Thursday, October 14, 2010

How corporate executives taste wine

Top corporate executives don't think like the rest of us. A friend who's a management consultant tells me that many real movers and shakers are divorced. They're driven people who don't have the time or inclination for personal lives.

What they do have is money -- piles of it. They have earned luxury and expect it.

I recently watched an instructional video that made me feel a little sorry for these people. You wouldn't think there's a lot of sympathy to be had for people who regularly spend stockholders' (and some taxpayers') money on the most expensive Cabernet on the wine list.

But that's how I felt after watching "Think Like a Genius: Wine Master," starring Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser.

Gaiser isn't the problem. He's earnest, he knows the topic as well as anyone, and he doesn't talk down to the viewer while describing how to taste wine in the most basic of terms.

The shocker is just that: that somebody would spend $49 for a DVD course in learning how to taste. Not learning about the differences between Burgundy and Bordeaux -- but learning to look at the color, sniff the aroma, and sip the wine. In other words, learning to tell the difference between milk and Coca-Cola.

Are corporate executives so inured to sensory input that they're unable to smell lemons in Chardonnay without this video? If so, fortunately there's a workbook with the video so they can measure their progress. Action item!

Of course, just because the San Francisco-based (sigh) Everyday Genius Institute made the video doesn't mean people are actually ordering it. But Gaiser makes his living in large part by teaching corporate classes, so there's obviously a market. And I'm going to give the Institute the benefit of the doubt in knowing the way their audience thinks.

Which is this: wine tasting is a skill to be conquered. An opponent to be vanquished. A merit badge to be earned.

And it puts forward Gaiser as somebody who's better at it than you are: One of the top tasters in the world! "To watch Tim taste wine is like watching magic happen," the chipper Institute CEO says. (If that's true, what would it be like to watch Tim reach ecstasy? Better than doing so yourself?)

The video keeps talking about "goals." What are your goals in tasting? That's pure-corporate speak: no activity is worthwhile in itself.

Yet each time I start to mock the DVD, I realize that it was made by people who know their audience. I have sat at tables with wealthy people who bragged about the inaccessible wines they have in their cellars: "I've got a vertical of Screaming Eagle and a case of 1961 Cheval Blanc." That sort of thing. Invariably they don't offer to open one. And now I know why.

They don't know how to taste it! More to the point -- they think there's a way to taste it, which they haven't mastered yet. Sort of like the black belt of tasting. And if they work hard enough, eventually they'll earn that black belt and be able to kick my ass under the table with their awesome tasting prowess.

Well, if you're a CEO and you're reading this, it's true. There is a way to taste wine. And you're doing it wrong.

I learned the way while living in Japan, on a monastic tasting retreat. We wore nothing but loincloths in January and bathed in the cold rivers each morning at dawn. We did calisthenics, chanted and meditated. And then, The Master showed us the way, if he felt we were worthy of the lesson. Only after a week of fasting were we trusted to begin tasting things by ourselves. But I can't tell you what the way is; it cannot be described in the English language.

So you better spend the $49, Sir. And see if you can charge it to taxpayers the way you did with those wines you bought at Auction Napa Valley.


Rick Albeno said...

I follow this blog and was a little surprised to see this post. I actually purchased this DVD recently (so, yes, people do buy it). I am not a corporate executive. In fact I am a personal trainer at a gym and just really enjoy wine. I found the DVD and workbook to offer some really useful strategies for detecting flavors and aromas in the wine. I have been practicing these techniques and found that it has made me a better taster. Mainly I feel like I appreciate and enjoy wine more. I don't really understand the criticism you make about having goals. It seems to me that if you did a monastic tasting retreat you clearly had a goal of becoming a better taster? Or wanting to think about wine in a new way you hadn't considered before? Why would you criticize anyone (including corporate executives) for wanting to learn more about wine tasting?

Just my 2cents.....

Anonymous said...

WOW only 49.00 to make me a better taster, I'm in. No wait I'm out, I might be able to score a couple of bottles of wine I haven't tasted yet to see if I like them. I know this a strange concept but it has worked for me I guess.

Anonymous said...

I recently took one of Tim Gaiser's classes (he teaches Sommelier students, not corporate executives, as far as I know) and he is a truly wonderful teacher. I haven't seen this DVD so I can't comment on it, but I do know that he is passionate about teaching people how to enjoy wine more. I spent $495 on his class. $49 seems like a deal.

W. Blake Gray said...

Rick: I'm glad you liked the purchase.

