Monday, May 8, 2017

Nurse the Hate: My Life As An International Wine Judge

I shuffled into Waterloo Station with the Kinks song “Waterloo Sunset” playing on repeat in my head.  I searched the 177 pockets of my Schimanski jacket for money to put into the ticket machine.  I had been very excited when I originally purchased this jacket a couple of years ago, but my enthusiasm had waned a bit when I learned it looked just like a coat worn by the old German TV detective Horst Schimanski, sort of a cross between Jim Rockford and Tubbs of Miami Vice.  In the snap of the fingers one can go from confident to wondering if people are thinking to themselves “Why is that guy dressed like he’s a bitter detective in 1986 Berlin?”.  Still, the Schimanski Jacket is amazingly functional, so I keep going with it when traveling.  I dug out some pound notes and tried to move quickly on the machine in the rush hour frenzy.

I am always slightly confused in train stations.  It's not my fault.  We drive here in America.  I always have the suspicion I am about to leap onto the wrong train and find myself whisked hours in the wrong direction.  I also am never positive on the routine and etiquette of the trains and am always on guard for being called out for “doing it wrong”.   For example, I got called "mate" again when I tried to use an out of order gate going to the platform.  "Tha' one is broken mate!".  I found my train and sat in the seat, satisfied I had run the gauntlet.  Heck, I even got some refreshment cart tea from a woman that called me "Luv".  I was a real local at this point.  The conductor came around to inspect everyone's ticket and of course I had already put it away, convinced it was now trash.  I had to hurriedly go through the 177 Schimanski jacket pockets to produce it, but was quite satisfied when the conductor said "Ticket?  Yes.  Lovely.".  It had all fallen into place.

Disaster struck once again when I threw out my ticket stub with my tea garbage after I disembarked the train.  I had no idea I would need the damn ticket stub for a third time to run through the automatic gate to get out of the station.  After realizing my error, I dug into the garbage can like a transient and found the now soaking wet stub.  "Mother?  Is that Schimanski rooting though the rubbish?"  It worked though and I was free to get to my shuttle bus to take me to my objective, the IWSC wine judging.

The shuttle took five of us to wherever the hell this judging was to take place.  I had been sent a number of documents via email but reviewed almost none of them.  I went with my time honored technique of "showing up and seeing what happens".  As most things rarely go as planned, I felt this would be an effective approach in this situation.  The shuttle was oddly quiet as I was the only one that introduced himself or even acknowledged anyone else was in the vehicle. We drove on and on into the countryside, all of which looked vaguely like the Hudson Valley in New York.  I have no idea why one needs to drive to the edge of civilization to taste through some French wines when it clearly would have been more convenient to everyone to do it in London somewhere, but that was probably spelled out on one of the multiple documents I didn't read.

At last we came to a stop at an airfield with old war planes on display and a series of outbuildings.  I leaned in to the driver.  "Hey man... What's the deal with the scene here?"  In a typical English response where most people like to pretend that nothing is weird at all about tasting wines in a shed at an abandoned WW2 airfield where they now shoot Top Gear TV show episodes, he replied "Oh yeah... I don't know.  It was an airfield in the war or something.  I don't know really."  Me?  Here's what pops into my head when I see the surroundings.  "Why did we just go 90 minutes into the countryside to drink wine when we could have done the same thing in a conference room anywhere on the planet?"

I walked into the building and met my primary email contact Chris.  He had really shown himself to be an easygoing chap (if I may) as my emails had been sent mostly to entertain myself including asking if it would be OK if I had come in a horizontal striped shirt, beret, and cheap bicycle which I had expected to purchase in France at the airport.  None of this had happened of course due to a disaster involving my passport status and lack of bicycle shops in the airport, so he might have been somewhat relieved to see a casually dressed American that looked like Horst Schimanski standing in his airplane hanger shed outbuilding.

I was instructed to go to Tasting Room #2 where I sat in a very small room with three English senior citizens and a frumpy woman that looked like she had a head cold.  No one spoke.  It was very odd.  I introduced myself to the frumpy woman and was told by the chairperson that we would all introduce ourselves later when all were present.  I took this to mean, "Don't talk to anyone now with your American small talk".  I sat and waited.  When everyone was seated the chairperson cleared her throat and instructed the Italian expat woman to her left that was like Zsa Zsa Gabor on a budget to begin the introductions.  Everyone had worked in wine for decades and had all sorts of qualifications.  It also became evident that they all knew one another and this performance was only for me.  Why I couldn't have met them individually, I have no idea.  When it was my turn I gave them my story.  "What's up good people?  My name is Greg Miller and I don't work in the wine business.  I sell ads and sing in a rock band.  I am taking the WSET Diploma exam just to see if I can pass it."

