In Search of What’s Real (and the Elusive 55 Percent)

If I am not tasting wine, I’m probably reading about it.  I’ve downloaded several memoirs of wine professionals to my Kindle and recently read a book with insight from sommeliers throughout the country.  Ahh, the sommelier.  I just like saying the word.  Can you detect a little jealousy from my keyboard?   I love watching the whole performance of wine service; the presenting of a bottle, the decanting, the pouring of the first glass (my girlfriend first, and no spilling!), and hopefully the ability to convey the highlights of that establishment’s wine list without over or underwhelming the guest.  (And they are always wearing the most badass of suits).  Of course, they have worked hard to achieve those positions; starting with working any grunt job in a restaurant, familiarizing oneself with wines from all over the world (with new countries showing potential almost every year), and acing an increasingly difficult series of exams from organizations such as the International Sommelier Guild and the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Two years ago, I began my wine educational journey by enrolling in the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, (WSET) both out of a desire to learn more about my new favorite beverage and to have a credential to display if a restaurant or wine shop actually thought it would be a cute idea to offer me an interview.  It’s been a rewarding process, thanks mainly to my teacher Jessica Bell, who was one of my first interviews for this blog.  The classes have inspired me to try wines and foods I never thought of before, and I’ve also re-learned much of the science and geography that’s been lost to me since tenth grade.  My Level Two exam was passed with merit and on Level Three I squeaked past enough of the exam’s read-them-at-least-twice-so-you-understand-them multiple choice questions and passed my blind tasting (at least for the Gamay, I mean, New Zealand Pinot Noir) that Jessica chose for our final.

The higher level exams feature blind tasting as one of the components.  Imagine facing six or twelve glasses and trying to write or verbalize what grape you believe is in each glass, as well as the correct country, subregion and vintage.  And you have a time limit.  At least on my Level Three test, there was just one wine to analyze (now it’s two).

Actually, those with that ability don’t turn my blue eyes green so much.  Yes, it’s impressive to witness, but when I watch a pro take a few sniffs, a sip or two, and successfully place a wine’s vintage, region and primary grape, it’s hard not to think of Rain Man.  What I really crave is the confidence in their palates; they know what they like and what constitutes quality from a classical perspective.  And those two lists may not always be in agreement.

And they can recognize the soul of a wine, if it can be found.  The French call it terroir.  There really isn’t an English translation.  But you’re able to detect it, at least at the extremes.  You know that Rod Stewart (a musical hero of the wine importer Terry Thiese) embraced some deep musical roots for the first decade of his career and then . . . lost his way.

On my Level Three exam, the essays have been my stumbling block.  Twice now.  The mark I must hit is 55 percent, which is harder than it sounds.  It’s said that even great Bordeaux can go through a “dumb stage.”  This must be mine.

As I round up my note cards again, I hope as I study my terroirs that there are examples of terroir you’ve identified in your life.  Maybe it’s through art or music or architecture that always impresses you with its honesty, its naturalness, its un-need to conform to modern trends.  And that you can passionately praise its virtues to your friends, while (and this is the tricky part), tactfully, with love and grace, describe how its pretenders fall short.

Those in the wine industry who practice this have my respect and admiration.  55 percent or not.

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