I would never criticize anyone for wanting to learn more about wine. For me, this disc indicated a philosophy of tasting that I disagree with: that it should be goal-driven. That's fine for MW students, but for the rest of us I think wine tasting should be about pleasure, not achievement.

Anon: I'm sure Tim is better in person, especially if, as you say, he teaches how to enjoy wine more. I don't think this disc teaches that.

Jo6pac: That's my philosophy.

King Krak, Oenomancer said...

I guess this means my newly attained Brown Belt in Wine Tasting, which enables me to kick the tasting ass of 99-44/100ths% of wine bloggers, is um not going to pan out for me in the championships at Winery Stadium in Napa this winter.

daniel said...

wow, these laughs and smiles are just the thing for a busy harvest morning. real glad i learned how to smile from one of the leading smilers in the world.

Anonymous said...

Rick, if you haven't noticed, Blake is a bitter, angry man who thinks his opinion is the only correct opinion. His arrogance is alarming! Dissing Laube is one thing, dissing a talented, personable guy like Tim, who's basically out there to promote wine appreciation is over the top and more than I can stomach. As of today, I will no longer read Blake's diarrhea of the mouth/brain.

Randy Caparoso said...

I think you may have been a little harsh this time around, Mr. Gray. When it comes to wine, corporate types are really no different than any other types of people (including so-called wine professionals and garden variety working-stiff wine lovers): many of them need a lot of help (hence, the necessity of instructional DVDs), many of them know a lot less than they think they do, but then again, many of them are pretty darned sharp when it comes to wine tasting and appreciation.

Both intelligence and phoniness know no economic or social boundaries. If anything, high powered execs have more responsibility about learning wine appreciation since they're spending as much of other people's money as their own. All in all, the more people get into wine and utilize it for both personal pleasure and business, the more those of us actually in the business stand to benefit. It's all good, dude!

Dave McNeilly said...

Learning how to "taste" isn't really the goal of most wine education, is it?

The goal for most of us is learning how to "recognize and describe" what we're tasting, so we can share our pleasure (and displeasure) with others. This is where teachers such as Tim are helpful as guides, just like a guide in a museum or gallery can enrich your experience by pointing out details, giving context and background, and explaining technical differences between various works.

Anonymous said...

You do realize that expense accounts are the underbelly to all trend setting luxury goods. The fun starts when a trend takes and aspirations develop. Another how-to DVD's, no surprise. Great post, you drew out wonderful responses and discussion.

Jeff C said...

I have to agree that you were harsher than needed on this. Calling out arrogance is one thing (the "I have a case of '61 Cheval Blanc and you don't" sort of thing), but you missed that this type of video didn't create that arrogance, it may in fact help to tame it.

Besides, there is increased demand by regular people (no expense accounts here) who want to learn more about enjoying wine, and the method and goals sounds nearly the same. Yes, I teach some classes about increasing one's wine knowledge. We sample wine, learn some basics about varieties, regions, winemaking, Old World vs New World, etc, and importantly, how to taste and evaluate. What might be different is that I only reveal later on that part of the goal is to help move them beyond Coca-cola wines, etc, AND I pay particular attention to leaving wine snobbery out of the equation.

Ok, so maybe my personal ox has been gored. But I think there is a more useful way to counter wine snobbery than to worry whether or not high-income overachievers are getting the wrong message from this DVD. They'll continue to get the wrong message elsewhere, or just misinterpret the right message, anyway.

Better would be to evaluate the various sources for wine learning that are available; compare and contrast them. As the number of wine drinkers increase (and the industry as a whole sends mixed messages at best, no valid information at worst), this type of education will be more and more important to ensure that people are learning, become more discerning and informed about their choices, and expand their enjoyment.

W. Blake Gray said...

For what it's worth, I wrung my hands over whether or not this was too harsh, sat on it for some weeks, and ended up taking out some of it before publishing. I do respect Tim Gaiser. Ultimately I decided that I just don't condone the philosophy that enjoying wine needs to be goal-driven, so I went with it.

Keep in mind that this is just a blog -- I don't have that much power. If I can put an issue into people's minds and we can have a discussion about it, that might be the best contribution I can make to the wine world.

In this case, I want to tell people: Taste more, drink more, worry about it less. I wish the video had said that, but in fact on that last, important point, I got the opposite impression.

To Anon who calls me "a bitter, angry man": I may be arrogant, but at least I'm not a coward who hides behind anonymity. Good riddance to you.

