Aug 282014
 

Homersapien: Evolution of the palate

“A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age …”

Shakespeare from Twelfth Night

Last year I sat down to interview Yosh Han, internationally known custom perfumer. Like previous interviews with wine industry colleagues I wanted to deconstruct Yosh’s internal strategies for olfactory memory especially given that the range of possible aromas for perfume is exponentially far greater than wine. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Yosh’s strategies for remembering aromas were entirely based on visual very similar to most of the wine professionals I’ve interviewed. In a second session I met with Yosh and Amanda Holt, her assistant, (website) to create my own personal scent. We started with more than 50 vials of different aromas. The process was simple: she passed me the vials of an aromas one by one without telling me of the contents and I said either “yes,” “no,” “love it” or “hate it.” I then handed vials to Amanda who grouped them in said categories keeping aside the ones from the liked and loved categories. We went through several rounds finally narrowing down my favorites to seven: peppermint, rosemary, violet, waves (marine note), aloe, night queen (jasmine), teak, and something called washed suede. Yosh then blended them and tweaked the percentages until we both liked the results. The final scent, at least according to my wife Carla who knows infinitely more about perfumes and essential oils than I ever will, is a unisex scent that could be worn by either men or women. For the record, she likes it—a lot.

Yosh frequently blends custom scents for clients, not an inexpensive endeavor. I asked her about it and she said her client sessions were often like scent therapy where a client would often overload on a certain category like sweet smells (chocolate) or musk smells or floral smells and leave everything else out completely resulting in a completely skewed blend. At that point she would gently suggest to the client that a balance of different scents was needed for the best result and slowly guide them to include other categories of aromas. In a way she was expanding their olfactory universe and their appreciation for completely different and for them probably previously unnoticed scents and sensory experiences. I then asked Yosh was she liked best; what were her favorite aromas. I really wasn’t surprised to hear her say that she liked practically everything as long as it was high quality and done well. She immediately asked me what kinds of wines I liked best and I had to give the same answer; I like practically any style of wine as long as it’s balanced and made well. But it hasn’t always been that way and that got me thinking to how my tastes in wine —my likes and dislikes—have changed over the last 30+ years. It also made me ponder how one’s palate undergoes an evolution of sorts over time. With that in mind here’s a completely un-researched, undocumented, and otherwise reckless account of the evolution of a palate.

Warning: the following may contain elements of sarcasm, droll humor, parody, and otherwise snarky commentary.

Phase I

Phase I: Katy Perry

Wine as liquid sweet confection. If Starbucks really gets into the wine game this will be style numero uno to map across from the shockingly schlocky and uber sweet concoctions they shamelessly market as “coffee.” I will say no more. The wines from Phase I are usually pink or white in color and slightly-to-moderately sweet in style. Today we not only have Muscat in all its various forms but a new category of sweet red wines both of which have once again has left the industry scratching its collective head while scrambling to get the tanks filled, the wines sweet enough, and the labels catchy enough to be commercially appealing. It seems as if every generation finds a way to give itself permission to drink fruity and slightly sweet wines and the Moscato/sweet red thing is no exception. That’s simply because most of us, self-included, started in the way back machine of our wine careers by initially drinking wines that were off-dry to quite sweet and hopefully balanced by enough acidity so as not to resemble, well … Katy Perry. For me that was ‘70’ incarnations in the form of Lancer’s and Mateus rosés, odd vinous creatures packaged in cans called “wine coolers,” and the likes of Blue Nun, Reunite Lambrusco, and White Zinfandel. Not surprisingly, most were mass market brands with the mega-funds to promote on TV and in print media. Don’t get me wrong, everyone has to start somewhere and remember that anyone drinking any kind of wine is good for the industry. At this juncture it’s only fitting that I quote my Mom who once said, “It takes all types to fill up the freeway.” And of course, she was right. Ultimately one hopes that the Katy Perry crowd moves on to at least Phase II. But if they don’t it’s all good; no harm no foul.

