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HappyHour

I feel like I should put up a big disclaimer on this post.  So before you rush to the comments to start calling me Mr. Judgey McJudgerson, you should hear me out.  It’s been my experience that there is a significant portion of the American population that doesn’t have a healthy relationship with the toxin known as alcohol.  I’m not necessarily referring to the college aged binge-drinkers and early 20-something over-indulgers who are just out to have a good time, man.  I think most of that can be chalked up to youthful exuberance.  Instead, I’m referring to full-grown adults who after a stressful day/moment/milliseconds of life turn to their friends and say something to the effect of: “Phew! I need a drink!” which is silently suffixed by a look that you would hashtag as #amiright?.  And before you can get both legs of your Offended Pants on, you should know that I’ve been and occasionally still am one of those people.  However, I’ve been doing some reading over the years…

In my other life, I travel around working with electronic health records for various healthcare organizations and I tend to meet a large number of healthcare professionals, both those of the clinical focus as well as those of the operational or financial focus.  To date, my clients have spanned from the Big Island of Hawaii all the way to the coast of Maine so I don’t think my experiences have been regionally focused.  As an aside, since I know you’re curious, yes, there have been a few that have taken advantage of my wine education sessions while I was with them as well.  But I’ve come to find that this Half-Joking-But-Definitely-Doing-It culture about using alcohol to combat stress is pervasive across the country.  Actually, let me put one caveat to that:  there’s a contingent that don’t actually drink, but they’ll make the jokes anyway and quickly follow them up with “But I don’t really drink.” and then look at you in a worried fashion in case you still believe that they would ever ingest alcohol.

You can see this cultural mentality just about everywhere.  There are the “Mom Blogs” that justify why their glass of wine at the end of the day is necessary, there are the constant references to drinking alcohol as a cure for stress in movies and television (Mad Men, anyone?), and the whole concept of Happy Hour revolves around needing a drink after a stressful day of work.  Here’s the thing though, from the medical research readings and hours of experimentation and observation I have done on this subject, I don’t think it actually works.  I may not be an expert on the subject, but I am a reasonably intelligent person with the internet at my disposal (Plus a Health Informaticist who synthesizes a lot of public health recommendations)  and one time I took that Stress Management class in college so I can at least have a reasonably and somewhat informed opinion on the topic.  Let me tell you how I arrived at this conclusion.

This isn't whiskey...it's creative juice.

This isn’t whiskey…it’s creative juice.

First, let’s define the major components of what happens when we get stressed.  Almost immediately after encountering a stressor, whether it be rush-hour traffic, a casual meeting invitation from your boss to review your performance lately, a tiger, or a tiger driving next to you in rush-hour traffic, your adrenal glands begin to produce two hormones: Adrenaline and Norepinephrine.  These two hormones get your body prepped for what is commonly referred to as the “Fight or Flight” response.  Your heart starts beating faster, your blood pressure rises, your muscles tense up and your brain starts calculating whether you should get those fists ready or sprint as fast as you can away from the situation.  Around the same time your Hypothalamus begins producing Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone (CRH) and your Pituitary Glands start producing Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH).  Neither of these have much of an external effect, but the combination of them eventually produces the hormone called Cortisol.  Cortisol is the breaks to Adrenaline and Norepinephrine’s accelerator and it’s main purpose is to help regulate fluid levels in the body and control blood pressure so your body doesn’t spin wildly out of control.  In other words it is there so you don’t die.  However, Cortisol is also what we associate with the feelings of stress and in fact we can directly correlate our feelings of stress with the amount of Cortisol flowing through our bloodstream.

Meow.

Meow.

Once the stressor is no longer an issue, the body self-regulates and the levels of all three hormones begin to reduce.  These hormones aren’t unique to the stress cycle.  You may have heard of them in terms of other bodily functions.  For instance, the norepinephrine pathway is manipulated by a drug to maybe-but-most-likely-not-because-we-have-no-idea-what-it-is-actually-doing* treat depression.  Cortisol, is the hormone that helps us wake up in the morning.  And so on and so forth. So when thinking about managing stress, it is not a matter of eliminating these hormones from appearing in the first place, but allowing them to effectively balance themselves.  Acute stress, or stress that is endured for a short period of time and dealt with generally will not have any negative effects on the body.  Chronic stress, or constantly dealing with stressors and not managing them effectively is what leads to negative health consequences.

Now let’s put alcohol into the mix.  The amount of research on stress and alcohol is fairly limited, but there is at least enough to contradict one big assumption.  The general working theory that your average Happy Hour patron has is that alcohol can be used as a tonic to relieve stress.  Basically, the thinking is that alcohol applied to stress is like aloe applied to a mild sunburn:  Apply liberally and eventually the irritant will go away.  Unfortunately, it appears that mixing alcohol with stress is more like a two-way street than a topical application.  Not only does alcohol affect the stress hormones, but the stress hormones appear to have effects on the body’s reaction to alcohol as well.

