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Jeff Porter Shares His Tips for Building Tasting Skills

The Italian-focused wine director discusses tasting techniques and new projects

Jeff Porter
Jeff Porter.

In the SevenFifty Daily Supertasters video series, we choose the wines, then challenge some of the industry’s best palates to blind tastings in an effort to glean their extraordinary techniques.

Jeff Porter is the director of Liquid Assets at the Bastianich Hospitality Group in New York City, where he oversees the beverage programs for Babbo, Del Posto, Esca, Lupa, Otto, and La Sirena in Manhattan and Babbo Pizzeria & Enoteca in Boston. Originally from Texas, Porter joined the group in 2009 as a sommelier at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles. He then relocated to New York in 2011 and became the wine director of Del Posto. He has been in his current role since 2014.

Porter has recently applied his expertise in fine Italian wine to a new creative endeavor—an online show called Sip Trip in which he travels to Italian wine regions with two other top somms and a journalist, and together they interview producers, drink wine, and explore the culture and history of Italy. The concept is simple, says Porter: “It’s discovering culture through libation.” He also recently collaborated with Shelley Lindgren, the partner and wine director of SPQR and A16 in San Francisco, on Vini Igni, a winemaking project that focuses on wines from volcanic soils.

After shooting our Supertasters video with Porter, SevenFifty Daily spoke with the Italian wine expert about what he loves most about his job, his experience barbecuing for 25 Barolo producers last summer, and his new projects.

SevenFifty Daily: What was the epiphany that got you interested in wine—or made you want to become a sommelier?

Jeff Porter: I got interested in wine while working as a dishwasher at a small joint in Austin, Texas. The chef, who was from Germany, would pour me a glass and tell me stories about the place it was from, the grape, vintage, and producer, and I totally fell for that.

What do you love most about your job?

I love making people smile.

In hospitality, when you’re talking to guests about wine, in some ways it’s a weird transaction. You’re trying to provide them with what they want—and that may also mean introducing them to wines they don’t yet know about.

Then there’s the moment when you finally agree on the wine. You go to the table and you pour the wine, and the guests are happy. That’s when you get that first smile. And they’re happy for a few reasons: They feel like they made a right decision, they’re happy because they like the wine, and they’re happy because they trust you. That’s the best—that connection between the guest and the sommelier. It’s better than any joke or any other thing that you can make your guests laugh or smile at.

What go-to bottle of wine—or other drink—are you most likely to open on a night off?

Chablis or Champagne—it’s fifty-fifty.

If you had to guess, about how many wines would you say you’ve blind-tasted and formally evaluated for professional purposes?

In my entire life? I’ve judged wine competitions before, so those are blind and you’ll do hundreds of wines over a week. I’m guesstimating at over 8,000 to 10,000 in a 15-year span.

What was your most memorable blind tasting—good or bad?

When I knew I passed my Advanced Sommelier tasting exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers. I really felt the wines told me everything—it was sort of out-of-body.

Was there any particular standout wine from your exam that still sticks in your mind today?

Since they never tell you what they are, I don’t have a specific wine in mind. I just remember that in tasting each of them, I let every wine come to me, and with each of them, I was one with the wine. I was able to decipher the quality, the where, the who, the what, and the why.

How does blind tasting help wine professionals better understand wine?

It makes you hone your understanding of wine. You take preconceived notions out, so you can better evaluate the wine honestly.

Do you apply any of the skills you’ve learned from blind tasting in your day-to-day work as a wine professional?

Yes—100 percent. I feel all the practice has made me better understand what wine should and should not taste like. Let’s say, for example, that there’s a paradigm for the terroir of Chablis and what it should taste like. So, when you taste tons and tons of Chablis, there are different style variations, but they should all sing one part of the same tuneor have a note that’s somewhat similar. But I think that’s the thing about blind tasting. First, it’s being able to zero in on flaws and faults, and second, it’s being able to say, “Oh, okay, this is this type of oak and this is how this was made, and then this is the place it’s from.” It helps you dissect the wine without having any preconceived notions about what it is. I think that enables you to be more honest about the wine in general.

What’s your number one piece of advice for people who want to improve their blind-tasting skills?

Practice with other people.

Why is it important to practice with other people?

So you can make fun of other people. Just kidding. A lot of times when I taste and try to describe the wine, a word is on the tip of my tongue and I can’t think of it, and then someone in the group will actually say what I was thinking, and I’ll be like, “Ah, yes, that’s what I was trying to describe but I just didn’t have the word at that moment,” so it really helps you practice and use your wine vocabulary in a better way.

Additionally, one trick I’ve used that’s been helpful to blind-taste through a category—like, for example, Chardonnay—is to taste as many as you can, and then put two into a flight of six or eight other wines and try to see if you can identify the Chardonnays.

What’s your most memorable wine experience?

Cooking barbecue for 25 of the best producers of Barolo and Barbaresco this past July while I was in Barolo.

I’ve become known in the industry as the guy who likes to barbecue a lotI’m from Texas originally. I’ve been friends with Luca Currado, the winemaker of Vietti in Castiglione Falletto in Italy’s Piedmont region, for a long time. He knew I was coming, and we always threatened to do a barbecue together, so I described the cut of meat I wanted him to pick up from the butcher. I asked for big porterhouse cuts because my last name is Porter and I thought that’d be funny. It was 16.2 kilograms of meat (nearly 36 pounds). It was pretty crazy. It wasn’t Texas barbecueI didn’t have enough time to smoke the meat. But Currado had two big Webers and everybody brought wines from the regionall Nebbiolo-based.

Offering my ability to cook was a way for me to give back to people who’ve always given me so much when I’ve visited them. To put my passion, which is grilling, and my passion for these people and the land in the same place, and to be able to do it for them, was such a big honor and it meant a lot to me.

What can you tell us about Sip Trip?

It’s me traveling through Italy with two somms and a journalist. I’m learning along with the people with me, and acting somewhat as a guide but more of an explorer, to really dive into culturethe culture being the place, the history, the people, and the food, with wine as the medium to explain it all.

I think what the trade may get out of Sip Trip is that instead of reading tech sheets about certain wines, you’re going to get to hear the producers talk about their wines—and not just specifically about the wines but the “why” behind the wines. As somms, we all tell stories about wine, and hopefully this can give people more access to tell the story about a place we go visit.

For instance, we’re going to visit Pio Cesare in Alba. Pio Cesare is one of the few wineries that can make wine in Alba under the DOCG designation for Barolo and Barbaresco because they’re one of the oldest estates and they’ve always made the wine there, so they’re grandfathered in—and that’s a story most people don’t know. One of the goals of Sip Trip is to inspire people to visit Italy and to discover the producers and wines for themselvesand to help make them want to be a part of it.

When is your first bottle of Vini Igni coming out?

The first wine is an Aglianico del Vulture and it just hit the market. Lindgren and I sourced the grapes from the Picini family in Italy’s Basilicata region. Together, with the Picinis, we blended fruit from two of the grower’s most prized vineyards in the Vulture DOC. It’s 100 percent Aglianicomedium in body and high-toned, with red and blue fruit, hints of smoke, and bright acidity. The first production was 6,500 bottles and it’s being distributed by Banville Wine Merchants.

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