Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A question of sight

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend another of the wine seminars which are, whether large and official or small and on the fly (because the sales rep dropped by with some new bottles), a permanent part of the job. As usual, they are as intriguing for the chance they provide to observe human nature as they are for the things one learns about wine.

A few points still stand out, seminar after seminar. About wines: they, especially reds, are getting more uniform in taste and weight, and dare I say, more scentlessly bland? even as Master Sommelier candidates are called upon to struggle fiercely with identifying their differences as a proof of  expertise. The official class yesterday treated of Oregon pinot noirs, and of the Court of Master Sommeliers' program. Delicious, and most interesting, as Miss Marple would say. Only, no longer will I breezily tell customers how different the Oregon "style" tends to be from the Californian .... 

Here are some more points. About people: people still want to be perceived as having innate grand taste, especially when they are sampling blind. Wow, my favorite was the Chateau Latour! But we also want to be perceived as non-snobs able to recognize a sleeper, $12 hit. So a group of fifteen or twenty souls tread very carefully when asked "what are we tasting in the glass? Any thoughts?" No one wants to say olive brine or tar when that might be wrong. But if you say olive brine, you won't be told you're wrong. "Good! What else? Anyone?" There is an almost audible sigh of relaxation as more guesses are proffered. This is the nub of it all, for it's not nonsense. There are specific things to be perceived and named in the glass, and they do have a chemical structure and an origin in the grape or the place. Most importantly they give pleasure. Someone chances to mention a scent you thought was crazy at first. Meat. "Yes! Savory!" Good! What else? 

The idea of tasting and talking in a group is to train your palate, which is perfectly legitimate, too. But you can only bring to each seminar the palate you've developed so far; so that when everyone excitedly asks the moderator to "taste the next one blind," and we do, and you think it might be a Chianti (Italian, sangiovese) and it turns out to be a northern Rhone (French, syrah), you do stop and marvel inwardly. Good grief, I have probably only tasted three or four expensive northern Rhones in my life. No wonder I couldn't tell. Or else my faculties aren't good. Or else red wines are all the same. Meanwhile the man next to you, who had believed it was a Cotes du Rhone (mostly southern French, grenache-based blend), now breezily forgets that, and exults how he knew all along. "That classic northern Rhone profile. Syrah all the way. Beautiful." As an aside, and most curiously, we hear confirmed that when the blind tastings for final exams at the Master Sommelier level are done, the wines the candidates struggle over are never identified, not ever. In the film Somm the exhausted aspirants discuss their wildly divergent opinions. "You called Vacqueyras?" "I called boutique Sonoma gamay." They will never know. It must be a precaution against anyone's really developing a palate memory, and returning confident next year. I can't think what else it might mean.

So I drive home, marveling. Note how the seminar turns out to be much more about people than wine. My old WineStyles colleague's words come back to me -- he of the thirty-five years in the business, retail, wholesale, and crushpad, he who started out selling Paul Masson Cracklin' Rose and also tasted Chateau Petrus when young liquor store clerks still could. "Folks. Please. It's just wine." And I think, what other product, what consumable, has this bright-eyed anxiety attached to it? It's a sort of unintentional humbug, if there can be such a thing. Customers look for guidance in spending their money to people in the trade. We can provide some, but you see what goes on when we're together. Yesterday we also heard confirmed that Oregon and California pinot noirs are not getting more lushly alike, the proof being that the nice man who reviews Oregon for Wine Advocate is an Englishman steeped in the spare Burgundian tradition. When he first arrived in Oregon he gave the wines low points, in the 80s, but now he has "gotten his head around the style" and he routinely rates them 92 and 95. That didn't really answer my question, but the moderator wanted to move on. It was on thinking of that, driving home, that the word humbug occurred to me. 

What other product has this anxiety attached? Very gourmet beef? Orchids? Perfume? Maybe perfume. Another mysterious bottled liquid, been around forever, expensive, hard to describe, marketing is everything, capable of being very good or very mediocre. You have your iconic examples, like Chanel No. 5, and your cognoscienti treats, like Chanel No. 19. Germany has been making 4711 for two hundred years, in Cologne. There is a whole background world of the stuff that only sommeliers as it were know. One can imagine, at the perfume counter, a customer's same anxiety not to instinctively like a "cheap scent," or the same ready dismissal of what grandmother wore or what one liked in college. And remember in old Hollywood movies when the perfume counter girl is understood to be no better than she should be?

On the other hand, everyone can see an orchid and decide about it. "You like what you like." It must be a question of sight.     

The Fableist pinot noir, 2014

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