Let’s Start at The Very Beginning, A Very Good Place to Start

I passed the theory portion the Court of Master Sommeliers diploma in 2014 on my first attempt. My second year, I passed service. Last year, in May, I reset all my sections back to zero after I failed to pass tasting. I’ll be coming into my fourth attempt without any active sections. While I don’t have an exact date for my next theory exam, I’ve got about 5-6 months, as it will either be at the end of February or the beginning of March.

For the benefit of the CMS community, and to track my own progress, I thought it might be of interest to blog this theory attempt, to compare differences in studying for my first attempt, versus now (three years later), and what I might have gained (or lost) between my exams. Measuring the ease of the study (or lack thereof) as a marking post, I can learn what really worked to build retention for me.

Yesterday, on a muggy September Sunday in New York, I dipped my feet back in the pool of concerted study for the first time in almost 2.5 years. The water was not refreshing, but two pieces of wisdom guided my start. Richard Betts told me that slow and steady was the key to his success. He simply studied one to two hours a day every day, and, well, I had to start somewhere.

The second is a process tool that I learned from Andy McNamara; he would just take yellow legal pads and write down everything he didn’t know stone-cold as he would read, writing page after page of notes. He did this not necessarily to review the notes at some point, but to get them into his body. I later read that writing something generates the memory equivalent of looking at it seven times, and Andy’s strategy certainly reinforced that for me.

Lastly, I took a page from my original play book, by starting with a manageable, simple topic. In this case, I started on South America, and specifically Chile. It’s likely that there will be somewhere between 4 and 8 questions on South America on my Master’s exam this year, but there are probably only about 1000 total questions the examiners could ask that are fair game at Master’s level on South American countries.

Compare this with France, or Italy where you might have 5000 to 10,000 (if not more) potential questions. I’ll surely have more than four questions on France on my exam, but relative to potential questions, the ratio is much worse, so crushing New World regions has always been part of my meta-game for giving myself a best shot at success for the Masters.

As I took my hour-long journey through the South American study guide yesterday, I was simultaneously reminded of how much and how little I know, and it certainly brought up many queasy-happy feelings regarding why I do this work. The abstract, fact-based nature of theory study has always been most difficult for me, so figuring out how to make information “come alive” has been key to my success in the past. How do I bring the microscopic nature of the facts I learn into the more macroscopic nature of my day-to-day work on the floor, and to the level of why wine is metaphysically important me?

I agree with a lot of the criticism about the CMS being too trivia-focused, or rather, about how people who are studying for the CMS are too trivia-focused. I’m trying to simultaneously embrace the truth of the deep level of knowledge required to pass Master’s theory, while focusing on building my understanding of wine, not my bank of trivia-type knowledge.

In considering the path forward, I’m most reminded of something Noma’s Rene Redzepi once said:

“We work as intensely and as profoundly as possible. That’s the only real shield we have against failure.”

Now, of course, how you define failure in this whole ordeal is where things start to get interesting…and so, I begin.

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Past Lives

This poem used to hang on the wall of a hand-operated elevator at my college:


Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.

Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

– M. Ehrmann, 1920

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Checklists, According to the NYC DOH

At the beginning of each workday, ask yourself the following seven questions:

  1. Did I shower or take a bath before coming to work?
  2. Am I sick with a fever, cold or diarrhea?
  3. Do I have any infected cuts or burns?
  4. Are my nails clean, trimmed and free from nail polish?
  5. Are my apron and clothing clean?
  6. Did I remove my jewelry?
  7. Am I wearing my hat, cap or hairnet?


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Found Objects

A perfect Syrah cluster at Minnick – a destiny of iron and leather

“It is with good reason, says Sancho to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine: This is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and after mature reflection pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions gives also his verdict in favor of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom, an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.”

– From Don Quixote by way of Hume’s The Standard of Taste.

Thanks to Mr. Devin Fitzpatrick

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It’s wines like this that create conversations like these.

“How do you like this shit?” sez Säure.

Hübsch,” allows Gustav. “A trifle stahlig, and perhaps the infinitesimal hint of a Bodengeschmack behind its Körper, which is admittedly süffig.”

“I would have rather said spritzig,” Säure disagrees, if that indeed is what it is. “Generally more bukettreich than last year’s harvests, wouldn’t you say?”

“Oh, for an Haunt Atlas herbage it does have its Art. Certainly it can be described as kernig, even — as can often be said of that sauber quality prevailing in the Oued Nfis region — authentically pikant.”

