Christopher S. Miller
How to be a Wine Snob
or Learn to Follow Your Own Palate
Currently I am reading a book, The Accidental Connoisseur, which tries to break down taste, as in our tastes for the different flavors of wine. The book delves into the marketing, reviewing and production of wine. One of the issues the book investigates is the role of the market and wine critics in shaping the type of wines produced. I have often heard wine writers and producers compare wine to perfume because of the delicate aromas and the diversity of those aromas. I am a total nincompoop on perfume, but I can’t imagine critics rating a perfume on a 100 point scale. With all the different chemical and emotional reactions attached, how can a perfume be rated by someone other than yourself or the people around you (who probably won’t comment anyhow)? Well it really is the same with wine. Aroma is the most complex component of wine tasting, and aromas are emotional. Ever catch a whiff of something that brought you back to another place or situation? On occasion I have referred to certain styles of very aromatic Sauvignon Blanc as having the aroma of a sweaty sexual encounter with a beautiful woman (better than wet dog isn’t it?) I have been analyzing wines (through tasting) for more than twenty years and I can tell you that the amount of variables affecting taste is infinite. What I mean is that a tasters palate can be affected by many small things such as: mood (of taster), weather (while tasting), other flavors that were in a tasters mouth prior (meaning food), other aromas in the vicinity, temperature of the wine, glassware…etc. So what was a critics mood when they gave one wine 99 points and another wine 70 points. Anyone remotely associated with the wine industry has seen and felt the impact of wine publications like the Wine Spectator, Gambero Rosso and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. These critiques and publications are helping to mold the direction of wine styles and wine regions, often not in a direction I agree with. Wine is closely tied to culture and history. When wine producers begin to change their wine styles to meet a critic’s palate, we begin to lose the cultural and historical definition of a wine region. When a region such as St-Emilion in Bordeaux begins to make wines that have more in common with Californian Merlot or Cabernet or Australian Merlot/Cabernet that is a loss of history, culture and diversity! And when there is a wine consulting company that has developed a computer program that can break down a critics palate preferences to help make wines that he will give high marks to how far are we from the roots of wine and how close to Coca-Cola? Opps, do I sound like a Neocon worried about interracial marriages?!!?
In my opinion, Robert Parker has had more impact on the wine market and wine production than any other individual – ever. Perhaps I am a bit jealous, but Mr. Parker (a former lawyer) got his start simply by keeping notes on all the wines he tasted before gradually putting them into a newsletter type format for his friends. When the 1982 Bordeaux wines were tasted by all the critics (from barrel), Parker was one of the few who thought it would be one of the greatest vintages ever; most others believed the wines were not structured or balanced enough to age well. When the wines were tasted as they came to market, many wine professionals began to agree with Robert Parker’s assessment and the prices soared for the vintage. Mr. Parker looked like a genius and the buyers who bought on his recommendation enjoyed huge windfalls from the escalating prices. After this, wine merchants began to use Parker reviews to help sell their wines and both professionals and consumers began to depend on the “Parker numbers”. Well that’s how I remember it anyway.
