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Posts Tagged ‘wine’

Unlike in Europe, the tapestry of the American wine story is still mostly comprised of people who are the first or second generation of winemakers and vineyard owners. Getting into the winemaking business in this country is therefore more entrepreneurial and less about taking on the family business. The stories of these entrepreneurs are, to me, always inspiring since I will count myself amongst the countless that have ever had a fantasy of leaving my day job to toil amongst steel fermentation tanks and oak barrels. Yet, here we are while folks like Chad Johnson of Dusted Valley live out our day dreams.

I met Chad quite a few years back on one of his many trips to Minneapolis to market his wine and admittedly, with full editorial disclosure here, I’m a fan of what Dusted Valley does and their wine. The story of how Dusted Valley came into being though I think wonderfully exemplifies the modern American wine story. Take a few kids from the Midwest, give them a dream, and with the right tools and resources with perhaps a dash of luck, they’ll set out and get to work. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago on one of Chad’s latest trips to Minneapolis for the Minnesota Food and Wine Show as well as the accompanying Washington State Trade and Media tasting that I finally sat Chad down to tell me the story of Dusted Valley. Of course I recorded it, and while there was a little more background noise than I would have liked, I have posted the full interview as an episode of the Wine and Food Experience Podcast which I will of course, highly recommend you listening to at the bottom of the page.

Chad met the other founders of Dusted Valley in his second foray into college at the University of Wisconsin – Stout. This was after a few years spent wandering around the West Coast in a youthful narrative that probably embodied some combination of Kerouac’s On The Road with a touch of Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test thrown in for good measure. But it was a time when California wine culture was taking a strong hold, and Washington and Oregon were on the upswing (Fun Fact: Dusted Valley became only the 52nd winery in WA in 2003). So while that culture may have honed his interest in pursuing a food science degree, the waitlist to get into UC Davis prompted Chad to look a little closer to home and he wound up at Stout. Whether wine was involved or not when Chad met his future wife, Janet, I didn’t ask but discussions about wine were certainly had as he got to know her and eventually her brother, Corey Braunel and Corey’s future wife. A wine business though wasn’t at the forefront of their minds since Midwestern values tend to focus more on what is practical first. So upon graduation, they all got respectable jobs and started to make lives for themselves. Yet the wine bug kept nipping at Chad. Coincidentally, Janet landed a job opportunity on the west coast and Chad was able to transfer out to the area in his pharmaceutical sales position.

Part of his week Chad would spend with his day job, and the rest he would spend touring around the burgeoning wine scene of eastern Washington learning all he could about the wine industry and the desire to start something sooner rather than later kept growing. Things moved fairly quickly after that through 2003 and 2004. The Braunels soon moved out to join the Johnsons and before they knew it they had a few tons of grapes and the help of a willing winemaker to show them the ropes. While Walla Walla, WA wasn’t necessarily chosen at random by Chad and crew, they were certainly fortunate to choose a place that had a fairly collaborative winemaking culture. Winemakers can be notorious for not sharing what they do behind closed doors. Even after the tutorials in winemaking though, they soon ran into the issue of how to sell the wine they’d made.

The pursuing years have been an education in how marketing and selling wine works. Simply by making good wine or even receiving accolades for it as Dusted Valley numerously has over the years does not guarantee that anyone will buy the wine. Chad and crew have been active students of the wine marketing world. Chad served a few years on the Washington State Wine Commission where he got to rub elbows with the likes of mega-wine producer Chateau Ste. Michelle and get further insight into how the wine world works. Additionally, they have struck up contracts with entities like Whole Foods for expansion opportunities of their Boomtown and Dusted Valley labels. Of course, they also spend a whole lot of time on the road getting their wine under the noses of whomever they can which has been made slightly easier these days now that their staff is expanding.

