Q & A With Richard Jennings; The Man Who Tasted 5000 Wines Last Year

I recently posted a blog about Richard Jennings of RJonWine.com, the most prolific wine taster I know.  Richard was kind enough to grant me an interview, which covered a wide range of topics. The interview has been edited for length and is focused on wine tasting.

Q. How did you come to be interested in wine, and how long have you been drinking wine?

A. I first started drinking wine my sophomore year at Stanford, when I was at the overseas campus in Britain and we made a field trip to Italy. It was just a simple Chianti, but I loved how it worked with the meal. In my senior year at Stanford, I lived in the French Theme House, and we had a French chef and wine with dinner every night. That same year I made my first visit to wine country in Napa. I didn’t get heavily into European wine, though, until 2000.  Some of the older Bordeaux, Rhônes and Sauternes they served amazed me for their complexity and layers of flavor. After that I was really hooked, and started taking classes and reading books on wine.

Q. What advice would you give to an individual who is just starting to enjoy wine?

A. I would recommend finding a wine store in your area that does tastings on a regular basis. By going to as many tastings as you have time for, you start to learn what kind of wines most appeal to you. Good retailers should be able to dialogue with you, and if you tell them what you like about a wine or two in a given tasting, they should be able to direct you to other similar wines that you might like. The most important thing at the beginning, though, I think, is to find out what you like by starting to explore the immense diversity of wine that’s available out there. And you can only do that by tasting.

Q. How can one develop their ability to describe the aromas and flavors in wine?

A. This can be a very intimidating aspect of wine tasting at first. Most of us aren’t used to smelling our beverages, or food, and trying to describe what else it smells like and reminds us of. It is a discipline peculiar to serious wine tasting (which is also found amongst specialized, paid tasters of other products, like coffee, cheeses and chocolate). There are aids out there, like aroma wheels and the WSET list of tasting descriptors. Some of these are helpful in reminding us of what the different red fruits are, or savory aromas, so that we can try to get as specific as possible about what we’re smelling and tasting. I learned from some of my chef friends when I first started tasting, as they seem to develop strong sense memories in the course of cooking and deciding on spices and other ingredients to include in new dishes they create. I’d often ask them what they were smelling, and once they identified it, I could smell it too. It’s important to start smelling other foods, fruits, flowers and everyday items in our lives, to get a better fix on those aromas, so we can better identify them when we come across them in wine. There are also products like the “Nez du Vin,” which include vials of various common aromas found in wine—like coffee, vanilla and dried mushroom—that one can use to train oneself in learning to identify those common smells. Like anything else one is starting to learn, you have to force yourself to smell for a while and see if you can identify familiar scents. It helps to write them down and see if there are common descriptors that come up for certain kinds of wine.  It definitely takes practice and effort.  It’s a new muscle one has to start to exercise to really develop.

Q. You describe yourself as student of wine – what resources have your found helpful in expanding your knowledge of wine?

A.  Two of the most essential wine reference books out there are Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine, and The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson.  It’s also important to meet winemakers and get their perspective on the challenges and techniques for making wine, and to find out why they make the choices they do.  It’s also important to visit wine regions one is interested in, to get a visceral, physical sense of how the terroir impacts the wines one loves.

Q. According to your wine aesthetic, the two most important aspects of wine for you are balance, and complexity – how can one learn to assess the balance and complexity of wine?

A. Balance, for me, means that the primary aspects of the wine—acidity, alcohol, fruit, residual sugar, and tannins—complement and relate harmoniously with each other, with no particular aspect dominating or seeming obtrusive. Doing some tastings and taking particular note of these aspects of the wine will help to give one a sense of what balance tastes like, and also of what it tastes like when the acidity, alcohol or tannins, for example, are obtrusive, depriving the wine of a sense of balance. By complexity, I mean the flavors one discerns in the wine. A simple wine only shows one or two flavors, giving a monochromatic feel on the palate. A complex wine may have a multitude of flavor impressions, and these can change with time in the glass. My favorite wines are the ones with this kind of complexity. I think this is even easier to learn to assess than balance. You taste and try to pick out how many flavors you are sensing, especially after giving the wine some time in the glass to open up. If there are more than a couple of flavors, it has some complexity. If there are a lot of flavors showing, it’s quite complex.

Q. Finish is generally regarded as indicative of the quality of a wine – how do you assess the finish of a wine both in terms of wine tasting technique and how long the finish lasts?

A. When I first got started doing serious tastings of fine wine, I used to actually time the finish of the wines, so I could better understand what critics were talking about in terms of short and long finishes. I took to calling a finish of less than 30 seconds a short finish, more than 30 seconds a medium finish, and 45 seconds to a minute or longer, a long finish. That basic sense of the time of a finish is now so ingrained in me, I can now, simply estimate it. I do generally give higher points to wines with longer finishes, and will subtract points for particularly short finishes.

For the full text of the interview, including how he trained himself to taste over a 100 wines at an event, the evolution of Richard’s palate,  and his favorite wines, among other topics click here.