Swimming with Wine Sharks

Do you know a lot about a wine? Can you accurately describe its color, smell and taste? Ultimately, can you name the country, grape and vintage? And, do it all in just a few minutes? Oh. And, can you do it blind?

This is a test. A test for ‘sharks’–a term I normally reserve for expert poker players. Instead, these sharks are budding wine experts, eager to become Certified Sommelier, Advanced Sommelier, or the next Master Sommelier–a title awarded to only 236 people worldwide since 1969 by the Court of Master Sommeliers. There are more astronauts than Master Somms. They are the top of the food chain.

Now I swim with them in their deep waters, painfully aware of my bait-like presence. I have not studied formally. I have not passed any tests. I’m not even part of their industry. Instead, I was invited by the host and director of a well-known downtown restaurant’s wine education program, because “You’ve got a good palate. You can learn. It’s fun”. Tasting 6 wines, late night, with a dozen burgeoning somms, ‘double blind’–each served from decanter–thereby giving no indication of the wine’s identity. Additionally, we’re timed: 4 minutes per wine, or 12 minutes per flight of 3 whites; another 12 minutes for 3 reds. Analysis and discussion follows each flight. Wait. That’s fun? 

WineSharks (5)
Hello, intimidation.

They understand–they’re all industry–working evenings and weekends at restaurants, bars, clubs, and wineries. I’m one of two ‘civilians’. We don’t swim in the same waters. Except tonight at Tasting Group. Then a bus home at 1A.M. from a lively stop called Stab Alley, pass out by 1:30 or 2, and wake for work at 6. I will feel like chum tomorrow. But that’s hours away.

All cram into a tiny room with a giant, circular table. It’s like a holding tank. I make a comment about sardines. I’m told it’s not the norm by the gentleman to my right, who just glided in at the last second–on patent leather wingtips–effortlessly falling into a rhythm of setup for tasting that is reflex. He wears a brightly printed bow tie, matching hanky and socks. They compliment his pink shirt and coral pants. He has one of those mustaches that’s long and waxed and curled. He has a pompadour. He looks very serious. Turns out, he is. Others are dressed in 3-piece suits with pressed collars and tight knots. Only a few are like me, dressed casually. Remember, they all just finished their shifts.

WineSharks (8)
Enter, the grid.

We announce ourselves and get started. The whites arrive, labeled with tape as decanters 1, 2, and 3. We each take our allotted pour and pass to our left (quantity is not discussed; if you need to ask, you’re in the wrong room). A tasting grid is provided to describe all aspects of our wines. The timer is set. And, like any race, the director announces “Okay…GO!” No one speaks. All are focused intently, examining each glass’s contents, swirling, sniffing, holding wines to the light–or against a piece of paper–to analyze density, viscosity and color;  slurping, gargling, and spitting ensue. Not me. That’s why I took the bus. I also think unless one actually drinks the wine, one is not getting the full nuance of the wine’s taste and finish. Nevermind what I think. Everyone else is spitting, of course. Pros. We continue analyzing while our 12 minutes pass. Chatter starts up. The buzzer goes off.

Our director asks if anyone wants to ‘call the wine’. My mustachioed associate volunteers. He cogitates. Tastes again. Everyone is waiting to hear, so the feeding frenzy can begin. Suddenly, he fires off wine jargon as if he’s giving a dissertation for the winemaker. He’s precise. He’s eloquent. His logic and reasoning are perfect. And yet, he’s misidentified the wine–easily done by even the most seasoned somms. He’s studying for his Advanced Sommelier pin–third of four diploma levels of the CMS–a difficult pin to earn. Many have studied and failed. Repeatedly. There’s a plethora to know.

Worse, I think I’ve actually guessed it correctly. Gulp. The sharks circle. They can sense weakness. I sheepishly mumble to myself, not having enough confidence to belt out what I think to the predators, who are now attacking Mr. Mustache. I’m horrified. And then I realize: He wants this feedback. It’s all friendly discussion, though initially appearing cutthroat. Others offer their thoughts. Damnit–I know what this wine is–and I’m going for it.

I announce it’s Chardonnay, from Chablis. The room is silent. Does no one believe me? It’s Chablis. For sure. Because it’s like a steel blade being thrust into oyster shells, dripping with lemon oil. I’ve tasted many Chablis, from the most basic to the finest. It just might be my favorite expression of Chardonnay in the world. No one says anything.

Must be Beginner’s Luck.

WineSharks (6)
It’s gorgeous. But what grape is it?

We move on to the other wines. I guess another–Riesling–making a total of 2 of 6 correct in my first deductive blind tasting. More discussion follows. I’m way off on most. I have a lot to learn. But I have confidence now.

I swam with the sharks. And, lived to tell.

UPDATE: I have since become an active member of this tasting group. My record stands at 7 of 9 wines guessed correctly, including grape, region, sub-region, and vintage range. Additionally, I’ve successfully cornered Chardonnay to date–correctly guessing it every time–no matter where it’s from.
All images and content copyright ©2017 Eric Schadel. All rights reserved.

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