Everyone’s journey to the Master Sommelier title is unique. For good friend Brian Cronin, it included seven attempts at the exam before finally passing. Along the way there were stints at some of the country’s top restaurants as well as moving to Hawaii and temporarily losing his sense of smell. In Chicago Brian worked for Charlie Trotter starting as the assistant sommelier under another Master Sommelier, Joe Spellman. He (Cronin) eventually worked his way up to head Sommelier. In Hawaii Brian worked as an Educator for Southern Wine & Spirits and then back stateside as Wine Director for the St. Regis Hotel in Dana Point. After he worked as a sommelier at Gary Danko Restaurant and then as a retailer at Peter Granoff, MS’ Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant. Most recently, Brian served as National Educator for Jackson Family Wines. Currently he’s an active member of the CMSA (Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas) examining and teaching at all levels as well as serving as an elected member of the Board of Directors.

As part of my ongoing tasting project, Brian and I met at my house on July 17th, 2012. We used Riedel Vinum Pinot Noir glasses for the tasting. The primary wine used for the tasting was the 2009 Chateau La Gardine Châteauneuf du Pape. We also tasted the 2010 Double Bond Zinfandel from Paso Robles.

Background: Exams, and Food and Wine Pairing

TG: How many times did you take the Master’s Exam?

BC: Seven times.

TG: What changed that made it possible for you to pass on that seventh time? I seem to recall that living in Hawaii for several years and experiencing allergies was an issue.

BC: The first time I sat for it was four months after the Advanced which we don’t allow people to do anymore. I was working at Charlie Trotter’s at the time and passed the Advanced in August and then took the Master’s Exam for the first time the following February. I zeroed—I didn’t pass anything. The next year I passed service and theory and then I moved to Hawaii. I developed a problem with smelling and didn’t know what it was at the time; I thought it was a cold. Over the course of that year I found out that it was volcanic fog and sulfur, and my sinuses became impacted. It really affected my tasting and I started looking for ways to get out of Hawaii. It’s really expensive to move to and from there—about $12,000 each way.  

After my first reset I passed service and theory again the following year before finally managing to get out of Hawaii. I sat the Master’s about three weeks later and I didn’t pass the tasting again, but I noticed a huge difference–I could smell again. But I didn’t have the grid or structure down. Over the course of the next year, I really worked on the grid and reattaching markers to descriptors because I had such a huge problem with not being able to smell. I literally had to re-associate smells which was really strange.

TG: How did you do that?

BC: By just smelling wines over and over again. It was like I knew what the smell was but couldn’t attach it to a description. It’s like having your hand in a cast and being able to move your pinkie; like retraining it. 

TG: Did you work with smell memory in general? Just try to remember what various fruits and other things smelled like?  

BC: Right; I didn’t really spend time working on my grid because I always knew it. But if you can’t attach it to a smell then you have a problem. Even today when I talk to people, the first question I ask is how often are you blind tasting versus tasting? Because if you’re blind tasting but not tasting, you’re not learning anything. To me it’s the biggest part. You see people who just don’t know markers for classic varieties; they just know a grid for a classic wine. It’s really strange. You can make the experiential methodical; you can be methodical about how you experience things. On the floor in service I don’t think you can, but you can make a methodical experience out of tasting.

I was describing it once to someone and they said that it sounds like some kind of transcendental-hippie way of learning to think experientially. Say for instance I wanted to work on Rhônes this month, then I’d be tasting however many Rhône wines looking at the label and incorporating then into a dinner or what have you and still learning.  In fact, in that context you’re probably learning better in many ways. I also remember when I moved back to San Francisco and started to take the exam again, I’d be taking the dog for a walk and I’d be doing wines in my head.

TG: When you say you’d be doing wines in your head, what does that mean?

BC: For instance, I’d pick Sancerre as a generic category and I’d go through the entire description in my head as if I was saying it out loud.  

TG: As you’re doing that, are you literally creating the smells and flavors in your head?

BC: Yes, and it’s really interesting in the context of the work you’ve been doing. With food and wine pairing, I noticed that when we were working on the cookbooks at Charlie Trotter’s. It’s like I could literally “see” flavors.  

