People often confuse my technical wine acumen with being an exceptional wine taster, when in fact, I am not. Plagued by seasonal allergies since elementary school (in addition to pudge and a headgear), I have been sticking all kinds of medicinal concoctions past my nares for over 20 years. My sense of smell is actually pretty rotten. Brian complains I over-season everything, which makes for some fairly self-destructive curry blends from time to time. So I’m doomed to respiratory mediocrity and will always be a sub-par sniffer. Recently, while peering up from the nadir of wine tasting hierarchy, I sought to advance my caste. I was thrice tested, and dear Brigade, all three times I failed. In blind tastings of three vastly different, classic, European premium wines, I languished miserably in each instance, failing even to identify even the country of origin correctly. I’ve now been demoted back to wine preschool with Kendall Jackson (Just kidding, KJ! We’re buds now!).
Towards the end of summer, our uber-neighbor, the wine gifter, treated me to a blind taste of a superb, unique, fascinating, and exceptional white wine. It was aromatic and spicy, but entirely different than any reisling I’d tasted. I excluded chard or a sauv blanc, and knew most certainly this wine was not American (or Aussie, or from New Zealand for that matter). And that was all I could muster. Stupefied, I was prompted, teased, baited with hints, and ultimately razzed for my utter ignorance. After the great reveal, I discovered I’d floundered Michel Chapoutier’s famed white Hermitage, the giveaway clue its composition: 100% marsanne. First tally – Kerith 0; Wine Gods- 1.
Jesse Rodriguez, a Master Sommelier candidate, can blindly identify thousands of wines. Not only can he recognize grape varietal but also he often distinguishes the producer, vineyard or even the vintage! To me his precision and depth of wine perception is mind blowing. Even more recently, Jesse tantalized me with the prospect of redemption. He afforded me an opportunity to blind taste some red wines, which I hoped would weigh the odds more favorably in my direction. Not so! The inaugural whiffs of the first wine were less fruit forward than the remaining vapors. So I got bogged down by some licorice and earthier-stuff, which I should have ignored until the sample bloomed into its decadent fruitiness. I was hedging towards northern Italian, maybe Barolo, despite the relative pallor of the juice. Flummoxed, I requested help. “Rhymes with…” I joked…sort of.
Instead Jesse gave me, “Cassis, pencil shavings. Think classic. Cassis. Classic…” I was beleaguered, even broken.
“Think classic, cassis,” he prompted again.
Eager to impress, I weakly offered up, “Bandol?” Really?? Can you fathom a stupider answer?
“Uh, no,” Jesse replied, as politely as possible. Shut down again. Kerith 0; Wine Gods-2.
For uninitiated (apparently myself included), “pencil shavings and cassis” is Morse Code for “left bank Bordeaux.” My misguided implosion was like answering “lavosh with feta” when Papa John queries, “Name a round, flat dough topped with tomato sauce, cheese, and pepperoni.” Already demoralized, my third trial was a dead duck from its inception. I bungled a Rioja, even though I’ve drunk plenty throughout my imbibing career. (For the wine geeks, an old world style aged in new American oak gives Rioja a strong, characteristic vanilla-y-oaky overtone). So I totally flunked, times three. In my defense, I’d never tasted a white Hermitage before, and those rare, stolen sips of Margaux or Latour left me unprepared to blindly recognize the lesser communes of the left bank. The Rioja? No excuse. Since my record pretty well sucked, I got to thinking about wine palate training. The process is not unlike surgical pathology.
To non-medical folks, and even most practicing clinicians, evaluating tissue under the microscope is a confusing, daunting experience best delegated to the pathology weirdoes haunting the hospital basement. What to me is most obviously colon cancer is to you just a blob of undecipherable purple, pink, and blue hieroglyphics. The disorganized splotches look more like bad modern art than a “diagnosis.” But with continued practice, diagnostic skills are honed, and the blobs actually look like stuff, from a human being. Then again, if you’ve never seen a certain type of tumor before, the odds are pretty negligible that you’d call it correctly the first time around. So as residents we learn by sharing a two-headed microscope with senior residents and professors, slowly learning case by case. Once when I was a teaching fellow, I came across a classic skin lesion with a microscopic pattern so distinctive, gloriously swirly, and highly unusual that it can only be that one single thing. Giddy with intent, I aimed to conquer that miraculous pinnacle of professorship when pupil and mentor merge as one. I sang, “Oh the storiform, whirling, pinwheels of spindly cells – it’s beautiful, it’s classic. Name it for me!”
And the intern just started at me, blankly, unsure what to do.
I gesticulated imaginary, undulating wave forms with my arms, chanted the magic code “storiform, fascicles, swirly pattern…”
I urged, goaded, and pleaded, “Whirly, swirly…whirling circles of spindly cells…think classic skin lesion…”
I got nothing but a deadpan glare, her eyes glazed with frustration and angst. (Then again, at least she didn’t venture something lame like, “freckle” or “Bandol”). Evidently, she’d never seen the “DFPS” before, and all of the hints, clues, and interpretive dances in Twyla Tharp’s repertoire wouldn’t have helped her guess the right answer. But you’d be darned sure that when she saw that same tumor a few weeks later, she knew exactly what she was looking at.
Flash forward to Jesse’s expectant insistence, trying to coax that “left bank” response from the cobwebbed recesses of my mute pea-brain. “Think classic…” Like the intern, my best chance is to nail it the next time around. I’m reminded of that most overused adage from my third year of medical school: “If you hear hoof beats, it’s a horse…not a zebra.”