Jamie Goode’s The Goode Guide to Wine: A Manifesto of Sorts is literally a pocket-sized personal philosophy about wine; from the tasting experience to commercial vs. artisan wine and beyond. In the preface, he states more than once that he fully expects the reader to disagree with some, if not many, of his opinions. In fact, he actually hopes the reader does: “I hope the ideas presented here cause you to question, and perhaps in turn to frame your philosophy of wine.”
With that, I will follow Goode’s lead and present my own thoughts about wine. I’ll also be quick to point out that I hope you read and disagree with some of what I have to say. If anything, it’s because we sometimes learn quickly when faced with a concept with which we disagree–with the caveat that we also approach the new information with an open mind.
One last thing. It’s important to note that I’m dropping anchor, so to speak, in April of 2023. Any of the following is subject to change in the future given the right experience and/or tasting the right wine.
A bottle of wine always involves a two-part equation including the vineyard source and the winemaker.
The quality of the fruit always matters.
High quality fruit is a prerequisite for making good wine.
The wrong winemaker can screw up top quality fruit.
A skilled winemaker can make good wine with lesser quality fruit—but not much beyond.
Over-ripe and raisinated fruit and high alcohol levels in wine can distort or even obliterate any sense of place.
Vintage is not universally important. There are classic wines such as non-vintage Champagne and aged tawny Port where vintage is secondary.
Most white wines are produced with the intention of being consumed within a year of release. Then vintage only matters as far as seeking out the youngest wine available.
My Mom’s maxim applies here: it takes all types to fill up the freeways.
There’s a market for any kind of wine, from inexpensive commercially-produced wines to terroir-driven single domain bottlings.
Box wines, jug wines, canned wines, and wines in tetra pack are all relevant and important to our industry.
If our goal as professionals is to share the wine experience with others, we need better quality wines in every format.
Because wine is fermented, it smells and tastes like other things. Hence the sometimes-florid descriptions about fruit, spices, flowers, and more in a glass of wine.
The aromas and flavors in wine are derived from volatile compounds which are the product of fermentation.
We describe these compounds in a number of different ways, including the aforementioned fruit, herbs and spices, earth and mineral, and oak.
To allow for use of some of these descriptions but not others is ludicrous.
Deductive tasting using a double-blind method is useful for training and various certifications.
Other methods of tasting are also valid.
Identifying wine via blind tasting is a part of the overall process. However, it is not the end all or be all of professional tasting.
There are well over 100,000 wines commercially produced every year. To expect someone to identify any wine via blind tasting is somewhere between ludicrous and moronic.
Arguably the most important goal of tasting is to assess and analyze a wine in order to be able to judge its quality. Ultimately that is what we as professionals are trained to do—and paid to do.
We practice tasting so we can be silent internally and present to what’s in the glass. Literally, so we can internally see what’s there.
Personal tolerances and biases in wine must be navigated and even compensated for when tasting for a professional purposes.
One cannot hack being a professional taster.
Any meaningful competence requires consistent use of a tasting grid or system, repetition, training, coaching, and a duration of time.
One is arguably never a great taster, but always in the process of learning more and improving their craft.
The legendary cellist Pablo Casals practiced daily into his 90s. He was once asked why he continued to practice. His answer: “because I’m beginning to see some improvement.” I continue to use him as a model in my tasting.
Communicating about wine
We communicate about wine to the consumer by making the complex simpler without dumbing it down.
As famed physicist Richard Feynman once said, if you can’t explain something to an eight-year-old, you don’t really know what you’re talking about. This holds especially true about the tasting process.
Wine has no inherent vocabulary. Over time we in the industry have begged, borrowed, and shamelessly stolen terms for other completely unrelated fields. Thus, the language of wine will always be a challenge.
Tasting notes are a useful tool as well as a necessary evil.
Most tasting notes are reductive in that we pry apart various aspects of a wine and then describe them as best we can.
Any tasting note will always combine an objective description of a wine with one’s personal subjective opinion.
There’s an enormous range in tasting note styles, from acerbic laboratory text to pulp fiction.
A tasting note that can be used by a broad audience lies somewhere in between.
The intended end user should dictate the style of the tasting note.
We teach examples of classic grapes and wines to establish standards for tasting and overall wine knowledge.
We also know that the nature of these so-classics is constantly evolving due to climate change, vintage variation, and changes/improvements in the vineyard and winery.
Terroir, earth, and mineral
Every vineyard has a unique microbiome; the population of bacteria, micro flora and fauna, and yeasts, both cerevisiae and other.
Fermentation includes the yeast population, bacteria, and microbiome from the vineyard soil.
Even if a cultured yeast is used for fermentation, the microbiome of the vineyard can still impact the finished wine, even in the presence of sulfur.
The microbiome of the winery environment also impacts fermentation.
The combined influence of microbiomes from the vineyard soil and winery on fermentation creates flavors and aromas in wine that I describe as mineral and earth.
As expertise personal increases, wines that reflect their place of origin tend to matter more.
Certain fine wines can only be made in very specific places.
Regions and vineyards that have produced wine for thousands of years seemed destined to do just that. In a certain context, they could be described as sacred spaces.
Wine quality, balance, and typicity
Wine quality is based on typicity and balance.
Typicity in any given wine is based on aromatic and flavor characteristics and structural levels commonly found in other wines from the same place of origin made from the same grape or blend of grapes.
