Gilian Handelman

Gilian Handelman is the current director of education and communications for Jackson Family Wines. She began her career as an assistant sommelier in 1987 at Pierce’s restaurant in the Finger Lakes region of New York. But quickly moved into the production side in 1988 in Washington State working six harvests for three different wineries. Gilian was hired in 1994 by Kendall-Jackson as Enologist, where she produced experimental wine, yeast, and barrel trials and tracked the 1,500-plus lots of wine made by the winery each year. In 2006 she was tapped to create a trade education program for the winery, where she developed training for KJ’s sales force as well as wine and food education and seminars for trade and consumers. 

In 2000 she was hired by Paige Poulos at Paige Poulos Communications to be the Director of Wine Communications. Here she developed PR and education plans for winery and industry clients; plans that combined sensory evaluation, winemaking, and culinary education with public relations and marketing strategy. In 2002 Gilian was hired by Wine & Spirits Magazine as their Director of Marketing and Education. Handelman created their Best New Sommelier program, coordinated and taught scores of classes at culinary and hospitality schools around the United States, and developed their lauded event program. Eventually Gilian was lured back to Jackson Family Wines in 2007, where she currently directs education for the family’s 34 wineries around the globe. Gilian lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two children. 

I met with Gilian in May of last year. We used the 2009 RDV Rendezvous Merlot blend from Virginia and Riedel Vinum/Bordeaux glasses for the tasting. As for the session, it was clear from the outset that Gilian’s inner processing of wine is far different than most people’s strategies. She is a synesthete processing wine as a flow and shape of colors and movement. She’s created “maps” of many grape varieties and these can be found on the KJ website (http://www.kj.com/sensory-tour). Her strategy is unique–and remarkable as well.
Overall Goals

TG: What are your overall goals when tasting? 

GH: I’m trying to bridge the gap between language and the abstract. For me, it’s a different exercise because I’m trying to decipher what’s going on in the glass whether it’s for a blind tasting or for quality purposes. But when I’m speaking to an audience and trying to get them to come to a shared conclusion, what I’m trying to do is to get them to consider anything whether it’s shapes, sounds, frequencies, or hard word descriptors—literally anything that will create that “aha!” for the class. It’s a language aspect.

TG: What do you think the “aha!” moment is? What does that mean? 

GH: It really varies so much from person to person. What I’m looking for is the brow not to be knitted anymore. It’s like someone is thinking, “I don’t see it, I don’t see it, I don’t see it, I SEE IT!” Some people want the satisfaction that they’ve hit upon a descriptor that resonates for everybody. Other people want to understand a structural element. Some people just want answers to questions like, “what do you mean by framework?” or “What do you mean by high note?” Even if you have to resort to things like, “is it this?” (She sings high pitch) or “is it this?” (Sings low pitch); you do whatever it is to make all the brows to stop knitting. 


TG: When you look at wine in the glass what are you trying to figure out about it? 

GH: I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to unravel the 30-year mystery for me of how much bias goes into sight. This because I’ve had so many “kerthunk” moments in the last five years when I’ve been positing things to scientists and people who really taste analytically about how sight is such a huge predetermination of how people taste. What I’ve been trying to do is to open the space between my ears and think, “with this wine (glass in hand), it’s opaque so my sense is that it’s relatively low in acid and high in tannin and probably has wood on it, blah blah blah.” These are all things you get from visual cues. But now I’m trying really hard to think that maybe those things aren’t necessarily true.

TG: Why do you want to avoid doing that? I think to your point, sight, especially for red wines, builds instant expectations for fruit qualities and structural components. At least that’s a good framework to begin with. Are you trying to wipe the slate clean?

GH: A little bit. I think one of my pitfalls as a taster is that I have preconceived notions and they will drive me through things that I am missing. So something I’m really striving to do now is to stop my brain from saying, “I know what that is!” 

TG: Anything else about the sight, the appearance of a wine?  Anything to describe it? 

