Taste, Taste, Taste | March 2005


Imagine a chef who doesn’t eat out, an athlete who doesn’t train, a writer who doesn’t read, or a travel agent who doesn’t travel.

Over the years I have interacted with hundreds of winemakers. Each has a unique approach, philosophy, style, and goal. All those who I respect most have one thing in common: experienced, inquisitive palates.

On a regular basis I see people investing enormous sums of money into a grapegrowing/winemaking business who don’t know, or even seem to care what great wine tastes like. Even if the goal is more modest than making a world class wine, there needs to be a benchmark.

At my desk I keep a short essay written by Robert Parker, in his Wine Advocate, called Ten Suggestions for the next Millennium. He lists 10 recommendations to winemakers interested in making great wines. His first suggestions have to do with technical matters of low yields, ripe fruit, and non-interventionist winemaking. Suggestion #4 is: “Be sure to know what the world’s greatest reference points for the type of wine being produced actually taste like.”

I truly believe that this is one of the secrets to making fine wine. I would like to share my evolution in developing tasting programs that have had an enormous impact on my winemaking and my business.

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s with wine on the table. At that time Gallo Hearty Burgundy and Almaden French Colombard were our respective house red and white. Special occasion bottles were invariably French and exotically wonderful. Like so many of us in the wine business, the sheer hedonistic pleasure of wine started me on my winegrower career path.

For the first 15 years of my career I was on a slow-tasting learning curve. I tasted at every opportunity, but the tasting was rather haphazard and not focused. In the early-1990s I came to the realization that I had to implement some serious changes if my wines were to improve. This coincided with a fortuitous trip to Burgundy where with a few letters of introduction I found myself spending the afternoon in the cellars of Louis Jadot with winemaker Jacques Lardière. Like most American winemakers, I was armed with a long list of technical questions. Jacques was not interested in discussing pH, SO2 levels, or oak. He only wanted me to taste. Frankly, at the time I thought he was being evasive. Now I realize where he was trying to lead me. I still remember vividly him repeating over and over again: “taste, taste, taste.”

I began to taste more seriously, but I was not satisfied with my shotgun approach to tasting. With time I have developed a tasting training program for Linden Vineyards and myself.

Winemaker training

I have the good fortune to be my own winemaker. I have no formal training. I avoided any and all science courses though high school and college. I am also responsible for my vineyard and the marketing end of the business. These circumstances make it imperative that my winemaking decisions are based on taste, experience and intuition.

I feel that my natural sense of taste and smell is fairly average. I have to make up for this by experience. I taste (and smell) at every opportunity, not just wines, but olive oils, cheeses, vinegars, oysters, and coffees. I even had my staff bring in flowers from their gardens so I could better identify the aromas of lilac, violet, or rose.

I try whenever possible to avoid drinking my own wine, especially at home. This reduces the danger of acquiring the dreaded “cellar palate” which is an unfortunately common malady afflicting winemakers who don’t get out much. I do, when appropriate, have a sample of my wine alongside when we taste some of the great benchmark wines. In this environment the shortcomings, imbalances, and edges of my wines become much more obvious. I find that it is very hard for me to get good, objective professional third party criticism of my wines. I try to be my own best (worst) critic.

Whenever possible I try to taste blind. I find if I have no information about the wine I am not prejudiced, and work harder in my tasting. I also find that the tasting is more beneficial if I have a pencil in my hand. Writing notes forces you to think rather than to simply enjoy.

It is important to not taste in a vacuum. I need mentors and colleagues to guide me. Tasting groups are ideal for this. I do avoid the community “social tasting” groups as they tend to be less focused. I am in a loosely-formed winegeeks group. We meet almost once a week and do theme tastings, i.e., Burgundy and Bordeaux terroir, vintage verticals, New World vs. Old World. We try to invite guest palates to keep us from getting stale.

In Northern Virginia we have formed a winemaker’s roundtable. We meet once every two months and share our experiments, or do varietal barrel sample tastings. All tasting is blind and brutally honest.

Being just 60 miles from Washington DC, I take advantage of numerous professional tastings. I find that the wine trade is very generous in extending invitations to other professionals. Wholesalers and importers regularly schedule trade tastings. Groups such as ZAP, Napa or Sonoma Winegrowers often pass through town.

Tasting room staff training

At Linden we sell fairly high-end wines to a fairly sophisticated clientele. Most of our customers are from Washington DC. They are well traveled and savvy when it comes to wine and food. It is critical that my staff is educated and confident when talking with our customers. Most of my staff is part-time and when hired, have little wine experience. I have implemented two ongoing wine-training programs. One is informal (mystery wines) and the other is formal (theme tastings).

Mystery wines is a concept that evolved over time. At the end of the workday we get together and taste a bagged wine. We talk about it, try to guess what it is, and then unveil it. The informality is meant to encourage, not intimidate. The dialogue should be free flowing, honest and even silly. I am amazed at how quickly new staff members become more vocal and confident in their palates.

Staff theme tastings are held every few months. The idea is to explore a region or a grape variety, usually, but not always that is pertinent to the wines we make at Linden. If the wines we produce emulate Bordeaux blends, then it makes sense that our staff should have some knowledge of the wines of Bordeaux.

In order to encourage my staff to taste on their own, I have set up what we jokingly call the “company store.” In Virginia, a winery can purchase wines directly from wholesalers. I regularly purchase a wide range of wines this way and then make them available to my staff to purchase at (wholesale) cost.

Growers

Linden buys grapes from three other winegrowers. It is critical that they taste and understand the influence of their grapes and efforts on the final product. They are regularly involved in blending and fining trials. They understand the impact of leaf pulling, crop load, and picking strategies on the wines that their grapes will produce. Because we often bottle wines by single vineyards, they are as fanatical as I am about the quality and ripeness of their grapes.

Vineyard workers

I do admit that most of the guys that work my vines are not wine drinkers. They have however, over the years, developed a discerning palate for grapes. I encourage them to taste grapes. They have evolved with me in our quest for quality. I can still vividly remember the horror on their faces when we began the practice of ruthless green harvest, or when we decided to continue to wait on picking while the grapes were shriveling or rotting. They can now taste grapes and understand why we do the things we do.

Last year, our oldest block of Cabernet Franc was struggling to ripen. The vines were suffering from some nutritional deficiencies that I had not corrected in a timely manner. It was late October, and I made the call to pick. Gerardo, my foreman, is a man of few words. He just shook his head in disagreement. He had tasted the grapes and knew that they would not make good red wine. He was right. They never did ripen fully, but they made a nice rose.

Wine is expensive. Tasting great wine on a regular basis is very expensive. I see it as one of the most important business expenses I can invest in. The returns are phenomenal. I can conservatively estimate that by improving my staff’s, my grower’s, and my own palate that the value of our wines has increased by several dollars per bottle. We produce about 5,000 cases of wine annually. You do the math.


Wine East, March 2005


Jim Law