The kit looks innocuous enough – a sturdy cardboard box with six sample bottles inside. But it’s so much more.
I do everything the kit tells me. I don’t touch it for a few days, so the wines can rest, then I refrigerate the whites. When I’m ready, I find six clean glasses, put them on the tasting map, and pour the wines. Three whites, three reds.
The next step is to register on the website and begin to swirl, smell, sip, and then tell the computer what I think. I tick the boxes if I detect hints of blueberries, or forest floor, or lychees. I let the computer know that one wine definitely smells of oxidation, while another is dominated by oak.
It takes some time to get through the computer’s list of fruits, flowers, herbs, faults and winemaking. At the very bottom, the computer wants to know my thoughts on what the wine is. Can I identify the grape or blend? Old World or New World? Which bank of Bordeaux? And can I name any sub-regions?
There is a pause while the computer calculates my results. A moment later, the truth is revealed.
Let me put it this way: I am not the tasting goddess of my imagination.
In real life, Evan Goldstein MS, who developed the kit, seems to have a very kind, thoughtful personality and he’s like that on email, too. After I email him my results, he writes back with praise and encouragement: “You were in the right sphere with the turpenic nature!” and “the Bordeaux blend is unusual – likely why you were confused”. He is effusive about the regions and varietals I got right.
He’s lovely, but it doesn’t console me. What does is watching the recording, where the thoughts of other experienced tasters testing the same kit are discussed. They made plenty of mistakes too. In fact, there could be a reason for it.
“Typicity as we’ve known is it disappearing and/or evolving,” Goldstein told me before I did the tasting. He says he noticed this phenomenon about eight to ten years ago, but says it’s become more pronounced recently. The classical, reliable styles are changing, thanks to a combination of climate change, commercial imperatives and, paradoxically, a laser-like focus on terroir expression.
“In Barolo, and Barbaresco specifically,” says Goldstein by way of example, “you were sort of weaned on these classic old wines. Wines in a very specific style, by which the category became famous. Those were defined as ‘typicity’, the archetype. Those have changed.”
Climate change is having a dramatic effect, from the alcohol level all the way to ripeness, acidity and colour. A secondary effect is that viticulture itself is evolving as vignerons adapt. Then there’s winemaking, which has changed dramatically. In the past, says Goldstein, someone weaned on New World wines might have found European wines to be unripe or tart. “Then you went to a European and showed them New World wines, and they found them overripe, jammy and overworked.”
As the US market grew in power and prestige, European winemakers began tweaking their product to make them more pleasing to American palates and critics. This ‘Parkerisation’ effect has been well documented; Goldstein remembers visiting châteaux where there would be a barrel set aside especially for visiting Americans.
But a reverse trend has been going on in the New World. “If you’re a big fan of Malbec in Argentina, the styles there have gone from the over-extracted, overworked big wines, to wines of less intervention, with brighter freshness and acidity levels and more of a sense of place,” he says.
And then there is the increasing focus on understanding site and expressing it better. Take Shiraz from the McLaren Vale in Australia, which used to be relatively homogenous, offering plenty of ripeness, occasionally shot through with hints of eucalypt. Since winegrowers embarked on a joint effort to understand the region’s complex geology and its impact on the final wine – the Scarce Earth project, launched with the 2009 vintage – the wines have become more complex and diverse.
“Does this completely implode typicity and regionality as we know it?” asks Goldstein. “Or is it a more accurate representation?”
For wine drinkers, all the work means better quality, more interesting wines. For the wine student, it’s a nightmare. How do you learn about regional styles and characteristics, if everything is in flux?
The birth of an idea
San Francisco-based Goldstein is one of America’s most distinguished sommeliers, and a noted wine educator. About six years ago, he took a group of sommeliers to explore the Serra Gaúcha region of Brazil. “I was down there as the den mother and leader, but also to coordinate with the producers,” he says.
Every morning he would get up early to organise the day and then have breakfast in the dining room. There he would see another sommelier seated at a lone table with six glasses, tasting wine samples she’d brought with her. She used miniatures of the type found on airlines and in hotel rooms. “Somebody had filled the bottles for her, put a little piece of masking tape on them and put a code on them,” said Goldstein.
The sommelier set a timer, began tasting, and made notes. Finally, she would text her friend and find out what the wines were.
“Over time, I started asking myself the questions that anybody would ask,” says Goldstein. “How are the wines holding up, considering they may or may not have been sparged?” (Rinsed with gas to clear out any lingering compounds.) “Number two is, how do we know the wines selected are really good examples? How do we know that the person doing the bottles knew that the McLaren Vale Shiraz or Grenache or whatever was a really good example?”
But it was a brilliant idea. After all, not every serious student of wine has access to a tasting group, nor can convince a friend to fill bottles for them.
And so Goldstein decided to create a commercial tasting kit for students, to give them a way to taste and learn about the classic styles. He says that over the years he’s had many good ideas that he’s never acted on. “I lived in Europe for a couple of years in the late seventies and came back home and bemoaned the fact that we had no solid coffee culture.” And then came Starbucks. Determined not to let this idea slip away, he and long-time business partner Limeng Stroh got going.
It wasn’t easy. “From the time I had the idea until the time we went into testing was probably 18 months to two years, and then the testing time was a good 14 or 15 months.”
Bottle size was the first challenge. “We looked at it from the point of functionality and product integrity, and also what’s too much wine, too little wine.” The bottle size itself can have an impact on things like dissolved oxygen and free SO2, so getting it right was critical. After the team agreed on the 187ml size, they then had to find a way to fill it. Because they were decanting wines from bottles, not using bulk wine, their fill levels were inconsistent, which can be a compliance problem. Plus, it was wasteful. “We were consulting with people who worked in wineries and worked on bottling lines, and they didn’t have the right answers for us.”
Goldstein won’t be drawn on how they solved the problem, saying it’s proprietary, but he says the filling is done in an environment free of contact with ambient oxygen.
The next problem was what wines to choose. Goldstein convened panels of sommeliers whose palates and judgements he trusted – “I leaned on my friends” – and they tasted through flights of wines “that had been procured by my putting out tenders to get wines in specific categories”. He went with classic examples of Right-Bank Bordeaux, Left-Bank Bordeaux, Napa Cabernet, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and so on. Goldstein says learning wine styles is like learning vocabulary. “It’s a kind of verb conjugation. Pinot Noir is a verb, Chardonnay is a verb, Cabernet is a verb. Let’s conjugate that, which means, what is it like when I look at it in a different place?”
Finally, the first wines were chosen and the kits created. Each kit includes five to six different varieties, either in pure or blended form, from six different geographies, plus a split between Old and New Worlds. One kit is $90, or $70 or $80 with a monthly subscription. Recipients can either taste alone with the computer or can join a live YouTube tasting with sommeliers, who discuss each wine before revealing it. The chat from the sommeliers is friendly and engaging, especially when Goldstein opines something like “aromatics are like the guy dancing with a lampshade on his head” – which, for the record, was a totally accurate description of the wine being tasted.
Master the World launched in January 2020 – just in time for the rise of the Zoom wine tasting. Goldstein says that sales have been brisk.
The kits are only available in the US, though wine professionals from elsewhere are already begging Goldstein to export them. Unfortunately, the intensive nature of the production process, plus the complexity of working with so many wines, not to mention labelling and compliance issues, means the export market must wait.
Which is a shame, as if it were available I wouldn’t hesitate to sign up – the wines are high quality and it’s a pleasure to taste them. And next time, I’ll conquer those turpenes.