Using The Theatrical Process Outside The Theatre
By Gregory Jacobs-Roseman
As you may or may not know, I’ve spent the past few years in sommelier training. I should probably stop here and tell those readers who don’t know what a “sommelier” is – the word, I've come to find, is less well known than one might think – that a sommelier (or “somm” for short) is a trained wine expert. My interest in wine began at an early age, as my parents are winemakers and collectors, though I didn’t decide to actually sit down and start studying wine in earnest until about three years ago. It's said that the way our lives go as far as alcoholic beverages are concerned is that the average person begins to drink them mainly for the intoxicating effect. Beginning with beer in college (or like most American teenagers, high school) because it’s cheap, booze and cocktails in our 20’s because – as one of my teachers put it: “you reach the desired effect faster,” and eventually we make the leap to more sophisticated libations. For some it’s artisanal craft beer, for others, single malt scotch, and for many, including the two types I just mentioned, it’s also wine.
I’ve just completed a pretty intense blind tasting course which began in December and wrapped up with a final exam this past Monday (hence the timing of this article), and in preparation for that exam I noted a few parallels between my two passions of wine and theatre. Good wine, like good theatre, is layered. It’s at times subtle and at times bold as brass. It takes practice to learn what a glass of wine is telling you about where it came from and how it was made, just as it takes training and practice to dissect a well-made play. In blind tasting, you begin with the visual, move to the nose, then to the palate, picking up clues, building an argument, showing your work like you would with a math problem back in high school, all leading up to making a primary and final conclusion about what’s inside the glass. For me, it’s really fun, and something I was excited to be working on over the past 20 weeks.
In between classes I would gleefully uncork a bottle of wine in front of friends and discuss the aromas, the flavors, and how they got inside that bottle. I would talk about grape varietals, soil types, winemaking styles around the globe. For many of my friends this was also fun and interesting, but for some it was annoying and borderline pretentious. That’s when a rule of theatre reared its head, this time in regards to wine: Know Your Audience.
My final exam for the blind tasting course was six wines, three white, three red, fully blind (mind you, I don't mean blindfolded, I just mean without knowing anything about what’s in the glass except for what I could see, smell, and taste) in 24 minutes. To put it lightly: it's very, very, very difficult to pull off. Many of the professional sommeliers that taught the course also took the course years before, and many of them had to take the exam more than once before passing. Like in theatre, I knew if I was going to pull off this performance I had to rehearse. This is where my friends came in. I sent them to the liquor store to purchase wines, had them pour them for me, and time my attempts to identify what they had selected while making sure to talk about each of the 40 boxes on the American Sommelier Association’s tasting sheet for each wine, so as to maximize my final score. Friends were happy to help as afterwards we got to hang and drink what was leftover.
After a few rehearsals, I was able to get my timing down to under 24 minutes.
There are many, many aspects of wine that can tell you what’s in the glass when tasting blind, you just have to be able to pick them out and know what they mean. Without going into too much technical detail, some examples for the layman: If it’s a red wine, does the color change on the rim? That means it could be an older year. Are the flavors and aromas more earthy than fruity or oaky? That might mean it’s from Europe. It’s all about building on these small clues with the knowledge of what they mean to see the larger picture. While pacing my apartment and nursing a glass of Sancerre to get my palate ready in the hour before I headed to the exam, I had a revelation: the glass of wine in this exam is essentially my scene partner. It’s trying to tell me something, and I had to listen as I extracted that information from it. This late realization was very helpful heading into that exam room (before which I had to wait in the hallway of a building in SoHo, which felt very similar to waiting in the hall for an audition at Chelsea Studios). I did indeed finish in time, hitting what I think were all the points I needed, though I still have yet to hear if I passed.
In the end I suppose it’s no different than any learnable, trainable skill. Do the homework, practice, and you’ll perform to the best of your abilities. Still, for some reason relating it to theatre really helped me, and I wonder if that would be true of other skill sets as well. All I know is that as I sat there gliding through the oral exam, moving from one wine to the next, discussing the stain in the tears, the roundness of the nose, the structure of the tannins, and so on, as I was watched and judged silently by two professional sommeliers, I felt as if I was giving the audition of a lifetime.
UPDATE: After this article was published I was informed that I did indeed pass my blind tasting final exam. Huzzah!
GREGORY JACOBS-ROSEMAN is a composer/lyricist and theatrical sound designer currently developing Save The Date: A New Musical Comedy. www.gregjr.com
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