Wine Tasting – And The Wine Maker on the Other Side of the Table

Last night, we set up a dozen glasses to taste through red wine barrel samples from the 2017 Harvest.  While we are close to releasing our first red wine, Travis, we are also working on a range 2017 vintage wines that will be released in 2019-20.  

Our sampling session reminded me of one of my first tastings in France, where a veteran winemaker poured his wine and told our of group of young students, “this is my wine. You may taste it, but I really don’t care what you think about it.  If you don’t understand it, that is not my problem!” 

Well, more than ever, I can empathize with this man!

Barbara and I have tasted wines through a number of professional programs over the years, from the Wine School of Philadelphia, the Court of Master Sommeliers, and a few terrific Texas Winery and club programs.  Barbara continued her education through the Winemaking Certificate Program at Texas Tech and in the cellars of a few of our colleagues. And, for my part, I have tasted thousands of barrel samples with the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, and with professional wine writers at the top of their field, for 10 years.

Last night’s tasting – assessing our own wines – well, this was something entirely different, for both of us.  

The difference is not just the personal stakes — this is our wine, destined for your trial and appreciation, which is of course, quite motivating.  It’s also the variations and stages of evolution of foundational barrel samples that – trust me on this – individually, you just don’t encounter in finished wines… wines that are yet to be blended, then bottled, over the next two years. The :30s video gives you a simple idea of these variances.  But the two hours of tasting that followed is not so easily conveyed!  

It’s one thing to assess a dozen wine samples from top Grand Cru properties in Pauillac, looking for nuances between blends and terroir, and between vintages and chateaux (It’s also a privilege to make such assessments!). You quickly can pick up patterns and look for certain markers to create a strong view of what the finished wine will become. Plus you have a well-trained group of tasters who have a long history at this sort of thing to exchange views.

In this case, however, there are just the two of us.  And, we are assessing raw materials in early stage, building blocks that may very well be combined in ways we have not contemplated.  By definition in Texas, these are very young vines, new plantings for the most part.  We do have a going-in plan, again on paper, but the wines in the glass have other ideas.  Surprises to the upside or the downside, and on particular days one will taste completely different than it will on another day.  Samples pulled from barrels just recently stirred, or racked, will behave quite differently today than they will two weeks from now.  No matter, the show must go on!

One of the fundamental questions is, should we commit to a particular blend now, at this point, combining the barrels together and setting an irreversible course now?  Or should we follow each wine on its own trajectory, and defer the blending options until we decide to bottle?  Obviously these are not new questions for any wine maker, but for wine tasters, the implications of such questions rarely cross your mind.  It’s not your problem, and by the time you are poured a glass of wine, it’s fait accompli!

Another factor — A small winery does not have “safety in numbers” that allows larger wineries to specialize, blend away, or even declassify multiple barrels or entire parcels and still create a very good expression of the Grand Vin de Chateaux, or a particular wine program.  In our case, each barrel has a critical future, a role to play, a performance to give.  It’s our job to maximize that potential, and then identify the best way to bring it to bottle. Obviously, the wine will not age itself or blend itself.  Left to its own in barrel, wine will (1) settle, (2) begin to oxidize, (3) commit itself to a course, and eventually (4) evaporate. 

Knowing the inevitability of these natural forces at work, and the choices that remain, it falls to the wine maker to monitor, guide, intervene, interdict, or redirect the trajectory of each barrel, and work out the plan for combining (or deferring) the barrels to showcase a vineyard site, a varietal expression, or a house style.  So the glasses in front of us now are scrutinized with specific intent — not just what the expressions are, but how committed they are, what they lack, where one barrel might help another, whether tonight’s sample is a true picture of the wine, and what might be the next action to take.  Options abound — do nothing (you may be surprised how often this is employed, and how well it works in the world of wine!); rack to a different barrel, give it a good stir, top with a similar wine, blend into a combination you had not considered, or send out for testing.  Or retaste in two weeks.

If Blind Tasting is the great leveling experience for wine critics, then foundational barrel tasting is the great humbling experience for ANY wine taster.  As we tasted these samples, we learned a lot about what we don’t know, even with our “experience”.  But we are resourceful, and can work through any problem…, that is clear in the determination I see from Barbara, which always inspires me to be at my best.

Take a look at the photo at the top of Siboney Passion.  That was taken after tasting two wines that would make even the most stoic jaded wine taster give in.  You can see the bottles in front of us.  Its hard to imagine those winemakers at one point in their careers working through the beginning stages of new wine programs.  But they all do.  One day, we fully expect to earn the right to say, “WE all do”.  Just. You. Wait.

And if you hear me say, “this is our wine, I don’t care what you think”, just slap me!