When you are stressed and you take those first couple of gulps of your apple-tini, I think most people would report that you do feel better.  And why not?  Alcohol, in small doses, has a relaxing effect through stimulating the release of Dopamine and Serotonin.  Serotonin, consequently helps to mitigate Cortisol.  These two hormones don’t necessarily get rid of the stress hormones, but they make us forget about them for a bit.  However, at some point, that same alcohol begins to turn into another source of stress on the body itself.  What point is this?  The jury appears to still be out and I’m sure there are a myriad of variables that can affect this, but the threshold is probably lower than we all think.  Regardless, this means that upon reaching this point, the “medication” quickly becomes an additional source of stress piled on top of the stress that has built up in your body.  This is pure conjecture here, but perhaps “Angry Drunks” are just those who are really stressed out people who make themselves more stressed out by consuming copious amounts of alcohol.

From the opposite side of things, the stress hormones have a general effect on how our body responds to the alcohol consumed.  This is mostly seen in a dampening effect of our intoxication level.  Therefore, people tend to consume more alcohol when they are stressed out because that point where you feel intoxicated arrives later than it typically does.  How this happens is still not clear, but you could probably see this in your own drinking habits if you kept a journal of your stress levels while drinking (Doesn’t that sound like fun?!?!).  Consequently, if you are continually drinking while stressed out, your alcohol tolerance level will probably keep going up as well which could lead to chronic alcohol abuse/dependency, poor sleep, prohibition, and of course, more stress.  In other words, the very thing you are using to reduce your stress becomes the source of it.

Now who needs a drink after reading all of that? Just kidding! Don’t do that.  I think the lesson that can be pulled from all of this is that before we drink we should be aware of our stress levels and the reasons why we are reaching for a drink to begin with.  If you’re stressed, and you have a glass of wine or two with dinner, it is probably unlikely that you will suffer any consequences.  In fact, you’ll probably just enjoy it.  However, if your habit is to binge on a few drinks after a stressful day of work or child-rearing, that habit could be detrimental to your long-term health.  In fact, it might even be a good public health campaign to encourage people not to drink if they are feeling stressed and save the drinking for the happy or at least mood-neutral times.  I think there is some evidence to state that stress or just being in college could be a major contributing factor in the over-consumption of alcohol.  Stress can be better addressed through other activities like exercise or meditation which there is plenty of positive evidence to support.  Therefore, next time you get the invitation or inclination to indulge in some alcohol application to your stress problem, take a second to think about it, and then politely decline. Save the drinks for when you can enjoy them since that’s what they are there for anyway.

*This isn’t a joke, the drug commercial is legally obligated to state that they have no idea how the drug actually works.

Some additional links for more fun reading:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=emma+childs+alcohol+stress

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/19/adrenaline-cortisol-stress-hormones_n_3112800.html

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WhiskeyGifThere was a time, not too long ago that I drank whiskey neat because I was a man or something.  OK, there were actually some good reasons for this:

  1. If you order whiskey neat in a bar, there is a low risk of them screwing up the drink.  Plus, you know exactly how much alcohol you are getting compared to everything else that might potentially go in the glass.
  2. If I’m having a good tasting whiskey, I just want to taste the whiskey.  No accompaniment needed.
  3. I have a beard sometimes and therefore it’s required of me by society to drink whiskey neat.
  4. Everyone I’ve talked to generally agrees that I look BA drinking whiskey neat.  Some have even gone as far as saying I look like a BAMF, but they may be over-exuberant.

Over this past winter however, I did a little dabbling in the H20 realm, and now I’ve been adding a few drops into some whiskeys depending on my mood.  As a frequenter of high class bars all around the world, as I know you are, you may have picked up on this little technique and even perhaps noted that certain high class bars will serve a small dram of water alongside the whiskey.  This is not a suggestion that the bartender thinks you may be alcoholic or can’t handle your liquor as I once thought in my early twenties when asked if I wanted a glass of water alongside my whiskey.  The presentation of water alongside whiskey is more of a, “If you desire it…” offering.

A whiskey enthusiast might state that adding a few drops of water to the glass will “activate” the aroma compounds in the whiskey.   A logical and cynical mind might respond: “What the hell does that mean?” Usually, the whiskey enthusiast really has no idea, but hopefully is at least speaking from the experience they have had where they prefer the whiskey with a few drops of water opposed to the whiskey sans agua.  So what’s really going on?

In the simplest sense, the addition of a bit of water is masking certain aromas and enhancing others.  That fact is really the actionable part of any research that’s been done so far on the subject.  If you want to get really sciencey, (Which OMG, yes, do I) then you can read a nice little paper on it here.  If you want an educated professional’s nicer description, you can read it here.

Therefore, if you want to have a go at this little bit of scientific manipulation here’s what you do:

  1. Grab two glasses
  2. Pour an equal amount of whiskey into both
  3. Smell and taste both, perhaps with some water in between
  4. Drop, let’s say, 5-10 drops of water into one of the glasses
  5. Smell and taste both again.  Do they smell or taste slightly different?
  6. Proceed to drink both glasses of whiskey.  Don’t act like you weren’t going to.

If you truly want to be scientific about it, I would get someone else to apply the water for you, but you’re probably drinking alone again so don’t worry to much about it.  The key word in step #5 is “Different”.  Notice I didn’t say “Better” or “Worse”.  Just different. Different strokes for different folks.

