What Do You Get When Five Master Sommeliers Walk Into A Room…

A lot of chummy restaurant-industry inside jokes and a load of tips for blind tasting.

At Taste Washington this last weekend in Seattle, the event I was most looking forward to was the blind tasting with five Master Sommeliers. The Four Seasons set us up in a grand ballroom overlooking the Puget Sound. Presiding over the tasting was Greg Harrington, MS of Gramercy Cellars who said that being a winemaker is much like being a pilot. The latter not having to act unless the plane is going down and the former not having to interject unless the harvest is problematic and the wine needs some manipulation to be put back on course. He must take a hands-off approach to winemaking.

Tasting with the Masters 1

Panelists included: Thomas Price, MS now at Jackson Family Fine Wines with whom I chatted at the end. Matt Stamp, MS, an educator, a.k.a. The Smart One, of the Guild of Sommeliers who punctuated each tasting comment with a detail that only serious wine nerds would appreciate. Rob Bigelow, MS of Château Ste Michelle Wine Estates, the biggest producer of riesling in the world. And, John Ragan, MS of the Union Square Hospitality Group (Gramercy Tavern, The Modern).

Tasting with the Masters 2

We got 12 wines, six from Washington and six comparative wines from around the world. Each MS would evaluate two wines at a time starting with the visual. Blind tasting sharpens your analytical skills. It disciplines a serious wine student and pushes us to categorize wine. Do judge a book by its cover. The color, the shades, the tones and the glints can begin to tell us something about its provenance and winemaking. The masters  said that they all have different ways of approaching a blind tasting, but they agreed that it is an exercise in deductive reasoning. Ah yes, the ole process of elimination. I passed many high school multiple choice exams based on process of elimination.

Tasting with the Masters 3


  • After giving the wine a vigorous spin in the glass, take note. Are the tears thick and viscous? It has more alcohol and/or sugar –> Wine probably comes from a warmer climate. Are the tears thin and pale? Sugar and alcohol will not be protagonists in this wine –> Wine comes from a cooler climate or high elevation. Mr. Bigelow pointed out that color in the tears themselves indicate a thick skin.
  • Give it another swirl, tip it down over some white background with text, look. Can you see the text clearly through the deepest part of the glass? You can see it clearly –> Grape had a thin skin, . You cannot see it at all, color is deep –> Grape skin was thick due possibly to a warmer or windy climate. It needed the thickness to protect itself from the elements.
  • If you see brown edges in a red wine, the wine spent some time in oak.
  • If you see green glints in a white wine, mentally start browsing your cool climate varietals.
  • If the color is deep, consider that the color is extracted by lots of skin contact. Where in the world could this style of winemaking happen?


  • This is where you can develop 90% of the blind tasting analysis.
  • All masters agreed, first determine the intensity then the fruit. Is the aroma come out of the glass and hitting you in the face? If yes, then it is a highly aromatic varietal. If not, eliminate all aromatic wines like riesling or albariño.
  • Give the glass another swirl and pick out the fruit. Here the masters agreed that it is a bit ridiculous to try and list 75 characteristics at once. Instead, think warmth. Citrus? Stone fruit? Tropical? And within those broad categories, are they underripe lemon peel or candied Meyer lemon zest? Again, the conclusions will point us to warm or cool climates.
  • Check out any secondary aromas like herbal, floral or mineral. Here we can start to think about Old World or New World. Old World styles are more earthy with more minerality. The latter style stresses fruit and winemaking like use of oak (unless you are in Rioja where coconutty American oak dominates then all bets are off).


  • Is there consistency between what you see, what you smell and what you taste? Then it is a well made wine.
  • As it goes down, think about if the fruit is fresh or has “seen the sun” as one master put a jammy wine. Is the thick jamminess balanced by tannin and acidity?
  • Old world wines finish sour/tart
  • New World wines finish sweet
  • American oak hits the back of the mouth and French oak is a softer, all over mouth feel.
  • Always taste twice.

