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.

Feb 212014
 
Courtesy of Raffaldini Vineyards & Winery, LLC

Courtesy of Raffaldini Vineyards & Winery, LLC

At a seminar for the American Wine Society’s annual conference, fellow TTB contributor, Mike Wangbickler, presented a session on “local wine.” As president of the Board of Directors for Drink Local Wine, Mike tried to dispel the notion that the only worthy wines in the U.S. were from California, Washington and Oregon. To support his claim, Mike had the audience blind taste a selection of five wines – not only didn’t the participants know which grape variety (or varieties) were in the glass, but they were truly clueless as to where the wine was made.

Once the wines were revealed, we found ourselves not just drinking, but enjoying, Finger Lakes Riesling, Texas Tempranillo, Ohio River Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Maryland Red Blend Landmark Reserve (69% Merlot, 19% Syrah, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Petit Verdot), Colorado Cabernet Franc and a Bordeaux-style blend from Virginia. (Did I mention that the last wine retails for $75.00?)

At the same conference, I had the opportunity to taste wines from Michigan. Admittedly, the state of Michigan is not my first thought when it comes to wine regions, but I was impressed with many of the wines, especially those made from Riesling, Vignoles and Cabernet Franc.

So, when a winery located in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina (technically called Ronda, NC), contacted me, I was game. Although the winery graciously invited me to attend one of their upcoming events in Ronda, my schedule prevented me from joining them; when I declined, they offered to ship the wines to me instead.

The culmination of Jay Raffaldini’s dream, Raffaldini Vineyards draws on his family’s Italian heritage, which dates back to 1348 in the town of Mantua (of Romeo & Juliet fame) in Lombardy. Jay’s own father immigrated to America shortly after World War II, choosing the state of New Jersey to make his new home.

As a Wall Street businessman, Jay had the cahones and the cash to set about establishing an Italian-style winery in the U.S. With a preference for bold reds, Jay chose to look south of the City, instead of north, for the perfect property on which to pursue his passion.

Upon discovering the area of Swan Creek in North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley back in 2001, Jay had found a home for his vineyard and winery. The 43 acres of vineyards were primarily planted between 2003 and 2005. While neighboring wineries in the area haven chosen to focus on French varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Savignon and Viognier, not surprisingly, Raffaldini has opted to concentrate on Italian varieties. Consequently, Raffaldini is the only local vineyard with Sangiovese, Vermentino and Montepulciano planted. They also grow Pinot Grigio, a variety which is also found at nearby Laurel Gray Vineyards.

Despite North Carolina’s southerly location, its proximity to several mountain ranges provide high elevations and consequently, a cooler climate that the latitude would suggest (just one degree north of Sicily).

As evidence of Raffaldini’s success, it was one of ten wineries named as a “Hot Small Brand of 2009” by Wine Business Monthly magazine, sharing that honor with Pacific Rim and Abacela among others.

The company’s image comes across as a little bit confused – the family is from Lombardy, but the grapes hail from Tuscany and Southern Italy, the property boasts of a Tuscan villa and the winery’s tagline is “Chianti in the Carolinas.”

Of course, in their defense, it would have been even more challenging to try and sell Barbera or Bonarda than it already is Vermentino and Sangiovese. And, frankly, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that the Raffaldini family has created an idyllic location in which to produce and taste good wine.

In perusing their website and other materials, it is clear that the owners have spared no expense in making the estate beautiful. A well appointed, Tuscan-style villa sits atop a hill, while the winery is housed in a fattoria (Italian for farmhouse). Sweeping vistas of the vineyards from the villa’s terrace make it obvious why the winery has been ranked as a top place for weddings and other events.

This is precisely the type of place that my in-laws would find and fall in love with while traveling. We have occasionally been the beneficiary of their travels, previously receiving wines from Temecula and Sonoma. Most recently, they enjoyed a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they spent considerable time tasting. In fact, they just bought a second wine refrigerator to store a case of wine purchased on that journey, which they had been encouraged to lay down for a few years.

As we continue to think locally – from beets to beef – we should be equally encouraged to seek out these local wineries. What you find just might surprise you, whether you are in your own backyard or just passing through someone else’s.

Tasting Notes
Tasting through the generous selection of samples sent by the winery, I had the opportunity to try six of their wines. In general, these were well made wines that offered some varietal characteristics, good balance and, with a few, some complexity. My preference among them was the Vermentino, Sangiovese and the sparkling Dolce Vita, which resembles an Asti wine.

Raffaldini Vineyards Pinot Grigio 2012, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $15.00
With floral and tangerine aromas on the nose, this wine has medium+ acidity, medium body, citrus and pith on the palate. It is simple, but varietally correct and pleasing.

Raffaldini Vineyards Vermentino 2012, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $19.00
Floral/blossom, pear and citrus aromas greet the nose, and are joined by beeswax on the dry palate, with medium acidity and medium+ body, culminating in long length.

Raffaldini Vineyards Sangiovese 2011, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $$18.00
This wine has cherry, oak and vanilla aromas which are repeated on the palate, along with high acidity, medium+ tannins and a slight herbal note in the finish.

Raffaldini Vineyards Sangiovese Riserva 2011, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $23.00
Although this wine is very similar to the Sangiovese 2011, the Riserva has more pronounced herbal aromas and flavors and a longer finish.

Raffaldini Vineyards Montepulciano Riserva 2011, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $29.00
This wine displays blackcherry, rosemary and vanilla notes with bright, ripe blackcherry flavors on the palate and an undercurrent of wet leaves and earth, along with medium+ tannins and full body.

Raffaldini Vineyards Dolce Vita 2012, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $16.00
This lightly sweet wine has floral and peach notes on the nose and palate, beautifully balanced by sufficient acidity and good length.

Jul 102013
 

CampingWhat do you get when a bunch of winos go camping? I know there’s a joke there’s somewhere.

Each year, our agency takes a timeout and heads somewhere naturey for a few days of R&R. This isn’t exactly roughing it. We camp in style. Big tents, air mattresses, showers every day (for those that want them), and a whole lot of exceptional food and drink. Each night, a team is responsible for developing a menu and feeding their compadres. Over the years, this has led to a friendly competition to see who can outdo the other teams and top last year. (For the record, I won this year.)

This year, the first night we had a Caribbean Island (Cuba/Peurto Rico) feast the first night, Italian-inspired ribs the second night, and gourmet chili and corn the last night. Each, in it’s own way, was a masterpiece. Of course, we had great wines to accompany every meal. (We may have also had a few mojitos this year)

Contributor Paul Wagner also writes a backpacking blog. He’s written a brief article there about our experience this year.

Feb 142013
 

codI like to collect strange menu items and restaurant signs–signs that promise impossible delights. Last year my favorite was a restaurant that offered an “authentic Tuscan-style Spaghetti Bolognese.”

But on this trip to Europe I believe that United Airlines surpassed that.  One of the options on the menu was Amazon Cod.  It may have been amazing cod (I did not try it) but it was certainly not cod from the Amazon.

The mind boggles.