Monday, December 27, 2010
But yes, there is a point to this entry. I never thought I’d be a cruise person. Lots of stereotypes about what a cruise “is” lingered – until we did some research and ended up on a Celebrity cruise a few years back. I’m sold.
I’m not a big “shipboard activities” person. I could care less about shows or the “Hairy Leg Contest on the Lido Deck.” When I’m on vacation, I want to unplug – and if I can get good food and wine, so much the better.
Celebrity seems to have carved out its niche with “great service, foodies welcome.” The main dining room had good-to-excellent meal selections every night and the service was sparkling. The SPinC and I especially enjoyed our conversations with our sommelier, May Casapao:
She was very helpful with wine selections and she was one of the most pleasant people (even on the run, which she often was) that I ran into on the ship. She made good suggestions and that smile never left her face.
Our other dining room staff members were solid, as well. Our waiter Melvino (his glove was actually on fire when I took the picture) and assistant waiter Juan provided top-notch service:
I can’t claim encyclopedic knowledge of cruise lines. Celebrity is a little more expensive than lines like Carnival, but it’s so very worth it if you’re looking for an experience like the one we wanted – pampering, limited numbers of “family friendly” attractions, good itinerary, and exceptional food choice. You get to see plenty and you only have to unpack once. Good times.
Hope everyone’s had a good holiday thus far! See you in 2011!
Saturday, December 11, 2010
The Sweet Partner in Crime’s well-timed conference in San Francisco gave me the perfect opportunity to take a couple of days off, zoom westward, and whisk her away up US 101 North. We plowed past the familiar stops in Napa and Sonoma to drop anchor in Cloverdale, California, gateway to Mendocino County.
Mendocino County is just north of Sonoma County. Cloverdale, about 90 miles north of San Francisco, is actually just on the Sonoma side of the county line.
We chose Cloverdale because it was the vertex of the two major roads – US 101 and CA 128 – heading up into Mendocino County wine country. The well-known 101 goes up along the Russian River towards Potter Valley and Redwood Valley. CA 128 snakes upwards along Dry Creek from Cloverdale towards Boonville and into Anderson Valley before ambling over to the Pacific Coast Highway.
We hitched the wagon at Vintage Towers, a Queen Anne B&B tucked away in a neighborhood a couple of blocks from the main street. It had everything you’d want…great interior, delicious breakfast prepared by Mary Stuart while her husband Don entertained, great spaces to relax, and necessary amenities. By the last, I mean that we were able to get a good enough wi-fi signal to watch the Duke-Colgate game on ESPN3 after we got there.
After we got settled and watched the game, we walked a couple of blocks to Piacére for dinner, a local Italian place. The owner/chef is Hispanic, but he has a serious flair for La Dolce Vita. We started with the most enormous barbecued oysters on the half shell we’d ever seen, topped with diced garlic, clams, parsley, olive oil, and finished with roe. The SPinC had veal & prawns in a lemon butter sauce and I had a “seafood of all sorts” pasta in a tomato-basil sauce. We washed this down with a bottle of Chianti. Mindblowingly good.
We decided to take the Anderson Valley “fork” on our first day. Empowered by an absolutely delicious breakfast at Vintage Towers, we packed up the rental car and headed northward. Our innkeeper made an offhand reference to 128 as “Mario Andretti Highway.” I’ve driven lots of curvy roads before. After all, I cut my driving teeth whipping a 1969 Peugeot 404 around the hollers of Eastern Kentucky. I figured that this would be no big deal.
I discovered that our new friend wasn’t kidding. If you like switchbacks, this is the road for you. Narrow, twisty, speed limit of 25 that’s not a joke. That sort of thing. We forged on, though, buoyed by the promise of scrumptious pinot noir. After about 35 minutes of winding through gorgeous scenery, Anderson Valley opened up before us.
The overall vibe of Mendocino, and Anderson Valley in particular, is very different from Napa and Sonoma. Napa has become, for the most part, an overpriced tourist trap. As Napa wines, as good as they can be, became more and more overpriced, it became the glamour region. Sonoma prided itself on being “not Napa.” They cultivated a laid back image, which made it very popular with wine lovers who wanted to avoid busses of bachelorette parties doing wine shots. But with success and increased visibility comes the need to live up to one’s press clippings. Sonoma seems to be shading from “laid back” into “hipster” territory. Too cool for school in many ways.
