Sunday, July 20, 2014

Cabbed Out!

My Cabernet-splashed tasting notes of over 50 wines

I was about to walk into my first Masters of Wine tasting event in San Francisco recently, and I was a little nervous. As far as I could gather from the event information, it was neither a regular tasting open to the public nor strictly a trade event (relationship-building/transactional), so I had no idea what to expect. Upon entering I saw tables lining the perimeter of a surprisingly small room, two bottles per wine lined in two rows to make ~20 bottles at each table for efficient pouring and tasting. I soon realized why a large venue wasn't needed: No representatives from wineries were present.

People drifted about, swirling, nosing their glasses, audibly sucking, and spitting into bright red plastic cups. Some of these (predominantly male) attendees wore special name tags that identified them as a Master of Wine (MW): one of the chosen few, those who've passed arguably the world's most rigorous academic wine exam to be anointed with this highest of honors. (The other famous exam is for the Master Sommelier, which focuses on the service industry and is equally harrowing in its own way.)

I am currently a working towards earning the Diploma, which is a two-year program akin to a Masters degree; it is a major stepping stone towards attempting the Master of Wine (the Ph.D equivalent, so to speak). As such, I was part of the name tag-less masses. I felt slightly intimidated wandering about all these MWs, as if I was an imposter pretending I knew what I was doing. The room was quiet, save for the sucking noises and furious scratching of notes in the pamphlet of wines we'd each received upon entering.

Oh gosh, I thought with a sinking feeling; it's going to be a stuffy, pretentious event: Just taste as many wines as you can and try to learn something! It didn't help that it's entirely awkward to attempt holding a wine glass, a giant plastic cup, and a pamphlet and pen while going about one's business. My booklet is a veritable Jackson Pollock in monochrome, liberally splashed with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Happily, this first annual Masters of Wine American Cabernet Sauvignon tasting event was a positive experience for me because:

1) I really need to learn more about Cabernet Sauvignon wines in my own backyard, as my foray into wine started with France. While there were a few wines at the event from other states (even Colorado!) the vast majority were from California. It was a great learning opportunity.

2) I got to experience a Masters of Wine tasting event. It was no-nonsense, with a focus on getting to know the selected wines of a fairly wide range of producers at one time. I do enjoy chatting with winery reps, but this event was a nice change of pace that allowed me to focus on tasting.

3) The MWs I met were friendly and engaging. It was also gratifying to share and to compare tasting notes with them. If an MW also thought that the 2012 Cain Five had a mid-palate of Corn Nuts ("Ranch-flavored" I'd written in my pamphlet; not a good flavor for a Cab) then maybe I'm not, well, nuts! Sorry, I couldn't resist.    

What was somewhat of a disappointment was the lineup of wines; for a venerable institution like the Masters of Wine, I'd honestly expected a greater spread of more exclusive California producers. Given that this was their first annual American Cab tasting, though, hopefully in the coming years the offerings will expand.

My standouts for most balanced and delicious:
  • Stag's Leap, 2010 CASK 23, Napa Valley, Stag's Leap District: This was my favorite, and I have a secret: I swallowed this one! All elements (alcohol, tannin, acid, body, flavors) were integrated and in proportion. Burnt cedar and brioche on the nose with an undertone of black fruit was mirrored on the palate but intensified: The pleasant smokiness enveloped a clear core of blackberries and figs, imparting delicate flavors with a lovely, plush mouthfeel. It was wonderfully smooth on the finish, much like the gradual and measured decrescendo of a beautiful melody fading into memory. Ah, what a blissful moment.  
  • Louis M. Martini, 2011 Napa Valley: Well proportioned with a robust but smooth finish, with bright but not overwhelming bramble and dark cherry compote flavors throughout.
  • Robert Foley, 2010 Napa Valley: Very perky with exuberant fruit tempered by a slate-like mineral quality and typical California Cab eucalyptus flavor. I tasted this towards the end of the evening, and was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it was despite my fatigue.

My standouts for biggest "What the heck?":
  • Cain Five, 2009 Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District: Ranch-flavored Corn Nuts, oily, really harshly tannic. What happened?
  • Ramey, 2007 Pedregal Vineyards, Napa Valley, Oakville: "Sku~nky!" Maybe just that batch was afflicted by stinky hydrogen sulfide? Ramey is usually very well made. Too bad!
  • Pine Ridge, 2012 Napa Valley: Banana flavors in a Cab? No thanks! Upon nosing and tasting I blurted incredulously, "Isoamyl acetate?!" (This is a chemical compound responsible for banana and pear drop flavors.) Two gentlemen across the table laughed and one quipped sardonically, "God, this is such a Masters of Wine event ... isoamyl acetate!" Okay, I fully admit to loving my academic studies.

Alas, after tasting 50+ wines I began to experience real palate fatigue. I seriously thought I wasn't going to be able to even smell another glass of Cabernet Sauvignon after this event, much less taste one. I was thoroughly cabbed out!

And to my horror, my teeth looked positively rotten from heavy staining by the end of the evening. This is fine when amongst fellow winos - pardon, wine enthusiasts - like me, but outside this context? Frightening! The ten minutes after leaving the event saw me in a bathroom, furiously swishing water and attempting to scrub my teeth clean to little effect. I finally decided I would simply try not to show my teeth for the remainder of the evening, which was hopeless as I like to smile and to laugh.  

Happily (or sadly, depending on your perspective), I apparently love wine so much that I was fully recovered the following day. To my relief, my teeth were also back to a normal appearance. I looked forward to tasting plush red wine again (albeit in a much more moderate fashion) and I could smile with impunity. Life was good!