“Actually, I would tend to suspect an origin of somwhere along the southern slope of Jebel Sarho,” Säure sez — “note the Spiel, rather glatt, and blumig, even the suggestion of a Fülle in its würzig audacity –”

“No no no, Fülle is overstating it, the El Abid Emerald we had last month had Fülle. But this is obviously more zart than that.”

The truth is that they are both so blitzed that neither one knows what he’s talking about, which is just as well, for at this point comes a godawful hammering at the door and a lot of achtungs from the other side.

-Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 1973


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On Things Larger Than Myself

A message from your friendly local vineyard management

Winemaking is hard work. This shouldn’t be a surprising fact, but it’s really quite grueling.

Following my time here, no matter how much I dislike a wine, I will always have respect for that fact that it was a lot of sweat off someone’s brow: the farmer, the picker, the trucker, the processor, the assistant winemaker, and everyone else who might have touched the wine along its journey to my glass.

I am too often an unceremonious jackass. Less of that. More humility. Just because I have a mind of my own doesn’t mean I should speak constantly. Or that I’m always right.

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So, I’m making wine…

Many of you who I communicate via more analog methods (phone calls! what shock!) have wondered what exactly is going on out here. Winemaking from a manual labor standpoint is essentially a three step process. I apologize to those of you who find this boring, but it’s a little difficult to make something this technical sound sexy.

Sorting, Destemming, and Crushing

First, the grapes come in and we do pre-fermentation processing. We sort away MOG (“matter other than grapes”, similar to the MOOP any Burner should be familiar with) and put them through the crusher-destemmer. The machine is a big rotating cylinder-and-paddle operation with holes in it which pulls off the stems and breaks the berries. Gramercy (who processes all their wine at the Waters facility) does a lot of whole cluster work, so they forgo the crusher-destemmer and do foot stomping. For the small amount of white wine we made, from here the grapes go straight to the press without any maceration. The reds need to ferment on their skins since that where the tannins and color come from.

Fermentation bins on the floor. They’re sized (1.5-2.5 tons) so that you can move them with a forklift or pallet jack.

Fermentation Management

Second, we have to  manage the ferment. Since I’m working in a fairly conventional (modern) winery, the wines are dosed with granular SO2 dissolved in a small amount of water, which kills any native yeasts on the grapes. Jamie doesn’t do a “cold soak” pre-fermentation to increase tannin and color extraction, so we “pitch” with an inoculum of cultured lab yeasts into the must (juice, skins, and seeds), which generally starts the fermentation. Yeasts produce heat as a bi-product of fermentation, and cooler, slower ferments are more desirable for increasing aromatic complexity in wines. A few of our wines have ripped through their fermentation in as few as four days, but most have taken 10-14 days. They come in at around 24 brix (a measurement for sugar) and the yeast will eat between 1 and 3 brix a day, ideally maintaining temperatures of 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit. We have several tanks  jacketed with glycol to regulate fermentation temperatures, which is pretty cool.

A 5-ton “hot tub” fermenter. The dimples on the bottom are for the glycol jacket.

One of the principle threats to the red wine during this time is the development of acetobacter, leading to volatile acidity (nail-polish or vinegar smells) in the final wine. The skins and juice are not a homogeneous mixture during fermentation because the CO2 bubbling off the ferment causes the skins to rise to the top, forming a dry-ish cap over the fermenter. Acetobacter thrives on dry grape skins. The remedy for this is that you have to either pump juice over the top of the skins or punch them down into the fermenting proto-wine. We don’t do much pumping over here. Both these processes oxygenate the must, helping to make for a happier fermentation

After a whole night of CO2 compressing the cap, especially early in the fermentation, punchdowns can be very hard work. Punchdowns are accomplished with a stainless steel pole with a square, perforated plate affixed to the end of the pole at a 90-degree angle. Sometimes the caps are so firm that I could put my entire weight on the handle and it wouldn’t budge. The work is pretty brutal on your shoulders, triceps, forearms, and more generally the entire upper body, especially when you have to do it twice a day on 20 or so bins. Great to know I didn’t have to get a gym membership.

A punchdown tool. It’s about 5 feet tall. This end goes in the grapes.

We take readings on the fermentations for temperature and sugar levels daily, but other than that and the punchdowns, the fermentations pretty much handle themselves.  We do some enzymatic additions, which I’m opposed to on principle, but it’s not my wine and I certainly don’t understand enough to know why we’re doing it (or not). One of the most curious parts of this process is managing the YAN on the fermentation, or yeast-available nitrogen.