Tasting with the Masters 4

Wines Tasted:

  1. Tempus, 2013 Riesling Evergreen Vineyard Ancient Lakes and Darting 2012 Riesling Kabinett Trocken Pfalz. Master guessed Rhineland. I’d give him credit for being within 60 miles of actual place.
  2. L’Ecole no. 41, 2013 Chardonnay Columbia Valley and Liocco 2012 Chardonnay Russian River Valley
  3. Dumas Station 2012 Merlot Walla Walla and Chateau de Chantegrive 2009 Merlot Graves. Lots of pencil shavings. Graves = pencil shavings.
  4.  Sparkman, 2012 Stella Mae Red Wine Columbia Valley and Yalumba The Signature 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz Barossa. Master said Coonawarra but let’s not split hairs. I thought California so I was not even in the right hemisphere.
  5. Passing Time, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills and Stag’s Leap Bordeaux Blend. Wet potter’s clay said it all.
  6. EFESTE, 2012 Jolie Bouche Syrah Yakima Valley and Nicolas Perrin 2011 Côte-Rôtie. The Rhône Valley brought out the worst of the somms. No consensus could be reached. Chaos!

In conclusion, I must hang out with more Master Sommeliers.

Tasting with the Masters 5


You have to try these! 4 Port wines for 2015

I am stealing an idea forthright from the brilliant NYT wine critic Eric Asimov. I’ve been following his Wine School series since it was initiated last year. Mr. Asimov introduces a topic, anything from Champagne to St.-Joseph and then readers buy the wines he recommends and are invited to comment.  In a follow-up article, he shares readers’ tasting notes and includes an expert analysis of the wine along with food pairings. It is a reading club of sorts, but with booze, and I love it.

I am going to try it with Harris Wine Merchant. In my own edition, you will all of course be able to purchase the recommended wines on my website…just as soon as it launches mid-February.

Today’s lesson in booze begins with Port wine. Port wine has mystified. Is it a spirit? A wine? How can there be so many styles? For centuries it has been a part of British culture: Port and Stilton. Port and Cigars. Half the lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia are English names. The Americans are catching up even if it is as a mixer on a Brooklyn cocktail menu. Slow but steady, we know a good thing when we drink it. In fact, port is due to overtake sherry by 2020.

To get us started I selected the following four port styles. If you can’t find the exact brand, it is not a problem, but try the different styles to understand the full range. I’ll post a write up toward the end of February with an Asimovesque follow up. Below the selections is a brief primer on port wine.

  1. Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage Port
  2. Warre’s Heritage Ruby Port
  3. Dow’s 1991 Vintage Port
  4. Ferreira’s Branco Lágrima

Red grapes (mainly touriga nacional, tinta barroca, touriga franca, and tinta roriz):

  • Influenced more by cask ageing: a.k.a. wood ports are fruit-forward and full bodied to mellow and rich. Casks do not impart oak aromas to port as in still wines. Purpose of aging in cask is to allow a broad surface for micro-oxygenation to happen and encourage the oxidative, nutty aromas we associate with some ports.
    • Ruby styles
      • Ruby port: vinified for immediate consumption after bottling. The youngest port, ruby is a blend of wines between three to five years. Look for primary, red berry fruit-forward aromas and youthful ruby color. Great for poaching pears or a port reduction.
      • Reserva/premium ruby port: a sturdier ruby with more color and depth from the blending of several vintages (average ages five to seven years). Has replaced “vintage character” name as it is a misnomer having no character in common with vintage port. Classic pairing, port and Stilton, is meant for this fresh, fruity red port to accompany the blue-veined stinker.
      • Late Bottled Vintage ports: as the name infers, from a single harvest, bottled within four to six years of harvest. Aged in large oak tonnels that at 40+ years, the barrels do not impart any oak.
        • filtered (and fined) LBV port: to be drunk upon release. Easier to handle as no decanting is necessary, but may lose their luster as wines start to die when their food (sediment) is removed.
        • unfiltered LBV port: can be laid down for five to 20 years or consumed right away. Expect depth like in an authentic vintage port.