TG: How do you see flavors? 

BC: I can picture a steak and taste it right now and I can picture wines with taste certain characteristics. I categorize flavors, like here are the warm flavors over here (gestures to his left). It’s like warm flavors have a category whether it be spices, roasted fruit, or stewed fruit. I could meld a wine and a dish together. I could see flavors in this dish and I could see flavors in that wine. The only other thing that wouldn’t be perfect would be the structural elements. Until I tasted a particular Sancerre, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to see if it would work with an element in a particular salad dish.  

TG: When you say you’re melding the two together, how do you do that? It looks like you’ve got image of steak here and then multiple different images of wines that could work.

BC: I’ll give you an example; it was one of the first times it happened. It was a fennel salad. Charlie used to do this fennel confit salad with asparagus and jus on the bottom. The first thing that popped into my head was that it was really elegant fennel. I wanted to accentuate it and really make the fennel pop. The first wine that immediately came to mind was Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc because it wasn’t green—and it had a lot of fennel in it.  

TG: It seems like it’s all 3D in your head because of the way your eyes are moving out here and your hands are describing it in space

BC: Yes, it’s like a hologram in front of me.  

TG: After comparing the food image/memory with multiple wine images, do you just “taste” them so to speak

BC: Yes.

TG: Do images of labels or bottles pop up with the wines or what happens? 

BC: I picture the whole wine–the bottle and the label. Sometimes I might get a couple of labels for a dish and the one that’s closer to me internally is usually the one that works better.

Tasting – Overall Goals

TG: Now it’s time to taste. To begin, what are your goals when you taste? What are you trying to do? 

BC: The first thing is varietal identification; then old world or new world and style identification and breaking down very simply those points. Then, do I recognize the wine, the producer, and the other things?

TG: When you were a buyer for the restaurant, what were your goals?  

BC: Would other people like the wine? Or is it some esoteric style I like? Or is it something that could really be cool with the menu? I had a couple of different mentalities: first there was Charlie Trotter’s and then there was the other going back as far as North Carolina when I was first starting to become a buyer and had a finite number of spots of the list. For that, it was asking if a wine would sell or is the boss going to yell at me. I only had 30 spots on a small hand-written list. Most of the time it was thinking about if a wine would sell on its own, or would I have to be the one to sell it. 

TG: What are important criteria for anyone tasting to be able to do a good job? That would include glassware, environment etc.

BC: Your nose and aromatic identification. Even before I lost my sense of smell, I liked the taste of wine but really preferred the nose aspect of it.  

TG: What about equipment? What do you need?

BC: Good glassware; it doesn’t have to be anything over the top. I could easily use Riedel Overture to taste and even enjoy drinking wine. So a white wine stem that’s crystal is good. Even when professionally tasting, I try to keep the glassware as simple as possible. You never know what kind of glassware you’ll be using, so if you get used to tasting with a basic stem you do fine. Also, sometimes you find a lot more things in a wine using more expensive glassware but you also tend to find more flaws.  

TG: What are your beliefs about your own tasting abilities and you as a taster?

BC: Some of them might be slightly off the wall. Overall I think my descriptors are dead on and very specific. I get very specific down to the style of fruit in terms of fresh vs. cooked vs. desiccated; sometimes even a brand of something such as Craisin.

TG: What about your own beliefs about your ability to taste? 

BC: If I could rate myself as a taster out of 100 percent I would probably rate at 83 (laughs). Before moving to Hawaii I was much more comfortable and confident.  I think it was a mental confidence versus a physical ability. I think my comfort level is much more on the theory and practical. Sometimes I have an amazing tasting day but that’s because of how I’m thinking, my frame of mind.  Some people have it all the time. But the flavor memory part I know is always there. It’s just being able to use the force that day.

TG: You’re right.  It’s the force (laughs). You have your memory and then you have what’s in the glass and the force is what’s in between.  


TG: When you’re looking at a glass of wine to examine it, what you trying to do?

