September 9, 2011

Tasting Outside of the Box

There is usually a motivating factor that will cause me to sit down and write.  On occasion, I might feel the need to share a thought, to voice an opinion, or to clarify some ambiguous topic. This time however, my prose is purely therapeutic.

I have been tasting and writing about wine for several years now and find great comfort in both the knowledge and experience gained along this journey. So it only seems logical that I would enroll in a sommelier course at some point; that, and people keep asking me if I do in fact hold such a qualification, to which I awkwardly reply ‘no’ each time followed shortly by a justification of some description:  I don’t have time; I’m not sure how I will benefit from such a title; they’re a dime a dozen… you get the idea.

I also like to think that I am fairly well informed on the subjects of viticulture and oenology and therefore make the assumption that completing a sommelier course is quite simply a formality.  With that, I have initiated the process with the Court of Master Sommeliers.

While on course this past week, reality hit me like a barrel sample of Madiran, resulting in a rather shocking and humbling discovery about myself which I hope that you might take the opportunity to learn from.  While I am able to quote a good percentage of the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux, list the villages in Burgundy by location, and rattle on endlessly about fortified wine, Champagne, and Super Tuscans, there is a vast number of regions and grape varieties that I have yet to discover and for that matter, taste.  I’ll even admit that I have inadvertently educated myself into a corner.  What could I possibly need to know about New Zealand? Pinot and Sauvignon spread over two islands in the middle of nowhere right?  Oh, it’s a little more involved dear friends: ocean currents, rock formation, and wind patterns, all of which I quickly found out.  Chile is a blisteringly hot, skinny little country that makes reasonably priced wine against the backdrop of the Andes Mountains, so I assumed.  And if you look beyond the obvious, you’ll find that Italy makes German wine theory look shockingly simplistic by comparison. 

Before you get the wrong impression, I am happy to announce that my adventure was a success and that I have completed the first step of what could potentially become a great quest: I am now a member of the Guild of Sommeliers.  Though I did not become so without having had my ass handed to me on a silver platter within the first hour of the course!

Though I study this subject continuously, this exercise was by no means easy; exhilarating yes, and humbling more so, but certainly not the walk-in-the-park I anticipated.  At 8:30 in the morning on the first day, we began with a blind tasting of two wines, one white and the other red.  Rarely do I taste wine blind and so with great courage I put my best nostril forward. 

I clearly remember the uncomfortable feeling of concern that twisted my stomach into knots first thing in the morning as I struggled to swallow breakfast in the cafeteria before making my way to the lecture hall during exam week at university.  Poorly rested and feeling grossly under-prepared after spending all night cramming the contents of a textbook into my cranium, I could think of a hundred places that I would rather be.  Like it or not, I would sit the exam and do reasonably well despite my severe detest for chemistry and finite mathematics.  Some 20 years later, I was not only keen to learn but exceedingly motivated to try something new.   

At the front of the room were two Master Sommeliers, the highest and most esteemed qualification in ‘The Court’.  After a quick tutorial on ‘how to taste’ as per the Court’s deductive tasting method, we sampled and critiqued the wines.  The first was an Italian Pinot Grigio.  I'm not a big fan of Pinot Grigio and therefore tend not to drink this variety all that often – Sauvignon Blanc, I guessed, from New Zealand… wrong!  The second sample was Cabernet Franc which I do enjoy but rarely drink solo as a varietal wine; I don’t remember what I pronounced but to my dismay, I was wrong again – Jesus!  If I slide out now, will anyone notice?  Damn, there’s a Jedi Master at the back of the room too – no escape!  Luke, this is your destiny…        

We blind tasted a dozen wines on the first day of which I correctly identified three, and came reasonably close on one other. But for a guy that accepts nothing short of perfection, this was a fairly significant blow to the ego.  Fortunately, the balance of the course yielded notably more positive results, though the events of the first morning have left a bit of a scar causing me to ask ‘why?’  So after an evening spent staring at the stucco ceiling in my hotel room, I can conclude that by inadvertently limiting my knowledge of wine to the regions and varieties that I prefer to drink for pleasure as well as those which are historically popular, I have become much too comfortable.  Indeed, there are many regions and styles that I can fluently discuss, but there are also infinitely more that require the same degree of attention.  With such a plethora of tasting opportunities available to us, depth of knowledge involves stepping out of our own comfort zone now and then by making a conscious effort to reach for that bottle on the shelf that might not be so easily recognizable.

Following the final exam, we raised a glass of Champagne to each other’s achievement and a level of instruction that was nothing short of brilliant.  And as I sped away from the building proud and equally humbled with my certificate and lapel pin still firmly in grip, I think I might have blown through a red light.  This has been a truly incredible experience though I think it will continue to play havoc with my mind for some time to come.  Rest assured that as soon as I catch my breath, I’ll be back for more, but for now... a glass of Teroldego.



  1. Good for you and congrats! I can relate. With every course I take I discover that there is just more and more that I don't know.

  2. Congratulations Tyler!! I am totally feeling your pain wending my way through the WSET Advanced textbook right now -- gives me a whole new respect for the people in the wine industry and what they had to absorb and retain in order to get there!

  3. Holly/Peter – Thanks! Despite my tendency to blow things slightly out of proportion for the sake of a good story this was a real eye-opener for sure. I'll be hitting the books before I jump back in the ring!



Choose Anonymous if you're not sure what to select under 'Comment As'

Some background...

My photo
Tyler is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada and the Guild of Sommeliers. He writes about and reviews wine both online and via a variety of circulating publications. In 2009 Tyler founded North of 9 Fine Wine, a free public wine education resource where he publishes his Thoughts, Theory, and Recommendations. For additional vinous related information and learning, follow on Twitter @TylerOnWine