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How not to taste (but it’s all good)

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We were in Carmel on Saturday, having dinner at the Highlands Inn, on the night following Wine Enthusiast’s dinner for the Great Wine Escape, which was at the Intercontinental, on Cannery Row. The Saturday dinner was an Estancia affair; our host was its winemaker, Scott Kelly, who was seated to my left. There was as usual a plethora of fine food:

California white sea bass

Sonoma duck breast

Dry-aged New York steak

along with all kinds of side dishes and dessert, and each course was paired with two Estancia wines, including a 1998 Pinnacles Chardonnay that was fresh and crisp and nutty (it came from a 3 liter bottle) and a 1991 Meritage that showed how well these Alexander Valley Cabernets, which often start out in life as soft and herbal, can age. These were all delightful wines to talk about with Scott, whom I’d sat next to also the night before at the Enthusiast dinner.

There was also a white wine about which I said something I later regretted. I can’t remember which one it was–the ‘08 Riesling? ‘09 Pinot Grigio? ‘09 Sauvignon Blanc? The fact that my memory is faulty provides some clue concerning the problem. I tend to allow myself to drink at these affairs because someone else is doing the driving (in this case, a jitney provided for those of us who were staying at the Monterey Plaza) and because I have no official public duties to perform (unlike the Friday night Enthusiast dinner, when, as official “host,” I had to be on my toes from introductory remarks through the formal and ancient closing ceremony known as The Thanking of the Chefs). And when I say I allow myself to drink, I mean copiously. Not stupidly, not to excess, not to the point of jumping up on the table with a lampshade on my head and doing a crazed version of the Hoky-Poky. But I’ll drink at least as much as anyone else in the room, and at these wine-centric dinners there is a lot of drinking going on. (Quick calculation: nine different wines served over a period of about 3 hours = at least 3/4 of a bottle per person.) The point being that this is not an environment for serious contemplation of wine. The palate is jaded, the mind distracted (in a happy way), the senses a little blurred.

Something Scott said made me think of a wine I used to buy and like many years ago: Gallo’s Sauvignon Blanc from magnum, which cost all of $4 at Liquor Barn. I told Scott how it was practically my house wine (along with Bob Red and Bob White) in the early ‘80s and Scott said it must have been sweet.

“No,” I corrected him, “it wasn’t. It was bone dry and crisp and lemony–just the kind of white wine I like, if I’m looking for something besides Chardonnay.”

That’s when the problem of that unidentified white wine arose. “Just like this,” I added, picking up the Estancia white wine. Whatever it was, it was really good: crisp in coastal acidity, clean and cold and as metallic as the taste of lamppost steel on a winter day. “And dry,” I said, with emphasis. Scott had actually made this wine (as opposed to the older ones) and while I wasn’t trying to butter him up, I supposed he’d appreciate the fact that I liked it so much.

A little while later, Scott dinged his glass and stood to make some remarks to the guests about that white wine, and somewhere along the way he said the residual sugar was 1 percent. And that’s when a flush of embarrassment washed over me. Oh my God, I thought, I just told the winemaker that a wine of his with 1 percent residual sugar was dry.

Wine writers dislike intensely when they say dumb things to winemakers, which is possibly one reason why many wine writers hesitate to say anything to winemakers at all that might betray their fallibility. But there it was; I’d said it; the mistaken word “dry” was out of Pandora’s box, hovering around the dining room like a dirty bat. Well, I didn’t bother to explain myself to Scott, but if I had, I would have said, “The wonderful thing about this wine is that even though it has residual sugar of 1 percent it tastes dry because of the acidity and minerality.” That’s what I would have said and I’m sure Scott would have agreed with me. But, of course, as soon as he revealed the 1 percent thing, I retasted the wine and there it was, that slightly sweet finish of honey, and I thought, How could I have said this wine was dry?

It was because of the distraction and the alcohol in my blood and because I’d been thinking of the Gallo Sauvignon Blanc (was it really as dry as in my memory? Maybe it too had some residual sugar) and because I wasn’t in formal tasting mode and blah blah blah etc. If there’s a lesson to be pulled out of this (besides never, ever lose your sense of humility), it’s that wine tasting and wine drinking are two entirely separate activities. One is work, the other pleasure. The brain’s neural mechanism is probably wired differently for each or, to quote an article in front of me now, Why Fear Objectivity?, from issue 27, 2010 of The World of Fine Wine, “The…appreciation of a wine’s precision, balance and finesse is a complicated business and prone to error…”. The writer might have added “sweetness” as well.