BC: The first thing I look at is the rim. I don’t go straight into the center; I actually look at the rim first and then move inward breaking down if it’s a thin-skinned or thick-skinned grape and then look for any kind of color variation. I try to categorize any color variation as quickly as I can as far as any orange or pink/purple hues. If it’s a white wine, I look for green. I’m mainly looking at hues. I don’t look at viscosity a lot unless it really stains (for red wine). The viscosity is the least important part of it; if we put several different 15% alcohol wines next to each other, they’re all going to tear very differently. Part of it’s the variety in terms of thin or thicker skins, but there are all sorts of things that can affect viscosity.  

TG: Hence the great debate ongoing about even using the term viscosity. In looking at color are you trying to assess age?  

BC: It’s categories of varietals first. Then I’m looking for other things. Most of the time if you get a wine that shows garnet in any way or age in any way you know you’re dealing with an older wine. Until you smell it or taste it, you can’t categorize how old it is. But I’m always looking for categories of varietals first.

TG: How do you know when you’re done looking at a wine? How do you know when it’s time to smell the wine? 

BC: It’s funny, when I’m looking at a wine I’m checking my nose at the same time.  

TG: Say more about that.

BC: I ask internally if I’m ready to smell and may take a sniff to see if my nose is clear and ready to go.  If I’m describing the wine out loud, it’s however long it takes to describe it. If I’m just looking at the wine it’s pretty quick. I might give myself five to ten seconds if I’m just looking at it. 

TG: During this time do you use the MS grid as kind of a check list?

BC: I use parts of it but not all of it. Clarity I look at, but the brightness factor not so much. Color and hue I jump to right away. I can still see the grid and so go to those things right away. My grid is always clear, clean, bright, color, hue, viscosity, and gas evidence.

TG: You have your right hand out right out in front of you about ten to fifteen inches away. Is that where you see the grid? What’s it like? Is it a white sheet with the grid on it?

BC: Sometimes I see a sheet of paper I typed out after I took the Advanced. I think Evan (Goldstein) called it the “Brownstone method.” I typed it out which is basically our grid. Sometimes it just pops in and other times it’s right there (points out in front at chest level).  

TG: But it seems like whatever it is, it’s right out in front of you and you just go through it and check things off to make sure you remember everything.

 BC: Right.


TG: Over the last year I’ve found that experienced tasters have set eye patterns when they taste, specifically a consistent starting eye position. I will be curious to see if that’s true for you. When you smell wine, is there a place that you look that seems more familiar and/or more comfortable for you to look? 

BC: It’s almost a semi-circle. 

TG: But where do you start?

BC: Lower left and then I move over to the center.

TG: So as you move over to the center, what’s going on? 

BC: As I’m looking right here (down and to the left), I’m noticing dark fruit with spice. And I’m already starting to qualify it by saying, “what’s that?”

TG: So you smell a dark fruit such as …

BC: Fruit like a dark blackberry. 

TG: You’re pointing down like it’s waist-high and left of center. It also looks like it’s about 15 inches in front of you. With that, if I had to be you, what would it look like? What do you see?

BC: It’s a picture of the fruit. 

TG: 2D? 3D? Picture of a berry all by itself? 

BC: It’s more like a cluster of darker berries. There’s red fruit too and they’re individual red type fruits.  

TG: With those it seems as if you’re pointing slightly down and straight out in front of you.  

BC: It’s all pretty much in the same place although the red fruits are slightly higher up.  

TG: Just curious, when you first started talking about the fruits you mentioned that you qualify it as in fresh vs. dried.  

BC: The original thought for the red fruit was that it was higher up vs. where the dark fruit was. So maybe if the fruit is darker and riper I see it lower down vs. tarter red fruit that I see higher up.  

TG: In other words, there’s an arc of sorts that has to do with color and ripeness. As the fruits get tarter, they images go up and to the right. It curves over. Is there any kind of color thing that lets you know how ripe or how tart the fruit is? Or is it just kinds of fruit and how they are positioned in this arc?

BC: More like fruits in positions. 

TG: Where is something like rhubarb or cranberry? Something really sour; where would that be?

BC: Tarter things and spices are up and over to the right side. 

TG: So you’ve got this 3D cluster of dark berries and a single red berry; any other kinds of fruit?

