Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ephemera: Great Palates Don't Exist

I am of the opinion that there are no great palates, only very experienced palates. I’ve had the great pleasure, and the occasional great misfortune, to taste with many of the most acclaimed and famous wine people, and that has convinced me of it. Yes, there are certainly physical differences between people in terms of their tasting abilities. Most of us are very sensitive to certain flavors and compounds, while being anosmic to others. And there are people branded as “supertasters,” which would seem to be the equivalent of an enormous penis or big breasts. Impressive, but more fun to imagine than actually possess. Not that I’d know about either one. But how good or well-endowed one is at the sense of taste, that isn’t really what makes you a brilliant wine taster. In fact, a supertaster is a miserable judge of wine (right, Tim Hanni MW?). What makes you a brilliant wine taster is the depth and breadth of your experience with wine, and, more importantly, with great wine.

None of what I’m saying has to do with the enjoyment of wine. Anyone can enjoy wine. Nor is it a sin not to know much about wine, though it would explain why most wine bloggers are going to Hell. And unless I’ve sat and tasted with someone, compared notes and talked about wines with him or her, I have no idea about how accomplished that person is as a wine judge. I don’t even care if he/she has letters appended to their name. I promise you, many of the worst judges I’ve been around have letters after their name, and most of the best have none (yeah, I know, I use HMW after my name, but that’s a joke…or is it?) It’s far more about experience. Lots of folks like to string letters after their name like so many dingleberries, and it’s nearly as disgusting.

Here’s the thing; unless you’ve tasted the “great” wines of the world, and tasted them often, it’s impossible to know where the bar is set for wine. We can argue about what makes a “great” wine, and which wines qualify, but those arguments are rather silly. There are many. But they are rare, and hard to taste for free, and in big demand. For a reason. They’re great wines. My list is my list, but a comprehensive list would include hundreds and hundreds of wines, but begin with the First Growths (oh, I do love Cheval Blanc), and Chave Hermitage, Chateau Rayas, Raveneau Chablis, Y’Quem, Spottswoode (a personal favorite), Jayer, DRC, Biondi-Santi, Giacosa… I’m leaving out hundreds of wines. But these wines set the bar very high for their appellations, and for other appellations that use the same varieties. If you haven’t been exposed to them, it’s nuts, and the height of human folly, to assign scores to other wines. 95? Relative to what?

Forget about scores, it’s about educating yourself to what a great wine tastes and acts like. No, they’re not all the same. They are different frames of references, just as great painters are different but represent a pinnacle of their style. Every great wine taster I’m aware of has a built-in catalogue of great wine in their head, a palate memory deeply ingrained, that they use to judge a new wine. Just how good is this Napa Cabernet? Well, it’s fine, but does it have the depth and grace of a Spottswoode, or the power and richness of Harlan Estate, or the voluptuousness and sweet fruit of Screaming Eagle? Extrapolate that to every region and suddenly you have a great palate. Only it’s really an experienced palate.

“Great palate” bothers me. I think about this shit all the time. There are a lot of pretty inexperienced wine experts pretending they have a great palate. It’s certainly enough to put a wine in your mouth and say, “I like this.” Nothing wrong with that. But that doesn’t make it great wine. There are standards, even if you’re ignorant of them. I’ve said it a thousand times. There are NO great wines under $20. Just stop pretending there are. You’re making a jackass of yourself. You insult great wines, and you insult the intelligence of your readers, the cheap fucks. Greatness is subjective, but not 100% subjective. Only the daft and thunderstruck think something can be 100% subjective. Few accomplished wine people would argue that any of the wines I spoke of earlier are only average or above average wines (Biondi-Santi would be controversial), but our ranking of them among the greats might be subjective to us. I’d kill for Cheval Blanc, but I can take or leave Mouton-Rothschild. Assuming I could afford either one, which I no longer can.

Much of this is about perspective. Don’t lose it. Enjoy every bottle for what it is. Every wine has something to say. But some are profound and life-changing (not that many) while the rest just sort of pleasantly babble. It’s a lot like wine writing. Thank you for reading my wine babble. But while enjoying wines, don’t toss the word “great” around so easily. Stop heaping praise on wines that aren’t particularly brilliant. Great wines have restraint; great wine experts also have restraint. Much of the joy of learning about wine is the joy of knowing that no matter how long and how much you’ve tasted, there’s always something even better out there. Wine humbles us. It makes us all look stupid. Anyone who blind tastes regularly knows that. We’re groping in the dark when it comes to wine. But that’s its gift to us. Wine gives us pleasure even if we’re not its match. Maybe, like the best marriages, because we’re not its match.