Mendocino, and Anderson Valley in particular, is geographically buffered from casual wine tourists. It’s a little too far from San Francisco for an easy drive – especially since you have to go through Napa and Sonoma to get there, so most people stop short. Once people get to Cloverdale, CA 128 can be a daunting trip, so the folks who make the trip really want to be there. The tasting rooms, as a result – at least on this weekend, were less crowded and we were able to spend more time chatting with folks and relaxing over our tastings. The majority of the wineries we visited used “organic” productions – certainly in process if not in certification.
Our first stop was Foursight Wines, a small operation run by the Charles family. Turns out that their grapes are the “Charles Vineyard” grapes from Papapietro Perry’s pinot noir – one of my faves. We spent quite awhile talking to Kristy Charles, who had come home after working in the world of public relations to work in the family business, bringing her husband along with her. They take their name from the number of generations that their family’s worked that plot of land. “Welcome to our dream,” they say. The low-yield, handpicked wines, fermented with wild yeast instead of cultured strains were an absolute delight. The highlights for us were the “Zero New Oak Pinot,” an elegant, meticulously balanced pinot noir and their Sauvignon Blanc, which was bright, lovely, and lean – very much along the style of a good white Bordeaux.
We spent quite a bit of time at Toulouse Vineyards working our way through their solid range of selections. We met the winemaker, Vern, just outside the door and had a friendly chat with him in the gathering drizzle of this gray day. Toulouse focuses on pinot noir with a few other wines with grapes sources from elsewhere. Their pinots were a more fruit-forward with a little more pepper. Their estate pinot (my note says “exquisite!”) was a glass of velvet with a finish of crème brulee. We had a chance to taste the unfermented pressing that went into the 2008 pinot. 2008 was a rough year for many winemakers in Anderson Valley because of the wildfires. The smokiness certainly comes through in the juice. Many people will turn away from that vintage – I would recommend that you give it a try. It gives an interesting twist.
Another highlight was Roederer Estates, the American production from Louis Roederer, the Champagne house that produces Cristal. We were tended to by Shyla and Pat in the tasting room. (It was Pat’s first day, and she did really well). Roederer Estate’s sparkling wines are some of the best values out there for “midpriced” sparklers. At Roederer, I learned that there’s cache in doing 1.5 liter bottlings of vintage bubbly over the normal sized bottle. The larger bottles carbonate more slowly, yielding a smoother flavor when tasted side by side. That said, of the wines poured, I preferred the 750 ml versions. I liked the bit of sharpness. Their L’Ermitage vintage bubbly was spectacular. Creamy, complex, and luxurious. They also were tasting some still wines, and their still chardonnay was a bargain for a high quality wine.
We made a stop at Standish Winery, which was founded by a direct descendent of Miles Standish (quite a path from Puritan to Premier Cru, no?) The 2007 Bosc Block Pinot Noir was superb – lots of fruit and menthol with plenty of Burgundian-style earth and chocolate to finish. More interesting was Michelle, our tastress, who had moved to the woods of Mendocino County from Columbus, Ohio. She left woodworking school to work in the tasting room.
Another winner was Drew Winery. The tasting room is in what appears to be an opulent, somewhat out of place Spanish villa in Philo. Turned out that the villa was once an interior design firm. The tasting room itself was very understated, as were the lovely, quietly fruity viognier and pinot noirs. However, for me, their 2007 Valenti Vineyard Syrah was an absolute rockstar. Subtle, peppery, and finely balanced, it’s simply a fantastic wine.
Our last stop of the day was Londer Vineyards. Londer Vineyards produces pinots in the $30-70 range and their tasting room is attached to a swanky art gallery. We pulled in there just as a heavy rainstorm was getting cranked up. There we met Joe Webb, one of Londer’s winemakers and the husband of Kristy Charles from Foursight (where Joe also moonlights). He ran us through their offerings. They had a very solid gewürztraminer and some really fantastic pinot. Their “Anderson Valley” pinot, made from grapes chosen from across the county, was the best value we found on the trip. Normally $30, they were selling it half-off by the case on the day we were there. We stocked up.