Warre's Heritage Ruby Port

Taylor'S LBV


  • Tawny styles:
    • Tawny port: This is for your Cohiba-smoking set. We learned a ruby port is fresh and fruity. A tawny has a nutty aroma and an amber or, ah hah, tawny tone from longer oxidation. The French enjoy this style as a before-dinner libation in the afternoon. The Brits take it in the evening after the meal with dessert or cheese. The Americans mix it with everything and drink it anytime.
    • Aged indicated tawny (10-, 20-, 30-, 40-year-old): Like sticking your head into a bag of great trail mix with toasted almonds, dried figs, exotic spice and caramel. They are easy to drink and sweet but with high acidity. And much less heady than a vintage port. It has more spirit complexity the longer it ages. The number of years listed on the label is the average age of the blend. Focus should be on the characteristics of the age indicated. These are wines that would likely have been vintage ports had they been harvested in a declared year; very high quality. Mind the date of bottling as these won’t keep forever. Surprisingly, once opened, should be consumed within a few days as freshness turns to staleness. Best served chilled.
    • Colheitas: a tawny port, made with grapes from a single year (colheita). Expect characteristics of classic tawny with nuances from stated year’s harvest. Label will include date of harvest. Best served chilled.

Influenced more by bottle ageing: wine starts in oak and then is quickly bottling without filtration. Don’t be capricious, this beverage can’t start to be appreciated until 20 and 30 years after bottling.

  • Vintage styles:
    • Vintage Port: crème de la crème of port wine. Aged in wood for two or three years and bottled unfiltered so that the solids can percipitate and the taste and aromas can continue to set up in bottle. Only made in years when harvest is declared excellent after a perfect growing season by the IVDP (see below) and shipper’s determine that quantity matches demand. These ports come along about 2.5 times in a decade. Should be aged for minimum 30 years and once opened, recommended to enjoy within 24-48 hours. Bottoms up!
    • Single Quinta port: brilliant scheme to sell top-quality port in undeclared years. All grapes from a single parcel (quinta) are aged two or three years and then bottled without filtration.
    • Crusted Ports: meant to attract vintage port fans though beware as it is not a vintage port. A crust or sediment is deposited into the bottle as these wines are not usually filtered before bottling. Will go on the market only three years after bottling. For a full-bodied, dark red port wine at a great value, look no further.
    • Garrafeira: Try saying that three times fast. These ports are aged for a minimum SEVEN years in glass demi-johns. My generation will have to look up glass demi-john here. These bad boys then clean up their act by decanting heavily and are rebottled back into 750 ml bottles. There is a lot of paperwork involved; the label must include the date of harvest, date wine was transferred to demi-john, and date wine goes into its new, smaller receptacle.


White grapes (mainly gouveio, malvasia fina, and viosinho)– the mashing of juice to skins, known as maceration, from white grapes during fermentation is kept to a minimum. Great for cocktail wizardry or served simply with a splash of tonic over ice. The dry version (seco) is actually quite sweet and meio seco is sweeter than sweet. Straw color with intense lusciousness layered with white stone fruit. For below port wine, the viscosity of high glycerol content inspires the name lágrima for tears that run down the side of the glass.

Straw color with intense lusciousness layered with white stone fruit. The viscosity of high glycerol content inspires the name lágrima for tears that run down the side of the glass. Quirky fact: Quality classifications of port wine were created to control surplus. The very official Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (Douro Port Wine Institute, or IVDP) gives points based on 12 physical attributes like gradient, site, and aspect of the parcel. If the winery in a given year cannot accumulate enough points, they receive an F and are allowed only minimum quotas to make fortified wine. Those qualifying with an A or B score have much more flexibility and are granted permission to fortify greater quantities of must.  If only the rest of the world were so organized.