I think I hate email. I like it better than texting, which is the modern day equivalent of smoke signals, only less eloquent. Texting is the greatest blessing bestowed upon men since Viagra, though it serves a similar purpose—screwing your partner. Lovely to be able to text, “Thinking of you” while you’re actually watching sports on TV. And women fall for it. Or settle for it. And it takes no effort or thought, just a text. A perfect way to communicate when expressing your feelings is as foreign to you as child birth. No matter. But when I open my email I usually cringe. I’m good at eliminating spam, and I’m not on FaceBook, so, truly, I get the least email of anyone I know. But so much of what I get is dull, or hate mail, or weird marketing letters (some guy yesterday told me how much he loved my blog, "HouseMaster of Wine"), which I quickly delete.

However, the other day I received an invitation to attend World of Pinot Noir with a Media pass. My first thought was, Really, have you read my blog, HorseMaster of Wine? But it turned out to be a legit offer, which I happily accepted. I have no idea who put me on that invite list. I don’t really seem like a wine marketer’s dream. I’m thinking it may be a trap to finally kill me. I’ve never attended WOPN, and I’m pretty excited to go. I think it’s already a sellout, which makes me a perfect match! WOPN has quickly become one of the most important Pinot Noir events in the US. Which makes my invitation even more nonsensical. But I’ll be there, purposefully concealing my name tag, and will certainly have a few things to say when I return.

A big thanks to the WOPN for the invitation.


jock said...

Absolutely brilliant and as profound as anything I have seen written.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

"Profound" may be a bit much, but thank you. Not sure what set me off, but off I went.

Isn't everything about wine trivial? That's how I feel. Hard to be profound about something so trivial. I love wine, but knowing that, ultimately, it's entirely unimportant, helps me. There are a lot of guys on chat rooms--"wine experts"--who might try to learn that.

Unknown said...

Jay Leno had a nice compliment for his wife, your partner should be someone whose standards you never let down, you aspire to be and please.. exactly.. as for wine critics.. my fav food writer GQ's Alan Richman has got a nice, deft touch when describing wines he likes, for instance I was reading some of his backpage stuff and he wrote there's a difference between complexity and concentration..

Brian Miller said...

Ron, I love it when you get serious.

Unknown said...

Ron: I really enjoyed your "ephemeral" musings this morning, especially "don’t toss the word “great” around so easily. Stop heaping praise on wines that aren’t particularly brilliant. Great wines have restraint; great wine experts also have restraint." It kind of reminded me of how often we apply the term "hero" to someone who is far from that. Everything is a superlative...
Anyway, I am almost always amused or intrigued, often both, by your writing. Thanks!

Charlie Olken said...

I am beginning to think that you need two blogs: Hosemaster of Wine for those mad moments of merriment and WordMaster of Wine(WMW)for this morning's discussion of great palates and great wine.

I hate it when you make sense seriously because I know I can't write comedy like you, but now I have to worry that there is another entrant in the great writing category.

OK, I get it. You want to sweep all the prizes at the next Wine Blog Awards.

Pam Strayer said...

I'm glad you posted this. Is there anyone who doesn't have tasting anxiety? Aren't there millions of people, even in the wine whorl (thank you spellchecker for the word whorl rather than world; whorl is so much better) who think there is a The Palate? The only thing missing in your post was a witty description of taste receptors on a tongue.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

There is a difference between complexity and concentration, especially in people. Thanks for being a common tater. I half expected you to give me crap about being serious in this piece.

Comedy is as serious a business as one could imagine.

I agree about "hero" as the media overuse it. "Great" is the same way with wine, and it's a word I avoid, whether it's attached to wine, winemaker, or writer. If I use it, I mean it to express that those represent a bar far out of most's reach.

Oh, I just use "Ephemera" to let my inner demon loose, to talk about wine after a long relationship with it, maybe throw some cold water onto all the idiots writing about wine who perpetuate the elitist attitudes about wine, even if they do it subliminally.

When I write a bit for "Ephemera," if it's lengthy I post it on Thursday. If it's something stupid and short, I attach it to the comedy. I don't want to be STEVE!, who too often drifts into desperation, and I don't want to write satire as often, so this works for me. But thanks for the kind words. I simply cannot touch your expertise and experience--but who can? Shut up, Thomas.