In applying this new found knowledge, whenever you come across a whiskey that you like, but it’s perhaps not “Popping” for you; give it a few drops of water.  You can really keep adding drops of water until the point where you start telling yourself that “This tastes like watered-down whiskey.”  If you come across a whiskey you don’t like, you are free to use it for fire-based parlor tricks, a fuel source, or a disinfectant in the event of a bar fight.  Water dilution will never help a bad whiskey unless it’s diluted to the point it can no longer be tasted.

Additionally, that scientific research article mentioned above which you didn’t read also concludes that cooling down the whiskey (AKA: adding ice) may have a similar, albeit through a different mechanism, effect.  Personally, I haven’t found a whiskey I prefer at “Ice temperature” opposed to room temperature or slightly below room temperature, but I will leave that to personal preference.

For those that really want to be an annoying snob to their friends, I would recommend only utilizing water sourced from a location near the distillery of the whiskey you are drinking.  While there is certainly no proof behind it, some people do claim that utilizing the whiskey’s local water is truly the ultimate experience. I think something could be said for not using overly hard or overly soft tap water, or perhaps even the ice that has been sitting in your freezer for the past month, but here in Minneapolis, the tap water is just fine.

Think of this as an extra tool in your drinking tool belt and not something that should be done every time.  “Whiskey need a little sprucing? *Sprinkle in some magic water!” And remember, if you hide the water, people will think you’re drinking it neat anyway.

*Extra points for creative sprinkling technique.

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Fall at a Minnesota vineyard

 

Wine and climate are intricately linked. For anyone who has gone through any sort of wine training, you inevitably also get a lesson on macro, mezzo, and micro climates as well. Wine education doesn’t usually touch on genetics (although I feel it should), but climate is one of three factors that influence how a grape varietal expresses itself. The other two factors are soil, and how other living creatures (mainly humans) interact with it. These three factors combined are neatly summed up into the French word, Terroir. One of the fun things in wine is finding that grapes of the same genotype (what it’s born with) will produce wines with slightly different characteristics based on the terroir they exist in. One could also describe this as being a grape’s phenotype.

For a few thousand years the climate where wine grapes were developed and the soils they were developed in have remained relatively the same. The human factor though is what we consider to be the “Art” or “Science”, depending on your perspective of winemaking. The winemaking is a controllable factor. The soil, while not controllable, is a steady constant that only changes when you move the vines. The weather though (a sub-factor of climate), is the unpredictable element. This is why people lament certain vintages and praise others even though today’s winemakers have mostly figured out how to handle the ups and downs of a year’s weather variations. While the weather varies year to year, the winemaker knows the approximate parameters of what it’s going to be like because that’s what climate is.

Now, those climates are a-changing. I suppose you could choose not to believe in that sort of thing, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone in agriculture (Or, you know, Science) that isn’t at least considering how things will change for them in the future. Grape growers and wine makers are no exception. Minnesota Public Radio has recently been running a series on the effects of climate change locally and globally. One of their articles has wonderfully shown how Minnesota’s climate has been changing over the past 100+ years with some pretty specific details so I decided to use that as a jumping point into how Minnesota’s wine industry could see some changes in the future. Give the article a full read here and then come back for my grape-related thoughts below that loosely correspond with their headers.

It’s Warmer and Winters Are Warming Faster

In general, this could be good news for grape growing in Minnesota since our main antagonist is how cold it gets in the winter. Theoretically, if we could eliminate sub-zero temperatures, the number of varietals we could grow would exponentially increase. Currently, zero, that’s right, zero of the European varietals of vitis vinifera that are predominately used for wine making across the world are able to be grown in Minnesota successfully and in quantity to make commercial wine from. This is what has driven the interest and research on hybrid grapes that take the cold hardiness of native grapes (vitis riparia mostly) and the wine making qualities of the aforementioned European grapes. So, hurray if we eliminate those obscenely cold days that stay below zero during the winter.

But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. What grapes generally don’t appreciate are moody temperature swings. Yes, the idea is to stress the grapes as they grow, but the idea is to do this gradually. Vines (and really all plants in general), keep to a pretty set schedule throughout the year which is dictated by what the weather is doing. When it warms for spring, the buds begin to break and things start to grow. Summer the grapes start appearing and energy production switches to them. Fall, the grapes mature and ripen. Winter, the vine goes dormant to survive the winter. When the vine incorrectly thinks the seasons are changing due to random temperature swings, bad things can happen.

North Warms Faster

There’s really a big divide between the climate of southern Minnesota and northern Minnesota. Currently, although there is certainly debate about this, I would say wines from vineyards from Central Minnesota and south are more favorably received than those of the northern part of the state. One of the major technical hurdles that MN winemakers face is that of having more than the desired amount of acid in the grapes. In general, the colder the region, the more acid will be found in the harvested grapes. There are measures that a winemaker can take to counteract this to a degree, but the more ideal the grape is, the wine will be easier to make as well as potentially better.

It Rains More

This can only be bad. We get plenty of rain in Minnesota. So much, that irrigation of vineyards in the state is rare and if used restricted to preparing vines for winter in the late fall. More water, assuming the vines don’t drown, would mean more vigorous growth of the green parts of the vine (shoots, leaves, etc.). If the vine has to put all of its energy into supporting the green parts, it will put less energy into developing the grapes which means they won’t taste very good. Vine vigor already requires a lot of human power to control, meaning people are out there trimming of excess growth constantly throughout the year. More growth would mean more labor or limiting the expansion of a vineyard…or growing poor grapes.

