Back in 1992 Tim Gaiser did what many believe to be nearly impossible:  he passed the world's most elite wine tasting exam and became the 19th American to earn the rare and prestigious title of Master Sommelier.  Earning this title is like climbing Mt. Everest.  Many attempt it.  Few succeed.  It's just that hard. Today there are still fewer than 200 people in the world to ever pass the test.  For those who have passed, there is a good chance they have learned some of what they know from Tim.

For the past 20 years Tim has been teaching wine tasting to the top tasters in the world.  The men and women in white aprons who advise you on what to drink with oysters  or what to pair with your cornish game hen have likely sat in one of Tim's many popular classes.  In a way you could say that the Tim teaches the world how to taste wine and pair it perfectly with any dish.

I had the great fortune of meeting Tim several years ago.  Over lunch one day I asked him if I could deconstruct his tasting strategy.  He was delighted at the idea as he had always wanted to know more about his own 'gift' for tasting and how he could use that knoweldge to better teach his students.

What came out the interview was nothing short of extraordinary.  The strategy has been written up in the Sommelier Journal (see the article attached below) and is changing how people learn to taste wine.  I asked Tim if he would share a bit about his background and tasting strategy here.

Q:  You’re so lucky to be an amazing taster.  You must have grown up in a family that enjoyed wine?

A: Not even close.  I grew up in a big Catholic family in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.  Albuquerque was definitely not a mecca for food and wine.  My parents drank nothing but bourbon and coke--wine was not even close to being on their radar.  With six kids (four boys, mind you) dinners were barely controlled chaos where everyone managed to get fed without something resembling a rugby scrum breaking out at the table.

I do clearly remember tasting wine for the first time when I was about 10.  It was at a neighbor’s house on Easter Sunday after mass.  The wine was white, out of a box and not chilled.   I remember it tasting somewhere between lemon juice and battery acid and thinking, “who in their right mind would drink this stuff?”  Not exactly appealing.   I didn’t really discover wine until I was in my mid-20’s in graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  I was fortunate to bartend at two restaurants that had incredible wine lists.  I had to crash-learn about wine in a very short period of time in order to be able to talk about literally dozens of wines by the glass and I ended up getting bit by the wine bug.

Q:  What do professional tasters like you do that other people don’t?

A:  Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a noted specialist on the brain, neuroplasticity and aging, says that all thinking is about “perception, attention, and memory.”  I completely agree with him especially when it comes to tasting.  On the surface a professional taster is simply more focused and takes more time when it comes to tasting.  Most people pick up a glass of wine and hoover it with a startling velocity taking little or no time to smell it before it goes down the hatch.  Wine is different.  It’s not like other beverages-- even other alcoholic beverages--in that it really requires you to sip it in small amounts and take your time with it.  Even the size and shape of a wine glass discourages intake at high speed or in massive quantity.

Q:  What else separates great tasters from novices?

A:  Generally two things: first, and this again points to Gazzaley’s comment, it’s all about memory, specifically olfactory memory.  Scientists tell us that the sense of smell accounts for over 85% of the sense of taste.  Having a refined olfactory/smell memory is absolutely key when it comes to being a professional taster and that presupposes the repetitive tasting of thousands of wines over a long period of time.  Second, being able to very precisely calibrate the physical structure of wine—literally how much acid, alcohol and tannin.  That, too, is all about memory as one is again comparing the wine in the glass to memories of previous wines.

In the end an experienced taster draws from a rich and very deep personal treasure trove of smell memories and not just limited to previous wines.  Other memories may be taken from one’s childhood and school experiences to different places lived and/or visited to favorite (and not so favorite) foods and other beverages.  Any and everything is fair game and it really is surprising how a single sniff of a glass of wine can take you back to a long ago time and place in an instant.  Smell memories are indeed the most powerful ones we have.

Q: What exactly do you do internally when smelling a wine?

A:  A great question and one I couldn’t possibly answer until a few years ago when I worked with Tim Hallbom and you at the Everyday Genius Institute.  Of course, the full strategy is in the Taste Wine Like a Pro product you created.  But here goes my process when it comes to smelling the wine, which is over 80% of the process of tasting a wine:

  1. When first picking up a glass to smell the wine I look down and to the left with an internal voice (my own) asking, “What’s there?” That question triggers the rest of my tasting sequence.
  2. Next I look up and to the left at a large image of the Master Sommelier Deductive Tasting Grid (a tasting outline).  This is a like a checklist of everything I need to look for in the wine.
  3. I start by checking for fruits.  Any aroma I recognize is confirmed immediately with an image in my minds eye of that fruit, spice, etc.  If I smell cherries, I literally see a picture of cherries pop up in front of me.  Once I identify the aroma the image moves down and to the side.
  4. I repeat the same sequence categorically for fruits, non-fruits (spices, flowers etc.), earth and mineral notes, and finally oak.   The sequence is started each time by looking down and to the left with my internal voice asking “what else is there?” As I recognize other aromas in the wine, I generate more images. The group of images collectively stays in a grid or collage that is positioned left to right in front of me in the following order: fruit, non-fruit, earth/mineral and wood.
  5. If I have trouble recognizing something in the wine I literally “push” all the other images out of the way and bring whatever it is closer until I can recognize it.
  6. Once I can’t recognize any new aromas in the wine I look at the collective group of images and then try to confirm the identity of the wine given past memories and tasting experiences, which reside in my mental catalog.

The tasting part of the process is like the smell.  First I want to confirm on my palate what I have smelled.  Then I look back up at my Tasting Grid and use that to remind me to look for acid, alcohol, tannin and the finish.  I put all 8 of those categories together and use that to analyze the quality and complexity of the wine.

What I discovered in my own tasting was just how visual the process was for me inside my mind when I slowed it down.  I also realized that I run the same sequence with every glass of wine I taste.  As I'm about to taste a wine, I move my eyes to a very specific starting position, which kicks off the rest of my tasting process.


For more on Tim's strategy, check out the the Sommelier Journal article below.  Also check out Tim's blog, which features hilarious and insightful articles on wine, food and life.