Taste of Place

BY Dan Berger TIMEJune 30, 2022 PRINT

Professional wine judging isn’t all that it seems to be. It sounds like a lot of fun, but it rarely is — and it’s also hard work.

And it usually involves at least 10 years of experience before you even understand how to be a decent judge.

Any particular wine is really a reflection of how winemakers choose to impose their will on various grape varieties, which can prevent Mother Nature from having anywhere near as much impact as she once had.

I’m relatively savvy about California regional characteristics, similar to the topic addressed here a week or two ago in a column titled “Regional Palates.”

That article said East Coast wine buyers appreciate Chianti far more than do people on the West Coast because of their upbringing and because of transportation limitations decades ago. This essay is slightly different from that.

While I was judging a set of pinot noirs, I began to notice certain regional aromas, which played a part in the way the wines seemed. One was interesting: it seemed to be from the Russian River Valley because it had some of that region’s characteristic strawberry aroma.

Another wine was slightly more citrusy and its aroma had leafy elements. I thought it was from Santa Barbara because of the leafy-ness.

When the wines were revealed, the one I thought came from Russian River actually came from Carneros. That was a surprise — I rarely get strawberries from there. And the wine I assumed was from Santa Barbara actually came from the Anderson Valley in Mendocino, a region I almost never see leafy characteristics from.

In spite of the fact that I’ve been judging wine for 41 consecutive years now, none of this surprised me. No matter how good a taster is, Mother Nature has a way of confounding the best of our visions and sensory memories.

Learned wine knowledge is a shifting target. No matter how experienced a person is, there is only so much that the brain can retain and adjust for — such as vintage variations, winemakers’ aberrational strategies and the human factor. We’re all imperfect.

All this tells me, of course, is that when we consume a bottle of wine, looking at the label has a tremendous way of giving us information we need to formulate an opinion based on what went into the wine’s manufacture.

If the bottle’s label says it’s from New Zealand, for example, our brain expects it likely will be tart. All of New Zealand is buffeted by winds from both its coasts, which leads to higher acidity.

That’s one reason that New Zealand sauvignon blanc is occasionally slightly sweet — to offset the high acidity that almost all such wines have.

There is thus a benefit in knowing that no matter how much wine knowledge we acquire, it will be inadequate in many cases to draw any particular conclusion. Especially if a wine was served to us blind.

It is for a good reason that people who have exalted wines rarely serve them blind. Without knowing a great wine is supposed to be great, we often dismiss it — until we see the label, when we begin to “see” its greatness.

Tasting wine blind is a fun game that can lead us to insights we might not conclude if we saw the label first. But to fully appreciate a wine, blind tasting only takes us so far.

Wine of the Week: 2021 Balletto Rose of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($20) — This excellent Sonoma County producer has long made a delicate pink wine from some of the best pinot noir fruit growing just west of Santa Rosa. This wine is one of the best it has ever made, with beautiful aromas of peach and watermelon. It is pretty dry on the palate, making it perfect for the patio or to pair with appetizers.


Dan Berger
To find out more about Sonoma County resident Dan Berger and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at
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