Intense Storms Are More Frequent

Again, more bad stuff. Intense storms bring about damage to a vineyard. Hail, is an obvious culprit that would rip through grapes, but even intense rains can damage a crop. So short of someone inventing a weather force field, there’s nothing that can be done to counteract this.

Ice Melts Earlier/Snow Season Ends Earlier/Growing Season Grows Longer

You’d think this would be a positive, and in general it is. A longer growing season gives grapes time to spend developing anthocyannins, which turn into the things we associate with flavor in the wine. However, what’s been happening the past few years is that we have a warm spell in early to mid-spring which causes the vines to get started on their bud growth and then the next week the weather plays a cruel joke by snapping the temperature back down below freezing, killing off those buds. While the vines do have a backup second bud (and third), the first is going to be the best. It’s like killing off your kitten and then replacing it with a new one. Not the same, is it? The winter of 2013/2014 was particularly harsh in Minnesota. While the vines themselves survived, most of their buds unfortunately did not. This led to crop losses of up to 90% for the 2014 harvest season.

Hardiness Zones Move North/Species Migrate

I think this factor has the most potential for unknown effects on grape growing. On one hand, moving down hardiness zones into ones that are more common to grape growing is beneficial. However, this also means that the ecosystem that has developed in that hardiness zone is going to migrate north as well. Birds, trees, shrubs, insects: All of these can effect the nutrients in the soil, what pests are going to be found in the vineyard, and how the grapes will express themselves (genetically speaking). The sheer number of factors that go into this is mind-boggling and I don’t believe anyone has been able to come up with a computer model to mimic how this can play out.

In Conclusion…

Outside of climate change, the Minnesota grape growing and winemaking industry really had to conquer one hurdle: How to get grape growing vines that produce tasty wines to survive the winter. This is a really difficult problem to solve, but certainly not unsolvable. In fact, with the recent advances made by the University of Minnesota’s grape breeding project, a lot of progress has been made. With climate change, the hurdles faced by the industry become a moving target. The very problem being worked on today could no longer be a problem in 20 years, but a new one or more likely, multiple problems will have filled its place.

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GiftGuide

There are a lot of gift guides for wine lovers that come out around this time of year and while I know each and every one of you, dear readers, were planning on getting me a gift, please refrain from using said lists.  There certainly are a number of wine lovers, let’s call them snobs, that appreciate any over-indulgent wine-themed gift that they deem worthy.   This appreciation is of course impossible to achieve unless the gift was known to be picked out by a bigger wine snob.  But what about the wine lover that doesn’t like things and abhors clutter?  What about the wine lover that prefers experiences with friends and loved ones instead of bragging to others about how wine-experienced they are? And what about the wine lover’s family and friends who can’t or won’t spend tons of money on someone who doesn’t have the cheapest hobby out there?

Why is it that every single list I can find assumes that gifts must cost hundreds of dollars in order to be worthy of a wine lover?  The only non-$100+ (and coincidentally, the only considerable) item on this horrible list from last year was a book.  Wine books are potential gifts for the minimalist wine lover, but you have to be very careful because it has to be a book that the wine lover was already wanting to read anyway.  Many times, when buying a gift for a minimalist, you must read their mind ahead of time to calculate how they will value various potential gifts.  What’s that? You can’t read minds?  Well, you are in luck.  I’ve created this list, just for you.

1. Wine

Do you know who is going to turn down a free bottle of wine?  No one.  Unless they’re a jerk.   I know you have confidence issues when it comes to buying a wine lover a bottle of wine, but here are a few tricks you can use when you walk into the wine shop:  First, if you’re in a respectable wine shop (e.g. you’re not at a gas station or place that only sells jug and boxed wine) ask someone who works there what their most interesting bottle of wine is.  The minimalist wine lover will enjoy trying something unusual and/or new.  Don’t want to talk to people?  Go ahead and find a bottle of wine that gives you the most specific information about where it is from.  This may limit you to the ones in English that you can read, but if you want to go out on a limb you can find a bottle of German writing that has the most writing on it and you’ll probably do pretty well.  Buying wine like this is a low-risk venture because you’re tapping in to built-in quality controls in wine laws.  Last, don’t worry about getting a really old bottle of wine or spending a lot of money.  While it’s a lot of fun to drink 20+ year old bottles of wine and occasionally the results are divine, a lot of the time, it’s a bit of a letdown in the taste department.  Also, a bottle of wine that sells between $10-$30 is probably going to be enjoyable.  Keep in mind, that for really old bottles, the increase in price is usually related to how much rent has accrued for that bottle sitting in the cellar for however many years.  Now, if you can afford it, go ahead a buy a bottle over that, but only if your minimalist wine lover has expressed interest in trying that particular wine.

