Saturday, September 12, 2009

Tasting Wine With The Experts

by Ambrose Blake (Tom Emch)

The Grand Ballroom of the St. Francis Hotel is a large room. It's so large that you could set up tasting tables for some eighty wineries around the perimeter, a massive cheese table in the center and still have space for a few Olympic equestrian events in between.

But you don't gallop around at a formal wine tasting, glass in hand, from the Chardonnay to the Johannesberg Riesling to the Gewurztraminer just because it's free. You have to do it with style and not appear thirsty.

Keep calm, I told myself. Just because there are more than eighty wines here, you shouldn't panic. Treat it like a cafeteria line and don't load up at the beginning. Make some careful decisions.

Best to look over the Wine Institute's listings, read the descriptions and note the adjectives: "full-bodied, crisp, tart, smooth, lingering finish, fruity, spicy, intense, balanced" and, of course, "elegant."

Immediately, I decided to forget the fruity and intense and concentrate on the smooth and elegant. Why fool around?

Decisions can be a problem at a big wine tasting, particularly when faced with about eighty-five of them. So you have to make some heart-wrenching ones - like don't ry to sample everything: twenty or so should do the job.

Although I've been to a few wine tastings, I'm still not up to speed on the proper etiquette. I never say the right thing, like "fine nose," or "lovely bouquet," or "marvelous balance." Becaue I don't know what these things mean.

I used to say things like: "wow", or "yummy," or "ugh." But people frowned at me. So now I just smile - no matter how bad it tastes - and say, "Mmmmmm." They can take it anyway they want to.

My first time out in this league I was astonished that the tasters were taking a sip and tossing the rest into buckets. Why throw away good booze?

Another source of wonderment at tastings: Why all the cheese and bread? Most everybody has already had lunch. I was told you should take something between the Cabernet and the Chenin Blanc so you don't get your palate confused.

You can learn a lot by just observing the professional tasters and wine experts. Best thing is to pick out someone who looks like he knows what he's doing and follow him around; do what he does and say what he says.

Some observations.
* The pros hold the glass by the stem, instead of holding the glass like it's a steering wheel. Have no idea why.
* Experts swish the liquid around in the glass before tasting it. Some of them hold it up to the light.
* Some people even close their eyes while tasting. Seems like you could spill a lot of booze if you miss your mouth.
* The cognoscenti say things like "big," or "young" or "good potential." But if you don't know what you're talking about, it's best to keep your mouth shut and just drink; and gobble some cheese occasionally.

There are a lot of other fine points of wine tasting etiquette, but I've forgotten most of them. I know you're not supposed to belch, or spit or drink the whole glass, which seems sort of silly, if you find the one you like.

I usually sneak away from the crowd when I find a good one and toss it off in one gulp; but this is not considered proper.

Tasting the really bad ones is even more difficult. You never make a face, even when the acidity is so strong your mouth puckers up. Smile.

But to get back to the Grand Ballroom at the St. Francis and the Wine Institute's "Tasting of California Wines."

A knowledgeable friend told me to look for the offerings of the small wineries: Simi, Geyser Peak, Grgich Hills, and Dry Creek. But I got confused after the first three or four glasses and a bit too much time at the Korbel Champagne table.

I do remember the priest at the Novitiate Winery table saying something about "first crushings" and a "new relase". I think it was a Riesling.

The Concannon people told me their Rkatsiteli is from a Bulgarian and Russian grape. The stuff was so good I lost my poise and drank the whole glass.

At the Carey Cellars table (it's a new winery in Solvang) the girl behind the table offered a Sauvignon Blac and said it was "nice for picnics."

I said "Mmmmmm," and smiled.

I was behind an expert at the Geyser Peak table. He tasted the Pinot Noir Blanc and said, "A little young."

So I tasted and said: "Youngish."

(See how easy this wine tasting routine is? It gets easier as you go on to the fifteenth or sixteenth variety.)

The man at the E. J. Gallo table looked strangely at me when I said, "Surprising complexity," after tasting the Sauvignon Blanc. So I decided to stick with my standard noncommittal comment.

Someone told me that the Robert Mondavi Napa Fume was selling for sixteen dollars a bottle in Tokyo and I decided to move up in the world. I tried it and said, "Mmmmm." But with a Japanese accent.

From there it was a short jump to the class of the show: the Domaine Chandon Brut, a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pino Blanc.

I sipped. Great bubbly, I thought to myself. But I said only: "Mmmmm. Something here I can't identify. Would you fill it up again?"

The Chandon man started talking about the champenoie method and the cuvees and rotating bottles and the second fermentation.

Didn't understand a word of it, but the champagne was beautiful. Not Dom Perignon, mind you, but excellent.

The tasting was all down hill from there. The Chardonnays tasted flat and the Sauvignon Blancs were too blanc. Even the cheese tasted different.

It was much later that I learned I had been at a special press tasting and among the tasters were experts from a dozen or so magazines and newspapers - Copley News Service, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Rocky Mountain News and Harper's, to name a few. These are the people who write about wine for a living and have all the etiquette down pat.

I hope they enjoyed themselves as much as I did.

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle 1979