Improving blind tasting ability (Part 2): learning to argue (well)

Being able to identify and describe a wine blind is great. But, it’s also important to be able to communicate to others why. Why is it that variety and not another? Why is it from that region and not somewhere else? Why is it that quality level and not higher or lower? Why would it be more suitable for casual drinkers rather than highly engaged consumers?

Students in the Master of Wine programme will be familiar with the adage, taste like a detective argue like a lawyer. Sounds sensible enough. But, it took me a couple of years (I’m generally a bit slow on the uptake) before I actually asked myself the questions: how do lawyers argue? And, for that matter, what is an argument? And, how do you make a good one? Again, a lot of Googling came up with some useful answers.

What is an argument?

critical-reasoning-beginnersThe University of Oxford offers a free online course on Critical Reasoning for beginners. It strips it right back to basics and I found it very useful.  An argument, lecturer Marianne Talbot says, is a set of sentences where one sentence is said to be true (the conclusion) and the others (the premises) are being offered as reasons for believing the truth of the conclusion. Sounds so easy when put like that!

Marianne sums it up nicely saying the whole point of an argument is to persuade someone something is true. I think this is important to remember when justifying why you think a wine is what it is. A frequent quibble made by MW educators of MW students is that too often a tasting note is given as a reason for a wine’s identity. To paraphrase John Hoskins MW from the 2013 exam feedback video, this type of argument is the equivalent of saying, I think it’s ‘such and such’ because that is what ‘such and such’ tastes like, isn’t it! While it can be frustrating as a student (it took me a while to figure out!), you’ve got to admit a tasting note justification is not a very strong, convincing or persuasive argument.

Making a good argument

For an argument to be a good one each of these premises has to be true. This is where a combination of good theory knowledge and good tasting ability comes into play.

If you say, for example, 13% alcohol, overall neutrality, lean structure, noticeable CO2 and leesy character all indicative of Muscadet sur lie, well that’s not really true—13% alcohol isn’t indicative of Muscadet. It’s better to say despite the 13% alcohol the overall neutrality, lean structure, noticeable CO2 and leesy character are indicative of Muscadet sur lie.

Similarly, if you argued absence of oak typical of Macon, while this may be true, if there is obvious oak in the wine then it demonstrates you can’t recognize oak and also makes one of your arguments for this wine being Macon false.

Marianne recommends a Descartes approach to arguments. That is, to break each problem down into manageable parts. Begin with the simplest issues and work towards the more complex issues. I found this very usual for structuring my answers and for choosing which bits of evidence to include in my arguments. This type of approach is typically referred to as funneling in Master of Wine cirlces. Tim Wildman MW provides a good video explanation on his website winetutor.tv.

wine-tutor-tvThis approach can be particularly useful for difficult wines. For red varieties you could start with colour. Does it have a deep, moderate, or pale colour? Is it full, medium, or light bodied? By answering these two simple questions, which most people could do for every single wine, already varieties can be narrowed down. You can then start looking at nuances or flavour and structure further funnel down to a logical answer. For whites you could start with whether it’s aromatic or not, whether it’s oaked or not. For an origin question you could start with warm, temperate or cool climate. Or, is it old world or new world in style. And, then move on to nuances of aromatics, flavor, style and structure to identify the origin as closely as possible.

Arguing like a lawyer

I’m not a lawyer so don’t really know much about how lawyers think. But, luckily, there’s a thing called Wikihow and it told me how to Think-Like-a-Lawyer. My mentor actually recommended I watch Boston Legal to get a good grasp on how to do this.

A lawyer needs to convince a jury or a judge that someone is guilty or innocent and they can only do this by using facts. And, for every factual statement they need evidence to prove it. Similarly, the blind taster has to convince the examiner (or whoever) that the wine in front of them is a particular wine. And they can only do this using evidence from the glass. If they make stuff up or don’t taste accurately they’re not going to be very successful.

A few key things came up time and time again when I Googled how lawyers argue. These things are also evident in watching episodes of Boston legal. When layers argue they are logical, concise, clear, and use evidence to support their claims. Also, lawyers are able to argue both sides of any case. Lawyers need to anticipate what arguments their opponents might make so they can find evidence and create an argument to rebuke them.

This was actually the main reason my mentor recommend I watch Boston Legal. Every time I was making an argument for a particular wine he wanted me to imagine someone like Denny Crane or Alan Shore was sitting across from ready to tear my argument apart.

The results…

Understanding what an argument is and how to structure an argument helped my blind tasting more than I thought it would. It made me consider my options more thoroughly before making a final conclusion. Sure this wine has the blackcurrent, bellpepper and herbaceous notes of a Cabernet Sauvignon but is the tannic structure fine and linear enough for Cab Sauv? The herbaceous notes really are quite pronounced perhaps Carmenere is a more likely option.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *