Expert Evaluation

February 1, 2013

Yesterday, our marketing company, Balzac Communications, set up a blind tasting of three flights of wines (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet/Bordeaux blends) that included ours and some of the best from Napa and Sonoma. The six participants, all Master Sommeliers, are some of the most accomplished and knowledgeable wine professionals and educators in the world.

The experience was wonderful for a bunch of reasons: I got to see how these really smart and passionate wine lovers approached the evaluation of these very different wines, how they each teased out personal priorities from those wines, and how they went about communicating their own very personal experience with the wines in a language that was helpful to us.

I came to this setting with very specific purposes in mind. In our own minds we are all first string players. The rest of the world (whichever world we happen to be participating in at any given moment) rarely sees us in the same light. Lineage and Steven Kent Winery’s The Premier are our two flagship wines. My personal mission, when it is all said and done, is to consistenly produce two wines that can be favorably compared to any great wine produced in the world. I want to make iconic wines…wines with a history, a pedigree, and an acknowledged reputation for greatness…all qualities that will take a career to achieve. Consequently, in tastings such as this, it is crucial that experts see our wines as belonging in a group that has already achieved some of the benchmarks that we are working to accomplish.

Equally as importantly, our winemaking team (Tom Stutz and I) would get a chance to taste our wines within a larger group that contained more wines that weren’t ours than that were.

There is a tendency for winemakers to gain a house palate. We work with our wines for a number of years before they are released, tasting them many times as they are elevated from grape to bottle. It is easy to fall into a trap where you ascribe too much “brilliance” to your own effort and don’t see the weaknesses in the wines because you don’t compare them often enough to a benchmark set in a way that hides what you think you know. Tim Gaiser, Steve Morey, Bob Bath, Peter Marks, Christie Dufaul – our MSs – not only have a great deal of tasting experience, but they also know how wine is made. So, many of the comments about the wines had winemaking techniques, decisions, and craft as an inherent part…again, a very helpful exercise for us.

It is important that we compare our wines against a very high standard often, and -from a business standpoint- it is important that we do well. Gratifyingly, we did very well. These kinds of results breed confidence and give us a sense that our own intuition about the Livermore Valley’s ability to grow world-class fruit has a semblance of reality behind it.

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Under the heading of “there is no wrong answer,” I realized – while writing notes on about 25 different Cabernet barrels the other day – that I am an emotional taster…or at least an emotional tasting note writer.

Larded among descriptions of tannin and mid-palate structure, fruit intensity and aromatic purity were a ton of words and phrases that related to the quality of those experiences…”gorgeous,” “great,” “meaningful,” and how ¬†those organoleptic-specific sensations made me feel. I may have even cried once or twice..(just kidding!?).

I’m just curious. When you are tasting for the purpose of evaluation, do you cry or not?