Jeff C said...

I like your follow up, I think the clarification was perfect. It actually sounds like what you and most of the commenters are saying are in agreement (though you say it more precisely than I do, which is why you're widely read and I'm not!).

Especially like the 3rd paragraph; it says it all. It can be tough to even comment publicly, worrying how it will be taken (or mistaken). Don't over-edit yourself, the wine world is better off for people like yourself who aren't afraid to offer well-reasoned thoughts and viewpoints.

Tim Gaiser said...

Hi Blake, Tim Gaiser here. Sorry for the late response to your post but I’m just now back from a week in Australia. Thanks for looking at the tasting DVD and accompanying how-to book. I do want to clarify that my full-time position now is with the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas as their Education Director. So most of my time is spent teaching and examining MS students. I still do outside work in the form teaching at the Rudd Center at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena as well as various writing projects and events, some for aforementioned corporations.

As for the DVD, some but not certainly all who purchase and/or watch it are corporate execs, but the target audience is beginning and intermediate tasters, generally people just getting into wine, so that applies to practically any demographic. As you point out, this is a wine tasting primer, specifically the basics of looking at, smelling, and tasting wine. I think I have a pretty good handle on the subject having taught tasting to thousands of people at every level of expertise over the last 20+ years.

What separates this DVD from every other tasting disc is that for the very first time submodalities are used to help describe the inner experience of wine (submodalities are how our brains recognize and code things like flavors and aromas). To my knowledge, no one has ever put the two together and I have to say that looking at tasting from the perspective of submodalities has potential ramifications which are remarkable—not only for wine but for several other industries including beer, spirits, coffee, tea, olive oil and perfume; industries where one’s expertise, and to a great deal success, is measured in terms of olfactory memory. I will also go on to say that I have dramatically changed how I teach tasting since working with Tim Hallbom at Everyday Genius Institute to create the product at the end of last year.

Otherwise, I do work with execs in a variety of events throughout the course of any given year. I generally find them to be people who work hard and play hard, but who are also very curious about learning anything new with the caveat the material has to be high quality matched by equally good skills on the part of the presenter.

In the end, it is still all about connecting more people to the wine experience. That’s why we do what we do. And ultimately that’s why we put the DVD and book together. I hope we created some movement to that end.

Tim Gaiser, MS

W. Blake Gray said...

Tim, you are a good sport, and I hope the next time I have the opportunity to see you taste it's in person.

macdaddy_m said...

That was about as black and white as it could have possibly been described, I wish I had read this post earlier. I have to make it a point to read you more often. Poignant and precise I was amused at how restrained and goodhearted the response's were from purchasers of the product and the integrity and poise Tim Gaiser showed. Kudos
Now back to my goals, none of which include learning how to taste wine.

Nick said...

Sounds like everyone involved needs to lighten up a little. There's no _real_ Olympics or glory for people who compare skills at tasting things.

Carole B. said...

I thought this comment by Tim Gaiser was really interesting:

"What separates this DVD from every other tasting disc is that for the very first time submodalities are used to help describe the inner experience of wine (submodalities are how our brains recognize and code things like flavors and aromas."

I don't know what 'submodalities' are but I would be very interested in learning more about it. Tim - could you comment further? And share why this is important to a wine taster?

Jason said...

"I would never criticize anyone for wanting to learn more about wine." ummmm....under certain circumstances it appears that you would indeed. Don't recant, stand up for your post and call the guy out, dammit!

Tim Gaiser said...

Hi Carole, yes would be happy to answer the question about submodalities but it would be a long post. Blake, would it be OK? Don't want to take up a lot of cyber-space. Otherwise, Carol, would be happy to e-mail to you.

W. Blake Gray said...

Go for it, Tim. Thanks for asking. Just try to keep it to a readable length. I'm interested too.

Tim Gaiser said...

Blake, it's about 900 words but I think the content is pretty amazing stuff.

W. Blake Gray said...

900 words!

All right, this is my penance for being vinegary. Go for it.

Tim Gaiser said...

