How not to taste (but it’s all good)
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.