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When palates change

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I ran into an old friend yesterday, a professional who works in the Rock Ridge area of North Oakland. He’s a wine guy with a particular penchant for Brunello. He never had much liking for California wine, including Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Too rich, too soft, too sweet–you know the routine. I always told him that, while he was waiting for those pesky Brunellos to mature, he could be drinking Cabernet. But no, he just didn’t care for it.

“But I recently had a Napa Cabernet for dinner with some friends,” he told me yesterday, “and, man, was it good! So I’m thinking maybe my palate is changing, away from Brunello toward Cabernet.”

This matter of “changing palates” has always fascinated me. There’s no reason, when you think about it, why somebody’s palate shouldn’t change over a period of years. Our preferences and tastes evolve; our bodies themselves undergo certain effects of aging; and a host of other, intangible factors can contribute to the phenomenon of a changing palate. Any and all of these could have resulted in my friend’s new appreciation of Cabernet.

However, it could also be simply that Napa Valley Cabernet has gotten so good, you’d practically have to be a misanthrope not to like it. I think, in the case of my friend, his aversion to Cabernet went something like this: He decided many years ago that he didn’t care for it. Maybe that was because he hadn’t had very good Cabernet. Maybe his infatuation with Brunello–a wine that’s notoriously tannic in youth, requiring many years of age–made him sensitive to Cab’s softness, which in turn made him insensitive to its charms.

I think some people go through phases in their wine appreciation. I’ve always been mildly surprised at how people tell me they like “x” or “y”, but they hate “z,” even when all three wines are well made and typical of their type. Myself, I can appreciate any wine, as long as it’s well made. I’m very catholic [with a small “c”] in that regard. People are always asking me, “What’s your favorite wine?”, and although I really have none, I gave up trying to explain that years ago, and nowadays I simply say “sparkling wine or Champagne” and leave it at that. But the reason I can’t have a favorite wine is because when so many different wines are so excellent, it’s a form of bias to reject some of them. So I don’t.

Back to my friend. My assumption is that, after years of persuading himself he didn’t like Napa Cabernet, he inadvertently stumbled across one recently and was stunned to discover that, yes, this is utterly, completely delicious. Sure, it may not have the stinging tannins of Brunello, but then again, that’s not what [most] Napa Cabernets are about. It’s nothing against Brunello to admit how luscious a great Napa Cabernet can be. It’s simply a matter of broadening your palate, or perspective, to include other forms of goodness.

I wish my friend had remembered the particular Cabernet that changed his mind. Alas, he didn’t. I hate when that happens–when people tell me about a certain wine they had (and that I may have reviewed), but can’t recall its name. It could have been any one of dozens: there are really so many great wineries in Napa Valley focusing on Cabernet/Meritage wines that it’s impossible to keep track of them. Some of the greatest Cabernets I’ve reviewed in the last few months have come from Venge, Araujo, JCB (yes, our friend, Jean-Charles Boisset, whose No. 1 Cabernet is quite an achievement, although it isn’t cheap: $150), Stag’s Leap Cask 23, Caymus Special Selection [particularly awesome considering the high production level], Shafer Hillside Select [what else is new?], Macauley 2007 [a new name to me. I looked it up and wasn't surprised. The winemaker is Kirk Venge. The grapes come from To Kalon and from the Star Vineyard, planted by David Abreu.]. Other Cabernets that knocked me out lately were Moone-Tsai’s “Cor Leonis,” Vineyard 7&8’s Estate (so seriously overlooked, this winery is), and a Sequoia Grove ‘07 “Rutherford Bench Reserve” that proves this veteran winery is still in front of the pack.

Any wine lover with an open mind cannot fail to appreciate the sheer world-class-ness of wines like these. If someone does, they’re just being ideological about it, like I think my friend was, for all those years. Fortunately, some people are wise, or blessed, enough to eventually see through their own ideologies and discard them, after which the scales fall from their eyes, enabling them to appreciate a whole new dimension of wines. My friend now is a certified Napa-centric. Welcome to the club!

  1. I get the “What’s your favorite wine?” question quite a bit and my reply is “The next one.” I then explain that I’m not being flippant (well, maybe just a bit ;) but that keeping an open mind and palate is essential to learning all I can about wine and not missing something that might be truly wonderful.

    And not remembering the fave wine that is a life changer? These days, most everybody has a phone with them that has a camera — take a photo of the label of that great wine that you just fell in love with. Makes life so much simpler when you walk into the wine shop and can *show* them the label you are now feverishly searching for.

  2. Carlos Toledo says:

    Blind-test-taste your friend, Steve. Mix in brunelli, cabernets from here and there, a few cab francs too (Chile or Uruguay). If he picks on the californian cabernet sauvignons right off the bat then it’s truly a palate issue. Or else he’s being just biased.

    BTW, doesn’t palate change when we have poorer salivation (as we age we suffer from this malaise which is why old people don’t savour things as well as we do…)?

  3. Carlos, I don’t know about salivation, but my feeling is that older wine professionals taste better, not worse. They have the benefit of vast experience, and are more attuned to subtle issues of balance, rather than identifying particular aromas and flavors.

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