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Tasting to the Limits

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Oct 25, 2006 1:02pm ET

People often ask me if I ever get tired of tasting wine.

Yes, there are tough days, when the wines are uninspiring and tasting seems more like work than the fun it usually is. But with my beat, California, there are almost always exciting wines in the wings, in their brown paper bags, waiting to be tasted.

A more common concern is a combination of palate fatigue and tannin buildup. And at the Wine Experience, after a few days of rigorous tasting (and spitting), I finally reached my tannin limit.

I didn’t taste many wines at the Grand Tastings, preferring to visit with readers and winemakers and trying to save myself for Friday and two panel tastings.

Made it through Day 1—Burgundy and Pinot Noirs, Santa Cruz Mountains, the four chefs and my own Cabernet tasting. Didn’t taste much that night either at the walk-around tasting, and drank some wine with dinner at A16—a Stagecoach Black Bart Syrah 2002, which was terrific, and a new (for me) 2004 Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley, called Black Kite, which was elegant and stylish.

Made it through the Top 10 tasting in pretty good shape. Aside from the Cabernets I’d reviewed that were poured in that flight, I thought the 2003 Clos des Papes Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Alban Reva Syrah Edna Valley 2003 provided a great contrast of Rhône grape interpretations (poured as they were side by side); both were stunning. Tasting Alban before the 2001 Château d’Yquem was about as different as night and day—the huge dark mass of Syrah and the golden brilliance of Sauternes.

I was still fine through Drouhin’s Burgundy tasting but finally hit the wall with the flight of Spanish wines. I thought they were excellent, but by then I knew the tannins and acidity and concentration of scores of wines had finally caught up with me. At times like this, I don’t worry much about ratings, and I know my palate and notes reflect a fatigued palate.

When I hear of people tasting all of the wines at the Grand Tasting (nearly 200) in three or four hours—or even over two nights—I just shake my head, wondering if they’re really appreciating the wines or whether it’s all just a blur.

Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  October 25, 2006 3:44pm ET
James,Great post and it certainly does bring up a few things. First and foremost, most people do not cleanse their palette after tasting a wine. Often, they go straight into tasting another wine. I believe - and I could be wrong but I don't think so - that it is physiologically impossible NOT to have some of your salivary proteins 'compromised' by the previous wine. Therefore, your 'read' of the current wine will not be entirely accurate.Secondly, at what point during a night of tasting and spitting does the alcohol actually affect you?!?!? I know with tasting barrel samples - and not swallowing - that after two dozen or so, I need to take a break and walk around a bit . . . and maybe get some coffee. I have to believe that this happens with most people, not me, and therefore are you really able to 'accurately' taste a wine later in the tastings?!?!?There certainly are many suggestions for cleansing the palette to remove tannin 'residue' - pectin rinses are often used in sensory labs. When I ran my research at UC Davis, I would have tasters wait at least 30 seconds in between tastes, and required every one to drink water in between - not sure if it cleared ALL tannins off, but tasters felt that they were able to accurately ascertain 'astringency' levels in the wines - the goal of each tasting. Anyways, just my $.02. . . .
Jerry M Walker
Seattle, WA —  October 25, 2006 8:51pm ET
James, I was sitting here looking over my father's Spectator account when I happened upon your column... I couldn't help but reply, because he and I organize a wine auction for charity and this is the time of year we spend a lot of time reading your site and tasting wines... This year is no different, but with the added bonus that I just started a new job - Beverage Director for a new restaurant opening at the end of next month, and I've been tasting wines almost continually, every day, for the past two weeks. I'm not complaining; it's been a wonderful experience and, at least for now, it's great to have wine reps banging down my door with new stuff. But trying to find good glass pours, flight pours, and bottles after tasting literally 50-100 wines in a day, even if you take assiduous notes, can be challenging... No matter how great my initial impressions of some wines were, even if I'm tasting the same bottle a week later, it can present itself completely differently when sampled again, by itself. Usually this happens to me with wines chosen towards the end of a trade tasting or event, when I've already had a ton of wine and saved the big reds for last. In order to combat this confusion, I now make a concerted effort to ask my reps for sample bottles of those wines I thought were spectacular, just to make sure I'm not suffering from a blown palate - hopefully just a blown mind. In my recent experience, I make sure I hit the wines I'm really interested in the first 20, and try to take a good amount of time evaluating each one - not burning my way down the line. In response to the above comment, I've found that water sometimes throws me off if I drink it in between each taste... but I agree it can sometimes help with eliminating some of the tannins. I understand most drinkers don't have the luxury of just asking for samples... But my thoughts on the subject are the less wines you take, or the more time you have to sample, the better off you're going to be.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  October 25, 2006 8:59pm ET
Jerry, thoughtful response and glad you're using Dad computer...he must be a cool guy. Yes, sometimes less is more and there are limits to what one can taste and digest in a sitting or day. Sounds like you're off to a fun, but challenging career move.
James Morrison
CT —  October 25, 2006 10:54pm ET
James, Thought ful insight for tastings, But have you ever blindly tasted a wine before "cleansing" and then proclaiming a score? If so..this would perhaps suggest a secondary rating system. A wine rated WITH and/or WITH-OUTa washed palate. Hmmmm? (I dont know what I have just stepped my foot in.)..Anyway I like to swallow a little and savor a little It is hard to just simply taste without the follow-up..By the Way..Thanks for being there for the other tasters at the Grand Tatsting,,It means alot to us "regular" folk..
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 26, 2006 1:16am ET
Do you get a t-shirt if you taste all 200!?! Jerry-I do the list for our restaurant. I now don't seriously consider more than a few wines in one sitting. Usu. 8-10 max but I prefer less. I use your method of asking for a tasting btl sometimes when I'm narrowing it down. Also, this may sound weird, but I like to get an opinion from some of my top staff too. Some of our girls have great palates and it gives them a little ownership to have some input even if I don't go w/ their choices. I usu. pick 1 or 2 of them to attend big trade tastings w/ me and if at all possible put 1 of their picks on the list. JL-the Black Bart made it on our using this method.
John Wilen
Texas —  October 26, 2006 5:14pm ET
JL, our group would love your opinion on a tasting issue that fits with the theme of this blog. It seems that every so often we all hate a chardonnay or cabernet that you've recommended highly, solely because of a bitter finish. Great nose, great taste, but the finish is a dealbreaker. We think the reason for the discrepancy is you are spitting the wine, while we are drinking it.