So what’s all this got to due with wine education? As The Accidental Connoisseur tries to define: Wine is a matter of taste, and what is taste? Does Mr. Parker have better taste than I do or you do? If so, how do we improve our taste? Read more Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator issues? Taste more wine? Though I was an accidental and reluctant student growing up, I have since become an advocate of education (especially wine) as the way to free the consumer from the prison of someone else’s tastes and palate. I for one am frightened by the wine consumer’s dependence on “the numbers” (Parker’s or Spectator’s). Hugh Johnson, a famous wine writer is bucking this ‘numbers’ game and feels that wines should be critiqued on how they compare to other wines from the same region. I agree with this approach, but plenty of knowledge is required to understand that approach. For instance if Hugh describes a wine as an excellent example of a Grand Cru Chablis, to understand this one needs knowledge of what a Grand Cru is and the characteristics of a Chablis. But on the flip side if one doesn’t know what a Chablis is supposed to taste like and they taste one that Hugh Johnson says is an excellent example then they learn what an ‘expert’ feels an excellent example tastes like. While with a Parker “99” or a Spectator “99” all you learn is how much that critic liked that particular wine at that particular moment in time – will your experience be the same? At The ‘21’ Club, I convinced the Beverage Director to consider a very fine value Napa Cabernet Sauvignon to pour by the glass. He agreed and poured the wine for the better part of a year, the following vintage received a very high ‘Parker’ score and the producer raised his price substantially (about a 70% increase in price), we dropped the wine from the list and by the glass immediately, the following vintage received a lower ‘Parker’ score but The ‘21’ Club would not carry that producers wine again. So the net result of the high score was an increased price (a loss for the consumer) and a bounce in sales for one vintage, then a loss of a very prestigious restaurant placement for the producer and eventually disappointed consumers in the wines value. The way the ‘ratings’ game works is a wine merchant either gets lucky and buys many cases of a wine that Parker eventually gives a great rating to, then some bump the price a bit or reserve the 95+ point wine for favored customers. Or the wine merchant has an excellent relationship with the winery or distributor and are able to purchase a few cases of a limited production wine.
Something as nuanced as the taste of wine should not be defined by a number. Yes, Robert Parker also writes a description of a wine after the numeric score, but I have never heard a wine merchant or wine consumer ask for a “big, elegant, sweet wine that combines finesse with power and authority”. No, bring a great (but unknown) wine to a wine merchant or a restaurant buyer and most will ask, “Well, what did Parker give it?” And they don’t mean the description. So how can the consumer or budding wine professional improve his wine palate (taste) and learn to trust his own and not someone else’s? One way is to attend as many tastings as possible, but doing this without context won’t bring results. When I was first selling wine, I would taste something impressive, and then confirm my palate by tasting that same wine with other professionals whose palate I trusted. Soon I had the confidence I needed to begin trusting my palate without any confirmation. But that was not enough. I still needed more context, such as what does a typical St. Emilion taste like (and why), or a typical Gevrey-Chambertin or Rutherford (Napa) Cabernet Sauvignon? With the right wine education seminar or program, this context and the ability to taste can be learned well enough to trust one’s own palate and not depend on a wine critic or other wine media (advertisements). It is very difficult to trust one’s own taste, but when given the right situation most people will naturally follow their own palate rather than a critic’s.
For instance when I was the Sommelier at The “21” Club, many of the hosts of the larger parties would often ask for one of the many “cult” wines on the list – mostly it was a Turley, Marcassin, Colgin, La Pin or Harlan. (Congratulations to those of you who are unfamiliar with what a ‘cult’ wine is, because a ‘cult’ wine is a trendsetting wine whose image and style are such that all the ‘wine geeks’, sommeliers, and critics drool over them so much that the demand and pricing structure becomes ridiculous and a the value becomes speculative with nothing to do with the taste.) Given the demand and small quantities of these very expensive wines, I would limit larger parties to a couple of bottles of each and convince them to order a second wine for consuming when the “cult” wine was finished. Invariably the host would ask my opinion for the second wine and I would always recommend a wine that was more (elegant) suited to the food. As the dinners progressed, the only person who continued to drink the “cult” wine would be the host. All the other patrons almost immediately switched to the more elegant and food-friendly flavors of the second wine. Without realizing it, these guests had proven their own taste as being as good as the critics’. Generally a ‘cult’ wine on a restaurant list would cost between $400 a bottle to as much as $3000 a bottle, this versus a comparable wine that is not a ‘cult’ costing $100-$400 a bottle depending on the vintage and producer. So as a commission-based Sommelier at ‘21’ I was often faced with many moral dilemmas. The other issue here is that most wine consumers (in my experience) are far more impressed by being introduced to a great un-discovered wine value than by someone showing off how much disposable income they can blow on bottle of wine.
Learning about wine is endless, every vintage is different, and every year there are new producers, new vineyards, new technologies and even new wine regions. It may seem daunting to learn about wine but think about the wonderful places you get to taste along the way. Due to the complexities of wine there are many diverse areas of study, including: agriculture/viticulture (study of the vine), viniculture (study of winemaking), history, culture, art and even geology.
