“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” 

Henry Miller

The 2015 Master’s Exam in Aspen took place last week. I’m thrilled to write that post exam there are seven new Masters.  They include Brahm Callahan of Grill 23 & Bar in Boston; William Costello of the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas; Elyse Lambert of Maison Boulud in Montreal; Jack Mason of Marta in New York; Michael Meagher of Jackson Family Wines in Groton, MA; Kevin Reilly of Cyrus in Healdsburg; and June Rodil of the Maguire Moorman Hospitality Group in Austin. Kudos to them for their success in what is a very long and challenging journey, especially Elyse and Michael who were taking the exam for the sixth time (!).   

Two of the four days were comprised of the tasting exam. I chaired a panel of three examiners working with good friends Sally Mohr MS, of Boulder, and Brett Davis MS, of Louisville. Over the course of two days we examined 10 students. Of those ten only one passed—William Costello of Las Vegas. Note that he is one of the seven new Masters listed above. Why such a low pass rate? Mind you we had some really talented tasters in our room over the two days. And the wines, which had gone through a rigorous screening process to even be considered for the exam, were outstanding examples of variety and type. But for any number of different reasons nine of the ten students didn’t get to the required 75% score needed to pass. Here are some of the reasons along with advice that might be useful in the future.

Smelling Through the Wines When Starting

In a practice flight or an actual exam this is a must.  When starting a flight take a cursory smell of the three white wines to get an initial impression of what’s there. The same goes for the three reds after you’ve tasted through the whites or if you’re starting with the red wines.  If you don’t take the time to get that first impression you might get to the third wine and realize it’s Alto Adige Pinot Grigio as in the same Alto Adige Pinot Grigio that you called the first wine.  There’s a term for it… This is also the point when doubt and panic could set in and the entire exam could be over.  

Being Inconsistent with the Grid

Inconsistency with the grid is a general malaise of tasting at every level.  When you think about it, tasting with the deductive grid is not that different from bowling or hitting a golf shot in that you’re doing something repetitively using a sequence or framework in order to get consistent results.  The same is true for tasting especially in an exam where nerves can play such major part.  You must taste using the grid the same way every time or else you’ll be inconsistent even to the point of never being able to pass the exam.  Harsh words but unfortunately true.  The remedy?  Using the grid thousands of times both with and without wines until it becomes automatic so you never forget anything and you always know what’s next. 

Using the Shotgun Approach

As in spewing out 10-15 kinds of fruit and even more kinds of non-fruit in the hopes of getting/scoring the points for what’s actually in the glass. Why is this a problem?  Simply because if you’ve described the wine as having every possible fruit known to mankind then you probably don’t have a clue as to what’s actually there. And your friendly examiners may think you’re bullshitting them.  Ahem.  If in doubt, reign in your fruit and non-fruit descriptors to 4-6 each–MAX.

Not Recognizing Prime Objective Factors

In each of the 12 wines used over the two days of the exam there was one, if not several, “prime factors”; things objectively and measurably present in the glass that if detected by the student and put through a decision/deductive process would narrow the possibilities of a wine’s identity down to one or two grapes.  What kind of factors? Things such as in rotundone, terpenes, pyrazines, phenolic bitterness, VA, and more. These factors are arguably the most critical clues to help identify specific varieties and regions. Miss any one of them and the exam becomes a not-so-enlightened guessing game. 

Rushing the Structure

There are two times during the four minutes and ten seconds allotted to go through each wine when one needs to slow down and wait for something to happen.  The first time is when checking the viscosity (Yes, I’m still calling it viscosity. Get over it.). The second time is when calibrating the structure of the wine as in the level of acidity, alcohol, and tannin.  If you rush the structure you will be wrong or inconsistent at best.  And if you’re structure is consistently off you will not only lose valuable points but will probably also end up in the wrong place on your conclusions. Example? Miss the high alcohol on a Dry Creek Zin and you might call it Russian River Pinot or Cru Beaujolais—or who knows what.

Mistaking Phenolic Bitterness for Oak

This is a common mistake in white wines; thinking that the slight bitterness on the finish of a Pinot Grigio or an Albariño is caused by oak. It’s important to make the distinction between phenolic bitterness (tastes and feels like almond skin to me) and oak influence. The latter is always accompanied by a range of other aromatics and flavors including the usual vanilla, spices, toast, smoke, and more. The best way to get phenolic bitterness down is to calibrate it with an extreme example as in an over the top Alsace Gewurztraminer. Then compare the Gewurztraminer with a California Chardonnay with a lot of new oak.  Huge difference and speaking of…

Oak Influence—or the Lack Thereof

Being able to detect oak is important for several reasons: first, you must be able to recognize that oak is actually there (and avoid hallucinating it’s there); second, you must be able to describe its influence as completely as you can; third, be able to calibrate used wood vs. new barrique; finally, you must be able to then think through the conclusion in terms of oak usage.  Once again I’m a big believer in calibrating oak presence with extreme examples.  For oak do the Rombauer thing as in taste a shameless over-the-top California Chardonnay with mega-oak against an un-oaked Chablis.  In fact, don’t just taste the wines—DRINK them next to each other.

Missing Earth/Mineral

Detecting inorganic and organic earthiness—or the lack thereof–is important as in the difference between going to Alsace vs. the Willamette Valley with Pinot Gris.  Again, calibrate with extremes tasting a shameless over-the-top California Chardonnay with mega-oak against next to un-oaked Chablis.  And yes, DRINK them next to each other. 

Trying to Game the Flight

This is yet another common malady I often see during an exam—students trying to guess what the grapes/wines are in the flight as far as how many French wines or Italian wines or New World vs. Old World wines. I think there’s a phrase for it; it’s called “crash and burn.”  Advice: taste the wines vertically, individually, singularly, one at a time.  When you finish the first wine clear the mechanism, reset, and then go on to the next wine as if it’s the only wine you will be tasting.  Move any thoughts of what the rest of the flight might be to the side (or behind you or in the next county or where ever…).

And Finally…

Going Down the Rabbit Hole

This the most common tasting exam malady of all and easily the most disastrous: taking one single attribute found in a wine (or hallucinated for that matter) be it something seen, smelled, or tasted and making a snap (and usually completely wrong) conclusion about what the grape/wine is.  I completely understand—I’ve been there.  I can recall multiple occasions when studying for the exams when I was so completely wrong on my conclusion because I based it on a relatively unimportant facet of the wine.  Why do people do this?  Simply because the internal pressure to get the wine right—especially in an exam setting—is immense.  So that voice in your head that’s telling you the wine is Chinon milliseconds after putting your nose in the glass (Even though there’s a complete lack of pyrazines!) is a part of you that desperately wants to help you succeed.  Mind you—and you probably know by now—if you tell the voice to shut up it will only get louder.  Advice: don’t piss the voice off.  Instead, thank it and tell it you’re going to park its idea over to the side and will get back to it when you get to the conclusion when you’ll definitely take it on board.  Then double down and get back to the wine sticking to the grid as closely as possible.  And when you do get to the initial conclusion check in with the idea and see if makes sense.  If not, go on.  If so, the better. Cheers!