When we finished at Londer, rain was falling in literal sheets. I gripped the steering wheel hard and slowly crept down the side of the unlit mountain, trying my best to ignore the fact that there was no guardrail. Freeway driving was much easier. We’d had reservations that night at the restaurant in the Boonville Hotel, but we cancelled them, thinking discretion was the better part of valor. We ended up at Tian Yuen, a Vietnamese noodle place in Cloverdale that ended up being very, very yummy. A quick drive from there back to Vintage Towers and we were ready for some rest. After all, we had another full day coming up…
On the second day of our little jaunt through Mendocino County wine country, we were accompanied by Sid, a friend of mine from back in the Usenet days of basketball discussion boards. An Oregonian living in San Francisco, he’d never been through Mendocino wine country and wanted to see what was about. We were more than happy to have him tot us around in a Prius.
The “other fork” of the road from Cloverdale is a much smoother ride up Highway 101. The viticultural areas along that stretch tend to be warmer as they’re farther inland, away from the cooling influences of the ocean breezes. The climate is better suited for growing heartier grapes such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay rather than the more delicate pinot noir and gewürztraminer in Anderson Valley. The wines in these regions tend to be less expensive and a little more readily available than their Anderson counterparts.
After a couple of false starts, we found ourselves at Lolonis Winery. Lucky us! Lolonis is an organic producer with an understated warehouse of a tasting room that happened to have a fabulous spread of cheeses for our snacking pleasure. We were their first visitors of the day this Sunday. “We figured everyone would be in church!” they said. Lolonis’ trademark is the ladybug, since they use these cute little critters as pest control. We had long talks with Lori the winemaker and with Petros Lolonis, the owner, who is one of the most charming gentlemen to whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking. He’s quiet & thoughtful – the same adjectives I’d apply to his Redwood Valley Merlot, which at $18 a bottle is a steal. Their petit sirah and late harvest zinfandel (the latter is Cuvee Lorrane, named after the winemaker) are also excellent.
(During our visit to Lolonis, we discovered that we were smack dab in the middle of the Taste of Redwood Valley Holiday Wine Open House and Sale. Oh, darn…)
From there, we made our way to Oster Vineyards, tucked away down a back road. The tasting room is a low, wooden barn where Teresa & Ken Oster make exactly one wine, cabernet sauvignon. When they’re not picking grapes, they’re picking bluegrass tunes – and the wine and music certainly complement each other. Their cab is a balanced, approachable cab with a little bit of a rustic bite at the end that will mellow with a little time lying down. Lots of good berry and tannin even now.
The other winery highlight of our trip was McNab Ridge, where Joseph Parducci does some varietals that don’t show up very often. They make a carignane that smells like a chocolate truffle and a pinotage that’s pretty rugged around the edges but has a really nice heart of blueberries. Their 2006 Reserve Cabernet was just a luscious wine – their first ever reserve offering. There’s “Zinzilla!” – a biga zinfandel that they make year after year. An asskicker. They also had a barrel tasting available of their 2008 cabernet. As I mentioned in the last entry, 2008 was an interesting vintage in Mendocino because of the wildfires. Everyone calls it a “rough vintage,” but is that barrel was any indication, I’m personally going to be seeking out wines from that year. I think that they’ll be unique wines.
A few of the other places we hit on the second day:
Cole Bailey – At the top of a hill at the end of a twisty, muddy driveway sat a somewhat ramshackle tasting room where Bob Anderson held court, pouring his “Sesquipedalian” cabernet and sauvignon blanc. His name may not ring a bell, but he’s better known by his fraternity nickname – “Otter.” Bob was in Alpha Delta at Dartmouth – the inspiration for the Deltas. No, he didn’t say, “Bob Anderson, winemaker – damned glad to meet you,” but he was a very nice guy. His sauvignon blanc was very pleasant, as well. In case you’re wondering, a “Sesquipedalian” is “a sophistical rhetorician inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity. In other words, a poser who uses fancy-pants words when simple ones would do.” Alternatively, a wine writer.
Frey Vineyards – Frey claims to be “America’s first organic vineyard” and the winery and tasting room have the exterior look of a commune. While they may be the first, they’re certainly not the best. They’ve become a destination winery for hippies and hipsters. They’ve spent more time culturing their “organic” image than on the quality of their wine.
Giuseppe Wines – a fourth generation winery in Mendocino, Giuseppe was certainly the most lively place that we stopped. They’re focused on making good table wine for Italian cuisine with American grapes. Their Zinfandel isn’t subtle. It’s around 15% alcohol and is crafted to mirror big Barbera, from what I can tell. On the day of the open house, they had a big spread of food out, and this is apparently nothing new. Spaghetti dinners are regular occurrences.