Phase II

Phase II: Rombauer

Editorial note: I am NOT bashing Rombauer Chardonnay or the good people at the Rombauer winery in any way, shape or form here. They make good wine and they do a good job. Everyone should be as successful. Everyone got it? Good. Moving on. What Rombauer Chardonnay has to do with Phase II of the evolution of a palate? Simple: it’s all about novice drinkers graduating from innocuous, sweet mono-chromatic wines to a full-bodied and lush single varietal wine with layers of intense fruit flavors and the first taste of new oak—the latter of which will likely become the crack of their wine drinking world. Inhabitants of Phase II also usually become very interested in what they’re eating in terms of quality; this despite the fact that they will consume mass quantities of Chardonnay with any and everything including red meat. Eventually many in the Phase II club will crave for even more intensity and discover red wines. And like every toddler boy who first learns to walk, they won’t walk but will instead race full-bore, pell-mell directly into …. Cabernet Sauvignon!

Phase III

Phase III: Monster Truck Pull

Having developed a serious oak habit wine now becomes a full contact sport for newly minted members of Phase III. More often than not it’s a guy thing–no make that a group of guys thing—as in a group of guys in the backyard having just consumed half a grilled steer and the better part of case of very expensive California Cabernet. Now they’re moving on to cigars, Port and the inevitable and awkwardly emotional “I love you, man” moment. For denizens of Phase III, if it doesn’t have 15+% alcohol it’s not wine. They tend to eat lots of red meat and also develop a serious fortified wine habit because after all, Port is really loud wine too! Acquiring a whiskey (y) habit also may also happen at this point in the evolutionary phase which can actually be a good thing in terms of quality, style and terroir of the best malt whiskies and Bourbons. Needless to say, the hangovers experienced by Phase III members can be legendary. The discovery of amaro is therefore common in this phase and a medical necessity. I discovered Fernet Branca while in Phase III and it saved my life on just such an occasion. Alas, parenthood and advancing age can take their toll on members of Phase III. But a certain percentage of them at some point experience a life-altering vinous moment and move quietly into Phase IV.

Phase IV

Phase IV: Oh Blinding Light …

In Phase IV the wine drinker moves from full contact to nuance the result of a beautiful sadness of life moment usually at the hands of a great bottle of Burgundy. Instantly wine goes from collision to filigree and along with this blinding light moment often comes the realization that the “where” of a wine can be more important than anything else. Such mystical moments sometimes occur while traveling to so-called sacred home turf environs such as Burgundy, Jerez and the like. Initiates of Phase IV also cross an invisible line from “eat to live” to “live to eat” and planning dinner while having lunch is a common affliction. Potential downsides to Phase IV often involve becoming a hopeless and equally insufferable Francophile snob with the victim never returning to a balanced vinous state. Extreme cases involve joining various wine societies or clubs that require secret handshakes, wearing pastel sashes with medals and ribbons, and even—god forbid—the donning of long Obi Wan-like robes. With their recent spiritual conversion Phase IV rangers are notorious for demeaning big-ass Cabernets—the same big-ass Cabernets they were only recently hoovering at an alarming rate. Further, they may take to slamming any wine for having too much alcohol or for not being authentic–whatever the hell that means. Ahem.

Phase V

Phase V: It’s a Small World …

Phase V is really an extension of Phase IV; here the individual has their first great Riesling experience and with it the blinding realization that wines with residual sugar can be cosmic—as great as any wines on the planet. Moreover, these same delicate, slightly sweet and acid-crazy wines are among the most versatile food wines that exist. Phase V regulars often drink more white wines than red and crave what is in reality insane levels of minerality and acidity regardless of what’s in their glass. But they also “get” simply made country wines with the right intensity of fruit and a good acid balance (that acid word again). And if they haven’t rediscovered Champagne and top quality sparkling wines (think Franciacorta) in Phase IV they do so with a vengeance in Phase V. Italy looms large for red wines in Phase V again for the acid/minerality thing and Phase V’ers will put up with various amounts of VA and brett to get their fix.