GH: The other thing about sight that I really like to pay attention to, and that I also encourage people to pay attention to, is the textural element; how the wine moves in the glass. That’s something I look at pretty carefully right away. That’s different from color.  It translates to sound for me.

TG: In other words when you swirl the glass and watch how the wine moves in the glass you hear sounds? 

GH: Yes.

TG: If a wine is really viscous and rich what sound is that? 

GH: Gloop, gloop, gloop. (Laughs)

TG: Is it just a sound? Is there anything that you see? Does the sound create any kind of pattern in your field of vision? I’m just curious.

GH: I don’t think so. I think it’s more like having observed Jell-O, jellies and candies hardening– various things like that over the years. I just have a very firm sense of what texture means.

TG: What about something like Champagne or German Riesling that’s really light-bodied?

GH: Ffft! Ffft! Ffft! (Laughs again)

TG: What’s in between? 

GH: It’s more of a gentle swishing sound, like water lapping on the edge of a lake or the sides of a boat.

TG: Do you have a predisposition to any one of those? 

GH: Gloop, gloop, gloop is not attractive to me. 

TG: For all wines? What about something like a dessert wine? 

GH: For a Sauternes it’s OK. 

TG: What about a red wine?

GH: Much less so. Personally, I want more tension and more edges on my red. Also I’ve become more predisposed to not like so much glycerin-glycerol-texture in my wines. But that’s totally personal and not qualitative. 

TG: So one is about judging wine professionally and the other is personal. But it sounds like you like the higher acid, less alcohol red wines. 

GH: Yes, but there are definitely exceptions. I wouldn’t kick a Huet Vouvray out of bed and it’s a gloop gloop wine. 

TG: (Laughs) I agree


Gilian Handelman: KJ Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc


TG: Go ahead and pick up your glass and smell the wine. When you really get into your zone, I’m interested in is where your eyes go; where you look. (She smells the wine) It seems your eyes go right out here (straight out and down about 15-20 degrees). 

GH: Yes.

TG: Does that feel really comfortable, like it’s the best place? Try it again.

GH: Yes, that’s it. Definitely. I don’t stare into the wine. 

TG: Most people do. Over 90% of the people I’ve worked with look down either center, slightly to the left, or slightly to the right. I think this is really important because it’s a starting point for your tasting sequence. It also helps to shut the world out so you can focus. Once you do that and smell this wine, what kind of fruits do you smell? 

GH: Mostly dark fruit; fruit that’s not stewed but more on the compote side or on the counter for a while side. 

TG: As you’re smelling the wine and telling me this, I see your eyes start here and then go out here (Straight out in front almost eye level). Question: how do you know it’s dark fruit and not something else? 

GH: Tenor.

TG: Tenor meaning …

GH: I also see and hear music a lot when I taste. For me, this wine is more of a basso sound (hums) vs. a higher sound. 

TG: When you say you see something, do you get images of something that’s dark fruit? I also have to note that you’re looking in exactly the same place as before. 

GH: Not sure. 

TG: Put your nose in the glass and hold the dark fruit and your eyes in the same place for a few seconds and see if anything pops up.

GH: No, I don’t see any dark fruit. I feel dark fruit whether it’s in the core of my body or in a smell memory.  

TG: But I’m curious because feelings tend to be evaluative—they happen as a result of an image or a sound. What I want to know is if there is an image that creates all this other stuff? Because again, how do you know it’s dark fruit and not red fruit or even a catcher’s mitt for that matter? How do you know?

GH: Right as in how am I pulling it from the wine. I guess it’s just an instantaneous reaction in my brain. There’s this thought that I’ve catalogued all these smells and there’s a synapse that’s telling me this is dark fruit.

TG: But what tells the synapse?

GH: I think, although I haven’t really articulated this before, that for me it’s sort of a family tree or a logarithm. Like you, I do the same kind of thing in terms of the fruit, the floral, mineral, veggie, and the rest. 

TG: As you’re saying those things, you’re going left to right just out in front of you. Is that how it works? 

GH: I always go left to right.

