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The start of fall marks a very important moment in the year where the leaves begin turning, the nights and mornings are crisp and cool, and the sweaters come out of storage.  Most importantly though, this is the last chance you have to make some tasty beverages that you can enjoy during the winter holiday season.  This year, I’m prepping some Aronia Berry and Blackberry Schnapps as well as some Red Plum Liqueur.  Making treats like this require 3 months at minimum to sit so you should probably drop whatever you’re doing and get started.  You’re probably wondering why I didn’t alert you to this sooner if 3 months is the minimum, but I’m a realist.  You, as well as I most likely don’t have the patience or willpower to resist cracking one of these open if it was going to sit beyond 3 months, so really I’m doing you a favor.

Fortunately prep is minimal and there is quite a bit of margin for error so you can even embark upon this project after a hard day of apple picking and tipping back the hard cider.  Before the instructions though, let’s go over a little bit of terminology.  For our purposes, let’s assume you reside in the US for this terminology lesson.

What does it all mean, Aaron???

Liqueur or Cordial: Distilled spirit infused with fruit, cream, herbs, spices, flowers, or nuts and a sweetener.

Schnapps:  Derived from the German word Schnaps, or “Swallow” in English.  Any kind of alcoholic drink with distilled spirit in it. Most bottled schnapps will usually be infused with some natural flavoring.  Does not necessarily need to be sweetened.

Therefore, liqueur or cordials are kinds of schnapps, but schnapps is not a kind of liqueur or cordial.  Now, if you are traveling to parts of northern Europe, Schnapps will likely be some infused brandy or aquavit.  Traveling to the UK and that cordial is most likely going to be some non-carbonated soda pop (Sound tasty?).

 

Recipes For Tasty Goodness

A note on which distilled spirit to use:  If you’ve ever seen a recipe that calls for neutral grain spirit, they are talking about vodka.  Before you get your flavored end-product, it all starts with a pure distillate that is about as close to being only ethanol and water that the producer could get it to (or cared to).  After that you add your flavorings to produce that whole array of colorful beverages in the liquor store.  Gin, although classified into its own category starts as vodka as well.  The difference between schnapps and all of those flavored vodkas? Not much.

Aronia Berry and Blackberry Schnapps

  • 16 oz of Aronia Berries (They’re super trendy right now so you can find them frozen or fresh in any upscale grocery store).
  • 10 oz of Blackberries
  • 750 ml of distilled spirit
  • 1 2000 ml mason jar or sealable glass container

Intense instructions: Put all of the ingredients into your glass container.  Seal. Put into a cool and dark place like your basement and do not touch it for at least 3 months.

Red Plum Liqueur

  • 6 Red Plums
  • 1/2 cup raw sugar or rock sugar
  • 750 ml of distilled spirit
  • 1 2000 ml mas jar or sealable glass container

Intense instructions: Put the plums into the jar. Put the vodka into the jar.  Pour the sugar over the top. Resist the temptation to shake or stir it. Put into a cool and dark place like your basement and do not touch it for at least 3 months.

Is Templeton Rye, really a lie?

Is Templeton Rye, really a lie?

Do you read the whiskey news? Of course you do, you whiskey slugger, you.  Given that, you’ve probably heard recently of the troubles some “Small batch” whiskey producers are going through due to some…let’s call them inaccuracies of their marketing efforts.  Your know the story: “We’re making the same whiskey that pappy used to make during the Prohibition Era.” And people have apparently enjoyed the story, because they are buying lots of these products.  Are consumers victims if they buy a product based on the marketing and not because of the product itself?  I will leave that up for debate amongst you all, but let me dive into some of the more technical aspects of these conversations that bother me a bit.

A quick summary of the situation:  Numerous distilleries of whiskey (Interestingly enough, primarily rye whiskies) have previously marketed their products as “Small batch” and are being sold with the suggestion that they are local products coming out of places such as Iowa, Utah, and Vermont.  Through some surprisingly dedicated journalism, a good handful of stories are coming out about how most of these whiskies are actually produced out of huge distilleries like MGP-I in Indiana. Amongst the general outrage, a law firm is gearing up to attack the companies that buy what we term as “bulk” whiskey from a mega-distillery, perhaps do some blending of their own and then bottle it up and sell it as their own product.  This is a practice called Private Labeling and is used in just about every product category you can imagine from food to clothing.  And I can bet at some point you’ve probably stood in a store debating between two products that were created by the same company and now have two different labels on them.  The solution being proposed is to force these private labelers to disclose on their labels where there product was distilled.

