A couple of years ago, my wife and I attended a wine blending seminar put on by one of our favorite winemakers, Anna Matzinger of Archery Summit Estates. As Anna was describing the art of wine blending, she commented:
“As I’m tasting I’m always thinking in terms of shapes. Tasting is also a visual experience for me. Thinking of the palate in three dimensions, how is the blend creating a shape on the palate in my mind? I will usually sketch the shape of the blend so that I can remember the smell and taste that I want to achieve. The sketches also help me compare blends across different years.”
It took me a few minutes to realize what she’d just said – she tastes the wine by thinking in shapes. I immediately asked Anna if I could come interview her about her visual pattern language for wine tasting. She kindly agreed and I showed up at Archery Summit for an afternoon’s education I will not soon forget.
As we started the interview, Anna shared her frustration with the language of wine that is fostered by other winemakers and wine writers. She continued:
“The words that everyone uses help to sell the wine, but they don’t help me to remember what a wine tastes like all through the process of fermentation and then through the process of aging. When I would come to the next vintage and look at my traditional notes from previous years, they didn’t help me to remember what last year’s vintage really tasted like. Then I started noticing that my way of remembering is visualizing the shapes of the wine on my palate. I started sketching the shapes in my notes for each wine from each vintage. Now it is easy for me to go back and compare wines at different stages of fermentation and across vintages.”
Like all good conversations with a winemaker, sooner or later you end up in the barrel room to demonstrate what you’ve been talking about with a taste of wine. I had a great time tasting through different vineyards and watching Anna sketch the shape of the wine against her palate. The joy for me is that several terms that wine writers use all the time finally became clear like “fruit forward” or “long drawn out finish.” By first sketching the shape of one’s mouth opening and then using symbols to represent types of flavor profiles and where they occur on the palate, I could see the taste of the wine.
As a mostly visual person, I was so excited to finally have a language to understand and describe the wines that I’m tasting.
I asked Anna how other wine makers respond to this visual language. She replied “Oh, I never share my sketches. Other wine professionals would think I’m crazy.”
I looked forward to writing up my notes, but never took the time.
A few years later, I spent some quality time with Patrick Reuter of Dominio IV wines. In the closely connected world of Oregon wine, Patrick is the husband of Leigh Bartholomew. Leigh is the vineyard manager for Archery Summit Estates. Together, Patrick and Leigh created Dominio IV and bought some property (Three Sleeps Vineyard) along the Columbia River to grow Syrah, Tempranillo, and Viognier. Leigh’s parents live on the vineyard property and tend the biodynamic grape growing for Dominio IV wines.
Patrick started talking about shape tasting of his wines. Immediately, I asked if he and Anna Matzinger had ever compared notes. He laughed and shared that Anna had gotten the idea from him. Patrick agreed to spend an afternoon with me demonstrating how he goes about shape tasting.
At the time of the shape tasting observation, Dominio IV was still located in the Carlton Winemakers Studio. We took over a table in the tasting room and Patrick brought out a Tempranillo that he was in the process of figuring out a final blend. We both tasted the wine and made some initial comments on how we thought the wine was maturing. Patrick then brought out his sketch book and I was overjoyed to find that he had a rich palette of shapes and colors to create his image of his wine tasting palate.
Along with his sketch book, Patrick pulled out some examples of the informal shape tasting notes he takes as the fermentation and trial blending go merrily along.
As we now start diving into the Tempranillo blend for shape sketching, Patrick illustrates on the top colored part of the sketch the flavors he is tasting and the sequencing in his mouth of the flavors. In the middle of the sketch he makes a vertical slice view of the palate.
After drawing the flavor profiles and the shape of the palate, the final shape sketch emerges:
As Patrick evolves the shape tasting, he is putting together a seminar for sommeliers and other winemakers. He likens the shape sketching and tasting to the concept of synesthesia – which is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to automatic involuntary responses in another pathway. An example of the phenomena is when someone perceives letters or numbers by color:
At the start of the presentation, Patrick provides examples of his symbol and icon set:
With these shapes, Patrick then provides an example of a shape tasting of the Dominio IV 2008 Pinot Noir “Pondering Ptolemy.”
Periodically, Patrick teaches private sessions at the Dominio IV winery on how to develop shape taste profiles. He starts by sharing one of his shape tastes of a current Dominio IV wine:
After going through some examples and explaining some of the symbols, Patrick pours one of the current wines and has the “students” practice their shape tasting drawings:
In addition to being a superb winemaker, Patrick is creative in the naming and describing of each of the wines he produces. The shape, the label, and the back of the wine bottle text provide a rich multiple media view of this 2008 Pinot Noir. Of course, the wine smells and tastes fantastic as well (particularly in the right Oregon Riedel Glass).
If you are looking for an immersive wine education and fine wine tasting unlike any other, visit Patrick Reuter in his McMinnville, OR tasting room for a shape tasting. For the visual thinkers among you, wine will never taste the same again.