BC: Yes, there’s almost like a chutney that combines some fruit and spice elements.  

TG: Where’s that? I noticed that you were looking out there (straight ahead and slightly up to the left).

BC: If I don’t initially get something in the wine; it’s like I’m moving my eyes across and letting images pop up.

TG: So it’s like your calibrating as you smell the wine and look around. That’s cool because you can be really precise with it. What does the chutney look like? 

BC: It’s like looking into a jar of chutney or looking at a pot of chutney cooking. I can see the types of fruit in it, cherries, rhubarb, spices, cloves, etc. 

TG: You also mentioned spices over here to the left and slightly down. What do they look like? 

BC: Individual spices like you put five jars of spices out in a row. Piles of spices.

TG: What about other non-fruit type things?

BC: There’s pepper but it’s in the chutney. It’s like fresh cracked pepper, but it doesn’t really stand out. There’s also a slight gaminess to it.  

TG: What’s that like?

BC: It’s a slight gaminess and meat. It’s right in the center.  

TG: You’re literally holding your right hand in the center right in front of you. 

BC: If it’s kind of an arc, then the meat is here (points to the center about chest high).  There are dark, warm characteristics to the meat such as bloodier things as opposed to more sanguine dried meat.  

TG: So there’s almost a range here too.

BC: From deep, dark, and bloody on this side over to higher-toned sanguine dried blood on this side. 
TG: Where is this arc? 

BC: It’s just below the arc of the range of fruits. It could also have to do with the weight. Maybe it’s because I think in terms of weight of whatever it is.

TG: Any other non-fruit things?

BC: There’s definitely some herbal characteristics such as Herbes de Provence; also lavender and things like harder, more dried herbs. 

TG: Where are the herbs?

BC: They’re higher up (reaches up and to the right). It follows around to the spices in almost an orb; like in a round glass fish bowl. 

TG: It’s like a sphere and things have arcs and curves. The fruit seems to go from down left for ripe, darker fruits curving up and to the right for red, tarter fruits. 

BC: Funny, as we were talking just now I was thinking about citrus fruits and they go across up here (almost at head level), but also in an arc.  

TG: Throughout all this, is the MS grid anywhere that you can see it or use it?

BC: Initially yes, because the first thing I’m looking for is the kind of fruit and qualifying the style of the fruit. Looking at this wine, it’s definitely thin skinned and yet dark at the same time, so I’m already considering things that might be covered by the color.

TG: When you first put your nose in the glass, do you say something to yourself?

BC: Nothing really consistent. It could be anything like, “wow, the fruit is ripe here” or “this is exactly what I was thinking” or “this is not what I was expecting at all” or “what the hell is that?” Simple kinds of frames.

TG: What about the earthiness in the wine? Where is that? What’s it like?

BC: Right now the only earthiness that was standing out was the darker meat and dried herbal characteristics. However, if I start thinking about chalk, granite, and those kinds of things they would be straight up here.  

TG: Right in front of you about 15 inches away at eyebrow level?

BC: Like I’m looking at my eyebrows.

TG: What’s it like?  

BC: I see actual pictures of actual soils.  

TG: 3D or images?

BC: 3D; sometimes I see the ground or sometimes I see a pile of soil like the piles of herbs. Usually it’s something I’ve seen before.

TG: Is there a way that you check the quality of the earthiness like you check the quality of the fruit?

BC: Similar in that it moves left to right from chalk to dark earth.

TG: When you look up here (up and to the left), what are you checking for? Do you have a check list or a grid that you’re working with? 

BC: I’m going from inorganic to organic soils with the more alkaline, powdered chalk, gravel and limestone; then it becomes darker earth going to the right. The lighter things are to the left and the darker things are to the right.

TG: The final thing is oak. How do you perceive that? 

BC: Dead center in the circle. If it’s older it’s to more to the left and then the newer, heavier toast is to the right.

TG: Do you have images for it? 

BC: Yes, new oak is a brand spanking new barrel that could be standing up in a package, or it could be in a chai like at Opus or in a chateau—as in a lot of money and wood. If I look more to the left of that circle I’d see pictures of old barrels like the ones we saw in Jerez; like a barrel almost falling apart as in dried, decaying wood.