Balance in wine is a harmony between the fruit and acid in all wines, and fruit, acid, and tannin in red wines. The use of new oak can also play a role in overall wine balance.
Tannin management can make or break the balance in red wine and, to a certain extent, determines quality.
To many consumers, “smooth” is the single most desired quality in a red wine.
Deliciousness is another important but somewhat subjective aspect of balance. It usually involves the interplay between fruit and structural elements such as acidity and residual sugar, if present.
A well-made wine should resemble other classic examples of the same grape and from the same place. There are always exceptions.
Like many things in wine, oak-aging in wine is about context.
If there is one maxim about oak usage in winemaking it’s this: the intensity of fruit in a wine has to match the amount of new oak. Otherwise, the wine can easily be imbalanced.
Evolution of a palate
One’s palate evolves over time.
There seems to be phases that one generally goes through over time in regards to tasting and preferred wines:
Phase I: wine as confection – fruity, slightly sweet white, pink, and red wines
Phase II: white wine with oak – Chardonnay and others
Phase III: red wine with oak and tannin – Cabernet Sauvignon and similar
Phase IV: red wines of subtlety and elegance – Pinot Noir and similar
Phase V: high-acid white wines with residual sugar – Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and others
Phase VI: any style of wine that’s well-made and of high quality
Wine and context
There are three aspects to any tasting experience: the taster, the wine, and context.
Context is by far the most important aspect of the three. It can be defined as the who, what, when, where, how a wine is tasted.
Change any part of the context in a tasting—be it the ambient temperature of the tasting space, the temperature the wine, the glassware, the order of the wines being tasted, and much more–and you alter the experience of the taster, sometimes dramatically.
Context means that communicating about the wine experience will always be imprecise because there are multiple variables.
With the exception of TCA and certain sulfur compounds, many of what we call “faults” in wine are contextual.
However, when a fault like Brett or VA dominates the character of a wine, the wine is flawed.
Subjective vs. objective in the wine experience
The wine experience will always be a combination of objective and subjective.
However, there are two primary ways of looking at the issue of objective vs. subjective in wine.
First, everything we experience in life is subjective—the product of our nervous system and brain.
Our connection to the physical universe is our five senses. Internally, we think using the same five senses.
Thus, everything we perceive, recognize, and remember is filtered through our internal senses.
In that way, everything in life is subjective to us.
Second, there are elements in wine can be isolated and quantified in a lab. These are objective.
Other aspects of wine are filtered through personal experience and more subjective in nature.
To a beginner, practically all the tasting experience is subjective.
As time goes on and experience is gained, tasting becomes more objective.
There is little about wine that is subjective to an experienced professional.
Great wines vs. great wine experiences
Wines from “great” vintages tend to show intensity, concentration, and considerable tannin, if red.
More often than not, a high-quality wine from a so-called great vintage needs extended time in the cellar. If paired with a meal when young, it will tend to dominate the meal.
Wines from so-called lesser vintages have intrinsic value.
If balanced and typical, a wine from a lesser/lighter vintage will prove to be more flexible with food and easier to pair.
Great wines shout while others whisper. There is more than enough room in the wine world for both.
Great wines are usually prohibitive in cost, but so-called lesser wines can still potentially make for a great wine experience.
It’s important to make the distinction between a great wine and a great wine experience.
A great wine is as implied: a prohibitively expensive, great, and/or legendary bottle tasted at a trade event or via the cellar of a generous collector.
A great wine experience is where context, as in the people, place, and time, are just as important, if not more so, than the wine itself.
With some great wine experiences, the actual wine may not even matter.
All winemaking is intervention. Period.
There is no one best style of wine or winemaking. To proclaim a specific kind of wine as the one “true” or “best” style is beyond ludicrous.
It’s important to note that there are wines made naturally with minimal handling and minimal addition of sulfur by talented and experienced winemakers.
There are also “natural” wines, some so flawed they should never be commercially sold. The two should not be confused.
Practically all the most flawed wines I’ve ever tasted had one thing in common: they were natural wines.
Natural wine needs standards and a certification.
Adopt an extreme position or viewpoint in wine– be it place, grape, or style–and the universe will be all too happy to immediately show you one or several exceptions.
The 100-point scoring system presupposes a precision and objectivity in wine that has never—and will never–exist.
While numerical scores may benefit the collector and drive sales in certain industry channels, they do consumers a considerable disservice.
Numerical scores are the industry’s true unicorn.
The sommelier’s viewpoint
There are many “windows” into the wine universe.
The sommelier’s window is about hospitality and taking care of the guest with wine as part of a great dining experience.
Sommeliers find the right wine to serve in their restaurant tonight, and not a wine that will be ready to drink in five years.
Thus sommeliers tend to judge wine quality and typicity in the time frame of the now and not at some point in the future.
In the end
Wine is one of the most delightful of all shared hallucinations.
Wine is also the great connector—it connects us to people and places like few other things.
The shared pleasure of a bottle of wine is one of life’s great gifts.
We as sommeliers connect our guests to great wines and great wine experiences.
We in the industry are also the benefactors of one of mankind’s greatest achievements.
To me, it’s humbling to smell and taste wine, an act that has been performed countless times over the last 7,000-plus years.
I’m grateful to have had a career in wine, and to have had a chance to be able to play the game.
A votre santé!