Walking The Grid: How Sommeliers Do It

It's eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning and the table has been set for 10; three Riedel glasses, water glass, coffee cup, pen and paper, and a shared dump bucket at each setting. We are in a private room at a very well-respected French restaurant to put our palates through the paces.

There's a peculiar set of juxtapositions in the atmosphere: the restaurant is empty and quiet aside from the assembled, and they're shyly shuffling around the lobby mumbling while the first flight is poured out of sight. The scene might give you the impression of a casual, after hours gathering - and the attire of most in attendance reflects that - but the demeanor is decidedly more subdued and formal. There is a ritualistic, respectful silence hanging in the air.  Church? Well, it is Sunday morning.

I'd been invited to observe/join a practice tasting for a group of candidate sommeliers.  They are here to practice blind tasting, something required for each of the certification-level tests administered by the Master Court of Sommeliers. Three whites, three reds, twenty-five intense minutes. The goal is to observe, analyze, describe, and identify the wines to determine the following:
  • what grape(s) they are comprised of
  • where (as specifically as possible) they were grown
  • what vintage the wine was made from
Depending upon the level, this portion of the test is either written (less difficult) or oral (exceedingly difficult).
Think you've got what it takes? Read on to the end for a transcript of an actual tasting from that morning.
In somm parlance, this analysis is referred to as "waking the grid". Deliberately dispassionate, blind tasting is a disciplined breakdown of what's in the glass. Not coincidentally similar to a detective's deductive appraisal, this duly-hyped parlor trick stands in stark contrast to every notion of romance we tend to associate with wine. Having stumbled through this contest over a decade ago, my personal preference is to evaluate wines for emotional impact rather than analyze their impersonal attributes.  No coincidence; I was no good at it then, and even less so now.

The practical value of such an ability will continue to be debated long after the cows come home. But it is what it is and, if nothing else, it serves as some yardstick to separate the boys from the men. And this morning it is all men. (Though changing, the ranks of sommeliers is decidedly male-dominated.) Tasting blind is unbelievably intimidating.  Or, as the taster transcribed below says, terrifying.  Not just because you've got an audience and a stopwatch, but because each sample taunting you could be any of a seemingly infinitesimal number of possibilities.

Each wine has its own personality and dizzying array of attributes. Color, meniscus, luminosity, brilliance, gasification, sediment - and that's just what's visible...the tip of the iceberg. Aromatics and olfactory impressions come next, followed by taste and texture elements. Taken together, they represent an impossible puzzle.  This is where the grid comes in.

The grid is a series of questions to evaluate each of those attributes and is there as a tool to assemble a series of signposts. If you call each one correctly - and follow them without psyching yourself out - they will take you to a conclusion.  Will it be successful? Therein lies the difference between art and science - and the difference between being a tourist and having a shitload of experience.

Whether you are a budding oenophile or a seasoned wino, participating in an exercise like this is a strong reminder that, actually, you really don't know jack.  For each wine there is only one right answer from so many possibilities. No matter how knowledgeable a sommelier might be, the inexperienced can't fake their way through the insecurity this challenge imbues. My intimidation that morning came from being surrounded by the grit and proficiency of those sitting at that table.

Remember that James Bond movie when he picks up a wine and calls it a 59 Chateau Lafite? Well, it was just a movie.
Things get underway and the long light streaking across the mullions in the dining room cast a church-like solemnity on the occasion. As each of the candidates worked their way through the wines, the silent formality begins to make perfect sense. They were not here to fuck around. No, no. This is where the real work is done in preparation for the next level. And, lovely wines or not, it is work and discipline.  Makes you want to drop what you're doing and sign up for the next exam, right?

If that isn't impressive enough, consider that the entire (three hour!) affair was organized and led by a mentor who provided feedback and detailed coaching on each participant's performance while simultaneously benchmarking with his own evaluation of the wines. Jesus.  Talk about juggling a lot of balls.

Now, for a taste of what it's like, what follows is the transcript for one of the sommelier's walking of the grid.  Your wine vocabulary is about to expand...

White wine number four is a white wine.

It is of a pale yellow moving out to a thin, watery miniscus.  Little bits, flecks of gold and green.  
Viscocity is a medium plus.  There's no signs of gas or sediment.  I'll call that star bright.

The wine is clean, although I think that there's maybe a little bit of volatile acidity kind of lurking in there, but I think it's kind of pretty.

Primary impressions of citrus, key line, lemon oil, lemon pith, orange, but more like orange blossom.  Then tropical aromas of passion fruit, yellow delicious apples, apple skin.

There's a little bit of lees-iness, a little bit of that....no real sense of oak influence, likely stainless steel.  There's definitely a pronounced minerality. There's floral component like jasmine flowers....maybe like sweet herbs.

This is terrifying.

On the palate the wine is dry.  Acidity medium, alcohol medium plus bordering on high.

So, I'm going to walk back what I was talking about about jasmine flowers.  No, this is more like yellow flowers.  The condition of the fruit is almost a little in the palate bruised, oxidative.  I don't know why it was fresh in the nose.  It was, but then it's got this oxidative thing going on.  This is yellow apples, pears, definitely some lemon, some lemon pith.  It's almost a bitterness in the palate.  Definitely lots of lees going on.  I wasn't getting any oak in the nose, but in the palate to me there's some. I think they're maybe using a little bit of large, neutral barrels.  There's a certain textural component to it.  

Sorry, I realize I also didn't call body or finish.  This is...I'm going to go with full body.  There's high alcohol.  I mean there's lots of extract. The acidity...I'm going to bump it to medium plus.  It's hanging around. 

I do think the fruit goes more tart in the palate, so I'm going to go with Old World, moderate climate with the higher alcohol but some acidity hanging around.  Possible grape varietals...all the yellow flowers and yellow fruits.  I think we're on some sort of roussane/marsanne blend.  

So, final conclusion: this is a 2013 St Joseph blanc.  

How'd he do?  It was a 2014 Bordeaux Blanc. Correct on old world, correct on France, and correct on white blend.