TG: OK, let’s see if we can put this whole thing together: starting with the fruit, describe the whole sequence to me.

BC: This would actually be an interesting thing to draw out. With fruit, it’s darker fruit down left getting into brighter fruits up and to the right; like dark cherry all the way to rhubarb and things like that. The more tart they are the more right of center or even clustered around center. Also, the harder more vegetal things like rose hips tend to be on the right as well.

TG: Then the chutney is straight out in front.

BC: Right, straight out in front about arm’s length. Everything’s in a kind of globe out in front of me.

TG: Where is the meat again? 

BC: The meat is almost dead center; like a bullseye that’s darker in the center then getting lighter with the more sanguine, dried character.

TG: How’s that in relation to the soil? Behind it? In front of it?

BC: The soils are down below then the chutney and the meat above. The herbs are to the right and up in a bowl. Then up here to the left are light citrus things like spiced orange or orange marmalade that would be used in cooking.

TG: We didn’t talk about flowers. Are there flowers?

BC: Dark flowers are here; up and to the right past the earth. White flowers are also to the left of the earth.

TG: That’s a pretty complex map. What’s interesting about it is that everything is in a sphere, all in close proximity so you can easily organize it.


TG: Let’s play with the wine a bit. Go ahead and smell the wine; what’s a really dominant feature in the wine for you? What really pops?

BC: The dark blackberry juice.

TG: That’s down here to the right. What happens if we change the location of that and put it up here and to the left? Smell the wine and tell me what happens.

BC: It doesn’t affect the wine but it’s a really odd feeling.

TG: OK, but when you smell the wine for blackberry and you move the image of blackberry does the wine change?

BC: It makes it less strong.

TG: Reset it. What happens if you take the image and make it really huge? Does that make is stronger or less strong?

BC: No change.

TG: OK, put it back. What happens if you make the image black and white?

BC: It accentuates everything acidic in the wine.

TG: Reset it; what happens if you expand your sphere out as you smell the wine? Let it bubble out and grow. It’s a bigger sphere and everything is bigger.

BC: Nothing really changes, but it made me think of how I’m looking at the scale in terms of the actual wine. With aromatic wines I think it’s further out vs. other wines where it could be much tighter, closer. Now that I’m thinking about it I’m wondering if I can look at it farther away.

(At this point TG opens a different wine, a 2010 Double Bond Zinfandel from Paso Robles) 

TG: So what’s this wine like? The same distance away? Different?

BC: Same distance and immediately I’m scanning from tarter to darker fruit
and the different kinds of spices.

TG: When you scan is it a color gradation or something else? A scale? If I had to be you, how would I do it? 

BC: No, it’s not a color gradation, but more like colors and pictures of the actual fruits.

TG: Are they all lined up next to each other? How does that work?

BC: They’re going from a harder plum to a tarter cherry all the way to a cherry that’s rotting.

TG: So you’re just matching them up.

BC: Yes, it’s like I’m saying, “that works, that works,”etc.


TG: Before we taste the wine, how do you know you’re finished smelling it?

BC: When I can’t find anything else, or nothing else stands out immediately. I know that if I keep smelling the wine I might be able to smell other things but then everything else disappears.

TG: When you say disappears …

BC: There’s only so many times I can recognize that same fruit, that same spice, that wood, all those kinds of things. If I keep smelling, then I’ve killed those kinds of scents. From there if I smell other things I consider them kind of irrelevant. Because if you keep smelling the wine you’ll probably be able to smell VA after a while or who knows what. Unless something is initially there on the first few sniffs I consider it irrelevant.

TG: Taste the Châteauneuf again and as you’re tasting it what are your goals? What are you trying to do? 

BC: I try to go into the palate clean and not think about the things I’ve smelled. I think you get a clear description in your mind when you go to something new; then you can connect it or disconnect it to what you smelled. With this wine I thought, “what was my initial impression when I smelled the wine?” Immediately it was the dark berry characteristic, but I thought that it was darker than what it was on the nose. 

TG: So how does it change? It was right here (motions down and to the left).