Now let’s get into some of the details.  First up, what exactly is considered to be “Small batch” anyway.  In America, we have no legal definition so someone making 254 bottles (About 1 barrel’s worth) and someone making a million bottle’s worth of whiskey could both put “Small batch” on their labels if they wanted to.  For reference, here are what some well-known producers consider to be small batch courtesy of the compiled numbers at Wikipedia:

Batch sizes

  • The company that produces Maker’s Mark says that the traditional definition is a whiskey produced using “approximately 1,000 gallons or less (20 barrels) from a mash bill of around 200 bushels of grain“.
  • Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, a producer of bourbon and rye whiskey, uses at most 12 barrels per batch for its small batch brands.
  • George Dickel uses “approximately 10 barrels” of whiskey to make each batch of its Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey brand.
  • Jefferson’s Bourbon – Jefferson’s Reserve (“Very Small Batch”) gives the bottle number as being “x” of 2400 x 750ml bottles in the batch. This would equate to about 9 standard bourbon barrels (200.6L per barrel)

Second, let’s address the whole “local” issue.  Because we live in America, and our alcohol laws are more concerned about controlling who drinks it rather than the quality of it, if you’re drinking American whiskey (or beer for that matter), it is most likely not made from local ingredients regardless of where it is actually distilled.  Malt, that pivotal ingredient utilized for its sugars to feed to the yeast that turns it into alcohol will most likely come from the Upper Midwest.  The barley that companies like Rahr Malting and Cargill utilize can come from all over North America.  Therefore, part of the American beer or whiskey you a drinking could have actually come from Canada.

Third, as a subpoint to the above, where the whiskey is distilled (most likely utilizing its non-local ingredients) will have no bearing on the quality, flavor, or uniqueness of the end product.  Locality in American whiskey (or beer) doesn’t matter since we do not have unique regional styles (Reminder: Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. as long as it’s primarily from corn).  Compare this to Scotland, whose whiskies have distinct regional styles and you can easily distinguish between a whisky (spelling due to Scottish prefernces) made in the Islays compared to one made in the Highlands.  If you truly want a local whiskey made from local ingredients, using old traditions and that maintains a distinct regional style, try Springbank.  It’s one of the few distilleries that malts its own barley.  Of course, a bottle of their 25-year old may set you back $600+.

Additionally, the act of distilling (separating the alcohol from the other content of the mash to some degree) can be done in any environmental conditions with the same result because the things that truly affect the product like the type of still you use, the materials that still is made of, the temperature control of the still, and how you blend the cuts, are not constrained by the geographic location.  The quality of the end product is a result of the quality of the ingredients and the skill that went into distilling it.  This is theoretically easier to accomplish in smaller batches, but there are some large producers (MGP-I) that do a fantastic job in large batches.

To summarize then, in America we don’t have any legal definitions as to what the term “Small batch” means, nor do we have anyway to verify how local a whiskey product is (not that it would necessarily give us an indication as to how it would taste).  Oh, I almost forgot, we don’t have any definition as to what the words “Artisinal”, “Craft”, “Handmade”, or “Traditional”.  Hopefully though, you as a consumer have seen these words on bags of potato chips and wised up that they usually mean absolutely nothing.  Ironically, in the past marketers would shy away from these terms because they usually meant the product was inferior.  Legally, we do have a definition for the phrase “Distilled by” however, which has actually never been used by any of the cited whiskey producers in the lawsuit who have instead used “Bottled by” or “Produced by” instead.

Personally, I’m all for transparent labeling of any product and forcing whiskey producers to admit that they are really just private labelers is a good step.  My own ventures recently into the Private Labeling world have given me a new perspective, but a lot of the craft distillers have pushed the envelope of having a good backstory a bit too far.  However, we should also probably create a legal phrase that a producer can use to denote that they sourced their ingredients from local or regional growers.  Until then, the true story behind a whiskey (or beer for that matter) will look more like a supply chain readout of your car manufacturer.  Of course, the wine world already has this figured out this whole labeling thing so maybe we could just look over there instead?  Or just drink more wine…but I may be biased in that.

