Jack O'Diamonds (I Know You Of Old)

Organolepticians Number 58 (May 22nd, 2005)


The notorious Guy du Vin (aka Dave Holstrum, the dynamic and articulate force behind the wine programs at a handful of Portland, Oregon's finest dining establishments) recently took part in a winetasting featured on the evening news at one of Portland's network TV stations. Dave was one of three wine professionals on a panel of six tasters. The other "pros" were Tysan Pierce, sommelier at the marvelous Heathman, and Lisa Shara Hall, who writes for a number of wine publications. The other tasters were referred to by news commentator Stefanie Stricklen, who narrated the segment, as "regular wine drinkers."

It happens that our 2000 Syrah "Wylie-Fenaughty" was one of the six wines in the tasting, and, as well, was unanimously chosen by the "pros" as the best wine of the six, "hands down." (The other wines were: 2001 Cornas "Les Coteaux" from Emil Perraud, 2002 Syrah "les Cotes de l'Ouest," from Domaine de la Terre Rouge in the Sierra Nevada foothills, 2004 Shiraz, "The Piping Shrike" from the Barossa Valley in Australia, 2003 "The Struie," from Torbreck, also from Barossa, and 2003 Vin du Pays "Les Collines Rhodaniennes" from Les Caves du Chante Perdrix.)

While it's gratifying to have the recognition from my professional colleagues (and I'm truly glad to know that my wine showed well in the spotlight, though I'm wary, by nature, of taking reviews to heart. As the novelist Jim Harrison once remarked, "the goose that's trying to lay golden eggs shouldn't use a mirror to look at its butt."), the way the story was framed by the TV station raises some questions I think bear some consideration. Again and again during the story the distinction was drawn between the "professional experts" and the "regular wine drinkers;" Ms Stricklen declared at one point: "Basically, the pros pull apart wines in their mouth (sic), deconstructing them in ways that we don't." Indeed, after the "pros" had weighed in on which wine was their favorite, one of the three non-professionals found the Wylie-Fenaughty her least favorite wine. Another said he didn't care for it, he "couldn't get past the pungent aromas." (The third made no direct comment about the wine.) I felt that, intentionally or otherwise, the suggestion was made quite strongly that the "regular wine drinker" and the "professional expert" inhabit different universes, and don't have much to say to one another. The story finishes with the line: "Wine is just a beverage to be consumed with food; drink what you like." Well, of course.

But shall we ask: just what is it that we like? And why, and what does it mean? Dave Holstrum, Tysan Pierce, and Lisa Shara Hall all made direct or indirect comments about the importance of structure, and how that determined their choice; the 2000 Wylie-Fenaughty is a wine of considerable, fine structure (if there is a dominant feature that characterizes Edmunds St. John wines, I would say it's the importance of structure). Tysan knows that if her customers at the Heathman are going to have an especially good experience with wine in her restaurant it will be because the wine makes the food taste even better, and wine won't do that without good structure. (And if the wine makes the food taste better, the diner will enjoy both wine and food more, and will probably want to have more of both, and will also, of course, be that much more disposed to return to the restaurant in expectation of a similarly happy experience.) Dave Holstrum's experience has taught him the same thing. (And I've eaten dinner with Dave once or twice, and I know he thinks the same way about his own pleasure at the table.) So has Lisa's. This ain't rocket science. But these "pros" have trained themselves to pay attention to what they're smelling and tasting in a way that other people train themselves to pay attention to the behavior of birds in a rainstorm, or securities in a bull market. That new Chrysler in front of the bank might be easy on the eye, but is it safe on the road? I think it might have been a service to everyone, pro or not, to contextualize the tasting in that way.

One obvious difference between the "pros" and the "regulars" is that the "pros" spend 8 or more hours a day doing what they do for a living, and that without making a special effort, the "regular wine drinker" has no way to learn any of this stuff. This makes me think of what Alice Waters is doing, which includes a successful effort to build into the curricula in the Berkeley Public School System a course of study in food. It would be interesting to see what the impact would be if we made a very small change; instead of merely saying "I like it," we went on to say "why do I like it and what does it mean?

"I like it" might seem like a simple statement, but it seems to me it's an incomplete statement. More accurate might be: I like it, at this moment, in this weather, with these people, with this accompaniment, in this mood, at this stage of my development, knowing what I know, at this price, in this market. I probably left something out. Liking stuff is important; so is not liking stuff. Leaving it at that keeps the "regulars" and the pros from finding out they're really not so different.

At his website Guy du Vin had some interesting things to say about this tasting I've been rambling on about:

[A final note on blind tastings, Kermit Lynch (the wine importer) once said, "Blind tastings are to wine what strip poker is to love". I participate in, and also lead blind tastings, quite often. They have their place and tasting wines blind can help develop and focus one's palate. But ultimately, blind tasting takes all the fun out of wine, because it reduces wine to something without any context. If there is one idea that I have tried to convey, it is that wine is all about context. Without context, wine has no meaning. I think that ultimately blind tasting confuses you as to the purpose of drinking wine. It is supposed to be fun! Terry Theise, who writes about, understands, and communicates about wine better than anyone else in the world, has said that the only genuinely professional approach to wine is to know as much about it as you possibly can. Who made it, where it's from, the growing conditions, the winemaker's track record, etc. It is only then that you can make a thoughtful evaluation about a wine. That experience of meaning is too rare to squander.] copyright © 2005 Guy du Vin

We made a big splash at a couple of other tastings this year, for what it's worth. At both the Rhone Ranger tasting in March, and the Hospice du Rhone event last weekend, the 2004 Shell and Bone White quickly became the white wine everyone wanted to taste. Shell and Bone is the new name (replacing the name Los Robles Viejos) we've given to wines we're producing from grapes grown in limestone soils in the vineyards on Paso Robles western side. The 04 White includes roughly 39% Viognier from the Rozet vineyard, 23% Marsanne from Rozet, and 38% Roussanne grown at Tablas Creek Vineyard. The 2004 vintage gave us fully ripe grapes at reasonably modest sugar levels, with low pH and very good acidity, so the wines have exceptional structure (there's that word again!), and strong nervosity. The perfume, of apricot and lavender, is riveting; there's a lemony side, flavor-wise, and honey, too, to complement the pretty fruit and the blossoms. It's a special wine, if I do say so myself, and one you just don't want to miss. Less than 250 cases produced. Suggested retail is $25.00. So there you go; my cards are on the table...

"I used to chase Lady Luck, but she must've had wings;
I don't know what made me stop. It's just one of those things;
She looked pretty good from far away, like the wheels on a rolling train...."

Steve Edmunds/When Old Men Sing/copyright © 2000

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(ôr'ge nl ep'tik, ôr gan'l ep'-), adj. 1. perceived by a sense organ. 2. capable of detecting a sensory stimulus. [1850-55; < F organoleptique = organo- ORGANO + -leptique < Gk leptikós disposed to accept (lept(ós), v. adj. of lambánein to take + -ikos -IC)]

--Random House Webster's
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