Talking Taste with Tres Goetting, Winemaker for Robert Biale Vineyards

Talking Taste with Tres Goetting, Winemaker for Robert Biale Vineyards


Talking Taste with Tres Goetting, Winemaker for Robert Biale Vineyards

Kim B profile picInterviewer & Writer: 

Uncorked Monthly Contributing Writer, Kim Brittingham

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What makes a wine good or bad?

I mean, it’s subjective, isn’t it? Yet we look to wine judges to tell us what’s wonderful, and many of us take their ratings, medals and tasting notes to heart.

And what is “taste”, anyway? We know it’s a phenomenon of the tongue, but do all human tongues work exactly the same way? Maybe to some, chocolate tastes like dirt, or honey like motor oil.

And how does all of this come into play when one claims to have a more sophisticated palate than most?

Razor sharp palate

When I read that Tres Goetting, winemaker for Robert Biale Vineyards, had a “razor sharp palate”, I decided to open a dialogue with him on the subject of wine and taste. Even if my questions were impossible to answer, I still thought it would make for an interesting discussion.

Tres_Original_smallGoetting had never heard such flattering words about his own palate before, so the “razor sharp” designation was news to him. “I think that is a good thing,” he said modestly. I asked him to verbalize what he thought it meant. “To me, it means that people like us with razor sharp palates have the ability to perceive things at a threshold (at) which most people’s palates would not be able to…which can be, for example, detecting flaws in the wine at certain parts per million or parts per billion.”

That sounded reasonable. After thousands of sips – and not just any sips, but sips taken with a mindful effort to understand what one is tasting – a person’s taste buds would naturally become more fine-tuned.

“I started working in the wine cellar when I was 16 years old,” said Goetting. “Of course, I wasn’t drinking, but I was able to learn under a great teacher and have had several mentors and great teachers up until now.”

He also thinks it was helpful to be involved in harvesting at an early age, when, “you’re smelling these wines during fermentation, and it’s a whole other thing than to smell a finished product. You smell these aromatics (and) esters that come off the top of the ferment and blow up into your face and you’re really getting this extreme look at the fruit profiles of wines and aromatics.”

So a wine drinker with a more developed palate is more likely to have a deeper, more complex taste experience with every new bottle. But Goetting confesses it can have its drawbacks.

“It can haunt you, because I find it difficult to simply enjoy wine a lot of times. I actually tend to pick (wines) apart and try to taste what’s wrong with them — if that makes sense — which can be a bit of a deterrent.”

Yeah. That makes sense. Years ago when I worked as a picture framer, I couldn’t go anywhere without noticing the sloppy, less-than-crisp cuts in the corner of every mat, or detecting the creeping humid wave of a print that hadn’t been dry mounted. Cretins!

But for Goetting, while those sharp instincts might occasionally interfere with an uncomplicated enjoyment of wine, he says they’re crucial in the realm of winemaking – especially when it comes to communicating the taste experience. “When it’s time to describe a wine, you’re able to write tasting notes…and you really need to describe the aromas and the flavors…To have a hypersensitive awareness of these things…is a huge advantage.”

Taste in the tasting notes

Revised_DSC_3933I was glad Goetting brought up tasting notes. In the notes I’d read, it seemed I was encountering the same descriptors again and again. The taster might detect oak, earthiness, smoke, fresh-cut grass. And there were the inevitable references to specific fruits, like cranberry, cherry, blackberry. All of which could be perfectly accurate, of course, but they lacked…I don’t know. Soul. Like there was taste in the tasting notes, but little of the taster.

When I recently took a first crack at writing tasting notes, I decided to break with tradition. I wanted to share my sensory experience in a more personalized way. To have fun with it, and hope that it still conveyed something evocative to the reader. Still, I felt compelled to check with Goetting: “If I describe a taste layer in my glass as ‘red-stained popsicle stick’, is a highbrow wine expert going to smirk?” And what about, A firework dissolving quickly into smoky tendrils? Or, a low-riding sports car with a black leather interior?

