I had lied to my wife. Every guy in the room had. This was not the kind of thing you could safely share with a spouse. We gathered in the room with an exaggerated good-old-boy bachelor party kind of conviviality. The level of anticipation was high, perhaps too high. It was still afternoon and it felt a bit strange to be doing this in the light of day.
Everyone finally arrived and one-by-one we passed our wad of cash to the host with a sense of excitement and a tinge of guilt for the pleasures to come. After all, wasn't this money supposed to be going into the college fund or buying that new dresser? This was more money than I could easily afford on my rookie reporter's salary at the newspaper and I could only hope my wife would never find out. Our host took the cash and disappeared into another room. A second later, radiating sensuality, they swept into the room and were even more beautiful than we had hoped for in our dreams the night before. There were eight of them, one more exotic than the next. Each was wrapped in a skin tight sheath of aluminum foil just begging to be torn off and marked with a letter so each of us could choose their favorite. An electric energy coursed through me as I unpacked the toys I had brought for the festivities: eight glasses and a notebook. Once again I thought of my wife and how ticked off she we going to be if she found out I had spent our hard earned money on, of all things, wine.
This group of liars was cheating on their wives with our mistress - wine. She was stealing our money and time with our spouses, but we could not resist her charms. We had long passed the flirting stage and this was to be our most amorous liaison yet as we were going to taste Grand Cru Burgundy. None of us had ever spent that much money on wine before. We were at the stage where we had learned more about wine from books than with our tongues and were easily influenced by reputation and label. More than once I had convinced myself to like a wine because someone famous said I should. With this innocence and ignorance we began tasting the eight bottles of Burgundy that our host had tightly wrapped in gleaming aluminum foil as we were doing a “blind” tasting. However, this was not really “blind” as we knew that each wine was an expensive and famous Burgundy. We were prepared to be seduced. Each of the tasters had eight glasses and the table was a crowed forest of stemware. After each of the wines had been poured silence settled on the once boisterous group. Each of us focused our entire concentration each wine as we sipped, swirled, spat and furiously took notes. For the next hour the only sound was the occasional moan or sigh when our mistress hit just the right spot.
I can still remember some of my notes now, which went something like this:
A. Light color, weedy earthy aromas...
B. Light color, earthy, dried leather and cheese...
C. Light color, vegital, smoked bacon. plastic...
So it went for the next hour. When everyone finished it was time to compare notes and come up with a group rationalization for why these wines were not the other-worldly experience we had anticipated. They were strange and not very satisfying. We soon came to the conclusion that problem could not be these famous wines, but that it must be us. Our palates were not well honed enough to understand the complexities of these great and famous wines. Those odd aromas and flavors must be that magical ingredient terroir that the French use to describe the unique personalities of each vineyard that make each single-vineyard wine distinct. Those leather, cheese and bacon smells had to be terroir. Now it was our duty to keep learning and tasting until we could come to understand and appreciate them.
As I look back on this event over thirty years ago, I have learned to understand and appreciate the true glories of Burgundy, none of which could be described as weedy, cheesy or sweaty. I have also learned that those wines that made me feel inadequate in that tasting three decades ago would have better been poured down the drain. Those wines were faulted - full of brett and VA. We were just too young and too intimated by the names and prices of those wines to know the difference. Fortunately I soon learned the difference between terroir and wine faults. Wine faults are a major concern of mine as time and time again I run into wines that are loaded with faults that go undetected in many large tastings. All to often I lift a glass to my nose from an almost empty bottle to find it severely faulted with TCA (corkiness), brett or a range of other faults. At the recent Wine Bloggers Conference there was a lot of debate about ethics, but none about knowledge and tasting technique. If wine bloggers want to be taken seriously, it's far more important that they can spot brett and other faults than if they take samples from producers for free or not.
These memories were jogged by a bottle of 2004 Thomas Dundee Hills Pinot Noir that I pulled from my cellar to share with my good friend, winemaker Donald Patz. Always looking to bring something that he probably hasn't tasted (no easy task) I grabbed a bottle of this hard to get Oregon cult wine. Upon pulling the cork we were treated to a perfect example of brett. Needless to say, it was a great disappointment and we left the bottle, still mostly full, on the table when we left the restaurant. Thirty years ago we may have forced ourselves to accept such wines, but today there are no excuses. Winemakers have the finest laboratories available to them and far more knowledge than the winemakers of the past. Brett needs to be recognized and recognized for what it is - a fault that obliterates varietal character and terroir - which are the two most important things for me in a wine.
Not long after that tasting of three decades ago I entered the wine business. We were importing the Italian wines of Neil Empson and doing tasting event after tasting event. Neil and I would open hundreds of bottles over several days. Every time Neil found a corky bottle, which was often in those days, he'd shove the wine and the cork under my nose. Soon I got it and ever since have been hyper-aware of that musty TCA smell. We should all do what Neil did and every time we find a faulted bottle we need to shove it under someone’s nose. While winemakers have no business making faulted wines, we (especially wine writers) have no business missing those faults.