Phase VI

Phase VI: “Even the Irish …”

The above short quote from the brilliant Mel Brooks movie (soon to be a blog post unto itself) Blazing Saddles. Those who make it to Phase VI have traveled full circle in that they have no problem drinking slightly sweet wines. In fact, someone who gets to this point in palate evolution LOVES slightly sweet wine but with a huge caveat: it HAS to be good as in top Vouvray Demi-Sec or Spätlese/Auslese Riesling. But more importantly they like—no make that love—practically every kind of wine as long as it’s well made; from shockingly acidic Brut Zero Champagnes to bone dry and austere VORS Palo Cortado Sherries to top Cabernets from Coonawarra to VA-laced old school Piedmontese Barolo to decadently succulent TBA’s from Austria or Germany. As Mayor Olson Johnson of Rock Ridge said, “Aw, prairie sh*t… Everybody!”

Reprinted by permission from TimGaiser.com.

Jul 042013
 
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson may not have been a renowned poet, but he did have a gift for language. The phrases Jefferson crafted in the Declaration of Independence not only inspired those who risked their lives to break away in rebellion from England, but have stood the test of time. They have been quoted so often, and by so many, they are a touchstone of oratory.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

For Jefferson, the pursuit of Happiness included wine.

Among the Founding Fathers, Jefferson was not alone in his appreciation of alcoholic beverages. In fact, the constitutional convention may have set the standard for this sort of consumption. Perhaps in celebration, perhaps to calm their nerves, the delegates ran up quite a bar tab at a local tavern. In a single night they drank 60 bottles of claret and 54 of Madeira. And there were only 55 delegates in all, which works out to roughly a bottle of each per delegate. That same evening they also added 22 bottles of porter, 12 of beer, eight of whiskey, seven bowls of punch (spiked ) and eight bottles of hard cider.

Clearly, this was thirsty work.

The hard cider is of particular note. There are some who credit the colonists’ victory over the British to cider, which protected them against the ravages of intestinal disease that killed so many soldiers. Jefferson’s colleague and fierce political rival John Adams began each day with a large draft of hard cider before breakfast. In fact, cider was a clear favorite among the early colonists. The average colonist at the time of the American Revolution drank 35 gallons of cider a year.

And for good reason. The water in colonial America was likely unhealthy, even deadly, contaminated by every settler and animal upstream. It could, of course, be boiled and made into tea – but we know how that ended in Boston. And before refrigeration, milk was better used to create products with a longer shelf life, like cheese and butter. With water and milk off the table, the early Americans drank alcohol because it was safe, and because it was, indeed, a way to pursue a bit of happiness.

And they tried just about every possible variation. Among the crops that they brought from Europe, they planted hops, grapevines, barley and apples. Only the apples thrived. When Johnny Appleseed walked across America planting apple seeds, he was not providing school children with treats to polish for their teachers. Apples are genetically unstable, and an apple seed rarely produces a tree with delicious ripe fruit. It is far more likely to produce a rather tart and bitter fruit that is best used to create, you guessed it, hard cider.

As they founded a nation, our leaders created their own alcoholic beverages from just about anything at hand, from pumpkins to parsnips. Benjamin Franklin experimented with a fermented spruce beer, and George Washington tried to ferment a beverage from molasses. Jefferson also brewed his own beer. But apples were simply the best option.

It was in this milieu that Thomas Jefferson developed a passion for wine. Actually, he was a man of many passions. John F. Kennedy famously welcomed a group of Nobel Prize Laureates to the White House by saying, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.”

And he knew his wines.

As a young man, Jefferson would have received a classical education, complete with studies in both Latin and Greek. Perhaps this explains his interest in wines that were a bit out of the mainstream for many of us today. Of course he drank the most famous wines of France, from Bordeaux and Burgundy particularly, although he was not a fan of the sparkling wines of Champagne (these, he was sure, were a passing fad). He waxed poetic over the wines of Sauternes.