TG: Is that a grid? 

GH: It’s a like a family tree or a logarithm. If I’m starting with fruit (and I always start with fruit), then it would branch off here (points out front).  It happens really quickly and there’s only two worlds for fruit for me—white and red. In red fruit there’s also only two worlds, red and black. After that, the logarithm breaks off further.

TG: If I were you, what would all that look like? Is it like a picture of a tree with branches?

GH: It’s almost like electricity. Once I make those quick decisions, say that it’s in the black fruit world I’m asking if it’s fresh black fruit or prunes or whatever. 

TG: As you point to those places (out in front of her), are those images or what are they?

GH: I think they are lines of connect in my brain that are leading me to one framework or another. 

TG: I’m still trying to get to how you know it’s black fruit vs. something else. So if I had to be you, what would I do? So far I know that you put your nose in the glass and some kind of tree appears quickly; but you somehow take everything into consideration and then recognize something specifically. From there, it becomes a subset of different variations of whatever it is. But what does all this look like? 

GH: It’s like a family tree or an electron; almost like when you match up electrons and protons. There’s lines of yes-no, yes-no for me.  

TG: Are there any pictures that have to do with all this? I’m just curious if there are images somehow in the process.

GH: I don’t think there are pictures. I think there’s a memory but it doesn’t look like an image because I’ve been smelling things for so long. I remember walking around as a kid with my Mom smelling things in markets. It’s more of an association. It’s not emotional as it it’s recognition of some kind.  

TG: But how do you recognize something? That’s the question. If you recognize anything specifically, how do you do it? Say it’s something really strong in a wine such as a fruit or a rose; how do you represent that? 

GH: If we really do go there, I think it’s a shape. For me round, dark fruit is sort of amorphous and blobby. Red, vivid fruit is spiky. And it’s not necessarily something like, “there’s that shape of a tear drop.” It’s not that clear cut for me. It’s more like thought flowing into shape. So round, black fruit that’s kind of stewed is amorphous; back to the gloop gloop. In fact, all the fruits I smell will go into those kind of roles. Maybe that’s what it’s like for me, a channel of shape and sound. “So (speaking in a high voice) this is a tiny channel that is bristly, high-noted, and cleaver-shaped. Then (speaking in a much lower voice) this amorphous pool of a shape.” I don’t think I see actual pictures of things. 

TG: Interesting. Where does that come from? Where do these shapes come from? Inside your head? Out front? 

GH: It comes from my whole body (laughs).

TG: Not only that but it seems like there are sounds that accompany all this too.

GH: Yes, inside my brain. 

TG: So you project these amorphous shapes along with pitches and frequencies in terms of how rich or how acidic the fruit is.  

GH: I do this all the time especially with the structure of a wine—the liquid takes a shape.

TG: We’ll get to structure in a bit. In the meantime, you mentioned dark fruits. Are there any red fruits in the wine, anything sour?

GH: Near the end there’s some plum notes like plum skin.

TG: What about things like flowers, herbs, and even earth?

GH: There’s kind of a cured leather or cured fruit leather to which then to me goes flat. It’s not amorphous anymore and that I think is just associated with fruit leather. Whenever I think of fruit leather I always think of flat.

TG: As in a flat shape?

GH: Yes, there’s also some subtle perfume in this wine but it’s more of a bass-noted or woody perfume. That’s getting into the wood world but it’s still kind of in the fruit-natural things world.

TG: Finally, what about oak? How do you know there’s oak?

GH: There’s a cocoa note which to me is a dark almost round, puffy character. Oak characters to me are more bristly.

TG: When you say bristly, what do you mean? What does that look like?

GH:  It looks like a claw (laughs) because it’s “grippy.” Then there’s the spice-oak elements which I’m picking in the wine which are almost like roasted spice elements. They’re like little bits of roundness but it’s not a large puffy thing.

TG: Thinking about all those things together, what does that look like? Once you put your energy into a shape and/or color how does it appear? It seems to be almost like an arrangement. Do all the shapes happen at once and stay there or does it happen one thing at a time? 

