In truth however, most sommeliers are employed to enhance your fine dining experience by helping you to discover a wine that will both complement your meal and, with any luck, broaden your wine knowledge. In less refined establishments sommeliers are referred to as wine stewards, but in either case their job is to make your meal a memorable one. This will probably not happen at the IHOP.
What made “Somm” fascinating was not just the lengths that the Master Sommelier (MS) candidates go to trying to cram every know fact about wine, spirits, beer and sake into their brains, but also the way they train their palates to be able to name not just the type of grape they’re tasting, but the vintage and the region where it originated as well. They do this with the same ease my dad could identify any car simply by seeing the taillights in the dark. “Hey, Chris, there goes a ’59 Impala.” “Sure, Dad.”
As outlandish (though true) as that example is, witnessing the MS wannabes pick up and taste a glass of unknown wine, then go through their checklist of flavors, aromas and tastes was truly astounding. Handed a white wine it went something like this: “Golden straw color with a greenish tinge. Aromas of unripe pineapple, red mango, sassafras and newly opened tennis balls with a bit of freshly cut garden hose. Medium body, medium plus acidity. No oak, no carbolic fermentation. Definitely Old World. It’s from France. The Loire Valley. Sancerre. It’s sauvignon blanc. Probably 2009.” I am not making this up. I even had to look up “carbolic fermentation,” because I’d never heard of it.
And besides that, when was the last time you tasted a nice, freshly cut garden hose? The point is, and I’ve said this before, there is no right or wrong when it comes to the flavors you perceive in a glass of wine. Each of us have a panoply of flavors and tastes that we can recall from various episodes in our lives, and there’s a raft of scientific evidence that concludes our sense of smell is by far the most evocative when it comes to dialing up memories. Can’t you just close your eyes and conjure up an important milestone based on a smell? Perhaps something as generic as your Mom’s chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven or as esoteric as your new baseball glove, marinating in Neatsfoot oil and stuffed under your mattress to make sure the pocket is perfect. Scents can transport you to another time and place. Yet another reason to love a good glass of wine.
And while everyone’s tastes are unique, what “Somm” made very clear is that it’s important to have a really broad and eclectic range of taste experience to draw on for descriptions.
So does that mean you should run outside and start gnawing on the sprinklers? Not at all. But the next time you’re in the supermarket take a few extra seconds to smell the green pineapples and the red mangos. Sniff all the herbs, especially the aromatics like tarragon, rosemary and lavender. Concentrate your observations on all the things you encounter, new, different or familiar, so that next time you taste a big Napa Cabernet you can say, “Gee, I detect hints of mint, bell pepper, black raspberries, licorice, new car interior and just a whiff of the bridle of a draft horse.”
Your tasting “muscles” are just like any other; the more you exercise them the more refined they become. And, admit it, who among us doesn’t like a finely ripped set of tasting muscles?
To that end I’ve assembled a selection of Bin94 wines that offer a heady bunch of aromas and flavors that will remain in your sensory card catalogue for a long time, and if “Somm” piques your interest it’s available on Netflix.
Fernlands 2014 Sauvignon Blanc: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc’s are notoriously described as smelling like gooseberries and cat pee, which is curious to me because I’ve always thought a slice of kiwi was the traditional garnish for cat pee. Feline secretions aside, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is renown for its “in your face” flavor, and the 2014 Fernlands is no exception. Lime, grapefruit, green fig and freshly mown lawn are all descriptors you might use for this wine. It’s crisp and tropical and should linger nostalgically in your brain’s kitty litter.
Belle Ambiance 2013 Riesling: Riesling is another one of those grapes that has a wide variety of distinctive aromas and flavors, and the wine can be bone dry, teeth-chatteringly sweet or anywhere in between. This Californian version is very floral – a bit of honeysuckle and milkweed to my nose – and lots of, wait, wait! What’s that taste? It’s really ripe apricot and a bit of luscious cantaloupe. This is an off-dry or slightly sweet wine – perfect for any kind of spicy cuisine.
Torre Castillo Cosecha 2013 Monastrell: Monastrell is a grape with several aliases. In France it’s known as Mourvèdre, while in Spain monastrell can also be called Mataro, which is the moniker it goes by in Australia. This version, hand-harvested and aged four months in new American oak barrels, offers up a juicy aroma of blueberry jam, followed on the palate by lush cherry and raspberry notes. You might also detect some baking spice and a hint of smoky barbeque lingering on the silky finish. $14.99
Puydeval 2013: One of my favorite grape varietals is the odd and infrequently seen Cabernet Franc. (The reason why I love Cab Franc involves castles, a powder blue Renault station wagon and getting lost, but it’s a long story for another time.) More to the point, the 2013 Puydeval is 58% Cab Franc, 28% Syrah (my other favorite grape) and 14% Merlot. Aged 10 months in oak, this wine is an absolute cornucopia of flavor, beginning with ripe black cherries and blackberries then revealing licorice, tobacco and juicy black plums, hot tar and a hint of earthiness. This is a complex, rich and evolutionary wine. Pour a glass tonight and make your own list of flavors.
‘Til next time.