Cost: $10-$30/bottle

2. A Corkscrew

There are countless gadgets that are available for the sole purpose of opening a bottle of wine.  There’s only one though that’s worth getting: The waiter’s corkscrew.  It costs, like $5, and sometimes you can get one for free.  Here’s mine:

FullSizeRender

I will venture to say that the double-hinged waiter’s corkscrew is the most advanced wine opening tool in existence.  It cuts foil, and delivers an extracted cork with a 99% success rate unless for some reason you go on a rampage of opening a slew of bottles with old and brittle corks.  As a side, note, if for some reason, you have that rampage opportunity, please invite me.  So unless you have a physical handicap, the waiter’s corkscrew is not only the most bang for your buck, but it is also the most user-friendly assistive device, self-contained tool, one-stop-shop gadget.  It is the cat’s pajamas.  If you want to add a touch of indulgence, you can spring for a personalized one, or one made from exotic materials (Please, no ivory), but definitely stick with the double-hinged waiter’s corkscrew.

Cost: Like $5

3. A Wine Experience

This gift always requires a bit of discretion by the giver since preferences can vary widely.  For instance,  I stopped enjoying winery tours after about 10 of them.  They’re mostly all the same and unless they’re doing something unique it starts to feel like you’re an accountant checking out someone else’s cubicle.  Having a conversation with the winery owner or winemaker, on the other hand, can be a great time for me though.  However, I understand that some people like being herded around wineries, so if that’s their thing, go take them on a winery tour.  For me, I’d rather  take a trip down a road in wine country.  One road only, because, let’s be honest, you’re not spitting out that wine.  Tasting the differences between the same grape variety grown a number of meters apart can be fascinating and it also really gives you a sense of what the wine is like in that specifc area.  Tastings at wineries can vary, but are usually between $5-$10.  Unless they’re willing to shine your shoes too, I wouldn’t pay more than that.

Another option is to do a wine tasting at a restaurant or wine shop.  Most of these, unfortunately, are merely set up by wine distributors or importers to push their wine on you, but occasionally you can get a fun one that does something like a vertical tasting (tasting the same wine from the same producer across different vintages) in which you’d have an opportunity to taste some old wines without paying a hefty price for the bottle.  This way, if it turns out the wine was a dud, you’re only out the price of the tasting instead of the exhorbant price of the bottle itself.  Of course, it always help if the person leading the tasting has some fun stories to tell about the wine, but please take any universal truthisms they spout off with a grain of salt and a skeptical ear.

Of course, another fine option (probably the best) would be to contact me for a private wine lesson for them and their friends.  They’d think that was pretty awesome.

And last, if money and time are no objects, take them on a world tour of wine countries.  They will love you forever.

Cost: $5-$10/tasting, $35-$65/class, approx. $5-$20 million for a proper world wine tour

4. Wine Accessories

Here is the list of appropriate wine accessories for the minimalist wine lover:

  • A wine glass.  Maybe a few more in case friends are over.
  • A decanter.  Also see: milk frother or blender.

Cost: $5-$30. Let’s not get too crazy.

5. A Wine “Cellar”

One of the greatest gifts to give to a minimalist wine lover is a place to put their wine.  Now you could build them a bat cave for wine, or you can follow this amazing post on how to set up your own DIY Wine Cellar, which apparently is massively popular on Pinterest.  A minimalist is not prone to clutter, but wine bottles do take up space.  Therefore, at a minimum, you can point to a spot in your domicle, and say: “I gift you this spot here to put your wine.”  If the spot is next to a radiator or above the microwave, you’ve just insulted them, but if it’s in an out-of-the-way place that’s got a steady temperature to it, you will be thanked.

Cost: $0-$40.  A Wayne Inheritence would be required for the bat wine cave.

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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

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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.

photo-5

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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Yeah, it's a Tempranillo...I can feel it.

Yeah, it’s a Tempranillo…I can feel it.

Third part to a sensory series.  Read Part 1: How We Smell and Part 2: How We Taste.

For the most part, we do not touch wine in the traditional sense of dipping our fingers into the liquid or luxuriously lounging in a heady bath.  However, once it enters the mouth, our sense of touch is activated in what are termed trigeminal responses.  Touch is the final component that factors into what we commonly refer to as flavor.  While we usually give the starring credit to smell and somewhat lesser extent to taste, touch also plays a vital supporting role in helping us distinguish between one flavor and another.

We touch wine in a few different ways; there are first the obvious mechanistic ways that come to mind when we come into physical contact with something.  This is how we can tell that we have a delightful liquid in our mouths instead of a crispy potato chip.  Additionally though, we also experience the temperature of food and drink as well as the chemical reactions that can occur similar to how taste is received.  In the explanation of How We Taste, it was shown that some of the new contenders for tastes probably have more to do with touch than taste which we will explore here.  When it comes to enjoying wine with food, we notice touch in a variety of ways: Piquance, Coolness, Mouthfeel/Body, Acidity, CO2, and Astringency.

With regards to temperature, we actually have thermoreceptors in our mouths that help us pull away the pizza that is too hot (Unfortunately this is usually after it burns the top of our mouths and leaves that annoying hanging piece of skin), but those aren’t what we necessarily are factoring into the flavor.  Chemesthetic reactions are what happen when receptors in our mouths that are associated with pain, thermal sensation, or touch are activated by chemicals within the food.  The capsaicin of a spicy chili activates our pain and thermal pathways regardless of the actual thermal temperature of the food.  The menthol in mint also trick those same pathways into thinking a cool breeze is moving across our tongues.

You burn me right 'round, baby, right 'round...