Last weekend, our regular group assembled to try the week's selections blind, as we always do. One of the wines was the highly touted CSJ '04 Robert Young chardonnay, a wine you rated highly and even went out of your way to praise the finish in your tasting note. Our group anxiously anticipated trying this WS92 gem, especially since it only cost $19.99. Expectations were high as the nose and initial taste were fantastic. Yet no one among the 8 of us reordered it. The culprit: a bitter finish.

So we decided to do a little experiment with the CSJ while we still had wine in our glasses. We had everyone really taste the wine, coating every possible nook and cranny in their mouth. We then, one by one, spit out the wine in the nearby sink, something we NEVER, EVER do at our tastings. Surprise, surprise, the wine was instantly better than what we had just tried from our same glasses a few moments earlier. It retained all of the positives, but few of us even got a whiff of the off-putting finish.

So the questions are obvious. Do you believe that spitting vs. swallowing makes a difference in what a typical consumer tastes? Do you think that critics who have to spit are having the same experience as drinkers? Are you afraid you are missing something (good or bad) when you evaluate wines professionally? Have you personally had this experience when you're off duty and actually drinking?
Paul Anderson
Longview, TX —  October 26, 2006 10:17pm ET
I want to add my second to John's questions. Some time ago we did a tasting at an event here in town. There was a white wine from Chili that I really liked. We were spitting. I bought three bottles but when I opened one at home all the experience was there except for the finish. It was not pleasing as I thought I had expected from my tasting experience. I'm interested in how you judge that when you are faced with as many wines to taste as you do.
Alan Vinci
springfield, n.j. —  October 27, 2006 8:46am ET
I have not attended the Wine Spectator Grand Tasting event, but recently my local wine shop here in N.J. had their annual wine event, and with over 700 hundred wines to sample I was prepared to experience what I call the "battle weary palate syndrome". With a 3-4 window of time to do it in, I started with the lightest and moved my way up to the big guys. This year they had set up a special Bordeaux room with some of the finest houses from France, with vertical tastings of most.They also had many of the 2005's to sample.(wonderful year) The point being that even though I continued to spit and rinse it does become somewhat overwhelming to the palate,and I do agree with Jerry that sometimes less is better.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  October 27, 2006 12:01pm ET
John, you and your group have me stumped. I don't know any professional tasters who don't spit. To drink even a few sips quickly leads to inebriation, quickly followed by loss of concentration, and quirkly results. Bitterness in reds comes from tannin. In whites it can come from alcohol or oak, though with wines such as Chardonnay, most people think of them as fruity, ripe and even sweet. I'm going to spend more time on this subject (with regards to Paul's querry, too), but have a full, hectic day in wine country today. Watching Opus make its 2006.

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