The Anatomy Of A Mouthful

by J. Tobias Beard

An account of a wine tasting at Keswick Hall on 12/5/2005. This was my first assignment  and the first piece of journalism I had published. Published in the Virginia Wine Gazette.

It is very quiet in the boardroom at Keswick hall. No one has expressly told us to be quiet, but no one seems to want to break this unspoken rule by speaking above a whisper. It is also quiet outside. Behind me the gardens are slowly being covered with snow. The room has a draft and the slight chill in the air adds to the businesslike feeling that pervades. I want to watch the snow fall on the Keswick estates, I want to stand by the fireplace and have a drink, I want to talk to the people sitting around the table with me, but I can’t. I have serious work to do. I have to taste and evaluate 40 different wines from Virginia and New York. The future of wine making on the East Coast sits in my mouth. I turn and spit into a silver bucket.

It is December fifth, 2005 and the Virginia Wine and Food Society is holding a comparative, blind tasting of wines from New York and Virginia. The Virginia Wine and Food Society is a roughly three-year-old organization dedicated to promoting Virginia wine and food, partly by professionally tasting and reviewing VA wines. The group has about 10,000 online subscribers and many business members, including local wineries and Keswick Hall. The event was organized by Mark Golub, a local wine enthusiast, and Richard Hewitt, the Sommelier for Keswick.

The panel for the tasting also includes: Peter Bell, the winemaker at New York’s Fox Run Vineyards; Michael Flynn, wine director at Kinkhead’s Restaurant and Colvin Run Tavern (both in the DC area); Mike Potashnik, publisher of the Virginia Wine Guide; and three New York City wine professionals; Adrian Chalk, the wine consultant for Lauber Imports; Stephane Colling, the Sommelier for The Modern, (the restaurant at the MOMA); and Fred Dexheimer, a sommelier for BLT. Kluge Vineyards graciously sponsored the three Visiting City boys, a sponsorship which seemed to include a lot of Kluge wine being consumed the night before.

There is one panel member conspicuously absent, a Mr. Jay Youmans, listed in the Wine and Food Society handout as working for Rock Creek Wine Merchants and as being the publisher of the International Wine Review. This last item sounds impressive, and I silently apologize to Mr. Youmans for my own conspicuous and entirely accidental presence on the panel in his stead. I was called last night and asked to cover the event in place of the original journalist who had come down with a severe case of children. When I arrive at Keswick the organizers ask me if I want to sit on the panel in the place of Mr. Youmans, whose plane has come down with a severe case of weather. Seeing as this is both my first real journalistic assignment and my first real blind tasting, the wisdom of both requests seems dubious. Seeing as I lack both wisdom and self-doubt, I pull up a chair at the table. As the tasting progresses, it occurs to me that my presence on the panel will seriously skew the results. It also occurs to me that covering a wine tasting without drinking would be really, really, boring.

Before the tasting begins, Mike Potashnik instructs us that this is a “celebration of the achievements of New York and Virginia.” This is not, he tells us, about trashing any of the wines; it is about looking for the things that each region does well, and learning from them. Surprisingly this does not sound to me like wishy-washy instructions on our role as corporate shills. It sounds refreshingly positive and constructive. Too many critics feel that they must refine and focus their ability to find fault, and that the measure of a critic’s worth is directly proportionate to his or her ability to hate. Our task, it seems, is to do the opposite; to offer positive reinforcement to the winemakers of both regions by holding up a mirror into which they can look at themselves and say “My wines are fruity enough, full bodied enough, and gosh darn it, people like them!” The table is a long and stately wooden affair. Each of us has a row of eight glasses in front of us and a silver spit bucket. There are small trays of crackers and pitchers of water. Outside it is still snowing. The snow lands in the in the pool and falls over the disappearing edge. It is time to begin.

The first flight is Viognier; a choice that seems designed to give Virginia a head start. The wines are poured from bottles wrapped in paper bags. There is a brief moment of tension when one of the New York Judges complains that the metallic smell from the silver spit bucket is interfering with the bouquet of the wines, but a glass vase is quickly procured as a replacement, and we all relax. It is a strong start as the wines are all good, but there is one wine that clearly stands out as a winner right away. When we are done tasting the wines are revealed, and it is the Chrysalis Vineyards Viognier from 2004 that is the unanimous winner. We are scoring the wines on a 100 point scale, and the Chrysalis Viognier ends up being the second highest scoring wine overall with a 92. Virginia wines score 1, 2, and 3 in the Viognier flight, reinforcing our tentative claim to this grape.

A note about the scoring system. There are a total of 100 points available to give each wine in six categories: appearance, taste, smell, balance, finish, and overall. This is not as easy as you might imagine. Next time you drink a glass of wine, try assigning a number to it. Does it taste like a 23 or a 21? That nose of wet fur and ketchup, is it a 10 or only a 9? Now try it with five to eight different wines, none of which are identified. Like most wine lovers these days I am tragically aware of Mr. Parker’s famous 100 point rating system. I sadly confess that I can tell you exactly which of my wines scored over 90 points in his publication. But this tasting makes me realize that assigning a rating is a much harder task then buying one. You are trying to match two fundamentally different things: numbers and sensations. To do it well takes a lot of practice, and a belief in ones taste that borders on the megalomaniacal. It is a practice that should rightly give any philosopher or mathematician an apoplectic fit, yet we do it everyday. Bo Derek is a 10, Pam Anderson is an 8, and Brittany Spears is a 6, right? Now imagine that the livelihood of countless winemakers the world over depends on you assigning their wines the proper number. Frankly I don’t know how Mr. Parker can sleep at night. The worst category for me is appearance. Taste is one thing, but what does a bad wine look like? None of them are wearing polka dots with plaid, or socks with sandals, so after mulling it over a bit I decide to assign all the wines an eight in appearance.