McFadden Vineyard – We didn’t make it to the vineyard itself, but we enjoyed their tasting room. Stick to their sparkling wines and their smooth, subtle whites like their 2006 Riesling. Very tasty.
The three of us also had a very good late lunch at the Ukiah Brewing Company & Restaurant. All the homemade beer and delicious vegetarian pub grub (no…seriously…it’s really fricking good) that you would ever want.
Sid ran us back to Cloverdale for our last evening at Vintage Towers. We relaxed a bit, then headed to La Hacienda, a locally owned Mexican restaurant in Cloverdale. Basic Tex-Mex. Mexican food and beer were a nice change after snorking wine for two days, although the SPinC didn’t much care for her quesadilla.
Alas, our little wine weekend had to come to an end. We were up early the next morning on our way to SFO to head home. Mendocino certainly made its mark on us, though. I used to think that heading back to Sonoma would be my wine destination of choice, but Mendocino certainly has its appeal. I’d head back there in a heartbeat. And if you’re looking for something new, I’d highly recommend this jaunt.
And with that, the Vine is going to take a bit of a sabbatical. Time to recharge the batteries.
See y’all in the new year. Cheers!
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Sparkling wine is like any other vino in terms of quality. There are super-cheap headache producers, everyday bottles, and loveliness to pull from the cellar when something magical is going on. I won’t touch the first and I’ve talked enough about the second in other columns. Today, we focus on the good stuff.
Sparkling wine, more so than any other type of wine that I can think of, has a “top end” dominated almost exclusively by wines with strong name recognition. Let me demonstrate with a quick game of word association. What’s the first wine that pops to mind when I say “good cabernet sauvignon?” Just answer, don’t think.
Were I able to magically see all your answers, I’d probably have a list of hundreds of brands with prices ranging from fifteen bucks to hundreds. Now, try it again. Do the same thing for “good bubbly.” No thinking – just whatever comes to mind.
I can practically guarantee 95% of you immediately pulled something from this list: “Dom Perignon,” “Cristal (or Louis Roederer),” “Krug,” or “Veuve Clicquot.”
These names rise to the surface for a reason. Yes, they’re excellent wines – and they’ve been excellent wines for decades. Because so few wine makers, relatively, make sparkling wine – the top end sparklers prices’ end up inflated simply because of name recognition. Hooters puts a $200 bottle of Dom Perignon on every menu for a reason, no? You won’t find any of those wines for under $60-70.
The other notable fact – all of these wines are Champagnes. There’s romance in the word “Champagne” which adds several dollars to the sticker price. As we’ve discussed here before, most sparkling wine is not Champagne. For a wine to be truly “Champagne,” it must be made in the Champagne region of France using “Méthode Champenoise” – a particular technique for carbonation and aging. (“That Champagne’s not Korbel” is actually an indication of quality.)
There’s a good reason why these wines are as expensive as they are. Wines made in the Champagne are, on average, more complex and of higher quality than similar wines made elsewhere in the world, even if the same production methods are employed. However, there’s plenty of excellent sparkling wine made in other places without as much notoriety.
During this festive season, there are plenty of occasions for bubbly. Some of those occasions might call for a “better than everyday” sparkler. I have a couple of ideas, and I asked some of my local friends in the wine biz for recommendations on some bottles that would be appropriate for when “good” bubbly is on the menu, but you might not want to blow all of your gift-buying cash in one place.
Baumard Crémant Brut-Carte Turquoise ($17-23) – from Anjou in the Loire Valley, a blend of chenin blanc and cabernet franc has a crisp flavor of apricots and a very clean finish.
Charles Ellner Brut Reserve Champagne ($30-50) – a classic Champagne. Plenty of earth and yeast on the nose with long flavors of vanilla and honey on the finish.
Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne ($40-55) – one of the “just below the top” producers in Champagne. A little more fruit than many, but a consistent, high-quality product that’s been around for many, many years.
Delamotte Brut Champagne ($40-55) – the flipside of the Piper, this one is tart and crisp. Long and complex. The word that I see over and over again in reviews of this wine is “stylish.”