GH: It eventually all comes together so that there’s the puffiness and the roundness. But that round jam note anchors it all and then there’s stuff laid on top it. 

TG: So the shape of the fruit anchors it all and everything else is around it like little satellites? 

GH: Yes.

TG: In other words, there are shapes instead of actual images? 

GH: Yes.

TG: A bunch of different shapes? Do the shapes have any color or any texture? 

GH: No.

TG: Are they just outlines?

GH: There’s definitely texture. Now I’m also picking up some resinous notes in the wine. It’s almost like blood orange notes and dried citrus and they’re kind of curly shaped.

TG: You’re pointing to them right out in front of your face. It’s interesting that your entire field is very close to you in proximity. It’s all within 12-14 inches in front of you at eye level. What happens when you taste the wine? Does all this change? If one flavor gets stronger than it was on the nose, does anything change? Or does it all stay the same? 

GH: Your right, it is all intimate for me; it’s right here in front. But what changes is that it takes off.

TG: Takes off? As in …

GH: Away from me.  

TG: Just curious, smell the wine again and take your arrangement of shapes and push away from you about 10 feet. What happens to the wine? Just push it all the way.

GHY: I kind of lose control of it.

TG: Can you make sense of the wine anymore? Or does the wine smell different if you push it away?

GH: Yes, it smells higher noted. It’s like I pushed the bass away.

TG: Reset it. It sounds like there’s dimensionality to this as well as depth. What happens if you smell it and make the shape flat? Like two dimensional and flat right out in front of you.

GH: I lose the whole screen.

TG: But is there any part of the wine that smells stronger? Different?  

GH: It’s kind of like all the left over notes like soy and fruit leather.  

TG: So the major things go away?

GH: Yes.

TG: Makes sense. So reset it and let’s taste the wine.


Gilian Handelman: KJ Taylor Peak Merlot


TG: Now that you’re tasting the wine keeping all those shapes in mind, does anything change? Or do they stay in the same kind of arrangement?

GH: Now what happens is that I check the assumptions from the aromatic profile and things open up quite a bit.

TG: Meaning that the field gets larger? 

GH: Yes, it gets quite a bit larger this way (pointing up) and that way (side to side).  But it never, ever grows down. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is. It grows in width, in height, and in depth.  

TG: So how much larger does it get? 

GH: At least a hundred percent bigger. I feel and see huge spikes.

TG: Huge spikes? What does that mean? 

GH: I’m very influenced by structure in terms of my visuals and my sense of things, which is why when I’m teaching a class in front of people I’m motioning like this all the time (waves her arms). 

TG: You’re literally showing them what you get out of the wine.

GH: Right! It’s really a three-dimensional model on my palate.

TG: Do the shapes stay the same? Do they get bigger? 

GH: No, the big amorphous thing is still there and that’s the center of the whole structure. What’s happening elsewhere is that tannin and acid are stretching either forward, or up and out. With a tannic wine like this I’m looking very carefully at how the tannin crescendos and where it pops out. This is a little bit like those fruits that have spikes on them. I think it’s like a passion fruit because it’s fairly round. They don’t take on square shapes for me so they’re fairly round. It’s almost like this is a vision of my palate right in front of me.

TG: It’s kind of an arch right in front of you.

GH: Right, front to back. So what’s happening is that the tannins take shape on the palate.

TG: When you say, “takes shape,” what does that mean?

GH: They get spikey. 

TG: Meaning that on the curve of the wine shape there are spikes that come up? 

GH: Yes, there are spikes that come up through the curve.

TG: Again I have to ask, is there any color to all this? Or is it just shapes and outlines?

GH: In reds no but some whites have a color.  

TG: But in red wines in terms of all these different fruits, spices, and other things, there’s only shapes with outlines? Are they filled? How does it work?

GH: They’re definitely filled. It’s like a big rubber casing that’s filled and things are shooting out the end of the casing making the rubber stretch which is what I meant by the passion fruit. Then in the back there’s this kind of roller coaster and other stuff stretching through the casing.

