How does he do that?
I remember years ago watching my wine instructor taste wine blindfolded and identify what country it’s from, the grape varieties in it, what vintage it is, and so forth. Even more baffling was how he could determine how much longer the wine may or may not need to age. Watching him do that made me feel amazed, bewildered, frustrated and irritated all at once. I was amazed and bewildered that he could do that, and frustrated and irritated that I could not. Here I was in the nascent stage of my career, and I wanted, more than anything, to learn how to do that. I used to think it was some trick, but I eventually realized that yes, you can train your palate, and it is not hard at all.
Just like a musician can train their ears to identify sounds, someone with an untrained ear cannot discern; one can train their palate to identify tastes and flavor profiles someone with an untrained palate cannot detect.
Here is my favorite approach
Many people ask me if you can train your palate, and I tell them it is the most fun thing to do because the practice is, well, drinking. The following method is the one I have been utilizing when teaching, which has served me and others well for years.
Please note, you can tailor this to your needs, and can apply it to other beverages, as well. I employed this same method to learn about Scotch, but the example below from my personal experience learning about California cabernet sauvignon.
The idea is to pick a wine or region you wish to focus on and stick to drinking mainly that wine until your palate can recognize its characteristics before moving on to another wine.
Repetition is key. For example, if I am a musician trying to learn a song, do you think I will grasp the song practicing it once and a while? No, I need the repetition and consistency of practice to master it.
The same holds for your palate. You won’t develop your palate without the repetition of drinking a specific wine until you can identify that wine’s character.
Here are the steps to train your palate
Step one-What do you want to learn?
Determine what wine you wish to focus on
My focus was on identifying California cabernet sauvignon’s characteristics from the following California wine regions: Napa Valley, Alexander Valley, Lodi, and Paso Robles.
Step two-Length of time
Determine the length of time to spend on each wine, or in my case, each region. I dedicated two weeks to each region listed in step one, so it took me two months.
NOTE: During this process, I committed to drinking my focus wines three times a week to develop my palate. For example, during the time I dedicated to Paso Robles cabernet sauvignon, I drank Paso Robles cabernet sauvignon three times a week.
You don’t need to be militant about this, so if you want a break and are in the mood for something else one night, enjoy it. Just remember, repetition and consistency are key.
Step three-Textbook wines
Make sure you are buying textbook examples of wines. You need a point of reference for how the wines you are learning about should taste. It is helpful to purchase a non-textbook example of a similar wine so you can make a side-by-side comparison of what a good and poor representation tastes like next to each other.
How do you find textbook examples of wine? Solicit help.
I suggest you find a good wine store with knowledgeable employees to assist you. Use the expertise of those people to help you during this process.
Remember, wine stores often have employees with specific areas of expertise. Just because someone is an expert on Italian wine does not mean they are an expert on German wine, so make sure you ask their area of expertise before soliciting their knowledge.
Once you reach the point where you can identify a wine’s characteristics, it is good to go back and try the wine sometimes to refresh your memory. You don’t want to invest the time and money in something only to forget later.
Take pictures of labels of the wines you drink. Segregate those photos into separate folders based on the wines you like and the wines you dislike referring back to them.
Have fun with it
Adult beverages can be expensive, so here’s a tip. Get some friends involved in this project with you to share the cost. Have a weekly get together with friends and take turns hosting, and pick a theme each night.
Wine is a lifelong journey, which takes years to learn, so if you ever feel frustrated, remember that you can train your palate.
About the author
Curt Sassak is the president of Winetasters Choice, a promotional agency based in Texas and serving seven states. Curt is a 35-year veteran of the food and beverage industry, with the first 27 years of his career spent as a chef.