What I find most thoughtful about the how Dusted Valley approaches what they are doing is that they are constantly benchmarking themselves against wines that they themselves love whether it be Italian, French, or even other Washington wines and they’re willing to try something new. Then they’ll take something like a Rhone style Syrah heavy blend and fold it into what they’re doing.  So in addition to having enough talent to make and sell some tasty wine, they’re also demonstrating that they have good taste as well. That combination of having good taste and enough talent to produce something that can measure up to good taste is certainly an enviable combination worth watching develop over the years to come.

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Washington State Wine

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Chances are that if you’ve come across a wine from Washington State it was one that was owned by the Altria Group.  Their wine holdings include Chateau Ste Michelle, Snoqualmie, Erath, Hawk Crest, Fourteen Hands, Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, Villa Maria, Esk Valley, Seven Falls, O Wines, and Domaine Ste Michelle.  I say it’s statistically probable because they account for something like 80% of all wine exports out of Washington and that’s really a shame.  No, it’s not a shame because they produce poor quality wine.  In fact, they’re producing pretty good wines for each of their respective price points.  Even the fact that the Altria Group changed their name a few years ago from Phillip Morris Companies which leaves many that know that in a moral dilemma anytime they consider buying one of the wines isn’t the entire reason.  It’s a shame that the Washington wine you’ve probably had comes from the Altria group because there are so many other talented people growing grapes and making wine in that state that you really need to start drinking their stuff.

I’ve been going to a Washinton State trade and media tasting in Minneapolis off and on every March for the past 5 or so years and I think what is most remarkable about the event is that the wineries that show up are still wanting to prove that their wine is just as good as California or even Oregon which is now just starting to fade out of their brief shine in the international spotlight.  It’s a combination of optimistic enthusiasm and a serious chip on the shoulder; the plucky boxer that is hell bent on reaching the top and won’t stop to even acknowledge what they’ve accomplished so far.  Ironically, in my work with the Minnesota wine, I look to Washington to learn lessons about how to market and grow the industry.  To me, they’ve been nothing but a success story and are still climbing.

Sometimes it's ok to pick a wine based on its label.  Gorgeous labels. Tasty wine.

Sometimes it’s ok to pick a wine based on its label. Gorgeous labels. Tasty wine.

The winemaking culture in Washington borrows heavily from France; Bordeaux and Rhone in particular.  While you certainly see a number of single varietals, it seems everyone has a flagship blend of either the Merlot/Cabernet Sauvingon/Cabernet Franc or Grenache/Syrah/Mouvedre variety.  Reds are certainly heavily favored, but their Chardonnays and Rieslings are certainly attractive options.  What is nice is that most of the wineries tend to shy away from the “Fruit Bomb” style that’s so popular with Robert Parker and California wines and instead opt for a touch of grace.  I believe we call that restraint.

Next time you’re out at the wine shop or a restaurant, do yourself a favor and search out a Washington wine and give it a try if you’re unfamiliar.  Walla Wall and Columbia Vallery are perhaps the two most established wine regions, but new ones are popping up regularly now.  However, it’s always difficult to find wine from these newer regions unless you drive the 4 hours + from Seattle to get to the regions themselves.  If you can manage it, try to avoid the Altria Group wines as well.  Again, not because they’re making bad wine, but to give the other winemakers a chance.  I’d say in most cases you’re not going to be disappointed and everyone wins if they start shipping more wine out of Washington.

Washington State AVA Map_Page_1

More maps and winery listings can be found here.

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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:

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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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Every year as the holidays start to roll in, it seems that every wine and/or food related outlet is ready to let you know which wines you should buy in order to have the perfect experience.  I always am particularly amused by the interviews with wine “experts” bemoaning how difficult it is to pair wines with a traditional Thanksgiving meal (Revelation: It’s not).  It is also interesting to note how the “perfect” wine pairings for various holiday meals changes from year to year.  Apparently perfection is now something that can be outdone, which makes me want to start a hyperbolic series listing the More-Perfect wine and food pairings so I won’t be outdone by the likes of everyone else!  However, the idea of the perfect wine pairing extends beyond the holidays and into general food and wine snob culture.  The question I have for these people purporting perfect pairings is this: Can you define what a perfect pairing is?

