Robert Millman: Know The Palate

by Robert Millman

When we read descriptions of wines, we tend to assume that the qualities described are in the wines being reviewed. We can call this the objective or natural perspective: Perception picks up on attributes in the objects we experience. Our words are intended to capture attributes experienced as accurately as possible. We all realize that many subtle sensory attributes are all but impossible to express directly in words. So, we engage in analogical, sometimes poetical, language to give the reader some sense of what it is like to encounter these qualities. At the opposite end of the objectivist view, is the subjectivist view best expressed in the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Alas this adage confuses evaluative judgment with description of attributes. This separation of description from evaluation makes sense at the intuitive level. However, it raises as many problems as it seems to solve.

I will not attempt to resolve these issues. I would like to bring some clarity to the question of what is going on when we taste wines and try our best to account for theses experiences. If we think about it, it should be clear that sensory experience is an interaction between something perceived and a perceiver. What we call an experience is this interaction. Without the sense organs, perceivable attributes could never be realized. Without the objects perceived there could be no sensory experiences. What I want to stress here is the importance for any taster to come to an understanding of the role his or her palate plays in the way a person experiences wine. While the generic features of smell, taste and texture are well known in the scientific literature, the specific, individual aspects of experience belong to the sphere of self-knowledge. It is important for any experienced taster to think back to what he or she looks for in encountering new wines. A self-portrait of one’s palate goes as long way to explaining what wines one looks for in stores, restaurants and industry tastings. To give some examples: some tasters are very sensitive to alcohol levels in wines and tends to be bothered by wines with alcohol levels at 14% and above. Others take alcohol in stride and experience elevated alcohol as an enhancement, a magnifier of every aspect of a wine. It is important as a taster to understand how you experience different kinds of wines and their structural aspects. Those “raised” on wines with high tannin levels—Barolos, left-bank Bordeaux, Northern Rhones for example learn to taste through the tannins to everything else going on in the wines they taste. For such individuals, low tannin wines seem less intense, less energetic and less interesting than high-tannin wines. Perception of acidity among tasters is quite variable. We call those who enjoy elevated acidity in wines “acid-freaks”. Acid freaks tend to enjoy and rate highly well-made Chablis, Mosel and Saar Rieslings and Blanc de Blanc Champagnes. This helps explain why two experienced tasters can agree on the generic features of the wines they taste but express different judgments as to the over all quality of the wine. Here subjective preferences play an unavoidable role. In reading well-known wine writers it is important to understand what they are looking for, what attracts them and what leaves them cold or indifferent to the wines they taste. It is even more important for each wine lover to come to an honest self-evaluation of what gives them delight in wines and what arouses little or no pleasure and interest. How many times have I spoken with tasters who profess disappointment at wines very highly rated by a notable critic only to learn that the wine in question did not fit their framework of excellence. To give myself as an example: I do not enjoy the high alcohol, intense, full throttle Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons which are beloved of so many tasters and collectors. I am not the man, despite years of tasting experience, to evaluate this class of wines. In the final analysis it is crucial for each taster to come to a clear understanding of how his or her palate works. Taster, Know The Palate!

Robert Millman

Robert Millman’s wine career began in the early 1980s, when he began working from Morrell & Company, one of the USA’s top wine retailers. During that time, he co-founded Executive Wine Seminars (EWS) with Howard Kaplan, which over the years became one of NYC’s most highly regarded wine events companies. EWS organized and conducted over 1000 wine events during its prestigious thirty-three year history. High points included Robert Parker being a regular guest presenter at the tastings, and through 2011, the results of the tastings were published on the Wine Advocate website. Having reached an age where taking a step back from the wear and tear of life in the wine fast lane made sense, Millman currently enjoys being a taster and wine writer for Grapes the Wine Company, an excellent, leading e-retailer based in Westchester (NY). 

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Robert Millman