 

 

 

Le Pot Lyonnais

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Call me strange, but I’m not one of those people who seeks out history lessons when I travel to interesting places.  I don’t mean to admonish those who do; in fact I enjoy a good literary romp through history in book form or lecture, but I try to keep those sorts of things before or after a visit because I’m much too busy trying to not look too much like a tourist*.  Perhaps the notion of not sticking out is somewhat vain, but I do prefer to linger in a spot, watch people, and perhaps find a good story.  One particular story, which I picked up in Lyon, France just recently I will share with you as it is rather short.  If it helps your imagination, you can picture a grizzled old Frenchman orating over a bottle of wine as he tells you the story of the Pot Lyonnais.

For reference, it will help to know that a standard wine bottle is 750ml or 75cl.

As we all know, wine has been part of French culture for some time.  France has also historically declared that the other two pillars of civilization in conjunction with wine are silk and olives (mostly for oil).  So while many Americans think France just wasn’t up to snuff to being the kings of the new world, the French might contend that since America failed to reliably produce any of these three items in the century following initial European settlement, they really didn’t want it anyway.  The Pot Lyonnais came about because of two of these luxury goods: wine and silk.

The Pot Lyonnais

The Pot Lyonnais

Much before the 19th century, Lyon had established itself as the dominant silk producer of the world, but our story is more concerned with the 19th century.  While the French would later cede production of silk cocoon harvesting to China and Inda, they were and perhaps still are the undisputed masters of making fine silk fabrics.  As with every prosperous industry there was a need for a lot of skilled labor to create these fabrics since robots had not yet been invented.  In a fashion that can perhaps only be described as French, the “Canuts” or weavers as the workers were called were entitled to receive 50cl of wine every week paid for by their employer.  The workers received their 50cl of wine in a glass bottle which was poured from a 1 liter bulk container and became known as the Pot Lyonnais.  However, as we have all experienced with airlines, all “free” things must slowly be taken away from you.

Heavily bottomed to prevent drunk people from knocking them over.

Heavily bottomed to prevent drunk people from knocking them over.

The employers, perhaps a bit miffed at not being able to write off their own personal wine comsumption as a business expense, decided to trim that 50cl of wine down to 46cl.  [Looking at the pot, you'll see the thick glass at the bottom taking up 4cl of volume.]  Therefore, they’d be able to keep 16cl or just over 5oz (which is what we consider a normal glass of wine today) for every 4 Pots they poured out.  Of course, their glasses were about half the size of ours today so really a glass for the boss came every 2 pots.

And that is why you will find your wine being served in the Pot Lyonnais at most of the Bouchons (cafe/restaurants) in Lyon.

 

*There are exceptions as always.  The silk museum/tour in Lyon was especially fascinating.

AmericanWineFlag

My ears perked up as two middle-aged traveling businessmen started up a conversation with an attractive young woman sitting next to me.  I was in a wine-themed restaurant in the Denver International Airport on layover and passing the time by having a glass with some food.

“The only thing I’m hoping to get out of the wine is a little buzz!” the heavier set of the two who turned out to be from Seattle jovially announced after they were quizzing their new temporary friend about the wine flight she had ordered.  They then proceeded to embark upon an honest conversation about the “proper” ways they have heard of to hold a glass of wine.  At this point I almost interjected with an “Actually….” and then followed by something that I’m sure would have sounded pedantic, but I held my tongue.  Everything in their conversation about wine had a revelatory tone about it as if they were trying to figure out a way to pass themselves off as part of a storybook bourgeois class. To them, drinking wine took a certain degree of etiquette that they weren’t quite confident they could achieve.

