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08.24.2007

Stop Telling Us What to Taste

It will be very easy for you to take this the wrong way. I certainly won't be surprised at reactions to this short rant that end up suggesting that I'm a spoiled brat. But hear me out. This isn't about my personal pettiness, it's about a philosophy of how we all think about and relate to wine.

As most of you know, I go to a lot of trade wine tastings. These are tastings where winemakers pour their wines for sommeliers, restaurant wine buyers, and representatives from distributors, as well as the media. Most recently, I was at the Family Winemakers event in San Francisco, where for five hours, I joined hundreds of other wine professionals in tasting hundreds of California wines from smaller, family producers.

These trade tastings are great. They are much mellower than the crush of the public wine tastings, and the folks pouring the wine are much more relaxed, generally with the awareness that they're pouring for people "in the know."

But then sometimes, I find myself standing in front of a table, a newly poured glass of wine in my hand, and as I raise it to my lips, the person with the bottle in their hand, leans forward and says:

"It has great blackberry and cassis notes with herbal undertones and a fantastic finish."

It's at moments like this that I remember a poster I saw in an office once that read: Stress: the conflict created when resisting the urge to choke the living shit out of some asshole that desperately needs it.

Let me just tell you right now, no one, and I mean NO ONE, really should be told what they are tasting when they have a glass in their hand.

The idea of telling a sommelier what they are tasting as you pour a glass of your wine for them is frankly ridiculous -- so ridiculous that I'm not going to spend any time complaining about it. But the compulsion to do this is very understandable, and is hardly the fault of winemakers or winery staff. Anyone who has worked or spent any time in a relatively popular public tasting room knows that visitors quite often come in and literally demand that the staff tell them what the wine tastes like.

There's nothing wrong with this behavior. It's just people wanting to learn about something about which they don't have the confidence to trust their own unpracticed senses. But that doesn't mean that they should be accommodated.

Yes, that's right, I'm here to tell you that no one should EVER tell someone what they are tasting in a wine. Tasting room staff, stop the madness. Winemakers, knock it the hell off.

Our goal -- that is, the collective group of us who aim to evangelize wine -- should be to help wine drinkers gain the experience and knowledge that breeds confidence in themselves as wine drinkers.

And in my opinion, telling people "what to taste" when they've got a glass in their hand is not only an insult to their intelligence, but counterproductive to the entire purpose of wine tasting in the first place.

We all need to improve our own sensibilities and sensitivities to wine, to learn to rely on our own intuitions and senses in the moment, and to form judgments that begin to shape our own personal tastes.

So I'm putting all you winemakers and winery staff on notice. Resist the temptation. And when people ask you what the wine tastes like, tell them that they're only ones who can say.

And for the next person who rattles off a whole string of tasting notes on a wine while they can clearly see me making my own notes on the wine, I'm going to try not to strangle you on the spot. I've got a lot of self control, so it's unlikely anyone's going to get hurt. But I can't make any promises.

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