A really blind wine tasting and Musings by Dr. Jack Fisher, MD Jack Fisher is an amazing fellow. A noted Professor Emeritus of UCSD, surgeon, and wine enthusiast, he has published two books and is a long time member of the Chevaliers a Burgundian Wine group. And, he is a funny guy! DP
The mystique of tasting wine has been famously and hilariously dissected by the inimitable New Yorker essayist Calvin Trillin. In his August 10, 2002 contribution under the category Annals of Taste, he wrote, “The Red and the White: Is it possible that wine connoisseurs can’t tell them apart.”
Citing an old reference to a so-called “Davis Test,” meaning UC Davis where the Department of Viticulture and Enology is world renown, he described a tasting event with wines served to experts at room temperature in black opaque glasses.
Alas, too many times these acknowledged representatives of the wine trade failed to make the basic distinction between red and white wine! Did this really happen, Trillin wondered? Was it fable or fact?
He followed up by interviewing UC Davis Professor, Ann Noble whose expertise is taste and smell but especially smell.
Noble could not recall a time when the enology faculty had systematically challenged the wine industry with such a test; but she acknowledged that it might have occurred once or twice. Anyway, she added, it is the sense of smell that is more important than taste. She proceeded to test Trillin with the same tasting conditions and was surprised he reversed the wines. She didn’t believed he had smelled long enough tasted enough times.
I enrolled in one of the UC Davis tasting courses, an abbreviated one conducted at the Napa Valley Wine Library in St. Helena. It was a full day of intense instruction led by one of her protégés. Sadly there was little wine involved. It was mostly about olfaction. Tests at the conclusion of each exercise were telling: in a word my smeller was terrible, meaning that among all of my classmates I was in the bottom quintile. If smell was more important than taste, then where did that leave me in my quest for mastering wine? Way out in left field I supposed.
Trillin continued his journalistic investigation by cajoling a wine savvy friend to conduct something like the “Davis Test” to a selected group, not necessarily professionals but people with exceptional wine familiarity. In addition to using opaque glasses, everyone wore sunglasses. No visual clues permitted. The results were mixed…some better and some worse than others. Deliberate efforts to fool people were entirely successful…for example matching a classic Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc) and a Sancerre Rouge (Pinot Noir). Less than half were capable of distinguishing, despite differences in grape.
Early On, and just like everyone else beginning to learn about wine; My first wine tasting event was a disorganized affair with an eclectic assortment of wines that ranged from Bordeaux blanc to Mogen David. The year was 1962, our University of Minnesota Hospital intern class decided to get together socially over wine, and we were instructed to bring a bottle of wine…no particular theme…just any bottle of wine. My wife Pat and I went to Haskell’s Wines in downtown Minneapolis and bought for about two dollars (equal to fourteen dollars in today’s inflated economy) a bottle of straw colored Chateau Templiers from the Entre Deux Mers wine district of France. This was for us a very new and sophisticated kind of shopping. I wouldn’t have known at the time that I would be sampling a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc anymore than I could understand that Mogen David was made from Concord grapes. But our friends were impressed by the label, if not the wine itself. We could hold our heads high, maybe even gloat.
Something about that formative event must have caught my fancy; I have been trying to achieve some mastery over the tasting of wine ever since but with diminishing returns for the effort at this [Emeritus Gent] stage of my life.
As my surgery training advanced, so too did my wine aspirations continue to broaden. While doing military service at NIH in Bethesda, MD, I was within striking distance of Wisconsin Avenue where the D.C. wine shops abounded with imported wines at bargain prices. One in particular, Wagshal’s, specialized in wines of the Bourgogne. Frank, the affable proprietor, helped four of us nurture a love of Pinot Noir. Together with our wives we met regularly over home prepared feats (Pat was into Cordon bleu then) and fine wine from the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune. Just imagine Nuits St. Georges for $3.99 and on special occasions Richebourg for $5.99! Corrected for inflation that would be $27 and $42 today, far less than the prices for these wines in today’s market. I was by then taking more seriously the challenge of tasting carefully the wines I was sampling. I remembered someone saying that if you can differentiate beef from lamb, then you ought to be able to distinguish Sauvignon Blanc from Chardonnay and Merlot from Pinot Noir. It stuck with me, and I could do it. Focusing on flavor alone, I was achieving considerable success, and from there it was easy to move on to differences in fruit, tannin, and acidity. So far, my palate was serving me well.
By this time I knew who Michael Broadbent and Harry Waugh were and I studied avidly their books on wine tasting. But alas, I began to perceive that something was very wrong. Broadbent lost me when he started talking about wines with hints elderberry vs. lingonberry, tobacco vs. old leather (as opposed to new leather?). Try as I might, I was not even close to that level of discernment. Was it all a mystique, I wondered, or was it reality and I was inherently dysfunctional? Was I afflicted with a palatal defect unlike the kind that children are sometimes born with and that I was about that time learning to repair? Could I somehow learn to fix my own palate so I might approach the skills of experts whose books I was relying on?
My own personal striving for mastery of wine met its ultimate Waterloo in 2000, the year of my coronary bypass surgery. Not for at least six weeks afterward did I even want to hear the word wine. Only then could my palate accept a small glass of Johannisberg Reisling. I found the sweetness to be soothing. Red wine tolerance took longer. But with that recovery came a different medication schedule, and then in addition to my primary smelling deficiencies, I noticed a change in my taster. I was still sensitive to fruit and to tannins, but less so to differences in acidity, so important to evaluating a wine’s future evolution. Or perhaps I was simply learning that the aging process for me was manifesting itself in body sites other than in the lower back and the knees.
As a member of the San Diego Chevaliers du Tastevin, I have been able to sustain my durable love of the wines of Bourgogne, and I have benefitted from the superior tasting skills of my colleagues. The American chapters of this organization derive advantage from the hard work of a delegation of intrepid wanderers of the Bourgogne where they stand in cold damp caves tasting barrel samples so that wiser decisions can be made by others charged with responsibility for laying down wines to be enjoyed at a later time.
Perhaps the tasting group should invite Calvin Trillin to accompany them next time so that he might be convinced that distinguishing one wine from another is more than tomfoolery, more a mystique. It can be based on physiology and training and practice…and also for a practical benefit.