TG: Roller coaster meaning what?

GH: Cascade—like a cascade of what’s going on. There’s tannin and acid, and it (cascade shape) goes up (motions with hands) coming back down and then goes up again. 

TG: So it’s the shape of the palate of the wine. Does the structure define the movement of the shape? 

GH: Yes, the structure.  

TG: How is high acid different from low acid? 

GH: For me high acid definitely goes up (whistles). With acid there’s usually an up and sometimes an out.  

TG: How would that be different? 

GH: Because of the way I perceive acid on my palate. Whether I feel a burst at the end of the wine like fingers moving, or a turkey tail, or a slow build of acid that takes off like you’re going up a roller coaster.

TG: How about alcohol? How is that represented to you? 

GH: I don’t perceive alcohol that much. The only way I’m influenced by alcohol is by retro-nasal.  

TG: What about something that’s really high in alcohol like a port? 

GH: If it’s really high in alcohol it’s almost like a burning or a gaseous.

TG: You’re making a motion off to the side and up.

GH: Right, it’s off to the side and up but all also through the palate. It’s constantly kind of burning in there like roiling gas.

TG: How about residual sugar? What’s that like? 

GH: I don’t know because I don’t have anything like that in the glass. 

TG: True, but if you had a young vintage port, what would the sweetness be like?

GH: It’s that base “mattress” again (pointing right underneath her chin). So if this is all a reflection of my palate, and I think it is, then this base mattress is a kind of soft, couchy thing going on the bottom of my palate. 

TG: So you’re literally projecting all this right out in front of your palate? In front of your face? 

GH: Yes.

TG: Have you ever thought about taking different grape varieties and drawing maps of what all this looks like? 

GH: Yes, I did it and they’re on the Kendall Jackson website. 

TG: You did? Then I have to check it out to see what all of them look like.

GH: You’ll see them on the website and in some instances, I did several maps for a single grape like Cabernet. I did maps for three different Cabernets but you’ll see that they all have a similar shape. That’s because I feel that tannin and texture work together in such an unusual way. To me, the tannin dictates a huge amount of what that shape looks like. It’s not just the grape variety because you can taste Cabernet from the Oakville bench from a big time producer at 15% alcohol and to me the shape is a lot like a Central Coast Syrah. It’s got that zauftig kind of shape. But Cabernet from Howell Mountain or Pauilliac is much more spikey. So I can’t necessarily put a shape to a specific grape.

TG: So structure is really important. Does a shape with all these aspects just keep going and changing every time you taste the wine? Or does it stop changing at some point.

GH: It does change after three to five minutes. What’s left is this kind of end of the roller coaster or like foothills or steps left by the tannin on my palate. And often for me, and this is how I pick up minerality; there’s literally pebbles or gravel.

TG: Do you see pebbles or gravel? 

GH: I see different shapes of rocks on my palate at the end. 

TG: You mentioned no colors for red wine but some colors for white wines. 

GH: I should revise that because there’s no color for most reds. But if something is really different from what I’m tasting day to day (and that can change depending on where I am or what I’m working on), there might some color. That’s usually if something is really blue or really red in terms of the fruit. There’s also a spike or a frequency. Blue gives me a frequency that sounds like a high-pitched buzz. It’s almost musical.

TG: Do you have a music background? 

GH: No.  

TG: How does sound enter so much of what you perceive in wine? I have a formal musical background and it doesn’t really transfer over into wine. 

GH: Not sure why. I’ve always been very sensitive to music and it’s affected me emotionally quite a bit and that affects me physically.  

TG: What kind of music? 

GH: All kinds but I particularly love classical and even reggae. I love syncopation.

TG: When you say classical, what kinds of classical music?

GH: Primarily French horn and cello. I love piano too and those are certain frequencies (sings a pitch). Things that vibrate at a middle base line frequency as opposed to more of a base frequency are less interesting to me.  

