Wine tasting season gets underway

The Wine Curmudgeon always makes people laugh when he tells them that the wine business is hard work. Well, get ready to laugh, because this is the beginning of the new release season.

That means that over the next three months or so, I will be at a lunch or a tasting three or four times a week, sampling various new vintages. It means paying careful attention when a very enthusiastic winemaker describes his harvesting techniques or her favorite clonal selections. (Are any readers bored yet?)

Do not take this as complaining, because I know how lucky I am. It is not as difficult as working in a coal mine, or even overseeing the broiler at Burger King, which was the Wine Curmudgeon’s first job.

Rather, this is an attempt to give people who don’t know how the system works a glimpse inside. Ordinarily, wine writers review samples sent to them at home, wines they’ve tasted at restaurants or even wines they’ve bought.

New release season is different. The tastings are important to wineries and producers, even large ones, who need to find a way to stand out from the hundreds of other labels on store shelves. Plying me with food and wine — as well as the other half dozen or so people who write about wine in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, many of whom will be at these events — is one way to do it.

Last week, for example, I had a four-course lunch at a well-known Dallas Mediterranean restaurant  while sampling five new wines from Italy’s Mezzacorona. (A couple were very impressive, and I’ll be writing about them soon). Last month, I tasted through many of Kendall-Jackson’s new releases at one of the city’s swankiest steak joints — and was impressed, as I always am, with K-J’s consistency and quality. The $13 Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay delivers value for price, and the 2006 vintage, which has less oak, is even a little better than usual.

This means that it’s fair for readers to ask: Well, if they bought you a swanky steak dinner, how can we believe what you write? And my answer is that first, it takes more than a steak dinner to buy me. I’m more partial French bistro than steak. Also, I even take some of the wine people to lunch every once in a while, for just that reason.

Second, I have a reputation for impartiality — not only, hopefully, with readers, but with the wine marketing world. They know I won’t rip their wine just to rip it, something that happens all too often. And they also know that I won’t praise a wine just to get on their good side. (And if any of them are reading this, they’re probably laughing at the previous sentence.)

The other concern readers should have is about tasting fatigue. If I’m drinking all this wine, how can I possibly keep it straight? And won’t everything start to taste the same after a while, given how many different wines I’m trying?

This is actually a serious problem, and wine writers talk about tasting fatigue all the time. It has happened to me, usually at these massive walk-around things that distributors organize, where they might be 50 wineries pouring various vintages of their products. It’s damn hard to keep all that straight, especially when your handwriting is as sketchy as mine.

So we spit out the wine when we taste, and that helps. The other thing we do is pace ourselves, going easy in the beginning. That way, we make sure we have a couple of taste buds unscarred for the heaviest wines, which are served toward the end of the meal.

And you learn to trust your palate, regardless of discussions of clones, the cost of the meal, or how many wines you’re tasting. Do I want to recommend this wine to a reader? That’s the question I always ask, and I hope I do a good job answering it.

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