Friday, 24 January 2014

On Doing Things Right - Tasting, Writing and Not Being a Jerk

I’ve spent most of my life assessing wine, in one way or another. Whether it's just drinking it to say 'hey, that's pretty great', evaluating it as a sommelier for a restaurant, or determining quality in a blind tasting for a competition or exam. In hindsight, this appears fantastically idiotic, but still, here I am, 10 years in. I'm still at it, tasting it, talking about it, assessing it.

It’s the most splendid obsession, so much so that when I try to remember things, I find myself setting up the memories like they're a vertical. 2007? A great year, lots of change and development and still holds up to this day. 2011 was a horrible vintage. Dead on opening. Boring at best. Many of my peers and critics had 2013 marked up as a great year but in conclusion it was a disappointment and completely stank of brett. Often people around me equate my obsession with wine with an illness, or worse, with a religion.

Wine Tasting

Despite being a cub in the scheme of the wine trade, I am still asked, flatteringly, for advice in evaluation and knowledge regarding wine and the one thing I always like to hammer home is that there is no definitive method for it. Anyone, or any educational institute that tells you that there is is lying to you.

All methods have weaknesses. I was with a MW student recently who showed me a terrifyingly complicated grind devised by Anthony Moss known affectionately (?!) as the 'Moss Cross'. Ok, so it wasn't that complicated, but it wasn't for me. The same MW student looked at my scrawl of acronyms which are markers for me to comment on acidity, winemaking style, use of oak, balance, complexity and thought I was insane. Looking back on my notes, I can see their point.

Take Note of your Tasting Surroundings

Method is one thing, location is another. Attending a tasting in a giant hall full of tasters is a bad experience. Alcohol, sweat, carpeting and cheese, I never understand why wine tastings go to such an effort to get you there to evaluate wine and then ruin it by shoving a round of cheese on every other table. Marking wines out of ten when you're tasting so much is not just stupid but arrogant. The scores are meaningless, you're benchmarking against nothing.

Don't Be Afraid To Ask Questions

Winemaker tastings are a better experience: you're getting an education but you need to exercise your critical faculties. Owners and winemakers lie to writers, buyers, sommeliers and themselves. Not all of them, and not all of them with unsavoury intentions, but you still have to be careful. I remember visiting a winery which swore blind they matured everything in French oak, to be thoroughly embarrassed when I uncovered some Californian barrels in a bit of the winery I don't think I was supposed to be in. 'We never filter, honest guv' - so what's with the great big filter over there then pal? It doesn't matter that they do this stuff when you're evaluating a wine, but it's worth knowing that wineries, like any other business, like to tell you what you want to hear. Then it's reported by a blogger or the trade press or whatever who doesn't always know how to think critically and it becomes part of the canon and no-one questions it.

The Future Is Blind

Blind tasting is the future. It's the way. Lots of wines to taste? Perfect, you're benchmarking correctly and objectively. Judging wines for a competition? It's essential. People may complain that even in blind tastings scores or ratings vary between tastings, but a basic understanding of human nature explains this phenomenon.

Tasting solo is very different to tasting with a group or panel and crucially, and here is the kicker, drinking is not the same as tasting. There are so many variables in wine evaluation, it almost makes it seem useless. OK, you said it, not me.

If You're Going To Write, Do It Right

Do I write about wines for blogs? Very infrequently, perhaps as a member of the trade I should, but I don't know how to go about it. I don't want to write about wineries where I've been given spiel, I don't want to sit there and taste them like I'm in an MW exam. I want to drink wine and enjoy it and talk about wine in a full context of what I know of the region, what I know of the winery but mostly the context I enjoyed it in. Frankly, I think that most wines, beers, whatever don't deserve this much attention anyway, which is why you'll never get my tasting notes presented neatly to you. It'd be like someone unexpectedly revealing their spirituality to you. No-one wants that.

The drinks trade isn't stupid. They don't send freebies to anyone who really knows anything about what they're talking about unless they're absolutely 100% sure it's the style they're interested in or there will be some degree of positive coverage. Many bloggers aren't necessarily writers, many can't be bothered to do research and they don't delve deep enough to find out what's really going on. They will just regurgitate what they think they already know and it's not good enough. You want to be known in the trade? For your ability to taste? Don't just write a blog, go out and meet people who are genuinely influential and taste with them.

So I won't write you tasting notes, not unless I've done my research and I'm prepared to stand by it. I've never thought myself a writer because I don't have the time to devote to it. I won't blog lazily about something I half know about.

If you made it this far, you're a gem. Keep tasting, keep drinking, keep reading. Will I ever manage to write properly for anyone? Time will tell, of course, but I’m a believer.

Images, in order, taken from eblaser, Mellinda & Cristiano, Prayitno, Itdan and Mike Licht's photostreams under the Creative Commons License

1 comment:

  1. This is a very insightful post. I am a budding food & Wine Blogger and I will bookmark this. thanks .