Wine Tasting- What’s the Goal?
By Brian Goode
It can be fun to drive around in a wine-producing region, for the purpose of tasting the wines featured at the different wineries. I’ve done it many times since my college days in California , and I am richer for the experience. The flavor impressions I developed- good and bad- helped me to differentiate a high quality wine from an inferior one. When you are ready to go on a wine tasting tour, it helps greatly to be aware of your objectives. You should identify them prior to embarking on this type of venture. For example, perhaps you want to compare and contrast the same varietals (say Chardonnay) in different locations (to observe the effects of terroir- or geography, soil, climate, altitude, etc.). Maybe you want to learn to better identify the taste and aroma profile of a particular grape by trying it at a few different wineries. Are you just out for a night on the town? Its fine if you are, by the way - but you should taste with a different, less critical set of criteria. If you taste locally made product here in New Jersey , maybe your goal is to try to find a way to support a local product. Any of these or other reasons for going on a wine tasting escapade should shape the approach you take towards your visits.
When I traveled France, Italy, or California ’s wine regions, the thing I was most interested in was what the winemakers themselves had to say about their products. It was obvious that they had true pride in their work, and that they took a purposeful approach towards achieving the end result that was in my glass. I would then compare their objectives with my own impressions, as well as with the impressions written by wine critics. It was always great to hear the passion of the artist coming through.
It helps to map out a game plan in advance, once you’ve decided why you’re going on a wine tasting mission. Find out the hours of operation at the various locations, as well as how far away they are from each other. Ask the questions which are most related to your quest. For example, if you are looking to try one specific varietal, like Chardonnay or Merlot, find out who’s got it. Check local wine and liquor stores as well. Many of them conduct regular tastings. Ask to see if they may be serving something related on the day of your tasting. Determine if there are any fees involved. Doing all of this in advance will allow you to move from one place to the next more quickly.
If your purpose is to learn, by all means take notes. Save them afterwards as well. Tasting 8 different Merlots from 4-5 different producers will do wonders to help identify the type of Merlot you like to drink, and more importantly, the one’s you don’t like.
Another thing to do to help develop your wine style is to take pictures of the labels, especially on a smart phone. Make at least two folders- one for the wines you like, and one for the ones you don’t like. As you get more proficient you can increase the categories. I found this practice to be maybe the single most effective way to identify someone’s wine preferences, and I used this to great success in the retail wine business when helping customers.
I was in Alsace in France several years ago, waiting for a local restaurant to open up. I walked around the picturesque Medieval town, with its cobblestone streets. I looked into a side alley, and some man poked his head out, looked both ways, and went “pssst”, motioning me to come in. I walked into a dark room with two large ten foot high casks. There were about six men in there, most of them speaking Alsatian (French dialect). They switched to French afterwards, which helped a little, until the wine started. The wine poured was rather generous in size, there was no spitting, and there are quite a few different varietals produced in Alsace . We tasted them all. From several different vintages. When I would try to beg off, they would say “You haven’t tried this one yet.” (As if they could keep track at that point.) I’d say, “yes, it’s right here”, then they’d say, “Well, not from this vintage.” They’d pour yet another glass. Finally, I moved next to a man from Chile who wasn’t doing so well with the French. We started speaking Spanish, which was easier at this point. Then they asked where I was from, and when I said United States, they all laughed and switched to English. Just in time, too, because I told them I had a lunch reservation. I was released on my on cognizance..
You don’t need to drink a lot, and you don’t need to try everything in a winery’s portfolio. You are the customer. They have buckets to dump the extra wine into, and the pros can form a taste impression without actually drinking the wine, but rather by swirling and spitting it out. You probably won’t do this, and you may discover that you have enjoyed quite a few wines over the course of the day. Stop when you’ve had your limit, and try to bring a designated driver. Wine can sneak up on you..
One of the important aspects of being a tasting customer is to show respect for the work put into the end product. If you’re just out for a good time, that’s fine, just keep it polite. Maybe every wine isn’t to your taste, but you should be aware that maybe “it’s you, not them”, especially if you don’t have a lot of wine knowledge. If you don’t like powerful, dry red wine, you may not like even a well-made example of a Cabernet Sauvignon.
Brian Goode has been a chef and wine enthusiast for over thirty years, ever since his college days as a science major in Santa Cruz, California, and during his chef training at the Culinary Institute of America. During a Foodservice and Hospitality career in many areas around the country, he has received numerous awards for his cuisine, as well as several Wine Spectator Awards for his wine lists. He and his wife Joanne have been owners of Ye Olde Centerton Inn for seven years. He rarely declines an offer to talk about or taste wine and food.www.centertoninn.com or visit us on facebook