May I Quote You? Vol. 25 No. 05

A Conversation with Scott Turnbull.

Sommelier Scott Turnbull plays Sherlock Holmes to my Watson. Elementary?

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Last fall, I sat in on a Zoom presentation for a commercial program called Master the World designed by West Coast sommelier Evan Goldstein and his business partner, Limeng Stroh.  Master the World provides wine lovers with unidentified wine samples that allow them to broaden their skills in evaluating what they drink. Each MTW kit is a curated selection of six 187 ml bottles with a tasting mat and instructions on using an online tasting evaluation grid. Additionally, along with each kit, MTW holds tastings monthly that subscribers can attend live or view later.

Personally, I’ve never been tempted to do blind tastings or participate in “guess this wine” games, even though I’ve been writing about wine and interviewing winemakers for decades. I’m just not that interested. But during the demo, I was nevertheless intrigued by the process that trained sommeliers follow in deductively peeling away a wine’s layers. As a journalist, Evan suggested I have a trained sommelier walk me through the process and recommended sommelier Scott Turnbull to do this on Zoom. Evan then sent Scott an unmarked vial and provided me with an identification of the wine’s provenance.

I quickly sent Turnbull a note thanking him for being a great sport in volunteering. Currently, he is employed as a consultant by Winebow, the wine importer, but has a background in working the floor at top restaurants in Philadelphia (Le Bec Fin, The Fountain) and in Napa Valley (the Restaurant at Meadowood, Solage), where he and his family now live.  A couple of weeks ago, he gave me a call on Zoom.

“Sorry to ask you to play Sherlock Holmes to my Watson,” I begin apologetically. “I’m nervous, but I know you can’t always be 100% right,” Turnbull says, smiling at me through the monitor. “What I’m really interested in is the process,” I add quickly. “How do you try to identify a wine step by step? Just being able to talk me through the process will be fascinating.”

So Turnbull picks up his partially filled wine glass, which he holds slightly aloft. “At least, we know it’s a white wine,” he begins jokingly. The sequence he will consider, he says, is sight, nose, palate, structure. Then the flow of words begins. “Clean, bright white wine, some straw, watery rim, platinum in the glass.” A swirl. “Moderate viscosity.”

And on to the smell! “Nose clean; the wine is youthful. Struck match – a little sulfur.” Although Turnbull is not yet ready to taste, he takes a healthy sip, swirls it around, and spits into a cup. “I find that helps me with judging the smells,” he explains, then continues the evaluation. “Citrus fruit, lemon, white grapefruit, tart oxidized lemon, apple – Yellow Delicious, just ripe, stone fruit, chalky white fruit.” Pause. “Not a lot of fruit, which leads me to consider the climate,” he says, the first move toward a judgment. “Moderate floral, like baby’s breath. Crushed rock. Crushed baby aspirin.” Another cautious, though preliminary deduction: “All stainless steel?”

Turnbull smiles into the camera. It is important, he tells me, not to act on a flash of early insight, which could lead to going down the wrong road despite warning signs to the contrary. Now back to work with a generous sip. “I get leaner fruit than in the nose. Petroleum. More lime, like Margarita salt. Still youthful. More tart than I would have expected from the nose, but the wine is beginning to warm up. And the apple is now more Granny Smith rather than Yellow Delicious. Petrol, diesel, rubber cement. Stainless steel – or neutral oak. Old World, cooler climate.” More deductions begin to flow: “Probably Riesling could be Gruner or Albarino. Age range one-to-three years.”

Now, he’s ready to openly make a guess: “Riesling from France, Alsace, AOP level. From a quality producer. 2018.”  Turnbull laughs. “After doing this for 20 years, this can still be nerve-wracking.”  (Before the reveal, I wonder if any trained sommeliers who may be reading this are going along with Turnbull’s decision tree, or if they would go in a different direction?)

I look at the note in front of me, and I tell Turnbull he is mostly, but not totally, correct. It is Riesling. It is from a cool climate; it is a quality producer. There is an asterisk with the vintage, as it is 2019, not a 2018 – but he is only six months off, and the wine is not from France but Australia. “It’s a 2019 Hewitson ‘Gun Metal’ Eden Valley Riesling,” I tell him.

“I guess I need to taste more Australian Riesling,” Turnbull laughs. We then discuss how important it is to – year in, year out – drink a huge variety of wines from around the world, what a sommelier does in normal times. Unless you have hundreds of varieties, vintages, and vineyards cataloged in the brain, how can one even attempt to identify the provenance of a single one? But Turnbull is thinking back to a missed clue. “I have a colleague who says that Margarita salt means Australian Riesling. I should have gotten that.”

Continuing, he says, “During the pandemic, I missed tasting with other people because you can compare notes before making a guess, a part of the learning process. But, in the end, it’s like high school math. Eventually, you have to show your work.” Most of us, even those of us who write about wine daily, might be too intimidated to even sign up for the class to begin with.

Feature photo is of Scott Turnbull while on a Zoom call with Roger Morris.

Roger Morris writes about wine, food and travel for The World of Fine Wine, Drinks Business, Meininger's Wine Business International, Wine Enthusiast and other publications in the U.S. and Europe.

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