To me, as someone who has spent the past 5+ years traveling around the country to both infinitesimally small and large towns alike, the overheard conversation exemplifies the current state of American wine culture.  We’re aware of wine, it is certainly in option in our beverage repertoire, but its primary role is either that of an intoxicating beverage or a declarative part as to some status of class (Mostly temporary as in during a fancy meal) in our minds.  We’re also pretty confident that there are a number of people who know how to drink wine in a more sophisticated way and are judging us when we don’t.  Yes, there are those on either side of the spectrum: Those who use wine in moderation to enhance the meals they eat on one end, and then those who don’t drink wine at all on the other.  However, most middle and upper class Americans have a relationship with wine that is very similar to the caricature of a pubescent teenage male: awkward yet really, really wanting to impress someone.

Recently, I have been finishing up Thomas Pinney’s The History of Wine in America volumes which passionately, if not exhaustively details wine’s place in this country from colonization to the past decade.  In terms of wine culture, the takeaway lesson from history is that the founders of this country and its early denizens had every intention of making wine an integral part of society because that was the type of culture they had come from.  However, due to both a lack of knowledge of how to grow grapes of European origin in America and a lack of native grapes suitable to making the quality of wine people were accustomed to, wine was never there from the start to be a consistent feature in everyday lives.  Once we figured out how to grow grapes of European origin on the west coast we had to wait until Prohibition passed and then some until we finally had a stable and widely available source of wine produced in this country.   Even more recently, we are finally figuring out how to coax some of the native grapes into producing material of high enough quality to make wine that we are accustomed to with the European ones.

Yet, some context is needed before we get too humble about our country’s wine endeavors.  Let’s keep in mind that thousands of years have passed from the time a human happened upon some fermenting grapes (Intoxicating, but I’m sure of dubious quality) to the regular production of wines of a standard that was originally set in Europe (Yes, primarily by the French).  During that between-time was a lot of selecting of the best vines in every generation, cross-breeding intentionally or not, and trying vines out in different locations to get what we considered to be the perfect balance of acid, sugar, and the mix of flavor-related molecules known as phenolics.  In America, we have only have around 300 years of history with wine.  In that time we have figured out where to plant European varieties to produce wines that not only compete with, but can best wines made anywhere else in the world in international competitions.  Also, our hybridization programs of our native grapes has gotten to the point where the wines produced from some of them are not only merely drinkable, but can even be confused for European varietals.  Learning from the timeless and tireless work of others and innovating upon it is the American way [Chest Thump].

Yet, despite the fact that we can produce world-class wines, wine is still not an integral part of our culture.  Why? It isn’t, as some snobbishly think, a difference between the culturally affluent city life and country bumpkins.  We don’t vacation in wine city, do we (Although it sounds like a place where I want to be)? Historically speaking, I would say it mostly has to do with proximity.  How many of us can say that they live in an area where or near where wine has been produced for the past 50 years or so; let alone 100 or 500 years?  Again, you have to go visit wine country and it’s usually a hefty drive or flight away.  Wine history buffs will know that wine has been produced in some form or fashion nearly everywhere in the country since its inception, but it has only been in places like California and more recently, Washington and Oregon that it could be considered a viable industry.  These places were able to do something no one else in the country could: produce cheap wine in decent quantity and quality and get local people to drink it.  Until most of the country can achieve this goal, wine will not become an integral part of the American culture.

Much could be said about the Temperance Movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the ensuing Prohibition that followed, but I think that grip is starting to fade.  The Temperance Movement in its original state was not about banning alcohol; it was about getting people (mostly men) to not drink liquor excessively and go home and beat their wives.  The founders and initial proponents of the movement had no concern over moderate consumption of wine and beer. The radicals that took over the movement are a different story though and the fractured alcohol laws that can be seen across the nation are certainly a hurdle to America’s future healthy relationship with alcohol.  Despite what some say, it’s not that you don’t drink or you do (Which would mean: excessively).  Moderate consumption of wine; the generally proven to be part of a health culture kind, is still an option.

…and then most Americans simply say, “So what?”  Why do American wine lovers always seem so evangelical about getting other Americans to drink wine?  While I’m sure I cannot speak for everybody, for me it is simply the desire to have a wonderful and shared experience with the people around me.  I can and do enjoy a good glass of wine with a meal and find enjoyment in it, but that pales in comparison to the times where I can say, “Hey guys! Come look at this thing! Don’t you think it’s great?!?!” And someone simply says, “Yes”.  I’m tired of wine being the domain of those who choose to adopt it as something that makes them supposedly more elite than everyone else.  Wine, while being infinitely complex in the experience it can create, is at its heart a very simple thing: Tasty fermented grape juice.