The next flight is Chardonnay, and suddenly I am feeling nervous. I hate the wines. One by one I taste them and find them absolutely ghastly. It is not that I hate Chardonnay. Quite the contrary, I like Oakey California Chardonnay, and acidic, minerally white Burgundies equally. But this is ridiculous. Some selections from my notes: “God awful.”, “Tastes like cotton candy that has crawled off to die”, “Tastes like forty year old butterscotch candies forgotten in your grandmothers purse”, and “Eeeuurrrrcckkk! Aaacckkk! Huerrggg! Ghhaakklllech!” I look around the table, but no one has turned green, or is noticeably gagging. Is it me? There is one wine that I like, and it is the only one that is not noticeably oaked. It tastes nicely acidic and crisp, but I can’t tell if it really is good, or is just benefiting from how bad I think the others are. I am a bit surprised when my favorite wine is revealed to be from Duck Walk Vineyards in New York. At $10.00 it is easily the cheapest wine we will taste. Equally surprising is that everyone else likes the wines. There is no standout winner like the Chrysalis, and the flight is generally agreed to be weaker overall then the Viogniers, but the other judges still find a lot of things to praise. For the first time I really question my being at the table. The final scores are all in the 80’s, and I am suddenly sure that everyone in the room knows that I have no idea what I am doing.

On to the reds. The next flight is Meritage blends. I am relieved to find myself liking the wines again, and really they are all above average, with some excellent. As we taste, there is some murmuring among the New York City judges. It seems that they recognize one of the wines as one that they drank last night. The wines all score in the high eighties with one exception, the other standout wine of the tasting, and the highest scoring wine overall, the 2002 Kluge New World Red. We break for lunch, and are served a glass of a mystery wine as a treat. It turns out to be a 1998 Cabernet Franc Reserve from White Hall, and it’s quite good.

Merlots are next, and now the quality is really evident. I find myself having a lot of trouble deciding which I like best. The problem I have is the same as with assigning a rating. I have no real basis of comparison. I’ve had a few Merlots, sure, but not enough to really know the answer to the question “What is Merlot?” The problem is Platonic, really. In order to judge which of these Merlots is best; I must understand the varietal’s essence. I must know the Merlotness of Merlot. In this, I confess, I fail. But so, it seems, do the other judges. In the discussion period after the wines are revealed, there is no real consensus as to which is the best. It seems that no one really knows what Merlot is. Only three points separate the sixth place Merlot from the first place Merlot. It is fascinating to listen to these guys discuss the wines. The places where they disagree reveal the subjective nature of this business. One person’s jammy, over-alcoholic, nightmare, is another person’s full bodied, voluptuous, fruit bomb. But, the places where they agree show how good they really are. When two or three people all mention some quality in the wine that I can’t even understand, I realize that they are light years ahead of me in terms of knowing what it is that they are drinking. Clearly there is a lot for me to learn about the anatomy of a mouthful. It is a Virginia wine that scores the highest, with two other Virginia wines in a three way tie with a New York wine for second. The quality of the Virginia Merlots is a surprise to the New Yorkers.

The final red is Cabernet Franc, like Viognier a grape that Virginia has staked some kind of claim to. Here again, the overall quality makes choosing a winner difficult. A few of them standout to me as being distinctly Cab Franc-y, all green and vegetal. I admit that Cabernet Franc is not my favorite grape, but these wines are excellent, and I find my opinion fluctuating wildly. Each wine goes from great to bad and back again. After thirty-three wines, I fear my palate may be shot. I’m starting to buckle under the pressure. I need a drink.

Last we have dessert wines, and there is an audible sense of relief, followed by an audible gasp of shock as we begin to taste them. After the high quality of the of the reds, the sweet wines are a real let down. This time it’s not just me. We are all looking around at each other, and then we begin to talk openly about the wines. They are surprisingly bad. Someone points out that Dessert wine is too broad a group, encompassing many different varietals and styles, to be judged well together, but still it is a disappointing ending to an otherwise great bunch of wines.

It is time to sum up. This was supposed to have been an assessment of the wines from both regions, but as we begin to discuss them it becomes clear that this is not the case. The New Yorkers have not been brought here to be judged, but to render judgment. It is as if Virginia is the shy writer approaching Rilke to ask, “What advice do you have for a young poet?” In a way this makes sense, for certainly New York has long been recognized as the leader in wine making east of the Rockies, but at the same time who do they think they are, California? It would chafe much more if most of what they had to say didn’t make so much sense to me. “You need” New York says, “to begin to think about specializing. Don’t grow Cabernet Sauvignon if you know it isn’t what you do best. Stop experimenting with hybrids and stop trying to offer everything. Grow what you know.” And what we know, they say, is Viognier, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. “Look at Oregon and Pinot noir” they say. “Virginia should have a yearly Viognier festival. Build a distinct identity. Discover your terroir. Oh, and also, I know you all really like Cabernet Franc, but maybe you should think more about Merlot. Just a suggestion.”

And then we are done and it is time for the reception. All of the wines are lined up for the rest of the invited guests to try, but me, I’ve had enough. I stick to the Kluge sparkling wine; it’s bubbles rising in the glass providing a mirror image of the snowflakes falling outside. At the reception there is a nice representation of our local wine scene, and the New York boys give a brief reiteration of what they had to say below. I look around and I see several of our states most active and successful winemakers. Why, I wonder, wasn’t one of them on the panel? What was needed was more participation by those people who are active in the creation of Virginia wines. Let those whose hands have tended the vines defend their grapes. The speeches end with the positive message that the future looks bright for both regions. As I drink and mingle I wonder how long it will be before Virginia wine makers begin to hate the word “Potential