Absolutely no one cared.  No one even had a follow up question or made a sound like "huh".  I didn't take it personally though.  I could have said, "I am a Satanic fisherman that is working on building a time machine out of animal bones and construction scraps and hope to travel back in time to purchase cases of 1961 Petrus which I will sell at tremendous profit in the year 2026 after the next Great War as has been foretold by the Oracle."  I don't think anyone would have batted an eye.  I don't know if it is an English thing or a stuffy English wine professional thing, but they just stayed in their lane.  They did not want to know about me as it really had no direct effect on them personally.  And with that, we commenced tasting 53 French wines from around the country.

Something you should know when noticing some wine on the shelf has won an award is that often it comes from this environment.  There's five jackasses like me sitting in a room swirling the wine in their mouth and then shooting from the hip.  83!  79!  87!  The one woman was a Master of Wine, so to put it succinctly, she knew what the hell she was talking about.  However, there was this older gentleman named Griffith who I wasn't so sure about.  We would taste the flights of wine and make our notes.  Then when completed we would go around the table with our scores.  "Greg?  81...  Susan?  80...  Deborah?  82...  Griffith?  100..."   A one hundred is perfection.  That is a wine so good you might cry when you taste it.  This wine we were scoring?  It was a C+.  Yet, no one questioned Griffith.  They just kept moving ahead.  So if you do the math, three Cs and an A+ means that the wine in question gets a B, which essentially means a silver medal.  It seemed crazy to me that no one said "Griffith?  What the hell are you talking about?  This wine is mediocre at best.  Slow your roll Bro."

I just kept at it.  The woman with the look of a headcold never really spoke to me even when I said "Man, that last flight sorta sucked, no?".  She just looked straight down at her paper.  The older woman next to her was sort of like an acid damaged Julia Child.  I liked her as she was like a wacky Aunt that probably gave you irresponsible gifts like birds for Christmas and then got drunk on Chablis at dinner.  We had a break for a quick snack which was a sliced cucumber.  Everyone sat in the room silently munching on their cucumber.  I asked Griffith if he was going to go out and rip up the town after the tasting.  He stared at me in a confused way and then tilted his head.  "no."  End of conversation.

The second half of the tasting went much like the first.  Once again Griffith gave a 100 score to a crummy little Macon we had all given scores in the 80-83 range.  I couldn't take it.  "Griffith!  Are you saying this wine is perfect?"  I thought it was quite lovely.  "Dude, there's green stalkiness on the finish and that shit is not supposed to be there.  I'm calling you out on this one."  Everything stopped for a second.  Then the chairwoman said "So... It's a 100 then?".  Griffith, very pleased, nodded and said "Yes".   And we just kept moving like it had never happened.  We finished up by overrating a couple late harvest dessert wines and called it a day.

There was a light lunch served.  No one really was interested in talking to me, so I went outside to watch people in Volvo station wagons tear ass around the runway race track.  A guy from the other tasting group came outside to meet me.  I think Chris sent him out to make sure I was OK.  I asked him a series of direct questions and then he got uncomfortable.  Eventually the shuttle bus driver herded up the crazy Aunt and Griffith and we drove back to the train station.  The five of us waited for the train on the platform spaced out in 10-15 foot increments, no one acknowledging the others.    I got on the train, ticket placed strategically in my Schimanski jacket and listened to the conductor.  "This train is scheduled to stop in Woking with the final stop Waterloo Station."  The Kinks "Waterloo Sunset" started playing in my head again.  I looked at the back of Griffith's head far up the car.  I wondered if he was thinking about that Macon.  Maybe he was thinking about "Waterloo Sunset".  He would never tell me, that's for sure.


At May 9, 2017 at 2:46:00 AM EDT , Blogger Ken in sunny Florida said...

This must be the man bestowing all those medals upon Rex Goliath. Tainted and unclean I say...

At May 9, 2017 at 6:05:00 AM EDT , Blogger Greg Miller said...

Based on the sporty tie he was wearing, he might be on the take to Rex!


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