  1. It was because you’re human, man!

    Does it ultimately matter to anyone except winemakers and the tax authorities how much of anything is in a wine, so long as it’s balanced and clearly achieves what the winemaker set out to do when making it?

    At best, I’d think that 1% RS in a balanced wine is a wine-geeky matter of intellectual contemplation and a discussion point, nothing more.

    Of course, this is easy for me to say, since I’ve made so many publicly open snafus along similar lines that I have now lost track of them; but I’d submit that the wine world needs more people admitting that they’re fallible, not less – so kudos to you!

  2. I’d like to be invited to the party when you actually do jump on the table and dance the Hoky-Poky. Now that’s a real wine dinner!

  3. Steve, it was a pleasure sharing stories over dinner. The wine in Question was my 2008 Estancia Riesling from Monterey County and it was a blast sharing these wines with you. Cheers!

  4. Lorrie S. LeBeaux says:

    1% error vs “all the wonderful knowledge you share with others” = “you are entitled”

  5. Not to worry, Steve. I’ve had far sweeter wines that tasted quite dry, especially from up here in the high acid Northwest. And if you, like most tasters, can’t detect r.s. under .5, that means you are only off by half a percent – not that bad really. Now, go practice that Hoky-Poky number everyone is hankering for.

  6. Don’t sweat it man. Who was it said “I have not confused Burgundy with Bordeaux – since breakfast”? And with many wines, 1% R.S still tastes dry, but satisfies our sugar jones below a conscious level. You enjoyed it and you let the winemaker know – that’s all any of us ask for.

  7. I agree with John. Scott’s a reasonable guy and I highly doubt he’s going to hold it against you. To tell a winemaker that you enjoyed drinking the wine is the highest complement in my view. As you say drinking is different than tasting and I’d much rather my wines be enjoyed rather than analyzed.

  8. Your last point about the difference between wine *tasting* and wine *drinking* is one which I try to make to people all the time. Wine tasting is a critical and intellectual exerise in which all of your faculties need to be at peak level. Thus, the highly reommended spit/dump bucket — educating new wine consumers to its use is a contoversial topic for them, but most see the benefit when you’re trying to tast through 18-20 wines.

    Since the generally agreed upon threshhold level for most people sensing RS is about 1%, I ‘d say you were allowed a small “fudge factor,” considering the amount of other wine you say was consumed during the evening.

    One of my fondest set of memories is the first Monterey wine weekend I attended in 2000 — the surrounding beauty of the rolling hills, the postcard picture weather, the views of Monterey Bay and the combination of the sensual acts of wine and dinner with the intellectual aspects of the wine seminars. All combined to help lead upon a path that has made it my avocation for a few years now — I would recommend the event highly.

  9. Sherman, those Monterey folks really know how to put on a good wine event.

  10. Steve,

    OMG how embarassing! The Shame! Did you feel like ‘charlie harper’?

    You need a calibration.

    Just take some wines, any will do but hopefully REALLY ‘dry’.
    Pour the same wine into 6 glasses and add table sugar to 5 of the glasses in varying amounts, stir them up and then shuffle them around. (Kind of like the pea under the shell game) the sample them.
    Do this with all kinds of wine till you guess them all correctly or you get ‘faced’ which ever comes first. Do not do this the night before you have any blood sample taken otherwise your blood will show up like a combination of treacle, simple syrup and molasses.

    BTW. Studies have shown that people have a sense of priority in our 5 senses. Some of us are more visually oriented than audio etc….. we also prioritize the categoies within those senses. YOU may have a priority to taste mineral and acid before sugar. It is not the taste buds or olafactory senses but how in our brain where we do this.

  11. bob dickey says:

    sorry, you lost me when you thought 3/4 bottle/person was copious… though no one ever reads my opinon of the wine.. : )

  12. Bob, played the quantity down a little. Don’t want to scare the horses!

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