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A poker game of blind tasting with some wine-sharks

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Yesterday, I had the great opportunity to sit amongst a table of four sommeliers and participate in a blind wine tasting with them.  It was quite a learning experience.  Along the way, I made the analogy that I was a little kid with the sixteen color box of crayons while they each had the deluxe set with two hundred fifty six colors and the sharpener in the middle.  

When I saw the sheet that they were using to narrow down what type of wine it was, the first thing that intimidated me was that to truly be able to do this, one had to have tasted, if not consumed, a significant amount of wines from different regions as well as different grapes.  Outside of understanding the taste of certain grape varietals, there is also the issue of being able to understand styles of wine that deal with basic blends from various appellations, tasting the different between oak and unoaked aging and fermentation, and observations such as reading the physical signs that a wine gives off to tell if it was produced in a colder or warmer climate.

We started with whites, where with the first bottle, I asked the question of whether it was a blend, being that it reminded me of something that I had with one blanc grape (meaning that Blanc was in the grape's name); I was right on that part, but that was all that I could deduce.  The second wine threw me, because I detected more of what I felt was oxidation, rather than anything else.  The last white reminded me of so many things, but it turned out to be a combination of two grapes, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion, with that latter importing it's character to mute the former.  The third white reminded me on something, but in the back of my mind, the first thing that I thought was I have not had enough of this particular varietals, especially in various fashions to be even able to make the call on it.

The reds were probably as difficult, but more familiar to the parties involved, and that's where I really understood the value of trying more foods as well as more versions of wines made from the same grape.  There was one Cabernet Sauvignon that was about ten years old and at that point, loses the common fruit level that a young Cab is known for; just about anyone used to drinking wines less than five years old outside of certain meritages and dessert blends would have easily been fooled.

While I felt highly intimidated amongst this group, they were very forthcoming with their knowledge and encouraging me to just talk about the wines from my own experiences.  This was one of those experiences that many people fear and shies them away from wine, and others try to fake based on reciting what they read about in magazines such as Wine Spectator et al.  However, no one should be intimidated with wine, you like what you like, and if you are truly into wine, you'll start reaching out for more in-depth sampling of more than you'll normally find on the shelves of one store.

There were some other interesting things that were voiced, and one major one was that all of the wines picked were more traditional in nature, with no occasional exceptions thrown in to rattle, or fake, anyone there.  An example of this would be taking a wine from Italy that is done with a different style than what is normal for that appellation, or a wine from California where someone was going for an Alsace rendering of Pinot Blanc.

One thing I saw was the similarity between sommeliers and auto mechanics.  Of the latter, after years of experience with a number of vehicles, there is the advanced knowledge from decades of having to understanding schematics, both electrical and mechanical and understanding the nuances of different setups.  A good BMW mechanic can tell you about every little design 'character' of any particular year and model that the worked on.  They could tell you cheaper ways to increase horsepower, torque, fuel mileage, etc.  Some mechanics can tell you what a car has under the hood based on simply hearing the engine at different speeds.  Additionally, someone could tell you every potential configuration for a car given a certain year; remember Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny?  

Well, sommeliers are like that, and after they get their certifications, just like mechanics, it doesn't end there.  It takes years of tasting wines to form a great mental database of all of the nuances of a grape, of a style, of a region, etc., to adequately be able to tell certain things about a wine without knowing what it is.  Just like knowing which parts are likely to fail inc ertain cars and when based on their manufacture, a sommelier might taste the same bottle year after year to see what changes in general and what specifically (for those that don't know, wines usually change after so many years in the bottle, sometimes becoming duller before brightening up again).

I myself never want to become a sommelier, nor an auto mechanic, though I did once work in a place rebuilding engines, starters and alternators; you should have seen me then folks.  I was happy as hell with my air tools, my chain lift and hand-operated and electric forklifts.  I am equally happy with a variety of wine openers, some bottles of wine, and good folks to share it with.

Thanks again to the round table: Marnie Olds, Bill Eccleston, Geoff Butler, and the woman whose name that I forget.  They helped to refine an idea that I want to use for some episodes of my television concept.

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Our Mission: The Black Winer strives to expose African Americans [and others] to wines, without the flair, stuffiness, and airs of elitism and snobbery that you get from sommeliers and high level wine enthusiasts. We believe in finding something that you like the taste of, outside of the basic brands that you have been force-fed over the years through a combination of ethnically targeted advertising, and what people in your family have historically been drinking.

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