Some years ago I moved into an apartment in San Francisco, one of those arrangements with two units per floor with a connecting deck.
I was spending a week painting the apartment, and my neighbor, who shared his apartment with his brother, stopped by to invite me over to their place for a glass of wine. I thanked him and said that I'd be over after I cleaned up a bit.
When I went over, I was handed a glass of wine. It was a Napa Cabernet, if I recall correctly. I tasted the wine and said nothing.
"So, what do you think of this wine?"
"It's all right," I replied, as neutrally but politely as I could.
This was not the expected response. I soon learned that they worked in restaurants, liked wine and considered themselves knowledgeable. They were put out.
"Well, what do you know about wine?"
As good luck would have it, lying on the coffee table was a copy of Wine Spectator. Saying nothing, I reached over and opened it to the page with my column (which sports a mug shot of you-know-who), turned the magazine around and pushed it toward them.
You can imagine their reaction. We all laughed heartily and bonded on the spot. Ever since, we've all dined out on that story.
I mention this only because it's one of those ridiculous situations where it would seem that you could "prove” that you have a good palate. Of course, having a column in a wine magazine proves nothing of the sort, but it's a credential of a kind.
This brings me to today's headline: "Do You Have a Good Palate?" Allow me to answer that. Most folks decide that you have a good palate when your judgment of a wine agrees with theirs.
Given this, you can reasonably ask: Does such a thing as a "good palate" even exist? Or is it all just a matter of consensus?
I do believe that such a thing as a "good palate" exists. And no, I don't think it's all a matter of whether you and I (or anybody else) concur in our respective opinions. So what, then, makes for a good palate?
The usual expectation involves taste acuity, the ability to play "I Spy" all day long, spotting the scent of blackberries, red currants, coffee (light roast or dark) and a seemingly endless array of precise-seeming descriptors.
Understandably, a lot of folks think that this ability to tease out all these "distinctions" is what makes for a good palate. Put bluntly, it ain't so. It's a bit of a parlor trick, really. Anyone can do it by paying attention to the smell and taste of what's around us (chalk dust, strawberries, pencil shavings) and then applying those remembered associations to what's in your glass. It does, however, remind us about what is so wonderful about wine: namely, that unlike, say, orange juice, it offers such shadings.
"A genuine good palate has both the capacity and the experience to deliver good judgment. It's not enough merely to weigh a wine. Instead, the question is: What does it add up to?"
The other parlor trick that most people associate with a "good palate" is the ability to identify a wine blind, i.e., to name the variety, the producer, the village, the vintage and the color of the winemaker's socks without seeing the label.
Now, I'm the first to admit that it sure is impressive to see this trick performed well. But if you ask just about any really experienced wine drinker, especially professionals, you'll soon discover that, to a man and woman, this pull-the-rabbit-out-of-the-hat ability is viewed with envy but with little belief that it's the defining feature of a "good palate." Calling the wine blind is not so much a trick as it is a matter of considerable experience allied with an admirable ability to focus on "landmarks" within a wine that reveal its pedigree.
In fairness, it's not nothing. You do need to have been around the wine block to pull it off with any frequency. You also need to be almost surgically analytical, slicing away all extraneous, distracting elements of the wine (such as "Gee, this really tastes good") to get at the "giveaway" elements that will help you identify the wine.
As many successful blind tasters will attest, the process can be surprisingly swift, resulting in what's often described as a "click" of recognition. (My experience, for what it's worth, is that your first guess is likely your best guess.)
But being a great blind taster doesn't mean you have a "good palate," any more than being a technically proficient surgeon necessarily makes you a good doctor. I'll always remember asking Larry Stone, a sommelier of extraordinary accomplishment and the best blind taster I've ever known, if he'd ever met anyone better at blind tasting than himself. (By the way, Stone is returning to his former position as sommelier of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago for that restaurant's swan song last few months before it closes Aug. 31.)
Larry replied that he indeed had met a better blind taster. "Who?" I exclaimed in genuine surprise.
"Oh, you don't know him," he replied. "I'd never met him before either. We were at a big tasting where the labels were covered and this guy just went down the line, bang, bang, bang, saying ‘Mouton '82,’ ‘Ridge Montebello '75,’ and so forth. I'd never seen anything like it.
"But then," Larry continued, "after the tasting I introduced myself to the guy and we got to talking. And I quickly realized something: He had no ability to describe a wine. Or even analyze a wine. If he hadn't had it before, he was lost. He couldn't put words to a taste or analyze a wine. He just had this crazy-good ability to remember everything he had ever tasted and file it away in his head. It was impressive as hell but didn't show any understanding of wine."
So what, then, makes for a good palate? Many features are at work. Larry Stone believes, with reason, that you cannot have a good palate without the ability to properly analyze a wine. "If you can't recognize whether a wine has low or high acidity—and some people can't, it seems—then you can't have a good palate. You've got to be able to properly analyze a wine and be able to put words to it."
That noted, I would submit that a genuine good palate has both the capacity and the experience to deliver good judgment. It's not enough merely to weigh a wine, as it were. Instead, the question is: What does it add up to?
It's not enough to accurately analyze. You have to have insight. And to acquire that takes not just experience, but also an ability almost to empathize. (This is why someone can have a good palate for, say, Cabernet but not for Pinot Noir.)
Insightful palates find the (sometimes hidden) thrill of a wine, that electric spark that makes it stand out from other, seemingly similar, wines. How many times have you tasted with someone who has just such an insightful palate and, after hearing his or her appreciative discussion, returned to the wine and seen it anew? It's happened to me many, many times.
Judgment and insight are the hallmarks of a good palate. Everything else is a technicality.
Ron Brooks — alexandria va — April 4, 2012 8:36am ET
Sam Bremer — Minneapolis, MN — April 4, 2012 12:37pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 4, 2012 2:11pm ET
Alejandro Duclaud — Mexico City — April 4, 2012 7:33pm ET
Vince Liotta — Elmhurst Illinois — April 5, 2012 3:43pm ET
Joshua Kates — Indiana — April 5, 2012 8:03pm ET
Michael Myette — Sacramento, CA USA — April 8, 2012 7:18pm ET
Matt Kramer — Portland, OR — April 9, 2012 12:03pm ET
Don Evans — Austin, TX, USA — April 10, 2012 3:47pm ET
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