In 2012, a movie premiered at the Napa Valley Film Festival that followed four friends as they studied for what many consider to be the most difficult test in the world: the Master Sommelier exam. The film was titled Somm and offered a never-before-seen look into what it takes to pass this three-part exam—something that happens less than 10 percent of the time.

In fact, it’s been said that it would be easier to pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) having never opened a law textbook than to pass the Master Sommelier exam after years of study.

For many, the most intriguing and mystifying part of this exam is the blind tasting. In a moment of levity in the film, we see exam candidate Ian Cauble take a whiff of an unidentified wine and proclaim that he detects aromas of “tennis-ball can.” The funny thing is, if you’ve ever popped the aluminum top off a can of tennis balls, you know exactly what he’s talking about.

A dear friend of mine once said the art of blind tasting is the ultimate party trick. Cue the circus music, and prepare to be amazed as I stick my nose in the glass, and with just a mere inhale, I tell you this is a 2018 Sangiovese from the Chianti Classico region! Ooohhh! Aahhhh!

Of course, it’s not that simple. Being able to identify a wine, where it comes from, and its vintage requires an in-depth knowledge of hundreds of different varietals, and the characteristics, aromas and flavor profiles that make them unique. It means having a textbook recollection of global geography, knowing what grapes grow where, and how those places affect a wine’s dynamics. It’s knowing the difference between tasting a chardonnay from Chablis, and a chardonnay from the Willamette Valley. It’s understanding how a wine ages, and the various stages of development, from its youth to when it is past its prime.

There is also the understanding that the wines we taste blind are somewhat common and recognizable. I was at a house party a few years ago, and our hostess wanted to have a little blind tasting. Being the only official sommelier in the room, I was naturally expected to quickly produce the correct answer. It was a white wine, and if I remember correctly, it was perfumy, with aromas of jasmine flowers, peaches and white pepper. I recall thinking it was a torrontés, the signature white grape of Argentina. We’re taught that your first instinct is almost always the correct one, so with all eyes on me, I made my decision known.

Nope, not a torrontés.

Now that the “expert” had tried and failed, it opened the door for everyone else to give it a shot. Albariño? No. Sauvignon blanc? No. Riesling? No. The tasting quickly devolved into an exercise of naming every white grape we could think of. When the group finally called uncle, the mystery wine was revealed.

It was a white merlot from Germany. A what?! Um … OK. No one was ever going to get it.

One of the biggest fears people have when it comes to tasting wines, blind or not, is using the wrong descriptions. I hear it all the time. Someone will say, “This probably sounds stupid, but I think I’m smelling (fill in in the blank).” To these statements, I say “YES!” Not that you’re stupid, but, yes, if this wine smells like your grandfather’s study, I can’t tell you it doesn’t. What I can tell you is that you’re probably picking up notes of leather, oak and maybe some spice.

Be mindful, and smell everything. Grating Parmesan cheese? Smell the rind. Tearing fresh basil? Smell your hands.

On the other hand, I have people who tell me all they can smell is wine, and they can’t smell anything else. But that isn’t true. Yes, they can smell more than wine. But it is a skill that needs to be developed.

There was a study published by the National Institutes for Health, published in 2014, that determined the human nose can smell 1 trillion aromas. Yes, you read that correctly … 1 trillion. Since that study was released, several other scientists have refuted its validity, claiming the mathematics used to achieve that number are faulty. Original research on this subject was published in the late 1990s stating that the average human nose could smell approximately 20,000 aromas, and people could learn to correctly identify about 10,000 of those. I’m no mathematician, but that is a statistic I can get behind.

But the question for a lot of people, especially those who want to become more wine-savvy, remains: How do I learn to correctly identify wines?

The short answer is: Be mindful, and smell everything. Grating Parmesan cheese? Smell the rind. Tearing fresh basil? Smell your hands. Pumping gas? Don’t be a weirdo and stick your nose in the gas tank, but be aware of how the petroleum vapors smell. Literally stop and smell the roses. You’ll build a preverbal rolodex of aromas from which to draw, and you’ll be amazed at how your brain will start to identify subtleties that you didn’t notice before. It’s pretty cool.

Of course, there is a reason why my friend said blind tastings are the ultimate party trick: Being able to identify a wine blind is never going to be a useful skill in everyday life. You’re never going to be in a situation where you’ll say to yourself, “If only I had known that was a cabernet franc! It could have all been so different!” At best, you’ll be at a house party and not guess torrontes when it’s really a white merlot.

That said, I do believe God is in the details. There is something truly remarkable about sticking your nose in a glass of wine and immediately being transported to your childhood, standing in your grandfather’s study. Or smelling aromas that remind you of your mother’s famous strawberry rhubarb pie. It’s that connection of aromas to our memories that takes drinking a glass of wine from perfunctory to profound.

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Katie Finn

Katie Finn drinks wine for a living. As a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and as a Certified Specialist of Wine, she has dedicated her career to wine education and sharing her...

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