On tasting

December 4, 2007

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William Saroyan is another one of those authors I love. The owner of a gigantic Armenian moustache, Saroyan was this ballsy young guy who exploded on the literary scene in the 30s and 40s, a sensitive man’s man who lived what he wrote and what he wrote was beautiful and good. He was a good enough writer to win the Pulitzer, and ballsy enough to turn it down.

Tracy’s Tiger, now THERE’S a book. Just a little short novella, really, (you can find it in the William Saroyan Reader) it’s one of those things I need to read a few times every once in a while, you know? In this book, and why I’m writing about it, a young guy (who feels as if he has a tiger walking beside him) moves to New York and gets a job doing manual labor at a coffee business. After 2 weeks of huffing sacks around he demands a job tasting the coffee. He knows good coffee, he says.

The owner asks what’s the difference between good coffee and great coffee.

“Advertising,” says the smartass.

There’s only three coffee tasters in the whole company, each of whom waited 20, 30 years for the job to taste coffee, and there’s no room in the room for another. The tasters, they marvel at his audacity. Just who the hell is this kid?

I’m drinking coffee now. It’s a rainy day so I’ve got the day off, and I’m on my third cup. It’s good coffee, but who am I to say? Who the hell am I to give my opinion?

My first gig in the wine world was this internship with a small producer in France. I was allowed to do everything on the domaine, except taste. I understood. Sure, I’d been drinking wine for a decade, had changed my life to devote it to the vine, but who the hell was I? I was allowed to assist in the tasting of the wine for the blend. I could measure it out, I could empty the spit buckets, and I could sit quietly in the corner as the owner and his son sipped and realized what geniuses they were.

At my next gig, I worked in the laboratory of a supermarket wine producer. As a lab guy, I did the sampling, set up the tasting, and cleaned up afterwards. There weren’t enough seats for me to taste. I told my boss at the time I thought I ought to be allowed to taste. I’d gone and taken some wine tasting courses, some sensory analysis classes. I’d lived in France and Spain, drinking wine every night. Why not me?

“You’re just some kid from Iowa who doesn’t know dick about shit,” she said, laughing. She’d been the personal assistant (two semesters in a row!) of whatever Davis douchebag had invented the wine flavor wheel. She couldn’t believe that I thought that I ought to taste the wine. “Get back to work,” she said.

That’s pretty much been my experience. Astute students of the phenomenon of winetasting will realize the inherent flaws in keeping the group of winetasters in production panel small. They develop what’s called “cellar palette” and will always prefer the wine with which they work to any other. That’s how it was at those first two place. At the third (where, miraculously, I was allowed to attend the tastings) it was even worse. Every time we tasted everybody but me declared the mysterious wine that tasted like the wine we were working on to be the BEST, obviously, and all the other wines we were trying blind to be a bunch of crap. The owner was there, the winemakers were there, all of whom really didn’t want to hear from me that it tasted like barrels and not wine.

Nowadays, I’m not so intimately involved with wine. Grapes, sure, but the wine, once it leaves the vineyard on the back of a flat-bed, well, we lose contact with one another. Nobody really cares to hear my opinion about the wine made from the grapes I fondle, which over the years, I’ve come to accept. I am just some kid from Iowa who doesn’t know dick about shit. It’s true. I drink wine that I buy, and I keep my opinion mostly to myself.

But, well, that’s not entirely true. I’m still kind of ballsy. I don’t accept the fact that my opinion doesn’t matter. The wines I find myself falling in love with are wines other people love too. Maybe I don’t have a metaphorical tiger striding beside me, but then again, maybe I do. Although everyone for the past 6 years has told me that my opinion doesn’t matter, I have the faith in myself to think that maybe they’re wrong. Yeah, I’d like to taste more wine, and educate myself.

So, I’ve signed myself up for some expensive classes at the Culinary Institute of America. This Thursday and Friday I’m taking a sensory analysis class. In the meantime, my coffee’s gotten cold, my dog has gotten bored, and the rain has stopped falling.

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One Response to “On tasting”

  1. mikros Says:

    I really don’t know shit about wine – but I did enjoy this post very much. Great writing.


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