Devon Broglie and I are sitting together at Vino Vino, a wine bar in our hometown of Austin, Texas, evaluating a glass of Jean-Charles Boisset. It’s from Burgundy, a beautifully sparkling white pinot noir or, in wine-speak, a blanc-noir.
“Smell it,” he says.
I stick my nose into the glass and breathe deep.
“What does it smell like?”
“It smells like wine,” I want to say, but I know that’s not even close to the right answer. So I think, and smell, and then I think some more.
“Apricot?” I say.
“Ah,” he says. “That’s what, categorically, we call stone fruit. I would have said white peach.”
So begins my education.
Broglie is one of only 175 Master Sommeliers in the world, the wine-tasting equivalent of playing professional basketball. Yet as a regional purchasing coordinator for Whole Foods Market, Broglie sees himself as entrusted with the task of expanding public taste, rather than enhancing wine snobbery. He chooses to use his powers for good. “Frequently, what an uneducated palate may think is good isn’t necessarily at odds with what an educated palate likes,” he says. “It’s OK to drink what you like.”
In other words, there’s no need to be afraid of wine. With a few basic principles in mind, he told me, you can begin to evaluate like a master. “If you can understand,” he said, “the difference between a quarter pounder with cheese and a perfect half-pound burger that you cook at home on the grill, then you have the capacity to discriminate among bottles of wine. There’s just more nuance.”
To begin with, you need to look at the wine in front of you. With this process, Broglie says, “You’re starting to establish expectations.” Is the wine reflective and bright, or is it dull and hazy? If it’s the latter, dump it out immediately because it’s likely spoiled, but if it’s the former, proceed. By looking at the wine, you can determine a lot of things. If it’s light and clear in body, it’ll taste a lot different than if it’s dark and opaque. By sight alone, you’ll be able to tell that a pinot noir will taste lighter than a cabernet.
Next, you smell the wine, “setting the stage for overall enjoyment.” This is the most important part to Broglie. There are only a few possible categories of taste in the world, but thousands of potential smells. The best part about smell, he says, is that it’s subjective: “Your blackberry is my blueberry.” In other words, whatever you smell is valid and leads you to your next impression. “People feel like they suddenly have to become poets around wine,” he says, “but you don’t have to say anything.”
Taste is where it all comes together. “It has the most moving parts,” Broglie says, “and it’s where you’re going to spend most of your energy.” Taste can be divided into two general subcategories. The first is flavor, which is directly related to smell. If you smelled strawberry in the wine, does the wine, even though it obviously only contains grapes, actually taste like strawberries? “If your descriptors make sense to you,” Broglie says, “and they’re consistent, then knock yourself out.”
But taste grows more complicated when you consider structure, which, unlike the subjective qualities of flavor, is largely objective. When you can critique a wine’s structure, then you’re really tasting with the pros. It can be divided into four sub-categories: weight, ripeness, acidity and tannin, or bitterness.
Weight is the most obvious. You ask yourself, is a wine heavy or light? With ripeness, you’re considering whether the fruit tastes ripened or tart. Acidity measures how much the wine makes your mouth water, and tannin measures the drying qualities of a wine.
So, there at Vino Vino, Broglie and I sample a pinot noir, our third glass of the evening. He tests me. I’ve already determined that it smells somewhat like cherry, and he adds, using his master’s nose, that it’s also redolent of “stewed fruit, kind of like a compote.”
I slosh it around in my mouth. It does, indeed, taste a bit like cherry and stewed fruit.
“I would say it’s medium weight,” I say, which I could probably say about just about any wine.
“Good,” he says.
Well, that’s a relief.
“What about ripeness?”
I think, dude, I have no idea, but I decide to fake it.
“I definitely detect some tartness in there,” I say. “So medium ripe?”
“OK…” he says, but I can tell that he’s on to me. Still, I stumble forward.
“And then, I don’t know, some acidity but also a little tannin?”
He gives me a smile that’s part friendly, part “foolish human.”
“I would say high tannin, a lot of dry qualities,” he says. “Maybe medium-plus.”
The test ends, and no matter how I actually did, I feel much more confident in my wine knowledge than I did even an hour before.
“The most important thing,” Broglie tells me, “is that you enjoy what you drink.”
With grading standards like that, I know I’ve passed.