On February 5, the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food hosted an evening with Jeff Morgan at the San Diego Art Institute; I was eager to attend. Morgan has had a remarkable run in the wine industry — after working as both a writer and editor for Wine Spectator, he jumped the fence and went into production. Currently, he makes wine with Daniel Moore under the SoloRosa and ZMOR labels and works in partnership with Leslie Rudd to produce Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon. With Moore, he runs a wine-consulting company, M Squared, and on his own, he writes books and teaches at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. A man worth hearing, for many reasons — but I'll admit that what hooked me was the presentation's title: "Taste Like a Pro: What's It Like to Be a Taster for Wine Spectator?" Ah — the curtain drawn back, the secret inner workings revealed...
"What makes a great wine better than a good wine better than a bad wine?" asked Morgan at the evening's outset. "It's more than just 'Because I like it.' I think that as a wine professional — and that would be a sommelier or a winemaker or a wine writer — it's not really about what you like. It's about understanding what is applicable in terms of a quality paradigm." Coming out swinging on behalf of objective standards — my interest was piqued.
And then he moved on to the fun stuff, the inside story. "I have a couple of secrets to my so-called success as a professional wine taster. First of all, the most important word to me in the world of food and wine is not flavor. Flavor, in terms of wine quality, is very secondary. It's not irrelevant, it is important, but it is secondary."
For backup on this point, he cited perhaps the biggest authority in the wine-rating game. "I had the good fortune of sitting down with Robert Parker when he tasted my Cabernet...Bob said to me, 'The most important element of quality in a wine is texture.' What does it feel like in your mouth? What about balance? What about body? What about acidity? It's not whether it's got gobs of cherry-berry or whatever. It's about texture.'" Morgan placed these questions under the heading of Style. "The most important thing to think about in tasting wine — for me — is style. Style is about personality...characteristics. When I taste a wine, I really have to compartmentalize. The first thing I think about, very often, is body."
Time for a little audience participation. "What is body?" he asked.
"Richness," someone called out.
"That's good -- richness can be an indicator of body."
"Mouthfeel will definitely be affected by body."
Bingo. "Weight. It's just like my body — I'm a medium-bodied kind of guy. And what gives a wine weight? Alcohol. Higher-alcohol wines tend to be more full-bodied. The wines of California, where we get very ripe grapes with high sugar content, tend to be more full-bodied, because that sugar is converted to alcohol." He warned against "huge, overripe wines with over 16, 17 percent alcohol" but also cautioned against dismissing wines based on the alcohol content. "You can have very high-alcohol wines, and they can be balanced. It's not about what it says on the label; it's about what it tastes like."
Next, said Morgan, "I want to talk about acidity. Acidity is extremely important for white wines; a white wine needs an internal backbone of acidity to keep from falling apart on the palate. They don't have tannin, because the tannins are in the skins and seeds of the grapes, and white wine has very little skin contact. In red wine, the tannins tend to form an exoskeleton, a structure around the wine."
Third factor: Parker's all-important texture. "Acidity is bright on the palate — tangy, zippy. For reds, 'smooth,' 'round,' and 'lush' are good terms to use." Body, Acidity, and Texture make BAT — "that's my secret word for determining wine quality, and we haven't talked about flavor at all. That's how you're going to judge it, first and foremost — though we still have to smell it and we still have to taste it. In addition to body, texture, and acidity, we have aroma, flavor, and finish." Morgan gave a brief account of the flavor compounds (esters and turpines) that concentrate in grapes as in no other fruit, "which is why we make wine out of grapes," and noted that alcohol serves as a flavor vector, "to bring the beauty of the grape to your palate and into your olfactory passages." He finished with finish: "Wines with a short finish don't seem to be great wines. It has to stay on your palate long after you have swallowed it."
Or, long after you have spit it out. "We are all tasting like wine pros tonight, so I want you to spit — at least in the first half of the class." He held up a plastic spit cup. "This is the most important tool of any wine professional. If you spit, that's when you taste the finish. That's when a wine can't lie. If you swallow it, it's not as clear. I spit when I'm analyzing, and I drink when I'm drinking."
Further, said Morgan, a taster's sip ought to mean "a little more wine in my mouth than I normally sip. It's not about the way I would drink wine; it's about the way I want to taste wine. You want to take a reasonable sip and chew it up. And as you do, you open your mouth a little bit. While you're opening your mouth, draw air over your palate. That will allow you to aerate the wine and bring aromas through your rear nasal passages. You're going to get it front and back, which is a very good thing when you're tasting wine."
But what is first in importance is not always first in sequence. Before the sipping, before the assessment of Body, Acidity, and Texture, there was the nose to attend to -- the "front" in "front and back." Morgan suggested three quick sniffs to form an initial impression -- "that's when I'm the most sensitive" -- and then the swirl.
"Why are we swirling the wine in the glass?"
"We're aerating it," someone suggested.
"We're aerating it, but do you know what we're really doing? We're putting wine on the sides of the glass, which increases the surface area of the wine in relation to your nose. Now, you're not only getting wine aromas coming up from the bottom of your glass, but from the sides as well."
Next week: the preliminaries out of the way, we start tasting.