Beyond these he explored with great passion and enthusiasm. He served Greek wine to Daniel Webster. He drank German wines from both the Rhine and the Mosel, as well as wines from Cyprus and Hungary. He loved the wines of southern Spain, and often served Malaga during his terms in the White House. He recommended Pedro Ximenez to his ailing daughter, and preferred above all the delicate Manzanilla wines of Sanlucar de Barrameda. He drank both whites and reds from Portugal, including those made by the Marquis de Pombal. (As ruler of Portugal, this dignitary organized a complete regulation of the Port wine industry, and decreed wines called Port could only come from specific parts of the Douro Valley…and one small plot outside of Lisbon that just happened to be owned by the Marquis de Pombal.)

Most of these he had shipped from Europe by the barrel, and bottled once they arrived at Monticello. To facilitate the process, he not only planted cork oak trees so that he could produce his own stoppers, an unsuccessful experiment, but he became an expert at wine importation. He advised at least four other presidents on their wine purchases: George Washington, John Adams, Madison and Monroe.

From Italy he drank the still-famous wines of Chianti, Nebbiolo, Gattinara, Orvieto, Marsala, Soave, Moscato, and Vin Santo. But he also loved wines that have evolved to a lower profile in America today: Montepulciano, Camignano, Pomino, and Castelo di Ama. He was advised on these wines by Phillip Mazzei, a Tuscan viticulturist who lived next door to Monticello, consulted on the vineyards at Monticello, and obviously influenced Jefferson’s view of Italian wine.

As ambassador to France, Jefferson traveled the country, and he did so with an eye to wine. It may have not been the most strategic or diplomatic itinerary, but Jefferson spent time visiting the Rhone, Burgundy, Bordeaux and the less expensive but also interesting regions of the Languedoc. When he could afford them he bought large quantities of great wines. And when his financial situation prevented that, he purchased lesser wines that he still enjoyed. His cellar in Paris, where he was to live for only a few years, held nearly 2,400 bottles of wine.

As Secretary of State under Washington he reveled in the wines (and books – he loved to collect books as well) that he could purchase and share with his friends, colleagues and guests. And he urged President Washington to do the same. At one point Jefferson placed an order for wines for George Washington that included “40 dozen of Champagne, 30 doz. of Sauterne, 20 doz. of Bordeaux de Segur, and 10 doz. of Frontignan.” That’s 1,200 bottles of wine in a single order – and that was just for Washington. Jefferson ordered an additional 25 dozen bottles for himself.

As President, his salary of $25,000 was used, to huge effect, to entertain, cajole and influence the outcome of many political issues. He had a French chef, and his dinners were famous for being both delicious and generous. Fully a quarter of his salary was spent on fine food in one year, and in another he spent over $7,500 on wine alone. In total, he spent over $16,000 on wine during his presidency. His critics complained that Jefferson’s hospitality had convinced the Senate and silenced opposition – this at a time when a captain in the army made $20 per month.

He bought an entire vintage of one fine white Burgundy, lock, stock and barrel. Despite his reservations about Champagne, he served 207 bottles of it in a single month at the White House. When architect James Hoban was asked to raise and expand the White House, he complained that the work was delayed by Jefferson’s insistence on a much larger wine cellar.

He was an enthusiast of the highest order, and he was never happier than encouraging others to share in his enthusiasms.

But Jefferson himself would not have described wine in this way. “Good wine,” he said, “is a necessity of life for me.” In one year, he calculated that he had consumed some 400 bottles of wine, more than one a day. But he was careful not to overindulge. “I have lived temperately…I double the doctor’s recommendation of a glass and a half of wine each day and even treble it with a friend.”

We would do well to emulate him.

Reprinted from Wine & Dine Magazine.

Feb 242012
 

MuscatWe’ve watched the Muscat varietal creep up the ladder of popularity for some time now, and it has just made a big move.  Wines & Vines magazine reported this week that Muscat has officially ousted Sauvignon Blanc as the third most popular white wine varietal in America.