TG: Just curious, are there other things in your life where these frequency and shape things come into play? I’m not sure what that would be but do different people have different frequencies for you? 

GH: Frequencies definitely enter the picture around certain situations. 

TG: Does it have to do with stress? 

GH: Probably, but it also has to do with real happiness. So for instance my favorite time of the day is right before sunset and that is a shape that is incredibly amorphous and really generous and flowing. 

TG: Is there a sound or pitch that goes with that? 

GH: It sounds almost like a harp. It’s extremely gentle and sounds of water too.

TG: Really interesting. You’re very much a synesthete when it comes to tasting in that you bring in other senses to the tasting experience that don’t usually come into play. I think that pitch really help you calibrate things. If something in a wine is off then the pitch of the wine is probably off for you too. So if it’s not quite right it probably bugs the hell out of you.

GH: True.

TG: But as for shapes and pitches in tasting, not many people do that. For most of us, especially those of us trained in the MS program, tasting is very visual and locational. A lot of it has to do with pictures. 

GH: It’s funny because I’m not very good at memorization of specific wines like “X” producer from 1982. But I can remember the shape of the wine. Like I can also pretty much remember any face or voice I hear but I may not be able to remember a name.

TG: What parts of you strategy do you try to teach people? Do you try to get them to hear different pitches with different kinds of wines? 

GH: I encourage them to consider that there are other modes of communicating about wine which is arguably the area that trips people up the most. They can feel they’re not establishing a connection around what they’re supposed to be tasting with people. Or they can feel inferior in some way because they don’t have the language expected of them. I’m really trying to encourage people to consider that there are other modes of communication than words to discuss wine. 

TG: That’s great. I want to try one more thing if only to be a pain. I want you to smell and taste the wine and as you’re smelling, what happens if you put a picture of whatever the dominant fruit up there? 

GH: That does happen to me a lot in the beginning of tasting a wine before I’ve had a chance to dissect it. And this was the exact same picture I had when I first tasted the wine—which is like moss and mud.

TG: I was asking about fruit. So how does that happen? 

GH: It smells like moss and mud to me. The natural world of it is a very huge aspect for me as well. It’s really important and I often see landscapes or waterways when I smell and taste.

TG: Just curious, are those landscapes or waterways life size? 

GH: No, they’re very intimate; whether it’s like a river bank or a dried up gravel bed or other things like that. It’s literally like a section of earth or an overturned log or a crushed flowers or what have you. Those are the only visuals I tend to pick up. 

TG: And those are like flashes? 

GH: Right. 

TG: So the overall impression of the wine gives you something like that? 

GH: Yes and sometimes it’s kind of fecund and gross like a tide pool with rotting critters.

TG: One last question: when you teach beginners, what’s the “aha!” moment you want them to have? 

GH: That their voice is relevant. I tell people that they don’t have to describe the wine. What I’m asking them to do and what other people in this community will ask to them to do is to share some sort of connection around what’s in the glass. So they can come up with any kind of entry point in terms of describing it. They can describe wine musically or as a person. They can describe it as an emotion or they can dissect it and totally take it apart. They can describe a wine as the color purple. At some point you have to have a connection to the understanding that language is bringing to two people. What you’re trying to do is to connect over something that isn’t saying anything at all. It’s like when you’re trying to connect over a piece of art. It’s just that with wine you have so many more cues than just visual. You can say a wine reminds you of a piece of velvet because that’s true for you. It’s all about finding a way to connect.

TG: I think a major disconnect for most people is that the wine is visual; that internally the experience and sequence of smelling and tasting have visual aspects to them. At the same time, someone who is a beginner and picks up a glass of wine is really intimidated because we’re using a vocabulary, a language, that’s really intended for another sense—not smelling or tasting. 

GH: I agree. You just can’t expect people to come into a first tasting and start getting a lot of things right away. But your smell memory is yours and if you smell Clorox in a wine or Barbie legs it’s fine. It’s more like you’ve got all these memories logged and you can use them with wine.