"So…what do you smell?”
The question is posed by a Master Sommelier standing at the front of the small lecture hall. To say this man has "studied” wine for decades would be too light of a word. He’s memorized thousands of grape varietals, world geography, historical weather patterns, classic and historical viticulture and viniculture technique, the science of fermentation, and the smell and taste of a number of wines that would likely be too large to count. He’s done this to become one of only 149 Master Sommeliers in the United States.
“This wine is clean….color is straw…on the nose I get…apple?”
The Master Sommelier prods: “Ok. What kind of apple?”
“Yellow apple on the nose.”
“And what is the condition of the yellow apple?”
“Ripe yellow apple. And…green bell pepper.”
I’m in my first week of a 10-week intensive sommelier training, being lead through what the Court of Master Sommeliers calls “the grid" (red, white). It’s the tool the Court of Master Sommeliers uses to identify wine in a blind tasting. The idea is that by having descriptors listed out to check “yes” or “no” on, the sommelier has a structured way to evaluate the wine the same way each time. Seeing an experienced Sommelier running through the grid in a blind tasting is a sight to behold (for those who haven’t seen the documentary, Somm, which this is taken from, I highly recommend it).
It goes without saying that blind tasting is extremely difficult. There are three main challenges:
1. It's difficult to use spoken language to describe taste.
Martin Mull famously once captured how imprecise we are when trying to use one medium to describe another:
2. It’s difficult to isolate specific flavors or smells.
At it's simplest level, to taste wine is to taste...old grapes. But the process of fermentation introduces a multitude of new chemical compounds. These compounds can often be found in the foods we eat, so often compare the sensations of wine to those of other foods. I'm not actually smelling green bell pepper in my wine, I'm smelling pyrazines—one of the many magical chemical compounds produced during fermentation.
3. It's difficult to memorize the characteristics of so many wines.
Even if #2 is nailed, the blind taster still has to be able to compare the things they’re noticing in the wine against a memorized wine "catalog" engrained in their heads in order to find the right match.
"...So what else do you smell?"
"I'm not sure.”
"Cat urine. One of the major markers of Sauvignon Blanc is the smell of cat urine. Over time, you'll pick it up almost right away.” The class looks a little doubtful, but at the same time, trust in his experience. Everyone is in such unfamiliar territory that we’re hanging on every word of his advice.
The sommelier has stressed to us early in the course: using the grid to write down observations is only one part of keeping the same wine evaluation routine. You also need to smell, taste, look, write, slurp, and spit the wine in the same order each time in order to isolate the subtleties of what you’re experiencing. You want the routine to slowly fade out of sight so you can be completely present with what you're experiencing.
It's hard enough to blind taste without introducing the new variables that tasting differently each time can introduce. For example, when assessing alcohol content in a wine, slurping the wine in the back of your throat vaporizes more of it, bringing more of a burning alcohol sensation than what you would get by swishing it around in the front of the palette. All things held equal, if I only slurped a given wine, I’d call a higher alcohol content on it than if i just swished it. In order to establish what “low,” “moderate,” and “high” alcohol content tastes like, I need to taste the same way every time.
This is a less-commonly talked about benefit of routine. Most often, routine is talked about in terms of habit formation: "I want to go to the gym first thing in the morning so it becomes part of my daily routine." Less talked about is the routine that exists within the actual thing being done: "I want to rest the same amount of time between each of my weight sets so that I can notice if I'm getting stronger." Similarly, a Chef instructor told me early on in culinary school, "I have no way to help you with your knife skills until you start using it the same way every time."
When we intentionally set up routines, we can reduce the distractions around us in order to truly focus on what's in front of us on a deeper level. In order to be able to smell the cat urine.
Setting a Routine
Active time to complete: 1 min
Find one area in which you can set up a routine in order to improve the quality of your work. For example, could your "morning routine" use a little bit more routine so you can spend more mental energy focusing on the day that lies ahead?