...and other tips from one of America's favorite Somms

“It’s easy to get overwhelmed,” assures Master Sommelier Keith Goldston, who’s tasted wine all over the world for 25-plus years. A self-proclaimed wine geek, his library of wine resources spans four bookcases, and he passed the Court of Master Sommelier’s exam in one go (most take years). “Break it down to yes or no questions – I find the more you can simplify and break it apart, the easier it is.”

Focus and experience are two of his watchwords for successful tasting: taking time to really discern and assign words to what you taste and smell.

“Stop and take a look at the wine, first and foremost,” advises Goldston. Is it red or white? Tilt the glass to 45-degree angle, preferably over a white background. Lighter in color oftimes signifies less intense, darker and richer generally more intense. Swirl the glass, is it heavy or thin? (Goal: Pros can even eyeball the age of a wine in a glass.)

“Then I dive into the nose: As Evan Goldstein, a great MS, would say, remember the F.E.W.,” he continues, advising beginners use a deductive wine tasting grid. “If you can find five descriptors between Fruit, Earth and Wood, you are usually in good shape.”

If that’s still a little daunting, let’s rewind it. Putting a word to a taste is difficult, but not impossible; the more you do it, the more instinctual it becomes.

Let’s start with fruit. Stick your schnoz over the glass and breathe. What does the aroma remind you of? In white wine, there are three families of fruit, apple/pear/quince, citrus, melon, stone fruit and tropical fruit.  Peach>Stone fruit? Pineapple>tropical? For red wine, think cherry, berry, or plum. (Goal: blue or black?)

Maybe the wine’s not fruity of all. If it makes you think of dirt or rocks, wet or dry, even Spring or Fall, then it’s earth you detect. Wood notes are usually reminiscent of vanilla, maybe with accents of spice – cedar, cardamom, or caramel – coming through.

“Palette is the next step for me, does everything taste like it smelled?” says Goldston. “And absolutely crucial, the acidity balance. Pay attention to mouthfeel and eventually you’ll start associating a textural feel with grapes or places or wines.”

Again, trust your gut. If you pucker up, a wine might be high in acid. Too sweet? That’s a thing too. If you think it tastes smooth that usually means the winemaker has struck a good balance of acid and sugar. Wine that feels heavy, or big, may be of higher alcohol content. Bitter notes usually come out in a thicker-skinned, more tannic grape. 

“Ultimately, people have a tell, one aroma or one thing that makes them think of a wine or a place,” says Goldston. And the more wine you taste, the more clues you amass. Smell and taste together is a powerful memory connector, located in the enigmatic part of the brain, which is why a whiff of sugar cookies can take you back to grandma’s kitchen.

And that’s the essence of tasting wine: the ability to build and bank profiles of what regions or place or grape smell, taste and feel like, and – over time – link that characteristic to a region or grape.

“For some people it definitely comes easier than others, but tasting is a skill, and absolutely teachable,” says Goldston, who uses these tells, history, smell and preference, to pair wines with food for his guests.

“We have all the assets, it just we never really learned to stop and process wine like that,” says Goldston. “It’s the old ‘stop and smell the roses.' ”