POWER WINE-TASTING isn’t a particularly pretty thing to watch, particularly when one person faces trying more than 650 wines over three weeks. When I arrive at the Brewery Blocks apartment of our wine columnist, Condé Cox, I find him pumping up for day eight of his marathon by slathering mustard on a slice of rye bread, wrapping it around a freshly microwaved organic hot dog, and inhaling it in four bites. “I’ll eat gruel,” he says, chewing the frank and swallowing his syllables, “and drink Château Lafite Rothschild.”
Cox’s task: to pick the top 50 current-release wines of the season—the 30 best at any price point, plus 20 that cost less than $20. Nominally fueled and ready, he pulls the evening’s first cork.
No effete affectations here—the nose swinging over the rim of the glass, the cocked eyebrow at the first sip, or the proverbial “hmmm” as the flavors rise. Cox’s movements are more characteristic of a swimmer than a sommelier.
Splash. Sniff. Slurp. Pause. Pitooouh.
But then, for my benefit, Cox turns up the volume on what is normally his internal, mouth-to-mind dialogue, a ratcheting, mind-boggling ticker tape measuring tannins, acidity, astringency, residual sugars, fruits, and other, more arcane oenophilic notes, such as the levels of leather and tar. Sniff. Slurp. Pitooouh. Cox scribbles the highs and lows into a brown leather-bound book, each entry punctuated by a final circled number—his rating.
“Most instructors only talk about aroma,” says Cox, who teaches a course called Wine Sensory Evaluation at Oregon State University’s extension campuses. “You need to use tactile taste.” And then he’s off. “How do you taste for alcohol? Heat. What’s that? It’s like the sense of touch in your fingertips, only you’re using the skin inside your mouth. How do you taste tannin? It’s astringency. Astringency is a dryness—the quality that sucks the saliva out of your mouth. Are you feeling the pang of pain on the roof of your mouth? That’s acid. Now, how do you distinguish that from warmth? Are you tasting the acid or the alcohol or the tannin? If you’re confusing them, you’ve missed the wine.”
Cox, 55, has been tasting wine for more than three decades, these days at a rate of about 12,000 bottles each year. He’s one of only four Oregonians ever to be accepted to study at the London-based Institute of Masters of Wine, a rigorous 56-year-old program. Should he become one of the few candidates who graduate each year, he’ll be in the elite company of only 275 fully accredited masters in the world. Sniff. Slurp. Pitooouh.
Cox’s rapid-fire monologues on winemaking history, gossip, and, ultimately, judgment stream by as an empty champagne bucket fills up with discarded mouthfuls of the noble rot. But as he describes the flavors—whether a particular fruitiness is closer to ripe pear or cucumber; whether the warmth of alcohol is well balanced by finely grained tannins—each of my taste buds stands up and bows.
As you try his selections, we hope yours will, too. Cheers!—Randy Gragg