BC: It was still dark and in the same place. Then it went to uber acid up here and to the right. I wasn’t thinking in terms of fruit it just crossed up and to the right.

TG: Does it change positions?

BC: The acid took it over here.

TG: How does that work?

BC: It changed positions going from the realm of is it “fruits, fruits, fruits, or ACID?!”

TG: So how do you know it’s not fruit and acid?

BC: It may be the fruits. I started going through the tarter fruits and on to the finish of the wine. My mouth started to water so it’s just acid.

TG: So there’s a sequence of tarter fruits and then acid?

BC: Right, there’s a sequence from the tarter fruits going to acid. That was just the initial impression of it.

TG: Taste it again; how do you compare it to the nose in terms of the set up and all these things? Are they relatively the same? Different? If different, how so because the fruit quality has definitely changed.

BC: Everything that I’m looking at as far as the fruits is the same. Still going from the dark to the tarter, redder fruits. 

TG: What about the spices over here?

BC: Spices still there; earth and meat still there. Herbs–more lavender but still there. But there’s some new wood on the wine. I still see some older
barrels, but I’m definitely leaning more to the right side and getting more of an image of new barrels–actually the inside of a new barrel.

TG: 3D-type picture?

BC: Yes, cross sections of the inside of a new barrel. Again, the older stuff is to the left and the newer stuff is to the right, and I can see the cross sections of a new barrel over here (points to the right) with some degree of toasting.

TG: What about the earthiness?

BC: Still the same with the darker earth and stone with a little bit of iron. I see the color of the earth right here (motions).

TG: Is that a picture of the soil itself? 2D or 3D? 

BC: It’s a 3D picture.

TG: One of the last things I’ll ask you about the palate is the structure. How do you figure out how much acid, alcohol, and tannin is in the wine? How do you know that it’s medium vs. medium-plus acid? Go ahead and taste the wine again start with what’s easiest for you. Acid? Tannin?

BC: Acid; I usually do acid first because I’m still feeling it in my mouth whereas the alcohol becomes a function of figuring out the acid.

TG: What do you do to calibrate the acid? 

BC: For this wine I went right over there and thought screeching acidity.

TG: So you’re pointing out front and above shoulder level. What if it’s low acid?

BC: It’s here and it seems like there’s a line that goes from here to here (points straight out at shoulder level and up higher); from low to high.

TG: How do you calibrate? Are there markers on the line? Does something move? What goes on?

BC: It’s almost like there’s a marker that moves.

TG: Is there a button or something like that?

BC: No, it’s just a little line, a hash mark.

TG: Are there calibrations from low to high?

BC: No, it’s just for low and high with the line.

TG: When you taste, does the marker move or do you get the idea first and then it moves?  

BC: With that one, it moved right away; but I know that sometimes if I taste a wine and I’m not sure what it is, I’ll move the marker until it fits.

TG: So you’re taking the calibration with the marker and moving it until it matches up. What about alcohol? Does it work the same way?

BC: Interesting; it’s also on the left but it’s like a target that gets bigger or smaller depending on how much alcohol is in the wine (He makes a circular motion out in front of him chest high). Does that make sense? Here’s the center of the target and the higher the alcohol, the darker the target becomes. It’s like concentric circles and the higher the alcohol, the closer to the bullseye and darker in color. If it’s more to the outside it’s lighter in color with less alcohol.

TG: How does it work?  Does it expand and contract?

BC: Yes, it expands and contracts and also changes color depending on how much alcohol.

TG: What about tannin? Is it the line thing again?

BC: Yes, it’s the line thing only it’s straight up and down. High tannins up here and lower tannins down here (Points to a line straight out in front should height and down).

TG: Is there a marker that moves on it like the one for acid? 

BC: Yes, but it’s more like a dot on the line that’s moving.

TG: It seems like high tannin is straight out in front of you at eye level.

BC: Yes, it’s like the acid line is here and then the tannin line is below.

TG: How about residual sugar? Do you have something for that? 

BC: I just thought of Sauternes and it’s way out there (points out in front).  

TG: Is it beyond the sphere? 

BC: Yes.