I could certainly attempt to argue on economical grounds in terms of the wine industry’s addition to the local economy or the greenness of not having to ship as much wine to places that already produce their own.  These in themselves are logical arguments that support the investment of making wine just about everywhere in the United States (Excepting Alaska’s milk wine.  They may try and export it because no one wants it there.).  I could also argue on health grounds, since wine drinking cultures rank highest in longevity and enjoyment of life, but let’s be honest: I just want to share the experience I have with wine with other people.

It is also about world-view though:  The culture of having wine with a meal encourages moderation and relaxed sociability.  Both of those items Americans could probably use a little more of.  Forgive me then if I want those around me to take a step back, have a sip of wine, and enjoy the moment they are in with the people they are with.  When it comes down to it though, no one, and I really do mean no one, thinks that’s a bad thing.

Your dreams of procuring me AND helping out a great charity are finally coming true!  On Saturday, March 29 at 5pm Emerging Opportunities for Sustainability (EOS) International is hosting their Cheers for a better future event at the 508 Bar in downtown Minneapolis.  This is your opportunity to support EOS International’s mission of providing low-cost technologies to rural families in the developing world.  There’s also a lot of really cool stuff to bid on during the silent auction, including an intro wine lesson for up to 10 people by yours truly (with wine).Check out the list below and I hope to see you there!

EOS Internationl Mission:

To provide underserved communities with access to low-cost appropriate technologies that generate income and improve health. EOS International will accomplish this by implementing our core technologies, promoting and teaching these technologies to both development organizations and rural villages how to implement them, and developing technology kits to distribute as a way to extend our impact to other areas where we are not currently working.

 

Donors providing items up for bid:

Aaron Berdofe (That’s me!)
Blue Door Pub
Bryant Lake Bowl
Christmas Point
Cowles Performing Arts Center
Digi International
Erte Dining
George and the Dragon
Greg McGrath
Jessup Cellars
Joe Dunlay
Linda and Jarrod Peterson/ Yellow Tree Theater
Minnesota Twins
Marlen Kemmet
Sabai Body Temple
Slade Kemmet
Summit Brewing Company
Three Rivers Park Driving Range
Two Sisters Bakery
Wes Meier

EyeWine

 

Fifth and final part to a sensory series.  Read Part 1: How We Smell, Part 2: How We Taste, Part 3: How We Touch, and Part 4: The Flavor of Wine.

The sense of sight is completely unnecessary to enjoy wine.  This isn’t even a debatable point.  One could claim that they derive extraordinary pleasure from looking at the color of the wine and would be at a complete loss without it, but I think we would all just pat them on the shoulder and pity them for their stupid opinions.  Perhaps the most important part of sight, when it comes to wine, is locating where your glass is, and how much wine you have left in that glass.  The only sense less important to enjoying wine than sight is our sense of hearing.  With all the slurping that most wine lovers do, it may in fact be more enjoyable if we could simply turn our ears off and only turn them on for the ensuing conversation.  Regardless, wine does have a distinctive color.  As I mentioned before, the color of wine can affect our perception of what the flavor of the wine is because we are hard-wired to recognize patterns.  Therefore, when conniving researchers intentionally change the color of a wine as a ruse, it can be effective.  I have personally found that this is generally more effective when done with those more knowledgeable in wine (Up to a point) than with wine novices.

It is certainly true that we can derive information from what the color attributes are of a wine.  We can asses how far along the path of maturity (Not necessarily age) a wine is by how much the color pools to the middle.  We can assume some oxidization of a white wine if it is tinged brown.  This doesn’t mean that we will enjoy a wine more or less based on visual cues, but perhaps we will pick up some indicators about what our mouths and noses will confirm.

The most interesting thing about how we see the color of wine is the number of parallels that exist between the sense of sight and how we also smell, taste, and touch.  All of these senses are in stereoscope, meaning that while our receptors for a particular sense may be specialized, they are by no means limited to their specialty.  In sight, we have 3 receiving cones for red, blue, and green for the light entering them.  As will be shown, the wavelengths of light that they receive, actually overlap.