I used to have tasting anxiety, but tasting with "famous" wine experts completely cured me. Lots of pompous pretenders at wine competitions, many of whom have popular blogs...

Anyone can be a great wine taster. You just have to spend a big chunk of your life dedicated to it, and find a way to taste the best wines with the best people. So you and I should taste together--I could stand to learn something.

Unknown said...

Me give give crap about serious.. back to the comedy.. don't like to go on and on.. but was thinking about my post on crap wine writers and crap movie directors.. how about Will Lyons as a big blue cat spouting wine nonsense in Avatar.. Richard Jennings as Morpheous and Wine Doody as Neo in nine fucking hours of the Matrix.. Wkawakakawaka with Jack, pick any ludicrous scene in Titanic.. Jay McInerney as a coked out loser in Bright Lights Big City.. Walder with his dull vineyard pics .. I see dead vines" Jancis Robinson morphing into a twisted metal monster in a Michael Bay epic.. James Conaway plugging Nose for the ten people who bought his book are the same ten people who go to Jim Jarmusch movies.. no end of hilarity in sight...

Fenton said...

Ron, With all due respect, you are full of shit. Not about everything, but certainly about one thing. There are differences in palates and I am sure that there are better palates and lesser palates. Consider dogs. Bloodhounds smell better than other dogs. You might say that they have great noses. The human genome is not that different. Dogs smell way better than we do (maybe not when they need bathing), but they perceive aroma the same way. Molecules that have a particular shape find a home in the olfactory factory of neural impulse and the brain gets a signal. Perhaps you would argue that humans may not have the variation in olfactory perception that dogs have. After all, the science of scent is still not well established. To this I say asparagus. A minority of people (about 25% i think) do not know that eating asparagus makes your pee stink. Why don't they know that? They lack the olfactory receptor for that molecule that wafts off of the pee of asparagus eaters. I'll bet they have shitty wine palates too. That is my theory. Ask your wine judging friends about asparagus pee. I bet they all say it stinks. A quarter of humans don't know that smell. I bet they don't judge wine. I love you man. Why don't you answer my emails?

Marcia Macomber said...

Charlie's right! Another blog! LOL But you have been writing more non-HoseMaster musings of late. Restraint, huh? Rare indeed...

Bob Henry said...

"I’d kill for Cheval Blanc, but I can take or leave Mouton-Rothschild."

Me, too. (Tasting the 1990 was a revelation.)

I think the Cabernet Franc grape is the most neglected in the wine world. Relegated to blending when it can stand on its own -- when grown in the right places and crafted by a talented winemaker.

As for "great palates," this question:

Ruth Reichl in a 1988 Los Angeles Times profile characterized Darrell Cortin as "it is not for nothing that Corti is known as the 'walking wine encyclopedia.'"

[Google this Times headline: "A Connoisseur's Connoisseur: Darrell Corti probably knows more about food
than anybody else in the state”]

Have you judged alongside him?

Concur or demur about his prowess?

(Full disclosure: he is a gracious e-mail "pen pal" on when I query him. Some day I hope to meet him.)

Bob Henry said...

Ripped from the headlines:

"Robert Parker: I'll Never Retire"



Parker said: “I have no intention of retiring. I will die on the road, or keel over in some winery. Retirement is a formula for death."

Thomas said...

Great post HussMasterofWineTM. You are my hero.


Can a dog smell asparagus pee?

Maybe that's why I've never seen a dog serve as a wine judge.

Fenton said...

Good question. I'll ask my dog tonight. Although the cur is not to be trusted. Sometimes he lies. Sometimes he pretends he can't speak, especially if I am sober. His Hosemasterness tells me that dogs don't like wine. Beer they love. Makes sense to me.
John Fenton

Rico said...

"the modern day equivalent of smoke signals only more eloquent." Loved it.

Tim Hanni MW said...

Holy cat's pee batman! Did you read my book? Thanks for the shout out Ron. You nailed it!

Fenton said...

No, but I will now. I just ordered it on Amazon. Has the Hothmaster (from the sixth planet) done a blind review of it?
John Fenton

Ron Washam, HMW said...

John Fenton,
When wine people talk about someone having a great palate, they're not really talking about their physiological equipment. A great palate, which I would call an experienced palate, is about the ability to distinguish what makes a Rioja an exceptional Rioja, what makes a Rioja different than a California Tempranillo, what is a truly great example of Champagne based on years and years of tasting and tasting the best--the ability to be discerning and insightful about wine because you have a long history with wine, and understand why the "great" wines of the world are the "great" wines of the world. How good your equipment is doesn't make you better in most artistic endeavors. It's passion and desire and perseverance. In my mind, having a great palate is something to achieve, a goal, not something you're born with. So I hate when folks say they, or someone else, has a great palate when they've only tasted wine for a couple of years, or even seven or eight years--you just can't do it that quickly.

But, yes, I am completely and remorselessly full of shit.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I'm not sure why you don't have a wine blog. The world needs more comic attitude to wine. It's mostly me and Chris Kassel holding down the fort (Chris is the talented one, so I hate him.) I like your concept, and if you want to flesh it out, make it a piece, I'm ready for another guest post...

Marcia Love,
Restraint is for other people. But, truly, people who don't know shit about wine calling a wine great gets annoying.

I've never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Corti. Folks I respect who have admire his wine tasting ability. I'm willing to accept that.

Never seen a dog serve as a wine judge? You've been at better competitions than I have. I've been stuck with many a Poodle. Oy.


Cheers! God Bless Google Alert.

I actually haven't read your book entirely, Tim, but I've certainly heard you speak of these things. The weird notion that people who are supertasters are better judges of wine is like thinking that because a guy is 7'6" he must be a great basketball player. Foolish on the face of it.

The joy of wine is the accumulation of knowledge, and the wisdom in wine is in tasting the great wines. You don't read Bill O'Reilly and then think you understand history. You're just simpleminded. And you don't taste endless $100 Napa cabs to truly understand Cabernet Sauvignon. This seems obvious to me.

John Fenton,
I did not blind review Tim's book. I should have. Now I've read some of it, so, damn, it would have to be fake blind review. Just like wine publications do it.

Unknown said...

Ron - A personal aside motivated by your fine words; our mutual friend John Peters taught me how to truly appreciate wine - his was the search for the cheapest good stuff. He approached this quest by asking as many smart people as he knew what they liked about the $12 bottle. Tasting with him was fun because you felt empowered and the equal of the experienced 'palate'. I have had the pleasure also to drink 'over the hill' first and second growth Bordeaux because of friends who are old and are pikers - they saved the wine too long. But drinking great over the hill Bordeaux is a treat and what you call 'experience'. Cannot be duplicated - a rare opportunity that I would not miss.

Hats off - this kind of thing is why I read your stuff - this and the pictures.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Sorry, missed your second comment.

The worst thing about any Parker announcement is the parade of pointless and worthless articles that will be written about him, now, that, of course, he doesn't matter. Will Lyons, Blinky, every eBob Buttboy will weigh in. I won't read any of them.

It's wine tabloid journalism, speculative, unoriginal and worthless. In other words, they're stealing my act.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Yes, John Peters was a great man, funny and openminded, generous and thoughtful, and a dedicated wine lover. The last time I saw John, a month or so before he died, he gave me a magnum of 2001 Spottswoode, which one day I will drink in his honor.

Thanks for the kind words, Karl. I was all riled up about this "great" palate thing, though I cannot recall what got me started. But "great" palates don't exist. Great experience and passion do. All the most admirable people in wine have that in common. That, and an enlarged liver.

Bob Henry said...


Don't you recall that Hoser NEVER reads books -- he just faux reviews them: holding them up to his head like Carnac the Magnificent and making pronouncements?

(And yes, we will have that promised chat about your work, once I get my foie gras ducks lined up in a row -- clearing my schedule.)

~~ Bob

Thomas said...

Cheers! God Bless Google Alert."

Perfect retort.

Carl LaFong said...

I have smelled Bloodhounds that smelled bloody terrible, like they had been rolling in cowshit.
To generalize that they all smell better than other dogs is a lie.
I have a terrier mix that smells good most of the time.
Can he track a soiled sock like a bloodhound? Maybe not, but my desire to find soiled socks has declined as my children have gotten into sports.

Concerning wines I would say that when a $8 Spanish Garnacha and a $50 Napa Cab both get a 90 point score from Parker, something isn't level about the playing field. Sort of like a Pan-American games silver medal and a Special Olympics silver medal.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks for being a common tater. Your dog points are well-taken, though I think the point that was missed was if dogs are so great and their first choice of things to smell are other dogs' bungholes, then we should wonder about people who claim amazing wine skills. Don't drop your car keys when tasting with them, for example.