In Goetting’s opinion, “I think the more you throw out there, the better, and the more open you are to it, the better. Sometimes those things are really hard to describe. I’ve been known to use descriptors such as ‘Grandma’s linen closet’. I mean, there are things like that. There’s no other way to describe that other than a memory.” He further advised, “Don’t be afraid to say what you think, what you feel. There’s no right or wrong, it’s just what comes to mind right away. Don’t be afraid to say or describe what you’re smelling or tasting.”

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in developing your palate, Goetting suggests, “Taste as many wines as possible, as often as you can. It’s the only way.” That makes for one tough assignment, you guys. Buck up and endure.

Returning to the point of taste being subjective, Goetting said that variations in taste preference are, “always of concern to me, for winemakers in general, because everybody tastes things differently.”

Exactly. I can’t stand the flavor of spearmint gum, but some people love it. Or as I shared with Goetting, I’d chaw a bouquet of fragrant cilantro in a minute, but some people swear it smells like cat pee. Goetting joked, “I could name a couple of Sauvignon Blancs that might fall in that category.”

You have to go with your gut and your instincts.

Then he put forth an intriguing question: “Are we supposed to make wines for ourselves, or are we supposed to make wines for others? And if so, how do we know what those other people want or what they will taste? You have to go with your gut and your instincts.”

It would seem Goetting’s instincts are happiest when working with zinfandel. As a winemaker, it’s his favorite. “I always call zinfandel a mysterious varietal,” he told me. “It’s one of those tricky varietals that always keeps you on your toes, which I really love. You’re not ever able to just relax, and it constantly humbles you. It’s very driven by vintage and growing season.”

Goetting explained that zinfandel is a varietal that clusters in tight bunches, leaving little room for airflow between grapes and making it susceptible to rot and mildew in wet weather. It’s also a thin-skinned varietal, which means it ripens earlier and can raisin more easily than other varietals.

Tricky though it might be, Goetting says zinfandel, “makes such complex wines. I love zinfandel because of that.” And he relishes the challenge. “It’s very rewarding when you do hit it right – these magical spices and beautiful red fruits and beautiful natural acidity.”

2013 Black Chicken Vineyard ZinfandelGranted, it’s just this taster’s opinion, but I think Goetting hit it right with his Robert Biale Vineyards 2013 Black Chicken Zinfandel. Goetting says ’13 was “a phenomenal vintage”, describing it as having “this gentle grit of tannin. It’s got this very luscious, ripe, bright fresh fruit with some spice, but it has a spectrum of red and dark fruits. There’s raspberries and cherries, there’s blackberry. Here I’m describing some of the classic descriptors that we talked about earlier, but it’s true, they really are in there. And those are things that make your mouth water from the moment you even smell it…it’s very smooth on the palate and…you have a very long juicy finish.”

Also a treat is Robert Biale Vineyards’ 2013 Royal Punishers Petite Sirah. “I love this wine,” said Goetting, “because even though it is big and bold with tannin and structure, it still has a real beautiful plushness to it. When it enters your palate, your mouth, it’s got this weighty viscous feeling to it. You get this blackish-blue opaque color to the wine. That, with the aromas of blueberry and blackberry, espresso bean, dark chocolates, black tea…So be in for a deep, dark, brooding wine that’s going to go well with meats and barbecues and richer fares that support tannin.”

If this article has inspired you to work on developing your palate, remember Goetting’s advice: “Taste as many wines as possible.” Start stocking up at




For our this tasting we tried a wonderful Robert Bials 2013 Black Chicken Vineyard Zinfandel. The entry is soft and gives way to supple round tannins with a delectable center and persistence of fruit. Dull appearance, with full aromas of rose, black currant and blackberry. A full-bodied red. The finish is subtle. An overall good/excellent Zinfandel from Napa Valley, California.


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