It has been since the times of Isaac Newton that we have known that color is not contained within objects, but the objects cleverly reflect only certain light wavelengths.  We perceive these electromagnetic waves as color.  Perhaps it was to distinguish when berries were ripe or to more easily spot prey or predators, but the Why is not so much important to this article as the How.  While I would love to lay around stoned with you and discuss whether the blues I see are really the same blues you see (perhaps while singing the blues), the answer amongst normally functioning humans is that our hardware is generally the same and how our brain interprets these is pretty much identical between us.  There are those that have different hardware, and their world of sight is different, but more on that later.

The basics of the hardware contained in our eyes that are at the core of color are our cones and rods.  We have three type of cones composed of light-sensitive cells that each are specialized to a different range of the light spectrum.  The 6-7 million cones we have are what allow us to differentiate hues. The estimated percentage of each type of cone and the ranges are as so:

2% “Blue” cone: ~400-500nm |  32% “Green” cone: ~450-630nm  |  64% “Red” cone: ~500-700nm

The cones are commonly identified by the range of color that they are best at perceiving, but you’ll note that they overlap which means that they are somewhat sensitive to other hues as well.  There are a number of interesting things that can be said about the distribution of our cone types and where they actually are positioned in our eyes which are detailed here, but an important thing to note that is despite the inequality of the distribution in types of cones, our ability to see the different hues remains relatively the same.  This means that much like how there is a high order of brain processing going on to give us flavor, there is also a high level of processing going on to help us identify color.

When there is fault in the development of one or more types of the cones, this results in color-blindness.  Tetrachromacy, on the other hand, is a condition where one develops an extra cone which is commonly sensitive to more of the UV spectrum range of light.  This is how a number of the animal kingdom sees the world, including butterflies, and there is speculation that Van Gogh was a Tetrachromat given the colors used in his paintings of blue flowers.  Regardless, whether you can see color normally or not, it probably will not affect your enjoyment of a wine.

Additionally, we also have ~120 million rods that detect the level of intensity of the wavelengths hitting them. This intensity can be thought of as the saturation of a particular hue.  The seemingly infinite combination of these gives us all of the colors that we see.  The colors of wine though are not infinite.  In fact, we generally only speak of whether one is Red, White, or occasionally the blushy mid-point between the two colors called Roses.  What we are really referring to is a range of colors that range from golds to clear or almost greens for Whites, Pink hues for the Roses, and light Reds to Purples (Although sometimes Oranges and Browns) for Reds.

This color comes from two sources: The first being the juice of the grapes, which is almost always clear with a yellowy tinge.  The second being the skins of the grapes which traditionally are only used for “Red” wines and for a brief period for the “Roses”.  The range of colors in the grapes grown to produce wines are generally as such:

GrapeColorSpectrum

*Adopted from content in Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and Jose Vouillamoz

And the wines we produce from those grapes generally have a color range like this:

WineColorSpectrum

As you may have now figured out, it generally stands that the darker the color of grape, the darker the color of wine will be.  The pigments that create the colors that we see work by absorbing certain wavelengths.  Therefore, it stands to reason that the more pigment there is in something, the more intensely colored it will be.  In other words, the hue is determined by the make-up of the pigment, and the saturation is determined by how much pigment there actually is.    In wine, most evaluations value the correct hue for a wine varietal, meaning the grower of the grape allowed the grapes to ripen until they were just the right color, and the also value the saturation of that color meaning the wine maker was able to extract an appropriate amount of color from the skins of the grapes for Reds and Roses.  In judging the color of a wine, it’s not so much verifying that the wine is of a color it should be, a general range is fine.  The hue of a wine is inherent in the wine making process unless something really gets screwed up.  However, when it comes to the color intensity of the wine, the wine elite seem to generally prefer hues with a higher saturation.  This is generally referred to as the brilliance of a wine.  A wine that has less pigment extracted from the skins or inherent within the juice may be considered dull.

