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Trust Your Palate

James Laube
Posted: February 3, 2000

Trust Your Palate
By James Laube, senior editor

Well, what do you think?" the man stopped me to ask, still swirling the last bit of Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Lake 1978 in his glass. "Is it still a 98?"

For a brief moment, the question caught me off-guard. But then I nodded my head, yes, it's still an incredibly delicious wine. Ninety-eight, 97, 96--the specific number didn't matter. As it was, we'd spent five hours each of the past three days immersing ourselves in Diamond Creek Cabernets (see Collecting, June 15). We'd tasted virtually every wine Al Brounstein had produced from 1972 to 1997 from the four distinct parcels of his renowned Napa Valley vineyard on Diamond Mountain. All told, we'd sipped some 90 wines spanning three decades.

Yes, I still loved the '78 Lake--loved it every time I've tried it--but I had to ask this man: "What do you think?" His response threw me for a loop. "I'm not sure," he answered, as he stood at the bottom of the staircase at The French Laundry in Yountville, the site in Napa Valley where the last two days of tastings took place. "It's the first time I've tried this wine, and I don't have a context."

Folks, at the risk of sounding like the world's biggest wine snob, bully, know-it-all, take-this, elitist authority--when you're in a situation like this, you've got to step up and be the man. You've got to trust your own taste, judge the wine for what it is, do your best and, on occasions such as this, dispense with the numbers. Take a stand.

You'll be lucky if you get to taste a few of the great, rare wines once in your life, and when you do, it's up to you and only you to assess the quality. In the case of the '78 Lake, Diamond Creek made but one barrel of this wine--25 cases--and the winery is down to its last bottle or so. So my friend isn't likely to taste this wine again. Neither am I. Ever.

The whole exchange left me dumbfounded, and I kept replaying the episode again and again in my mind. We'd tried every Diamond Creek ever made ... the '78 Lake came at the end of the very last flight of wines poured, so it's fresh in his memory ... even a splash is still in his glass. If he didn't have a reference point for Diamond Creek wines by then, well, I'm still speechless.

My guess is that some of the people who attended this Diamond Creek tasting didn't really care for the wines. They weren't about to insult the owners or hosts, and to their credit they didn't. Not the right forum.

But I know that highly stylized, individualistic, mountain-grown, old wines can't possibly please everyone. (Count me among those who usually don't like old wines unless they're in great shape.) I suspect that many of those who came and tasted the wines did so out of pure intellectual curiosity--to see what all the fuss about Diamond Creek was about, or if there was even anything to get fussy about to begin with. Those who study wine--writers, collectors, restaurateurs, educators--don't all have to agree about the intrinsic quality of a wine or a vineyard or a vintage or an appellation to have curiosity about it. On the contrary, a tasting of wines such as these, regardless of who made them or where they were made, is designed to allow participants to assess quality and pass judgment. You're there to learn and experience.

So even if you tasted all these wines and hated them and never wanted to drink one again, you could--provided you came with an open mind--still have an appreciation for the unique characteristics of the wines, even if they were total put-offs.

It's through diversity of experience that you learn how to sharpen and define your likes and dislikes. With time, your preferences become clearer and more crystallized in your mind, just as it becomes easier to dismiss what you find less appetizing.

Now I wouldn't encourage you to pay hundreds of dollars and spend days deliberately tasting wines you don't like unless you're an absolute glutton for punishment. But if you do shell out the money and taste through a dozen or two dozen or five dozen wines, do pay attention to your taste buds. Because if they're not telling you something--even something you might not like--then something's terribly, terribly wrong.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube, in a column also appearing in the current Wine Spectator. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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