You burn me right ’round, baby, right ’round…

In a slightly different manner, when Carbon Dioxide bubbles dance across our tongues, creating that prickly sensation, the CO2 is actually binding to some of the receptors on our taste buds creating the Chemesthetic reaction that feels a bit like you are getting poked.  This is found with much welcome in sparkling wines and other fizzy beverages.  While there are those who think they can discern something about the quality of the wine from the size and the frequency of the pokes, most of us just take a sip and the only thing that comes to mind is: “Bubbles!”  Unlike taste though, there does not seem to be much discernable range in the sensitivity between individuals concerning what we touch inside our mouths.  Yet, despite this uniformity, that does not mean that we cannot become accustomed or more tolerant to certain sensations such as those that continually seek out spiciness.  That has more to do with the centers of our brains that create addiction.

In wine, there is no capsacin or menthol, so it would be unusual for you to perceive chemically activated temperature fluctuations due to those, but we do commonly find these in the foods we are eating with our wines.  Alcohol, on the other hand we can perceive as a burning sensation depending on the other components of the wine, notably acid.  Our individual preference to the amounts of these we can handle varies greatly between individuals, especially when it comes to piquance so it is important to understand the two factors that can enhance or dilute this sensation.  For those who shy away from spicy things, it would also be best to stay away from pairing spicier foods with wines containing high or very noticeable alcohol.  Alcohol will enhance that burning sensation since for those that already don’t like the burn from capsacin, they probably also tend to feel a noticeable burn from alcohol as well.  However, for those tolerant of both sensations, they may perceive this to be more of a sweet taste.  This seems to be in line with where people fall on the taste spectrum that I discussed in my previous post as well.

On the other end, acid does a fine job of diluting the effects of capsacin.  When you notice the rate of saliva flooding into your mouth as you drink a wine, you are experiencing the effects of the acid in that wine.  Wines from cooler climates, such as a German Riesling will have the most notable and prominent effects compared to wines from warmer climates.

Additionally, there are a few physical reactions that happen inside our mouths when we take a sip of wine.  Most notably, when taking a sip from a wine derived from a cooler climate like a German Riesling, is the saliva inducing effects of acidity.  The more acidic a wine is, the more saliva comes rushing into our mouths and the range is anywhere from “Enamel-stripping” to what we call “Flabby”, or such low acid that the wine has no zip.  The levels of acidity are measured in terms of pH, which is actually measuring how active ions are in a solution.  Why does this matter?  If we recall back to Taste, the taste of sour comes from ions entering our taste buds.  More acid = more sour.

Mouthfeel and body are two somewhat ambiguous terms that are used commonly in wine descriptors.  As we saw in How To Taste, Mouthfeel is undergoing an attempt at hijacking (Bloody pirates!!) by the same Japanese company that brought us Umami.  However, for the time being, my personal assessment is that what is being referred to is the viscosity of the wine as well as the wine’s “shape” as it passes through the mouth back to the throat.  Imagine the shape of the interior of your mouth for a moment.  When closed for consumption, it has a narrow opening, balloons into a somewhat orb-shaped cave in the middle and then recedes back to the narrow opening in the rear.  How well the wine coats and conforms to this interior shape is what is being evaluated.   Wines can be thin and seem to just splash around playfully in our mouths like water or wines can be thick and full, almost requiring effort to push to the back of our throats.  Of course, we also have every variation in between.  This is also what is being referenced when people speak of a wine’s Finish which I will discuss in the next post on Flavor.

Soundwavecut

What actually causes our assessment of Mouthfeel and Body is a combination of alcohol or more likely its by-product of glycerol, the level of acid, sugar content, and in the case of red wines and some whites, tannin.  Glycerol, the same stuff you see sliding down your glass in the form of “Legs” or “Tears” when the alcohol of your wine is evaporating faster than the water, and residual sugar in the wine will increase the wine’s viscosity the more they are found in the wine.  This is why dessert wines and fortified wines have a bigger body that your table wines.  An increase in “fullness” of the wine’s body is credited largely to how many proteins from the wine are binding to either receptors or saliva in your mouth.  If you’ll recall, the higher the acid in the wine, the more saliva will come rushing into your mouth.  Thus, there are more things to bind to providing that the wine is bringing the goods.

The last part that factors into Mouthfeel which is also evaluated by itself by professional wine tasters, is Astringency.  In wine, astringency is found in the form of tannins which bind to our saliva and create that cotton-mouth feeling around your tongue and/or gums that some people (Mostly Super Tasters) can’t stand mostly because in addition to the sensation, tannins have a bitter taste to them.  The tannins come from the solid parts of the grapes (Seeds, skins, stems, etc.) and from any oak that has touched the wine while it is being made.  Tannins are also found in coffee, tea, and a wide variety of other foods that have bitterness in them.

Of course, each one of these sensations is not acting in isolation.  As was already mentioned with the effects of acidity on piquance, it is the balance of each of these interactions that affect our overall perception and create what I will nerdily refer to as the wine’s matrix.  For those that skipped through this article looking for a cheat sheet, here are a list of balancing interactions that you may experience within the wine itself, or when mixing wine with food.