Clarity is a simple matter of how much opaque material is still left in the wine.  Winemaking is a reductive process at its most primitive form.  After the alcohol is created through fermentation, the winemaker begins the process of slowly stripping out everything from the wine but the water, alcohol, and molecules relating to flavor and color.  The remaining solids will just create cloudiness.

While it is certainly true that the visual appearance of wine in a glass can give clues to the quality of how the wine was made or perhaps what flavors we are about to experience, there hasn’t been any evidence that shows that it actually affects our enjoyment of the wine. Therefore, as you sip languidly on your next glass, go ahead and close your eyes and let your mind conjure up images based upon the flavor you are experiencing instead.

Additional sources for reading:

Neurogastronomy: How the brain creates flavor and why it matters – Gordon Shepherd

The Flavor of Wine

Flavor

Fourth part to a sensory series.  Read Part 1: How We Smell, Part 2: How We Taste, and Part 3: How We Touch.

The past 3 posts of this sensory series have been about how we smell, taste, and touch.  Each of these factors in to what we commonly refer to as the flavor of wine.  A lot of this has to do with proximity.  Each of these items are being processed next to each other in the brain (especially, smell and taste).  In fact, they happen so close to each other that sometimes we even get confused that things we are smelling are actually what we are tasting.  Something cannot smell sweet.  It can only taste sweet.    When the confusion between senses happens consistently, it is known as the condition Synesthisia. Jimi Hendrix could see color when he heard music (Listen to his song Bold As Love to hear about it).  He was a Synesthete.  I don’t believe there is any research on how LSD effects this condition.

Regardless of which wine evaluation methodology you are utilizing: The Court, International Sommelier Guild, or rating system like Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, etc. the majority of what is being evaluated can be encapsulated into flavor.  How We See (The Color of Wine) is next up in the series which is the other (minor) part of wine evaluation.  Yet, there is so much about flavor as we have seen where we have room to personally conclude whether we have preference for something or not.  The subjectiveness of flavor, whether consciously or not, is always somehow factored in to an evaluation of wine.  Therefore, there is an extra layer of complication for the casual wine drinker in finding a wine that they like.  They can’t simply just go to the experts to see what was rated the highest, they have to factor in whether those experts like the same wines they do or not.

This is particularly telling in the US rating systems which were created by people who generally don’t like sweeter wines even though most of the American public secretly does.  This is also mostly why I never rate wines on my blog and try not to use subjective descriptors.  I don’t know you.  Therefore, I could not accurately judge whether a wine is likable to all of you or not, nor could I trust myself to not subconsciously press my preferences on you.  I do however try and list the objective qualities of the wines I am pairing and then let you conclude whether that’s something you’re interested in trying or not.  The other part to this is that because our perception of flavor is so tightly entwined with our emotion and memories (Remember, you are comparing the aroma “image” to your memory stockpile of images to figure out what it is) that something as simple as you having a bad day when you have the wine, could affect your ongoing perception of it.  Tannat is my go-to brooding wine for instance.  Another example is how I have not drank a glass of wine from Bandol since I had it while breaking up with a girlfriend one time.  Is it any wonder that we have both a taste and feeling called ‘Bitter’?

I’m not saying that if we have a bad experience with a wine that we will continue to have a bad experience with it though.  I will drink a Bandol again, and one day you may actually enjoy that wine you thought you’d never like as long as the circumstances are right.  This is due to what is known as the plasticity of the brain.  We change.  What those circumstances are though is what wine and food pairing is all about at a fundamental level.  Previously in the series I mentioned how mental framing and priming can be used to brainwash you and shape how you experience a wine and food pairing.  OK, maybe brainwash is too strong of a word, but part of what I do during Wine and Food Experience events is to shape how people approach the tasting.  The idea behind matching the aromas of a wine to the aromas in a dish are a way to prime the mind to enhance that particular item.  The new wave of molecular wine and food matching is built entirely upon this concept.

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Found within this is the secret to wine and food pairing.  To create a good wine and food pairing, you don’t need to memorize the ingredients of thousands of dishes and understand the differences between wines of hundreds of different regions.  All you need to do is meet the [reasonable] expectation of the person who will be consuming the pairing.  The good news is that this is much easier than people think.  Most people have a pretty vague expectation:  They want to enjoy the wine they are drinking and enjoy the food they are having. They aren’t expecting to have their minds blown or taste something they have never tasted before.  The want agreeable flavor.  I know this sounds unapproachable by average home chefs and their non-existant wine cellars, but trust me.  If you can cook (Or buy, I won’t tell anyone) something you like to eat, and you know of a wine you like to drink, you can make it happen.