The first wine course I took was in 1984 at the Culinary Institute of America, I have taken numerous courses, classes and programs since then in an effort to both keep my vinous mind active, and somehow increase my ability to make money in the wine industry. Some have been a waste of time, others very informative. I continue to teach wine courses and classes as well as take them; the wine industry is vast and growing daily. Today there are many more important wine regions than there were just thirty years ago. A wine professional or an up-to-date connoisseur, in today’s wine market, should have an understanding of today’s most important wine regions as well as those that are up and coming. Thirty years ago a knowledgeable connoisseur or professional had working knowledge of the main regions of France (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace and Rhône Valley), Italy (Piedmont, Tuscany), Spain (Rioja), and Germany (Mosel, Rhein). Penfolds was enough to know about Australia and Napa was about all that was necessary for America. With a strong understanding of the above wine regions (plus a bit) it was possible to become a Master Sommelier (M.S.) or Master of Wine (M.W.)in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Now, an M.S. or M.W. candidate needs to have a more vast and intense knowledge of wine regions as diverse as New York (North Fork, Hamptons, Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley), Abbruzzo in Italy, Pipers River in Tasmania and Yecla in Spain and grapes from Aglianico to Zweigelt.
So what are the educational options in Metro New York for aspiring wine connoisseurs or professionals? Well there are many, each having their particular focus, costs, length, depth of information and quality of curriculum and teachers. The education end of the wine industry has been my focus for the past five years or so; I am currently a wine education consultant and on the board of the Sommelier Society of America. I have also participated in the committee for the new Stony Brook University Center for Wine, Food and Culture, taken courses from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), the Court of Master Sommeliers and been the Sommelier for numerous seminars. Suffice it to say, I have certain opinions (and bias’) of the wine education available.
I’ll start with Kevin Zraly’s pioneering program. Kevin was one of the first young wine professionals to really take wine seriously in New York during the 1970’s. He became the Wine Director for the Windows on the World (R.I.P.) restaurant sometime in 1976. Along with developing one of the finest wine programs he also developed The Windows on the World Complete Wine Course with an accompanying book. The course is an eight-week course held at the Marriot Marquis in Manhattan from 7-9pm Monday evenings. Kevin is one of the most accomplished speakers on wine in the industry; he will keep any student’s attention for the whole two hours. If anyone begins to drift in his class, Kevin will immediately bring attention to the student and bring them back into the class discussion. His classes are attended heavily by the “Wall-Street” crowd and so is geared toward them rather than professionals or budding professionals. The information is passed along in a fun way, but will still give a budding wine professional or serious connoisseur a very good base of wine knowledge to build on.
Andrea Immer is a protégé of Kevin’s and went on to become the Beverage Director for Window’s. She is one of his former (Wall Street) students from the class and started her wine career helping administer Kevin’s class before leaving the finance world for the wine world. Andrea began her path to becoming a Master Sommelier with the Sommelier Society of America (I’ll discuss this program later). Today she is an author and Dean of Wine Studies for the French Culinary Institute.
Many of New York’s Sommeliers, Wine Directors and Consultants started their careers by attending the wine course conducted by The Sommelier Society of America (SSA). The organization was started in 1954 by “Four Founding Fathers” to create a greater awareness and knowledge of fine wines and spirits for both dedicated consumers and beverage professionals alike. The SSA is still conducting wine education courses, and has recently expanded outside of Manhattan to Westchester and Long Island. The “Captains Course” is a twenty-week intensive course held one day a week for two hours. The society is also working to develop other courses such as an Advanced Course and a short introductory one.
A splinter group of the SSA, which also offers wine courses, is The American Sommelier Association (ASA). The ASA has an eight-week foundation course and an 18 week Viticulture & Vinification Certificate Course, (similar curriculum to the SSA’s “Captain’s Course”). The only real difference between the SSA Course and the ASA course is the price and the length.