First let’s look at the tastes from the last post.  Remember how we taste Sweet, Bitter, and Umami when molecules bind to your taste buds and we taste Sour and Salty when ions flow through the taste bud channels?  This means that when you have a combination of Sweet, Bitter, and/or Umami tastes, those will all enhance each other.  Same goes for mixing the Sour and the Salty.

TasteBalance

One of the best pieces of wine and food advice I’ve ever received was from Tim Hanni, MW and that was to always have a lemon wedge and salt nearby.  If you are ever noticing that your wine seems a little off or flat when you are having it with a meal, give the food a little spritz of lemon and you will notice a bit of lift in the wine and it will instantly improve.  This is the same thing you do when your soup seems a bit bland.  You add a dash of vinegar or citric acid to give it lift.  Salt can also have a similar effect, but only up to a point.  We salt to taste the food, otherwise it just tastes salty.  However, salt plays an important role regarding tannin.  If a wine is too tannic for you, try adding a bit of sea salt or kosher salt (Not iodized salt.  Iodine is bitter.) and then notice the tannins start to disappear.  This also works with a spritz of the lemon as well. Historically people have paired a big, tannic red wine with a piece of red meat because they thought the tannins were being softened by the fat in the meat.  Good outcome, incorrect reasoning.  The tannins are noticeably reduced due to the salt put on the piece of meat and nothing really to do with the meat itself.  Red wine with salty/lemony white fish? Don’t mind if I do!

Salt and Lemon. Wine and Food's BFFs.

Salt and Lemon. Wine and Food’s BFFs.

Here is a quick reference list for the tactile interactions that can happen and you should certainly experiment with:

  • Alcohol increases piquance
  • Acidity decreases piquance
  • Astringency increases piquance
  • Sugar decreases piquance
  • Acidity lifts fat
  • Acidity decreases astringency
  • CO2 in my opinion causes a certain level of confusion amongst your taste buds and tactile sensors.  This usually has somewhat of a masking effect on pretty much anything that could be considered an irritant (Piquance and astringency).

Of course, if you want to get really experimental, you can repeat the experience I had when I paired wine with all the things I wasn’t supposed to.  Bon apetit!

Additional sources for reading:

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

Why You Like The Wines You Like – Tim Hanni

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He just tasted something bitter.

He just tasted something bitter.

Second part to a sensory series.  Read Part 1: How We Smell.

 

 

Taste is often heralded as being the superior sense to smell, but as I explained in my explanation of How We Smell, this is not entirely true.  Taste works in concert with smell as well as touch to round out what we generally refer to as flavor.  We typically describe taste with names that we all know: Salty, Sour, Sweet, Bitter, and more recently, Umami.  Taste though can be unconsciously blended in with our other two flavor senses.  Improperly, in the case where we think we smell something sweet; when in fact we can’t smell sweet at all, but our mind is associating various aromas with sweet tasting foods.  As well as properly, in the case where we both feel the acid in our mouth and taste something sour which a number of acids are in fact sour tasting.  In wine and food pairing, it is taste and touch that we speak of when we talk about balance.

Exactly how we taste isn’t as much of a mystery as smell has been in the past, but science is beginning to discover now that there may be more to the story.  The 5 tastes accepted by most respectable scientists are detected by the taste buds we harbor in our mouths.  Not just the tongue mind you, but over a variety of the surfaces in our mouths, throats, and even into the nasal cavity.  These taste buds are stashed within the visible bumps in various kinds of papillae which are purely there to increase the surface area of the tongue and perhaps make the terrain a bit more interesting to the bacteria which reside on it.  Each taste bud is a collection of cells, sprouting up like flowers where each cell either binds to proteins to determine sweet, bitter, and umami or channels are created which are entered by ions to determine salty and sour.

Previously it was thought that different areas of our tongue were better at perceiving each of the different tastes. This was disproven (Largely credited to man named Charles Zuker) when it was discovered that each cell within our taste buds has a different taste palette; meaning that they primarily detect a particular taste and then to a gradually ranking lesser extent, the other tastes as well.  This of course means that if you lose the tip of your tongue in a sword fight (You old swashbuckler, you) fear not; you will still be able to taste sweetness.  Also, because each taste cell detects every taste, but at varying levels, when the signals hit our brains, they are being delivered in stereo just like smell is.

TasteBuddiagram

However, the number of those taste buds can vary a bit between individuals.  The most convincing and widely used evidence of this is found in the research of Linda Bartoshuk, PhD who showed not only that individuals vary, but exactly how much we vary.  She is the source of the phrase “Super Taster” which fit so nicely into sensationalist headlines however many years ago, even if it is somewhat misleading.  The term ‘super’ is oft-aligned with things we associated as being good, but in the sense of taste, we will see that this may not be the case.

To see what category of taster you are, you can perform a simple experiment.  Grab some blue food coloring, a piece of paper with a hole punched in it (7mm or 0.5 inches in diameter), and perhaps a magnifying glass by which you will look at your tongue in the mirror with.  After applying a drop of food coloring and painting your tongue blue, place the hole of the paper on the top of your tongue near the tip.  Poking out from the blue, you will see your white taste buds.  Using the magnifying glass, give these a count.  If you are technologically inclined, snap a close up picture with your phone for easier counting.

You will find yourself in 1 of 3 categories, but before you band together with others in your group and go around taunting the other two groups, let’s see what this difference means.