I don’t understand this entirely yet, and it’s a new concept that I’m trying to really grok. Yeast need nitrogen to complete fermentation, but if the must doesn’t contain enough nitrogen, you can have a stressed fermentation which will lead to reduction; hydrogen sulfide is produced and you get aromas of gunpowder, swamp gas, or onion, which aren’t exactly desirable. The yeast can’t pull nitrogen out of the air. They don’t have lungs. You have to give it to them in a form they can metabolize. In this case, that’s diammonium phosphate, or DAP. We get fruit from one vineyard that always has very low YAN levels, and so Jamie says that DAP is necessary, but I’d like to look into the science on this in greater detail.

Pressing and racking to barrel

Once the ferment finishes we inoculate for malolactic fermentation. This will reduce the overall acid and change the type of acid in the wine. Un-maloed tank press samples are like cartoon versions of wine. The acid is beyond ripping and the wine has this almost neon-candied sour-straw quality about it. This would worry me, except for the fact that I know that Jamie’s wines have restraint and class, and that in time these qualities mellow out and it begins to taste more like, well, wine.

The free-run juice is pumped out of the fermenter bins via a screened pump housing which we call the “torpedo” for obvious morphological reasons. This prevents large solids like seeds, skins, and stems from getting into the wine we’re transferring into 3-5 year-old barrels. Now the dry-ish skins go into the press and we pump the air bladder up to 1 bar, reaping the rewards in the press pan. The free-run (from the torpedo) and press juice are barreled separately. Gramercy does an additional step of settling press wine and free-run in empty fermenter bins for a day before they go into barrel. We simply go straight to barrel. Jamie also ferments his whites on the gross lees (particulate solids), preferring not to cold settle his wines before fermentation.  I haven’t asked him why he does this, but I will…

The Torpedo. The top end connects to the pump, the perforated bottom goes into the must, screening out skins and seeds.

Then we wait 10 months or so and perform all the steps I detailed here and here.

Some other interesting occurrences:

1. I fell in a fermenter with all my clothes on while doing a punchdown. Very sticky and yeasty. I can’t recommend it.

2. I am the lord of the fruit flies.

3. They have underground, late-night dance parties in Walla Walla in basements beneath vegan restaurants.

4. I am continually reminded that are many Americas. This is easy to forget when you’re in New York, or anywhere for too long.

5. We might not have fruit in until early November. Not because we’re making 30+ brix wines, but because it’s going to take them that long just to get to where we usually pick. A very strange vintage here in Washington.

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Nerd Support: A Response

Sorting table carnage, not unlike wine buying

David J. Duman’s postulation in the Huffington Post that hipster wine buyers need to commit to purchasing larger amounts of single wines, rather than flitting about the market like humming birds, is a decent point, but in the end, a little misdirected.

The problems with his assertions are twofold. Firstly, he’s not admitting the reality that from both a dollar-amount and a by-volume standpoint, wine nerds do not purchase the bulk of wine moving through the market at any given time. This falls to the average consumer. Secondly, while, yes, everyone does have to get paid in the end, by advocating nerds buy more (of a few) wines, he’s simply shifting the burden of ownership in wine, possibly leading to oversupply and market volatility.

To be clear I am without a doubt one of the people he describes in the piece. For me, since I work in the industry and even casual wine drinking is a professional education of sorts, it’s necessary that I’m learning something new from every bottle I purchase. That being said, there are definitely inexpensive, nerdy bottles of wine which I’ve bought a fair amount of in my time. On the general, I for one need to be drinking as widely as possible to advance my own career. I don’t have the luxury of enough money to buy a lot of the wines I’m madly in love with as well as constantly exploring new bottles. This is to say nothing of a place to properly store them.

I’m not going to hazard figures on the market-size disparity between the nerd-expert-industry community and what’s sold to the everyday lay consumer. I think it’s fair to assert that the lay wine-drinking community is both a) much larger b) much better capitalized. No one in wine is making a ton of money, unless you’re LVMH, or some similar entity. Here are a few examples that (hopefully) will help to prove my point.

A dear, dear friend of mine drinks a bottle of wine very regularly (2-4 times a week), but, nearly without fail, despite my ardent urgings, it’s Sauvignon Blanc, usually at $10-$12 a bottle retail. Now, you, me, and every other wine professional on the planet could rattle off 10 other styles of wine which she’d probably also enjoy. We also know that if she spent $3-$7 dollars more, she’d generally be drinking a lot better. She’s generally a curious person, and one of the most adventurous eaters I know, but when it comes to wine, she knows what she likes and she sticks to it, except when she can afford to go to a nerd-drinker bastion like Lou, which has totally won her affections. Generally though, there are too many details to keep track of for her. In an even more extreme example, I have a friend who’s wildly unadventurous with her eating and exclusively drinks Pinot Noir. She can’t really be convinced to order anything else.