TG: What about a really dry wine? Where is that? 

BC: Same place.

TG: When you taste something, how do you know if it’s dry vs. off-dry or slightly sweet vs. medium sweet? How do you know?  

BC: Actually, it’s another kind of bullseye but farther out. It’s a separate thing outside the sphere, sweet on the outside and then dry in the center.

TG: So you’re looking at the center of the bullseye and it expands if it’s sweet.

BC: Right, it’s the same kind of thing as the concentric circles for tannin.

TG: Is the tannin circle red? 

BC: No, it’s yellow.  

TG: Do you use the same kind of thing for fortified wines? 

BC: I think so. I’m trying to picture a Port and it’s going to the same place. But I’m also going back and forth to tannin and other things.

TG: Did you know that you did any of this? 

BC: I did have some idea, but not this specific. A lot of times I know I’m scanning something and trying to find out where it fits. But this was like doing it in a slower, more specific fashion. 

TG: You start by looking here (down and slightly left of center), but you’re immediately looking at all kinds of scales and gradations to identify things in specific positions. What’s interesting to me is that everything in your sphere is relatively close to you, so it’s really tight and focused. If you think about it, it’s really good because you can keep a lot of things in your field of attention/awareness at the same time. Someone else whose field is farther away would have a hell of a time pulling this off. If you were coaching them you’d have to try to get them to pull everything closer in to improve their focus. Finally, how do you know when you’re done tasting the wine? Is it like the nose when you run out of things?

BC: It’s like I know it’s all there.

TG: In making a conclusion about a wine, what do you do? You’ve got all this information. How do you put it all together?

BC: I’ve described it all so I bring it all back to a common denominator and run through things it could be. 

TG: Like a Rolodex?

BC: Yes, it’s like circling.

TG: You’re making circle motions out here (out in front).  What’s this circular apparatus? How does it work? Is it images of wines or labels?

BC: It’s usually labels but sometimes it’s the grape first. If I’m not sure then it wavers and I go back and forth. Sometimes I start with categories of grapes and go back and forth. If I’m looking at this I might say, “It’s Barolo but then does it have those acid and tannin characteristics?” 

TG: Are you literally asking yourself these things internally? 

BC: Yes, I’m asking myself. If I’ve narrowed it down to either Sangiovese or Nebbiolo, then I’ll start breaking it down and asking, “does it have X or does it have Y? Does it have these fruit characteristics or this spice characteristic?”

TG: On a related note, I don’t know about you but for me the wines live in different places in my mind’s eye. For me Sangiovese is here (eye level, slightly left of center) and Nebbiolo is here (slightly above eye level and just right of center). Is it the same for you?

BC: No, they’re both in the same general area.

TG: Sometimes I take wines and try to make them into something that they’re not. I literally will put them in other places just to see what happens. They usually pop off the new location and go back to where I usually find them.

BC: Sounds good.

TG: To close, I’m thinking about the whole tasting process in the context of the exams. We work with students and they practice on their own and in groups, but then they have to be in the right zone for the exam to do well. A lot of it has to do with confidence but there’s something else as well.

BC: Whenever I’ve had a good tasting confidence is always the key. Nervous energy keeps you all over the place and prevents you from focusing in on the fruits, the earth in a categorized way. I’ve also noticed that when people are doing nothing in a tasting they’re looking all over the place.

TG: Agree; I would say that people with experience tend to have a pretty consistent place they look when they start and then other places to look when they generate images, compare, and file. I also think using a grid for people like us who have MS training is huge. When I’m tasting and really focused the grid is the size of a billboard or a game show board. I think practically all of us with MS training use the grid consistently, even if subconsciously.

BC: I’d be curious if you actually blindfolded someone, you couldn’t see where their eyes were going. And if the wines were all red or all white and the same temperature, how would they think? I’ve tasted out of black glasses before and it’s a really interesting experience.  

TG: True; I also think that expectations and belief are powerful filters that start a sequence of thinking. For instance, when you pick up this glass and look at the color of the wine, you have instant expectations about the wine including fruit profile and structure. White wines not so much but red wines much more. If you take the color away then the function has to be different.