If I’m getting a good bottle that’s not from France, I’m looking to California:
Roederer Estates L’Ermitage Brut ($35-55) – I had the good fortune to visit this winery on a recent trip to California. Roederer Estates is the California branch of Louis Roederer, creator of Cristal. However, for about $80 less a bottle, you can take the cage off a bottle of this beautiful sparkler. Probably as close to Champagne style as I’ve had from an American bubbly. I highly recommend.
Mumm DVX ($40-55) – From Napa Valley, this is the high-end bottling from this very well-known winery. Like Roederer, they put together some very solid $20 bubbly, but if you need something a little higher end with a bit of an edge, the DVX is a yearly award winner.
Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs ($25-40) – K2 calls Schramsberg the “King of the California Sparklers.” Their Blanc de Blancs is a very flavorful, apple-laden blast of flavor that’s a real bargain at the price. I was lucky enough to get a couple of bottles of this as a wedding gift. It doesn’t disappoint.
Iron Horse Russian Cuvee ($25-40) – This sparkler is near and dear to my heart, as I had a chance to try it on our very first trip to wine country. From Sonoma County, this is a little fruity and would probably land in the “extra dry” rather than “brut” category (meaning there’s a little bit of residual sugar). This wine was designed for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meetings at the end of the Cold War. It’s especially good with a few pomegranate seeds in the glass.
There are also some excellent values from Germany and Argentina, and there’s any number of good producers of Prosecco from Italy. Bottom line? Talk to your local wine merchant. If his or her first recommendation when you ask for “good bubbly” is Dom Perignon, go elsewhere.
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
After our forays into hard and soft cheeses, the time has arrived to have a peek of the most polarizing province of the cheese kingdom, stinky cheeses. They’re sometimes known as “pungent,” “blooming,” or “blue” cheeses. So, what are they, and where the heck does that smell come from?
As we discussed in the other entries, cheese is created by allowing milk to curdle, separating the curd from the whey, pressing the curd into a certain shape – then, usually, aging the cheese for a certain period of time. The older the cheese, the stronger or sharper the taste and smell usually become. Stinky cheeses are all aged. What makes them different from, say, cheddar?
With most hard, longer aged cheeses, the chemical and bacterial makeup of the cheeses prevent the formation of various kinds of mold and bacteria. With stinky cheeses, the growth of that mold is not only desirable – it’s encouraged! There are two major processes a cheesemaker uses to “stink up” a cheese: from the outside in and from the inside out.
The “outside in” cheese is usually referred to as a washed rind cheese. Once the cheese’s rind forms, the entire block of cheese is cured for a period of time in brine and/or other substances which can bear mold – usually some type of alcohol. Beer, wine, and brandy are common additions to the wash, along with certain spices. Curing the rind in this solution allows the formation of a certain type of bacteria that imparts the stronger flavors and scents to the cheese. A washed rind cheese can be soft or hard. While the rind usually has a very strong scent, the cheese itself is often somewhat mild. Examples are Limburger, Munster (not Muenster!), and Taleggio.
The “inside out” cheeses are known as inoculated cheeses. An inoculated cheese begins its change from normal to noxious early in its lifetime. While the cheese curds are still loose, they’re injected with a specific type of mold – one from the Penicillum genus. This mold has been used to stinkify cheeses for over 2000 years. As the mold propagates, it forms veins through the cheese, altering the texture, flavor, and odor. “Blue” cheeses are in this category, although the mold can also be brown or green, depending on the specific type of mold involved. Common examples of this type of cheese are Roquefort, Stilton, and Gorgonzola. (As a side note -- this is the same type of mold from which Penicillin was first synthesized when it was discovered that certain bacteria don’t grow in the presence of the mold)
We chose three cheeses for our tasting, along with some “classic” wine pairings:
- Taleggio (pairing: Alsace Riesling)
- Stilton (pairing: Australian tawny port)
- Roquefort (pairing: Sauternes)
You may be looking at those pairings and thinking, “One of these things is not like the other.” You’d be right. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sauternes, it’s a sweet, expensive French wine that was simply unbelievable, flavorwise. Sauternes is a “botyrized” wine, meaning that the grapes have also molded with “noble rot.” There are other, less expensive, wines made in a similar fashion. Ask your neighborhood wine person. As an alternative, an Auslese Riesling or a ruby (rather than tawny) port will work. Still, follow the link above if you want to read how that wine made our eyes roll back. Otherwise, onward:
Taleggio – A cow’s milk cheese named for Val Taleggio, the valley in Lombardy, Italy, from where this cheese hails. It’s a washed rind cheese, traditionally sponged with seawater once a week during the 6-10 week aging process. The finished product has a whitish rind like brie, but the two smell nothing alike.
