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December 27, 2022

Mystery Wines: An Exercise in Seductive Reasoning

What do Sherlock Holmes and Malcolm Gladwell have in common?

Answer: The fictional British detective and the American journalist-cum-philosopher share a fascination with how people come to conclusions, the process by which they make decisions or arrive at answers.  Not surprisingly, they do it differently – sort of.  Gladwell’s book, Blink, argues that accumulated knowledge and experience allows us to make mostly correct decisions quickly without tortuous, time-consuming research.  Holmes has always found his culprit through laborious deductive reasoning, albeit reasoning that at each step leans heavily on his accumulated knowledge.

If you’re trying to figure where all this is going (and whether you should continue reading), it all begins with Evan Goldstein, man-about-wine.  Goldstein is a Master Sommelier, wine entrepreneur (Full Circle Wine Solutions), former chef, book author, teacher, and, most importantly, a source I often go to for enlightened insight for many of my articles.

I’ve also had the opportunity to watch in person and on Zoom as Goldstein and his sommelier colleagues play the game of “Who’s Your Daddy” with a glass of temporarily orphaned wine.  What child is this red or white or sparkling?  Give them a few minutes to play Wine Country: CSI.

With his business partner, Limeng Stroh, Goldstein operates a business service called Master the World that for a fee provides small bottles of mystery wines for students to taste using an online coaching system that both teaches and tests people about discovering – uncovering? – the provenance of the anonymous wine in their glass.  There are also monthly kits for people wanting to discover new wines and regions, and, depending on the situation, Goldstein or one of his somm solvers will appear on the screen to take the person being mentored – whether it is a candidate seeking to become a Master Sommelier or an MW or just a devoted wine geek – though the process.

Even though I’ve watched the process a couple of times, recently Goldstein agreed to a one-on-one Zoom session with me at high noon my time.  “It’s only 9 a.m.  in San Francisco,” he demurred with a trademark luminous smile, “so a little early to be drinking wine.”  Nevertheless.

While it’s in my nature is to be a Gladwellian – to use my accumulated experience to make decisions “in a blink” and avoid paralysis by analysis, I realize that Goldstein’s Holmesian deductive reasoning is seductive to experience.

“I have in my glass a 2020 Garzón ‘Single Vineyard’ Uruguay Tannat,” I tell him.  “But if I didn’t know what wine it was, how should I try to figure out what it is?”  I add from knowing his background that he is probably familiar with the wine, which is why I chose it – a Gladwell-style decision.

“You’re right,” he said, though not adding, as Holmes might do, “Come, Watson, come.  The game is afoot.”  However, I decide not to tell Goldstein about my internal dialogue of comparing Holmes and Gladwell – at least, not just yet.

And so, for the next 20 minutes, Goldstein is afoot.  “Start with the sight,” he says, and my first decision is determining the wine is “bright,” but not “brilliant.”  Then a half-dozen more appearance options, including several rim color variations.  Then, what about the “stained tears” as I whirl the glass clockwise in deference to its Southern Hemisphere origins?

On to aromas and tastes – what color fruit is the flavor, and within that color what specific fruits?  What about floral notes?  Are there green vegetable flavors?  I’m not much of a vegetarian, but perhaps some green olives?

Herbal and other spices catch my attention because I like to cook and love baking spices.  But Goldstein’s choices involve almost more options than are available on the McCormick’s shelf at my nearby Acme.  Earthy and animal aromas?  My mind wanders to those earthy, meaty flavors of Syrahs from northern Rhône, and I am transported to my last visit to Ampuis and… but I must remain focused!

And on it goes.  If I’m not sure of any basic selection – say whether there are “perceived winemaking choices” – then I can go down those rabbit holes with the many choices each offers.  And, if I did go down every pathway, there would be well over a hundred considerations to the whole process.  Finally, we finish with structure and its multiple categories and the 30 or so total options that involves.  

When we are through, Goldstein is again smiling as though to say, “See, it’s simple,” though he doesn’t.  I explain that I have not been through the exercise before, partly because I always prefer in professional situations not to taste blind, to say to myself, “OK, you’re a professional – judge and describe the wine on its merits without being prejudiced by the label while utilizing knowledge of prior vintages.”

Yet I admire Goldstein’s ability to use this seductive reasoning to nail at least the varieties or the blends and where they are from and possibly the vintage and perhaps even take a shot at who the producer is.  And I can see why many wine lovers rush to sign up for the monthly tasting kits and the online training camps.  For those who love to intellectually pull away the layers of the onion – or grape – it’s a brainy no-brainer to embrace the challenge.

Naturally, there are caveats.  You have to stay somewhat with classic wines that you’ve tasted over the years and have the memory to recall them.  And, if you’re not studying for a Master Sommelier or a MW title, then the practical applications of these wine tasting skills may be minimal.

Yet, I’m very impressed with the sleuthing capabilities of Goldstein & Co.  Now, just one last question, Evan….

A few days after my tutorial, I send a note back to Goldstein asking whether too much second guessing of a great first impression might lead the taster down the wrong path.  “With your experience, how many times can you tell, say, 90 percent of the time, what a mystery wine is with the first taste before going through the deductions?”

He replies: “We always pay close attention to our gut impressions – we call this the ‘banker factor,’ as in ‘you can bank on it.’  That said, and while first impressions are key, we do encourage people to pay attention, as, although they are often spot-on, it is best not come to any snap judgments until really working the wine.”

Generously though, Goldstein allows, “If you have a cache of tasting experience, and ergo the ability to call back these references, and the wines are classic (e.g., not a Pinot Noir that tastes like Syrah, a Sauvignon Blanc that tastes like Chardonnay), the gut is much more accurate.”

Still, my own takeaway is that, while an instantaneous Malcolm gut guess that nails what a wine is may be great for achieving a quick chorus of “Wows!” among friends, if there’s money on the table and your reputation is on the line, then it’s elementary, Roger.  In a blink, my deduction is to place the bet on Sherlock.  

Posted by Roger Morris at 2:30 PM