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WINE AND FOOD WEDNESDAY
05/09/2012
Wednesday Warblings
“You Taste Through Your Toes”

By Charles Olken

Someone must have said it first, but Google refuses tell me who. Whoever it was, I want to meet him and shake his hand. This wonderful insult, “You taste through your toes”, is hurled around our tastings as often as one of us needs taking down a peg. It is the ultimate insult among friends because it is both joke and dig at the same time. In our business, it helps to be able to do both.
                                      
I was tempted to dump this phrase into the conversations of wine tasting that have shown up recently in the blogs of Blake Gray over at The Gray Market Report (http://blog.wblakegray.com/) and Mike Dunne’s A Year In Wine (http://www.ayearinwine.com/). Both of these guys are seasoned professionals. They know their ways around, and if you have been paying attention to this blog, you have seen both post comments here in their efforts to keep us on the right path as they see it. And you will find my comments over on their blogs from time to time.

Both Blake and Mike were addressing the issue of differences of opinion in one judging and why it happens. They came at the topic from very different vantage points and were not necessarily trying to define the all reasons so much as exploring a couple of useful ideas.

Mike Dunne wondered about staying sober in the grueling, all day tastings that wine critics will sometimes allow themselves to get roped into. He mentioned that he can get through such events in relatively sober fashion but has seen judges who get “blotto”—to use his word. We see that same situation on rare occasion at Connoisseurs’ Guide’s tastings which are limited to just sixteen wines spread over three hours.

Some people think they are spitting out the wine, when, in fact, they are not. I would never accuse those folks of being too fond of the product, but the facts are that most of our tasters end the event with a fair accumulation of expectorated liquids in their expectorate collectors (known in the trade as “spit buckets”). Those who do not expectorate sufficiently wind up with far less liquid in the collectors and far too much liquid in themselves. Hence, the blotto factor.

A wine judge pretty much has two choices—spit it out or get pie-eyed (another term for blotto). And frankly, any wine taster who gets pie-eyed, blotto, stinko, plastered, hammered, tight or polluted is in the wrong business. Let’s leave it at that and wander over to Blake Gray’s world.

Blake is just back from Portugal where he chaired one of several panels at the Concours Mondial, Europe’s largest wine judging. Mr. Gray was wondering aloud about the difference in judging results between three and five member panels.

That is a fair question, and one that we wrestled with here at Connoisseurs’ Guide in our early years. At the outset, we tried to create tasting panels of eight to twelve people. We brought in learned tasters from all parts of the industry and had them taste wines blind and then discuss the results. We learned a lot, but what we also learned was that a smaller number of qualified professionals came up with the same results as our very large panels. We finally settled on five as the number of choice—not because it was magical but because it worked well.

But what we settled on that was even more important was the notion of knowledgeable tasters. The bottom line for us soon became the absolute demand that the tasters possess a body of knowledge of sufficient depth and range such that they could talk to each other. No such group of tasters agrees with each other all the time, but when the tasters come equipped with sufficient knowledge, good conclusions are possible most of the time. If they are not for a particular wine, we put the wine back into another tasting.

Blake Gray relates that his panel at the Concours Mondial gave no Gold Medals because it could not talk to each other. It was not that they all spoke different native languages. It was that they did not speak the same wine language. Blake did not offer that sentiment aloud, and I admit that I am adding my own interpretation based on my own experiences. I have tasted in such panels on four continents and with tasters from Australia, Argentina, Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa and Spain. With few exceptions, we all spoke the same wine language and rarely had massive disagreements. It happens occasionally that a wine judge will simply not find common ground with the rest of the panel, and usually it is because that person was less well-schooled in wine than the assignment merited. Not their fault. They simply responded to an invitation. It happens at our tastings from time to time as well.

But, we rarely have the kinds of difficulties that Blake Gray experienced in his panel. Qualified wine judges find their ways to the “truth” because their palates know how to do it.

I no longer participate on those kinds of all day, several days back to back panels if I can help it, in part for the issues that both Mike and Blake have surfaced, but mostly because wine tasting for hours on end becomes grueling and takes the fun out being there for me. But, I respect people like Blake and Mike who do make themselves available to such events. They raise the level of professionalism and make good results possible. But only if they are joined by other professionals who also share a common tasting perspective and do not taste through their toes.


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