Nothing so far has displaced king-of-the-mountain Chardonnay which is the best-selling wine—never mind red or white– in the U.S. And Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris) is holding at second place.

Who knew that Muscat—all sweetness and orange blossoms– was a prowress at heart.  A study by Symphony IRI shows sales of Muscat grew 70% compared to Sauvignon blanc’s 7% from January of 2011 to January 2012.

The wine is often labeled Moscato (its Spanish and Portuguese name) in the U.S. but goes by a large variety of names around the world.  It has enough synonyms to make your head spin. But one thing is clear:  this grape varietal is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, on the planet.  Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion says Muscat was likely the first grape farmed in France. It was wide spread in Roussillon in the 14th century. It is also Italy’s oldest varietal, where it flourished in Piemonte, land of the grand Barolos. Sorry, Nebbiolo, you weren’t always first!

But anyway, we digress when really this should just be about opening a bottle or two of this rising star and seeing what the hubbub is all about.

Feb 172012
 

Franciacorta in a glassWhether you believe there are 49 million bubbles per bottle of sparkling wine or 250 million (per two separate scientific studies), certain facts remain:

  1. You likely wouldn’t have much fun sitting next to either scientist at a dinner party
  2. Those scientists probably can’t stand the sight of a bottle of bubbly any more
  3. That is a LOT of bubbles.

So how many bubbles does that make it for the 10,377,195 bottles of Franciacorta sold in 2010? Who cares! It’s bubbles and it’s fun.

But it is also serious business. Those sales of Italy’s premium sparkling wine, Franciacorta, are an increase of 10% over the previous year.  And the beginning of 2011 showed even better numbers: a growth of 17% over 2010. Looks like we are all looking for a wee bit more sparkle in our lives these days.

DOCG Franciacorta lies in Italy’s Lombardy region to the east of Milan.  The region has made still wines for centuries until they realized that their goosebumps, caused by the cooler climate, was an indicator of a grand sparkling wine region.

Even before their DOCG status (Italy’s highest), sparkling wine producers from Franciacorta put rigorous self-imposed regulations on themselves in order to produce quality wines from the region. This is one tough group. Until you meet them, that is. Then you will be warmed by the smiles, the Italian hospitality and that flute filled with some of the world’s best sparkling wine.

Jan 232012
 
Chianti Classico - Gallo Nero

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

If you think you know Chianti Classico, think again. No really. Sure, you know that it no longer comes in the straw-wrapped bottle that ubiquitously served as a candle holder throughout the 1970s. Maybe you also know that it pairs well with a variety of cuisines – not just the kind served at Italian restaurants of the red-checked tablecloth variety. But do you know that Chianti Classico has undergone a further revolution that has vastly improved its quality?

Today’s Chianti Classico wines represent the finest the region has seen. Yes, climate change can account for some of this (as it has in other regions), but more importantly, it is the Consortio’s decades-long investment – a project known as Chianti Classico 2000 – that has made most of the difference.

Sangiovese - Chianti Classico

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

Yes, the name sounds a bit futuristic (or at least it did when it was launched back in 1988), but in reality, the program returned to the roots (literally) of Chianti Classico, a wine that is made up of at least 80% of the Sangiovese grape. With an emphasis on identifying the very best Sangiovese grapes, viticulturists toiled for years planting new vines, producing sample wines and testing the results. By the end, the project found 7 different versions of Sangiovese that yielded the best wines. And, not surprisingly, wineries in the region have used this research to replant many of their vineyards resulting in better wines all around.

Do you need to know which types of Sangiovese? Of course not. All you really need to know is the name Chianti Classico and that these are wines worth drinking.

At a tasting at the Consortio’s new headquarters, housed in a former monastery, the proof was in the glass. Sipping sample after sample from the 2008 vintage, it was a challenge to narrow down the selection to only three wines for a seminar in New York — the wines were that good. Now you know.