  • Non-Taster or Tolerant Taster: <15 papillae
  • “Normal” Taster: 15-35 papillae
  • Super Taster: >35 papillae
Pictured: Normal to Tolerant Taster...plus a blue tongue

Pictured: Normal to Tolerant Taster…plus a blue tongue

Now that you’ve discovered what kind of taster you are, what does that mean?  Well, it is a measure of the intensity at which you taste.  The more taste buds you have, the more sensory input you are receiving.  What it does not mean is that you are a better or worse taster depending on which category you fall in.  Super Tasters tend to find bitter tastes to be overwhelming and therefore you’ll notice they tend to need salt on everything.  In terms of wine, a lot of Super Tasters prefer the sweeter whites of the reds, because the tannin in red wines is too jarring for them.  On the other end, while a Tolerant Taster may be able to handle their whiskey neat and their wines big and tannic, they might not pick up a subtle sweetness of a wine that a Super Taster enjoys.

It should also be noted that which category you fall in to can change over your lifespan.  With rare exceptions, people tend to decrease in their level of taste sensitivity over time.  On the rebellious side of the wine world, Tim Hanni, a Master of Wine, is trying to introduce these different categories of tasters through his program myVinotype.  He breaks the spectrum down into more categories, which are more geared to how we market wine to people, but the important thing here is to note that it is in fact a spectrum.  This means if you done the above test and categorized yourself as a borderline Tolerant Taster, you might not like your whiskey neat.

Beyond the five tastes that have been agreed upon, more types of tastes are being researched to see if we also have cells that can detect them as well.  For a full description on these potential new contenders to be added to our taste list, see this article.  Here is a preview:

  • Calcium: Yes, that’s right, the stuff that makes bones stronger is also thought to create a taste similar to bitter that can be found particularly in things like spinach.
  • Kokumi:  A term meaning something close to mouthful-ness by the same Japanese company that brought us Umami.  This could provide an additional way to describe the body of a wine.
  • Piquance: Used to describe spicy foods.  This most likely will remain a physiological sensation though and not a taste since what we know of it now is that it trips our temperature sensors and is not tickling any taste buds.
  • Coolness: The opposite of piquance like what you get from mint.  Perhaps relegated to the same fate as piquance due to the trigeminal factors in play.
  • Metallicity:  Again, perhaps physiological factors are more in play here than actual taste.  The theory goes that there might be actual electrical conductivity happening (Shocking, I know) when certain metals are in our mouths.  If you’re wondering why you would ever put metal in your mouth look up silver and gold leaf on pastries…or watch a small child who happens upon some change.
  • Fat: Possibly the most likely candidate for a new spot on the taste list.  Fat taste cells have already been found in mice, but the discovery in humans is still outstanding.
  • Carbon Dioxide: Previously this tingling had been dismissed as a trigeminal sensation, but new research points to some receptors on some of sour taste cells that may bind with CO2.  Again, most of this is happening in mice, but that’s always the step before humans.

As noted in a few of these taste contenders, the experience we are gathering from them are more trigeminal reactions and not necessarily molecules binding to or entering taste cells.  Those will be discussed when I dive into the touch of flavor.  I’ll also show the effects of one taste on another mixing those with the touch sensation.  However, to complicate things a little more now, tastes can be perceived differently due to either mental perception (i.e. Framing and Priming as discussed in How We Smell), the balance of tastes, or due to taste modifiers.

Taste modifiers have been known of for a number of years such as how after tasting an artichoke your glass of water may seem a little sweeter, or how after eating some Miracle Berries our ability to taste sweetness is temporarily diminished.  Have you ever had orange juice after brushing your teeth? Taste modification.  These effects are a result of actual physical manipulation of your taste buds.  Sounds somewhat horrifying, right?  Be rest assured that there have been no negative or permanent effects shown by ingesting either of these so there is not likely a chance that you will lose your ability to taste sweet things anytime soon.  However, a company by the name of Senomyx, linked to the aforementioned Charles Zuker, has been actively mapping our taste buds and compiling a database of thousands of ways to manipulate them.  Their first product in collaboration with PepsiCo is set to be released this year which is a sweet modifier.  In other words the beverage will taste sweet even though there is a lack of sugar or other sweetener in it.

While our sense of smell if in charge of identifying thousands of different aromas, our sense of taste is actually quite limited in scope.  However, it is still a very important part in determining what we describe as the flavor of a food or beverage.  In wine, we even limit this more and we really only focus on sweet, bitter, and sour sensations.  On rare occasions we do mention umami or saltiness when describing a wine, but a lot of those times, it’s not in a good manner.  If you ever want to test yourself and see whether you are truly tasting something or mostly smelling something and then interpreting a taste from that try this: Take a sip of wine into your mouth as you hold your breath.  Do not breathe in or out.  Nope, not even just a little.  Roll the wine all over your tongue.  By not breathing you are able to isolate the sense of taste from smell and really ask yourself how much sweetness you are getting.  You’ll also notice the sensation of touch working, but we’ll get to that next time.

OK, you can breathe now.  Let the flavor be complete.

 

Additional sources for reading:

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

The Science of Wine: From vine to glass – Jamie Goode

Why You Like The Wines You Like – Tim Hanni

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