By Jeff Morgan
What makes certain athletes superstars? Or one concert pianist a virtuoso, while another is just really good?
The question holds for professional wine tasters, too. Some of us are virtuosos, while most of us are not. And even those blessed with “super palates” need to educate and develop them.
Am I a super taster? I’ve never had my tasting ability measured physically. So I’m not sure. I do know, however, that the pursuit of flavor has driven my entire career as a winemaker, wine writer and cookbook author. So I must be tasting something inspiring when I eat and drink!
That said, I can tell you with great certainty that a small group of people I’ve tasted wine with over the years are, indeed, extraordinarily gifted tasters—better than I am. They not only perceive layers of flavor and texture in their glass, but they also know how to apply their experience and wine knowledge to precisely communicate what it is they are tasting.
The super tasters I know have all (graciously) humbled me. As a winemaker, I’m good at assessing quality and flaws in a wine. I’m also good at envisioning what it is I want to create in my own wines.
But what really separates the rock star tasters from the rest of us is the breadth of tasting experience they bring to the table. Often these super tasters are sommeliers or writers who have spent enormous amounts of time tasting and chronicling wines from around the world. Winemakers tend to be more insular. But those winemakers who make a point of tasting a lot of wines from around the world can also reach super taster status—provided they have the basic, God-given super talent.
Who are these rock star tasters? Obviously I don’t know them all. Below you’ll find a list of those who, in my opinion, stand out from the crowd.
Sommelier, Author and Winemaker
Raj has perhaps the most fine-tuned palate of anyone I’ve ever tasted with. He made a name for himself working at great restaurants such as Francis Coppola’s now-closed Rubicon in San Francisco as well as the Michael Mina restaurant group nationwide. He now makes wine under his Sandhi label too. Raj simply perceives flavor better than most of us. And because he’s both a seasoned sommelier and winemaker, he brings unusually well-rounded tasting experience to the table. Tasting with Raj can range from awesome to depressing, depending on your sense of self-worth.
Sommelier and Winemaker
Larry Stone—whom the French awarded the World’s Best Sommelier title—was Raj Parr’s mentor back in the days when both were sommeliers at Rubicon. Larry is also a winemaker now, with his Lingua Franca winery in Oregon. So it’s no surprise he, too, is a major force at the tasting table. I’ve sat at tastings with Larry and watched (with dismay) as he correctly blind-identified Burgundy after Burgundy. It made me green with envy…and provoked a case of extremely low self-esteem. Larry is amazing.
Michel is a winemaker’s winemaker. I don’t have space here to go into the litany of extraordinary wines worldwide that he is associated with. But if you asked me who the world’s most famous winemaker is, I’d say it’s Michel. Born in Bordeaux, Michel makes wines for himself and his impressive list of clients all over the world. I first met him nearly 30 years ago, in New York, when he was visiting the winery I worked for at the time. We were drinking an aged Long Island Cabernet, and I hated it. My comment to Michel was, “Yuck.” He looked at me for a moment, smiled, and then said: “Jeff, aged Cabernet is supposed to taste like this.” You live and learn, right? My occasional and fortuitous tastings with Michel have consistently yielded similarly short, perceptive commentary that continues to rock my (tasting) world.
David is the American “winemaker’s winemaker.” It’s safe to say Dave pretty much wrote the book that opened the door to modern day winemaking in California. An early proponent of native yeast fermentations and non-filtration, Dave’s winemaking protocols flew in the face of accepted scholarly protocols back in the day, but they are now followed by many top winemakers. Dave is also a dedicated drinker of great wine from around the world. So he brings a wealth of experience to any tasting. If you you’re lucky enough to taste (or drink) wine with David, take notes. He’s a natural teacher, and freely shares his knowledge. You can taste his talent in the wines he makes, too.
Wine Writer and Reviewer
I haven’t seen James Suckling in a long time. But for a while, back in the ‘90s, we were both writers and reviewers at Wine Spectator. Every year, the magazine hosted an editorial retreat where we’d all taste wine, blind, together. Inevitably, James would be among the most spot-on commentators during these sessions. It humbled me, and I have to admit it made me a little insecure. But he inspired me to work harder and (hopefully) become a better taster and critic. James has continued on his own independent tasting path at JamesSuckling.com and remains a well-known and highly respected reviewer today.
Wine Writer and Reviewer
After some 30 years, Jim has recently stepped back from being the primary California taster at Wine Spectator. I used to sit across from him during our weekly tastings (back in the ‘90s). So I probably tasted more wine with Jim in those days than anyone else I knew, even though we often had separate flights. Jim taught me that a wine is not always what it appears to be at first. And that great wines—and sometimes lousy wines too—merit more thoughtful contemplation than we naturally wish to give them. He instilled in me what I call the “discipline” of wine tasting. It’s essential for any professional.
Wine Writer and Reviewer
Jancis is without doubt the best known wine writer and taster in Europe. She’s the wine columnist for the Financial Times of London and the author of numerous books. She’s an MW (Master of Wine) too. Jancis typically doesn’t reveal much about what she’s thinking when she tastes with you. She saves her opinion for publication. Suffice it to say that she is particularly astute, with an encyclopedic memory for wine and everything wine-related. I first met her in Aspen, CO at the Little Nell hotel swimming pool some 20 years ago, where she was lounging in her (what else?) bathing suit. In my opinion, she really needed a glass of cool, crisp rosé to complete the picture. And I happened to have a bottle of my late, great SoloRosa rosé in hand. I handed Jancis a glass. She sipped. She beamed. And she spoke. “How lovely!” Hard to go wrong with rosé.
Israel is growing its own crop of super tasters as well. One of them is a French-born Israeli named Yair Haidu. Yair is a wine consultant, writer and wine impresario. Twice, I’ve sat down with Yair to taste my own wines and left with the feeling that he knew them better than I did. He’s just a really perceptive taster, with massive experience who can clearly express his thoughts in at least three languages (as far as I can tell). He’s still quite young (compared to me), and I expect to see him on the scene for some time.
As the wine writer for Israel’s HaAretz newspaper, Itay Gleitman was clearly one of Israel’s brightest and most widely read voices in wine criticism until that gig ended for him earlier this year. He’s now writing his own Israel Wine Review, which I hope will eventually become a beacon for Israelis and others interested in what’s new and exciting—and available—in Israel. Itay is a thorough and thoughtful taster whose commentary is invariably illuminating as well as inspiring.
Last but certainly not least is Jienna Basaldu, with whom I’ve only tasted once—at the Lodi Zinfest Blind Tasting last spring. She’s the youngest taster on this list (33 years old), but she’s been in the wine business since she was “legal.” Until recently she was wine director at Echo and Rig in Sacramento. But she recently moved to the Bay Area and is currently working as assistant sommelier at The Morris in San Francisco.
At the Lodi tasting, Jienna and I tasted blind through flights of wines from all over the world. The fact that she correctly identified many of the varietals and appellations was only half of what impressed me. I was also wowed by her ability to succinctly describe why she made certain determinations. Not only can she taste, but she also communicates well. It’s a gift that will help her educate and excite a world of wine lovers. This young lady’s going to make a difference on the wine scene.
There is obviously room on this list for many additional names. I apologize to the many other great tasters I know who I might have left out. This was a just a snapshot. Every time we taste wine, we learn from the experience. And when we taste wine with super tasters, we can learn even more!
Vintner Jeff Morgan is the co-owner of Covenant Winery, in California and Israel. He’s also the author of nine books on food and wine and a former wine journalist. Jeff is available for select speaking engagements. To inquire about a possible speaking appearance, please contact Jodie Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org.