Tips to sharpen your wine-tasting skills

March 17, 2002|By Janet Fletcher | Janet Fletcher,SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Want to be a better wine taster? Here are tips.

* Start small by taking notes. Keep a tiny notebook with you that won't draw attention in a restaurant and use it to record brief impressions on the spot.

Fred Dame, a San Mateo wine executive and president of the Court of Master Sommeliers, suggests noting one thing each about the appearance, smell and taste of a wine. If you do, you'll be a better taster in just three months, he predicts.

Holly Peterson Mondavi, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, agrees that recording impressions is important. "If you write down just two true descriptors that mean something to you, suddenly that wine has life and will live with you for a while," she says.

Make an effort to record your thoughts no matter how poorly equipped you feel. Compare the sample with other, similar wines or foods you've tasted. Don't use jargon you don't fully understand; use only words or images that mean something to you. "I try to think, 'What can I write down that will bring this to recall?' " says wine educator Shirley Sarvis.

* Taste with others often. Try to taste with other people who share your interest in assessing flavors, suggests winemaker Tom Rozner. Just as you will improve most by playing tennis with someone who's better than you are, you'll make the most progress by tasting with people who know more than you do.

Taste blind on occasion; it's too easy to be influenced by labels. "You're going to be wrong a lot of the time," Dame says, "but you learn by being wrong."

* Organize a comparative tasting of some of the staples in your kitchen. Try olive oils, salt, balsamic vinegar. You may be surprised at the variation in quality.

"One of the scariest tastings you can do is a red wine vinegar tasting because most are so horrible," says Joyce Goldstein, a San Francisco chef and cookbook author. Upgrade your pantry to the brands you like best, then practice making vinaigrette. "Finding your personal balance of oil, vinegar, salt and pepper is a wonderful exercise," says Goldstein. "Just see what salt does. The minute you put salt in, you can really taste things."

* Taste a variety of wines and foods. "To grow your taste, you have to be willing to try to like something or see the qualities in something you've presumed you won't like," says publisher Ronn Wiegand.

* Pamper your palate and nose, especially in the hours before a tasting. Peterson never uses nose drops. Wiegand won't eat spicy food. Other wine critics avoid caffeine, chocolate and strong-flavored foods while they are tasting.

Although there's no solid evidence that smoking hampers tasting ability, most wine experts are convinced that it does. Wiegand acknowledges that he knows some perceptive tasters who smoke, but says, "If they're such good tasters as smokers, think what amazing tasters they would be if they stopped."

* Taste systematically. Start with wide themes to get the big picture, then narrow your tastings down to try to grasp the finer points. For example, if you're tasting pinot noirs, begin by tasting pinot noirs from around the world, then taste a range of pinot noirs from Sonoma County, then a selection from the Russian River Valley.

* Keep an open mind. Don't think you've "gotten it" too soon, Wiegand says. Even the legendary English wine authority Harry Waugh, when asked if he'd ever mistaken a Bordeaux for a Burgundy, replied, "Not since lunch."

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