Batmang said...

I appreciate your take on the experienced palate. I am on a journey to educate mine at every opportunity but unfortunately price point limits the extent of said travels. Occasionally I am fortunate to attend a tasting given at a wine shop that will pour more expensive wines and then I get an opportunity to see what highly regarded wines can offer (though the correlation between price and quality is not necessarily 1:1). I have found, however, that I have been better able to recognize nuances in wines that have previously eluded me...but that may just be wishful thinking on my part.
Nonetheless, thanks for your take on the topic. Now I think I'm going to figure out what cassis is supposed to taste like.


Ron Washam, HMW said...

If I had any goal with this piece, aside from venting, it was to reassure new wine people that wine knowledge, "having a great palate," isn't genetic, but simply experience. Wine is supposed to be fun. Period. Not a contest. I promise you, Jancis Robinson doesn't have a better palate than you, she simply has a very experienced palate, and a palate memory that is long and filled with great wines. You spend every day of your life studying wine, you become pretty good at it. And then when you taste with people, they're dazzled with your skill at wine tasting, when what it really is, is simple experience seasoned with a bit of bluffing. Shorthand for that may be "great palate," but I find that phrase misleading and entirely wrong.

When we say "cassis," we don't mean "Cassis," a wine growing region in France, but creme de cassis, a liqueur made from black currants. Any bar will have it. Next time you're in one, say in an hour, ask for a taste.

Thanks for being a common tater, Nathan.

Bob Henry said...

"I promise you, Jancis Robinson doesn't have a better palate than you, she simply has a very experienced palate, and a palate memory that is long and filled with great wines. You spend every day of your life studying wine, you become pretty good at it."

20,000 hours or 10 years of intense study is the path to world-class expertise, according to social scientists whose studies were cited by Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers."

Dan Fishman said...

HMW: I agree people throw around the word "great" too often. That being said, any tips on how a person with a normal salary can possibly taste more than a handful of the world's "great" wines per year?

See you at WOPN, hope you stop by the Donum table on Saturday and say hi.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

No, I don't have any suggestions. Aside from having rich friends with great wine cellars, or sneaking into industry tastings with bogus credentials, it's tough to get to taste the great wines of the world, as you know. I feel privileged to have tasted as many as I have. I'm sure you'd agree that experience with those wines gives you perspective. And perspective is my point. It's best to understand how limited your own might be. No shame in that, it doesn't rob you of the enjoyment of wine, it perhaps keeps you from calling relatively interesting wine "great." And from believing that others have better palates than you do--they don't, they just have more experience.

I'll certainly stop by Donum to say Hi, Dan. Looking forward to it. You really shouldn't be slumming around HoseMaster of Wine™...bad for your image.

Nick Katin said...

Couldn't agree more. I once sat at a tasting listening to two wine makers argue whether a wine that we were tasting was corked or not! I said "if you two guys can't agree on this what chance do us mere mortals (i.e. wine consumers) have!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks for being a common tater. After many years of tasting wine, and taking it somewhat seriously, there comes a point when you just start to get it. Wine sort of opens it's heart to you. It's the same point when you realize you know almost nothing about wine, that it is a subject far too complex and far too vast for anyone to fully comprehend. There is freedom and comfort in those dual moments.

r said...

As a young and humble wine lover without much experience, let alone experience with expensive wines, but also as a very rational man, I was wondering what you think about this video:

I suppose you agree that this tasting panel has a great depth and breadth of experience with great wine, and yet they still cannot taste the difference between a € 15 dollar and a € 1.500 dollar bottle of wine.

Would you be able to taste the difference in a BLIND (!) tasting? I'm sure Cheval Blanc tastes incredible when you see the label, know the price, and feel the 'hype' of drinking a rare and legendary wine. But if the difference between a very good 15 euro bottle and a very good 1500 euro bottle of wine cannot be tasted, why wouldn't you buy 100 bottles of the former, or 30 bottles of 50 euro?

I've read many times that beyond € 25 for a bottle (numbers going up to €50 according to other specialists) it is impossible to improve the quality even further. The reasoning is that for that amount you can have (very) low yields from (very) good grapes on (very) good terroir, and you can select and handle the harvest with to the highest standards in state-of-the art installations, ...

Would you agree with this? If so: why bother drinking overhyped and overpriced wines at all?

Thank you for your response.