Many of the professionals that attend either the SSA or ASA courses often have a goal of continuing on to become a Master Sommelier. The Master Sommelier designation is one of the toughest wine credentials to achieve – there are only 112 Master Sommeliers in the world today, the Master Sommelier Examination began in 1969 in London and is administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers (Est. 1977), based in London and San Francisco. The Court Certificate Course has three levels. The Certificate Course is a two day long course which covers the same material as the SSA and ASA courses at warp speed. The Advanced Course is a three day long course that delves into the intricacies of regional information and with plenty of blind tasting training and some service review followed by a two day exam, the Certificate Course is a pre-repuisite and Advanced students must have recommendations from industry professionals and Master Sommeliers. Finally the Master Sommelier Exam is a vicious two day exam and exam only. This is only available to Court of MS Advanced Sommeliers and by invitation only – not all Court of MS Advanced Sommeliers get an invitation. Though the Court of Master Sommelier no longer has the SSA’s “Captains Course” as a prerequisite, I would highly recommend taking either the SSA “Captains Course” or the ASA Viticulture & Vinification Certificate Course prior to taking the Advanced Course.
Some in the wine industry feel that the Master of Wine designation is the most prestigious, while others feel the MS is, there are 225 Masters of Wine in the world today versus 112 Master Sommeliers. Whereas most of the Master Sommeliers are in the importing, distribution, and restaurant areas of the wine industry, most Masters of Wine are in the writing and wine production areas (MS more focus on service & tasting, MW more focus on writing, production and laws). The Institute of Masters of Wine was started in 1953. The Institute recommends studying the Wine & Spirit Trust (WSET) courses prior to attempting the Master of Wine Exam. The New York WSET is administered by the International Wine Center and has three different levels. The Intermediate Certificate is eight two-hour sessions that is an introduction course on wine. Next comes the Advanced Certificate curriculum which is quite similar to that of the SSA “Captains Course” and ASA Viticulture & Vinification Certificate Course. The difference between the Sommelier route (SSA, ASA, Court of MS) and the MW route is focus. The MS requires a vast knowledge of service and tasting abilities, while the MW requires a vast knowledge of importing/exporting laws, winemaking technology and writing skills. Finally, the Diploma Level Unit 1 & 2 is where one gets into the specifics of wine and spirits of the world and begins preparing students for sitting the Master of Wine Exam.
So free your palate from the onslaught of wine critics, slick wine ads and the media by taking some wine courses and finding your own palate and taste preference. If more wine writers follow Hugh Johnson’s template of defining wines as excellent (very good, good, average, poor or foul) examples of a St-Emilion (Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Barolo, etc.), then having some wine knowledge will make you look like a hero the next time you chose wine at a restaurant or store. How great will you feel then next time you are with a group of peers and comment about your wine selection as one of your favorite examples of a traditional Côte-Rôtie and can even name the grapes allowed and where Côte-Rôtie is? Or if you are a touch light in the wallet, knowing that Australian Shiraz is a great value substitute for a Côte-Rôtie that may be out of your current financial range. Just be careful with your new found knowledge, some people are turned off by a ‘know-it-all’, you don’t want to come off as one of the Krane brothers from Frazier!
More information about all the courses can be found on-line. The SSA website is http://www.winestudy.org, the ASA site is http://www.americansommelier.org, Court of Master of wine is http://www.courtofms.com or http://www.courtofmastersommeliers.org, Andrea Immer’s courses can be found at http://www.andreaimmer.com, Kevin Zraly’s courses are at http://www.windowswineschool.com, the New York branch of the WSET can be found at http://www.learnwine.com, and the Institute of the Masters of Wine is at http://www.masters-of-wine.org.
And now for the disclosure statement: though I have enjoyed many different positions in the wine and restaurant industries, currently, through my consulting company noblewines.com, I develop and conduct Wine Educational Seminars and Programs. I give training seminars and courses to wine distributors, retailers, and restaurant sales staffs, as well as teach for the Sommelier Society of America. And now for the gratuitous plug: I also give wine seminars for corporate events and private consumers (firstname.lastname@example.org will get me).