Here’s how you do it when you know what you want to cook.  First, tell yourself that this meal is going to be pretty good.  Imagine yourself eating a pretty good meal if you want.  Then, figure out the main components of the dish.  This can be as simple as looking at the recipe you are using or just perhaps recognizing what items your hands are putting in to your cooking apparatus.  The easy part about this is that you don’t have to be specific.  Fruit for instance, can be categorized as to whether it is red, dark, tropical, or stone (apples, pears, etc.).  Then you go to the wine shop and ask for a wine in your price range that has one of those main components in it.  This is called flavor matching.  Lastly, you sit down with someone and enjoy the meal you made with the wine you bought and you actively notice the component of the wine that matches with the food.  Huzzah! You are a pseudo-professional at this now.  What if the wine tastes thin?  Garnish the food with some lemon or another acid.  What if the astringency of the tannins are too much for your liking in the wine?  Back to the lemon/acid, or add some large grained salt.  Problems solved!

Here’s how you do it when you know what wine you want to have.  First, tell yourself that this meal is going to be pretty good.  Then look at the back label for some wine descriptors or Google the wine to find some.  Next, search for some recipes that have one of those components from the wine in it.  Now make your meal and sit and enjoy it with someone.  Huzzah again! You are a gastronomical hero.  Follow the troubleshooting tips in the previous paragraph if you run in to any of them.

The whole concept of flavor matching and very importantly, noticing it, is a big part to enjoying wine with food.  All you are is adding two similar aromas together and by their nature, they enhance each other.  Aroma after all is the main component of flavor.  The tastes mostly follow this additive quality as well.  Bitter + bitter = more bitter.  However, tastes can also be used as fill-ins when you think something is missing from a dish.  Keep in mind that good flavor is all about balancing all of them.  Ayurvedic cooking even makes a point of incorporating all of the tastes into ever dish.  Interestingly, they came up with and still maintain 6 different tastes: Sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent.  You’ll note two of those overlap with items discussed in How We Touch.  Modern research is studying how the lack of flavor balance in meals may be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

If the dish would taste perfect with just a touch of sweetness, but you didn’t add any in, have a wine that is a little sweet.  Of course, a lot of times you don’t know this until you’re in the middle of consumption so you’d probably just get a dash of sugar, honey, maple syrup, or that HFCS you have in your cabinet.  The point is, you have to go in expecting that you might change one minor thing, but with the goal of balancing.  Speaking of which, as far as touch goes, as long as you stick with the salt and the lemon, you’ll be fine there too.

Then what are professionals for? You might now assume that since you can deliver wonderful wine and food pairings now and impress your friends and the ever-growing multitude of lovers that a Sommelier or other wine professional is now obsolete in your life.  Being one of those experts, I will brazenly tell you that in a lot of respects you are correct.  However, if you haven’t bothered to memorize all the general wine descriptors of wines and how they vary between regions, you’ll need someone at the wine shop to point you to the right direction.  Also, did you know that the eugenol in the wine that comes from aging it in toasted oak is also found in clove?  No?  Well you’ll probably want an expert to point out some of the more obscure matches that occur.  Professionals can also help you understand some of the general relationships between acid, fat, salt, and such so you can expand your repertoire and not be limited to the same wine and food pairing every Friday night.

The more you learn about how wine and food work, the more you may seek out the novel and expand your experimentation.  Honestly though, if you can match some aromas and know when to use lemon or salt, you’ll have a great time and get be able to have an enjoyable experience 80% of the time.  The other 20% of the time you can give me a call.  Wine, and by extension, wine and food pairing is much like fashion: It’s more important that you wear something that fits than you stay up with the latest trends or try to make a statement.  Those that can pull off the bold statements either know a whole heck of a lot, or they’ve convinced the world that they do.  Also much like fashion, your preferences may change over time.  And that’s OK too.

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