Take this infographic for instance by someone at Vinepair.com.  I won’t show the image here, because it’s ridiculous, but I could probably switch every single wine/beer/liquor pairing around on their chart and no one would complain.  It’s clearly not based on anything except someone’s [unique] preferences.  Fortunately, they posted another article shortly thereafter, giving some good advice even though it was supposedly only for “Geeks”.  So, sorry casual wine drinkers, you’re going to have to stick to imperfection again this year.  (However, here’s another good article that doesn’t appear to be for geeks that may help.)

Whenever someone (expert status or not) claims a match is a perfect pairing and you really press them on why they think it’s perfect, the answer always boils down to: “Well, I liked it.”  There isn’t a metric being used that will be universally true for everyone and that’s really the crux of the issue here.  Not only do people have their own individual preferences, but the variety of what is being served at various holiday meals should negate the relevenace of any broad holiday wine and food pairing advice.  Yes, even Thanksgiving.  But I do understand the point of giving this advice; it’s to make it easier for the casual drinker to pick out some wines at the store that they can bring to dinner.  However, this is why I find it puzzling that many of these articles list specific wines down to the producer and vintage.

There are a stunning amount of wine producers in the world; so stunning that there is not a single person in the world who has tasted the offerings from them all.  If you were to pop in to a different wine store in each state and make a Venn Diagram listing all of the wines each store had, the amount of overlap would actually be quite small.  On the severely cheap end is where you find the most commonalities, because the business model of producers like Yellow Tail, Franzia, and Charles Shaw is to mass produce their product.  Region-specific wine producers though, by their very nature, can’t produce enough wine to make it available in the majority of wine shops across America (let alone the rest of the world).  So while it is great advertising for a wine producer when a wine writer from Napa or New York City annoints them as a perfect pairing for whatever holiday meal, it actually provides little to no value to a reader in Fly-Over Country (Where, surprisingly, most Americans still live) that won’t be able to pick up a bottle of that wine because their wine shop doesn’t carry it.

Therefore, if you’re a wine writer, let’s go ahead and stop the “Perfect Pairing” nonsense.  I bet I could find at least 50 other wines that would be just as good to various people.  If you’re the wine drinker though and you’re wondering what to bring to dinner this Thursday though, I will offer this:

Buy some wines you like of varying colors, bubbles, and sweetness.  The more specific they are on the label about where it comes from, generally the safer the bet.  As long as no one shows up halfway through the meal with a selection of wines that everyone unanimously prefers over the ones you brought, yours really will be perfect pairings.

Cheers.  And for those still looking for meal ideas, you can just have what I had last year.

 

 

 

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This afternoon I was sifting through one of my favorite blogs: ilovecharts (because I really do) and came upon this crafty radar plot for a beer review:

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Now, the use of a radar plot isn’t exactly new in wine or beer evaluation.  It was originally used for alcohol reviews in scientific research and plenty of examples can be found in the Wine Science text book that sits on my bookshelf in my dining room (because I need easy access when I’m drinking).  This one though was created by the guy at beeritual.com and you should certainly head over there if you’re into craft beer reviews or at least for the fact that he does a great job with his photography (much prettier and a whole lot more consistent than mine) and he created his own rating system, which you see an example of above.  However, for those of you that followed my sensory series on how we experience wine (start here), you may also have questions like I did.  And so, I’ve put them together below:

QuestionsFromAWineGuyDespite these questions, I think the approach is a good one, meaning it is helpful/entertaining for craft beer consumers.  The thing about radar plots is that they look kinda cool regardless of what data points are on them or if those data points actually go together.  They are very good for comparing the plot points of one sample to another though which is kind of the whole point.  It’d be nice if some wine reviewers got a little more visual with their reviews.  As much as I enjoy prose, hyperbolic poetry does get a little old, which is probably why I write things like this.  Cheers!  Here’s to drinking nerdy.

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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.

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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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