make sense of the various aromas, textures and flavours that your students are encountering in the glass, to help them to find order in this sensory bombardment, whilst encouraging them to relax with the wine. They should not need to feel that they have to judge it correctly (lest they be judged), rather they should be encouraged to adopt a receptive mentality instead of defaulting to unproductive like/don’t like/good/bad dichotomies.
For such a long time, wine appreciation was deemed to be the parole of the upper and middle classes. To appreciate wine properly you had to have good taste. And, as such, knowledge was hoarded in hierarchies, an elite of writers, opinion-formers and sommeliers. Over the past thirty years (roughly) wine has become totally democratised through the fact that this beverage is now universally available and opinions, via social media and blogging, are ten-a-penny.
By knowing that there are no right or wrong answers, that taste can be shaped by continual practice but still be a personal thing, our students can approach their learning with open minds.
Evaluation may be down to the preferences of the individual taster, but if we don’t understand how we taste, how can we hope to understand what we are tasting? The average taster carries a baggage of opinions formed out of what they have read, heard or experienced. Some of us, for instance, like sweet things, others prefer sour; others still fixate on bitter or salty. There are aspects of certain wines that chime with what our brains recognise and respond positively to. “It is good” could be a reflexive response which indicates that it feels nourishing to the taster and that the wine is good unto itself (good as in complete or honest). Teaching people to taste is more than recognising degrees of acidity, alcohol, sweetness and converting the impressions of these physical qualities into a tasting note. It is about getting people to explore their sense of taste in the round, understanding, for example, how preconceptions play a fundamental part in our perception of flavour, how our brains control our tongue as well as the other way around.
Teaching how to taste – the use of language, the fusion of objective appreciation and subjective perception, the knowledge that one gives and can be brought to bear, the knowledge that provides context and thus yields an insight into the wine. All of which has to find a receptacle, a taster who will reach out and allow the wine to come him or her, and taste on both a knowledgeable and an intuitive level. And if this taster declares that the wine’s flavour reminds them of dragonfruit, please disabuse them of this impression. No fruity dragons were ever harmed in the making of that wine.