Carole, thanks for your question. Here’s a shorter version of my original answer due to the length. I’m posting the entire answer on my site (

Submodalities come from “moda,” the Greek term for the five senses. Our modalities are our senses of sight, hearing, feeling (both emotional and kinesthetic), olfactory and gustatory. We use the same modalities internally in the context of how we process our experience of the world. Submodalities, further, are the qualities or the structure of the five senses as they are experienced internally. These submodalities can dramatically affect the quality of one’s experience in everything—from tasting wine to one’s memories and beyond. During the two sessions with Tim Hallbom, a world-renowned Behavioral Scientist at the Everyday Genius Institute, I discovered several very important things about my own tasting as well as tasting in general. Here are a few:

First: olfactory memory is triggered by internal visual images. Working with Hallbom I realized that as I smell wine and recognized aromas—from various kinds of fruits to spices to earth/mineral qualities to oak—the recognition/memory of any component in the wine was triggered by a visual image.

Second: everyone has an inner map or grid of a wine. Tim and I discovered that as I generated images when recognizing aromas in a glass of wine (and generating them in rapid succession in a very short period of time) each image literally had a distinct location where it “lived” and the combined images formed a map or grid in terms of their collective location. My map is positioned down and in front of me and goes left to right in the following order: fruit, non-fruit, earth-mineral, and oak/wood qualities. In another words, I made a visual collage of images of all of the things I smelled and tasted in the wine. And by taking a step back to look at this visual collage, I could 'see' everything I needed to in order to evaluate the wine.

Third: everyone’s map or collage is different. I have interviewed dozens of people in the last few months, many of them fellow Master Sommeliers, and never found anyone else with the same map. Some are as simple as mine but most are remarkably complex.

Fourth: the structural qualities of these images, or submodalities, have enormous importance. The next discovery during our sessions was that the images have very distinct qualities in terms of their size, distance, brightness, depth and much more. We also found that changing these submodalities, specifically the size, proximity and/or brightness of my images dramatically increased or decreased the intensity of my experience of the aromas connected to those images. For example, moving the image of black cherries found in a Cabernet Sauvignon either closer or farther away in my mind’s eye increased or decreased the intensity of the experience. Changing the size of the image or brightening the colors of the image of the same image had an equally substantial effect. If you stop and consider this for a moment the implications are profound.

There’s more but space prevents from including here. So what does all this mean? Lots of food for thought but initially it may mean that perhaps we can learn to more effectively recognize and remember elements in a glass of wine and to also evaluate wine in simpler ways by becoming more conscious of how our brains code flavors and aromas. Regardless, I’m starting to work on a large scale project that focuses on submodalities and olfactory/sense memory not only for wine—but for multiple other olfactory-based industries. Stay tuned. (Blake - I'd be more than happy to do a one-on-one tasting with you to explore how you experience wine in the context of submodalities).


Tim Gaiser MS

W. Blake Gray said...

Tim: Thanks for posting.

I have to tell you that the nasty part I edited out of the original post, in an attempt to not sound so mean, was about this topic. I'm not going to resurrect what I originally said.

But I will say this: It's a lot of hocus pocus that ends up with you noticing lemon, apple and oak in Chardonnay. Is that a fair summation? I don't need to visualize an apple tree to smell apples in Chardonnay.

The way you express it here makes it sound much more interesting than it did on the DVD. I'd like to explore the topic of manipulating taste through these "submodalities." Can you make a cheap supermarket red taste more like black cherry by picturing a big cherry in your head? Does that give you a better wine experience? Are you fooling yourself, and if so, does it matter?

I don't remember the DVD exploring the interesting issues; I just remember you smelling lemons and apples in Chardonnay. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Rick Albeno said...

Tim - very interesting comment you made about the submodalities. I got a lot of what you said in your recent post from the book that came with the DVD. But the part about manipulating the images is really interesting. I hadn't thought of trying that but I will. Does just moving the image forward or backward in my mind make the difference? Or is there more to it?

When I learned about your tasting method, I didn't think it was 'hocus pocus' as Blake says. I actually found it quite fascinating and when I stopped and noticed how I detect smells, I too found that it was through pictures. I am still trying to learn my own 'grid' or 'map' as you say. I have the hardest time with the non-fruit smells but I think I just need to practice more. It's been and unusual way to explore wine tasting - and a fun way.

Your research project sounds exciting and I would be interested in hearing more about it as you get further along. Seems like a rich topic.

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Rick, just out of curiosity -- do you really exist? I just googled your name and found no evidence of you.

White Pages claims there are 39 people named "Richard Albano" in the United States, but no "Richard Albeno" or "Rick Albeno."

That's certainly possible in today's world, but I'm just wondering. Where do you live?

Rick Albeno said...

Blake - I do exist. It's always a weird feeling when someone says 'I Googled you.' I grew up in Canada and lived abroad for many years. I've been in the States for about a year now.