Let’s say that for even one of those bottles or glasses that my homegirl’s drink every week, they instead picked up Gamay from the Ardeche instead of that Pinot, or Txacoli from the Pais Vasco instead of Sauvignon Blanc. Take that and multiply it across all the people you know who are stubborn adherents to one sort of wine, and then we’d be selling a lot more nerd-bait wine. Moreover, we’d be selling a lot less bullshit wine. And don’t even get me started on the iBankers and lawyers at steakhouses across America purchasing bottles of triple-digit cult Cabernet and Shiraz…

We, as enthusiasts, need to infect people with our enthusiasm for wine. That will be the true remedy for a world’s oversupply of boring, untrue drek. So many in the wine nerd community view people like my friends as lost causes: boring wine drinkers with boring taste. This is the bullshit hipsterism that infects today’s wine nerd community. Don’t get me wrong. Not everyone in our little corner of the world is like that, but there are a lot of people who are.

Those of us who are lucky (yes, I said lucky) enough to work in consumer-direct outlets like wine bars, restaurants, and responsible retailers are the front line of this fight. I think we, more than anyone, can change the course of wine drinking in America. You’re all nerds. Just go out there and sell what you like. Sometimes it simply requires you to get inventive; if I had a dime for every glass of 2000 Lopez De Heredia Gravonia I sold to a die-hard Cali Chardonnay drinker, I would have at least $100.

Now, to address supporting importers and growers by buying lots of a singular wine let’s take the example of Pierre Overnoy. Pierre, along with his son-in-law Emmanuel Houillon makes some of the most sensational, sought-after hipster nerdy wines. His black-waxed, extended-skin-contact Savignin is practically the holy grail of hipster wine. It’s nearly impossible to find this wine (or any of his wines), let alone buy them. The allocations are so small. I’ve only had his Chardonnay, Poulsard, and regular Savignin. They are all phenomenal. The wines are not painfully expensive, but pricey for nerd wine.

Pierre (who’s in his 90s, I think) and Emmanuel could make more, but the appellation of Arbois, and the even tinier town of Pupillin, which all these wines come from, can only produce so much wine by law. I’m saying all of this to prove that me buying more of it wouldn’t make it any more available.

We can also take the example of Elizbeta Foradori’s recent release of amphora-aged Teroldego from Fruili. While the wines are impressive, the style is brand-new for her, very tannic, and I have no idea how it would perform in the cellar. Not to mention it was bottled almost exclusively in magnum. I’m not in the habit of buying too much wine that I won’t be able to drink for another 25 years. I could use the example of Dunn’s Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (just to prove I’m not totally against cult-y new-world red) as well. Widely acclaimed to be a 25-year plus wine, most nerds who’ve had it say the mid-80s vintages are just becoming drinkable now. Am I supposed to front-load cases of this stuff so that I can drink well nearly three decades from now at the cost of enjoying drinking other things now? The same might be said, by all reports, of Portuguese Baga…

Surely, Mr. Dunn and Ms. Foradori should continue to make wine and someone should export-import it. I simply don’t understand why it’s my obligation to crucify my wine budget for the sake of supporting them. Again, this is why we need to advocate to the average consumer, not to the nerd. Out with the point scores! If we split the burden to other people who have the wherewithal to buy large quantities and cellar it responsibly, or who simply love the wine to death and are willing to pay a premium to pick up and love 2 or 3 bottles (most likely like us).

Moreover, I do see a danger in all of us rushing out to stores now and picking up tons of a few select, cherished wines and then realizing 3 or 4 vintages down the road that there’s way too much of it in our cellars for our liking. In the meantime, our beloved producer has raised his production, but his nerdy buyers have over-consumed. Then he (or she) is sitting on more wine than they can sell, which continues the cycle Mr. Duman is advocating against.

As I mentioned in my post two weeks ago, a rising tide lifts all boats, and so we as an enthusiastic expert community shouldn’t feel an obligation to buy a lot of a few wines; we should feel the need to advocate for the wines we love. Hopefully, our passion will inspire other less-zealous people to buy, thus ensuring the availability of the wines we love for years to come.

All that being said, David, I do have a case of Frantz Saumon Romorantin winging it’s way to me, as well as half-cases of Souhaut Gamay and Syrah. I concede that sometimes a lot of a good thing is just a good thing.

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