I was introduced to Taleggio via one of my coworkers who simply told me, “It’s good stuff.” When I unwrapped it, I have to admit to a moment of dubiousness. There’s no better way to put it – the stuff smelled like feet. However, once I got some of it on a cracker, my opinion rapidly changed. The cheese does have an earthy funk to it, but it’s light. It’s creamy and the flavor is nicely balanced. Very tasty on its own.
Matched with the wines, the Riesling was the best pairing by far. The wine amplifies the funk and brings out some more complex flavors in the cheese itself. However, I would suggest a slightly sweeter Riesling rather than a dry one. The cheese turned the wine somewhat too sharp and metallic. Even just an off-dry Riesling would be enough to keep out the potential unpleasantness. As for the other two – well, I have in my notes, “Poor Taleggio.” Both the Sauternes and Port absolutely overwhelmed this cheese. In my opinion, this would be a great cheese to melt into risotto or some kind of pasta sauce, but on its own, you may get a bad match if you put it on your holiday cheese plate.
Stilton – Another cow’s milk cheese that you’ll find colored either white or yellow. For a cheese to be legally Stilton, it must be made in County Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire, England. Interestingly, the village of Stilton is not in any of those counties, but instead in the nearby County Cambridgeshire, thus rendering it illegal to produce Stilton in Stilton, for reasons known only to British royalty. Also, Stilton must be made from pasteurized milk rather than raw. (I assume this is to prevent unwanted bacteria from growing.) Stilton is made by piercing the cheese blocks with needles, allowing air bearing the mold into the core of the cheese. Aging of the cheese takes about nine weeks.
On its own, it’s a very full-flavored cheese with a strong salty flavor. The traditional food pairing with Stilton is pears. Sure enough, the two of them meshed very well. The pear-sweetness was an excellent balance for the funky, salty cheese. The traditional wine pairing is port. It was very good. The flavors meshed nicely, and, again, the sweetness of the wine balanced the cheese. The Riesling was pleasant enough. Both experiences, though, paled next to the Stilton with the Sauternes. A little of the cheese, a pear, and the Sauternes was eye-crossingly good. However, I wasn’t trying it with $70 port, so it might not have been the fairest comparison.
Roquefort – This cheese is produced from sheep’s milk and comes from a specific region in the south of France. The particular mold that gives this cheese its particular flavor is found in the soil of nearby caves. The traditional method of making this cheeses involves leaving loaves of bread in the caves until they’re consumed by mold. The moldy bread is then ground into powder and mixed with the curd. The cheese is then aged for about five months. It’s a white cheese, crumbly, and shot through with the mold, which is usually a bright green.
The initial smell of this cheese can set you back a step, but the flavor is one of super creamy goodness. It’s very earthy and salty with a rich consistency and a buttery finish that just goes on and on. “Buttery, yummy mold in your mouth” was a comment from one of us. The Riesling and Port were only average companions for the Roquefort. Neither was particularly outstanding – but few things prepared us for the Sauternes. All of the flavors are very powerful, but they all work together. They practically rotated on our tongues, trading back and forth between the earth and the sweet. After a couple of bites, they settled down, meshing into a combination that simply demanded savoring over a long period of time. Which is exactly what we did, happily.
Friday, December 03, 2010
Robert Parker, for those of you unfamiliar, is the single most polarizing figure in the wine world. His major contribution to society is the 100-point wine rating scale that you’ve probably seen on the shelf in your local wine and spirits store.
Most wine writers, including myself, don’t care much for Parker – somewhat out of professional jealousy, really, since he came up with a good idea before the rest of us. Largely, however, because it creates a paradigm by which wine can ostensibly be judged objectively,effectively rendering our flowery prose obsolete.
An objective rating does give people permission to try new wines without fear that they’re going to get a bad bottle. A novice wine drinker will assume that the 92-point bottle that they paid a boatload for will be 92-point quality, wherever and whenever it’s opened.
Parker scores his wines at tastings. Controlled settings. Controlled pours. Controlled access. Empires rise and fall on the swirl of Parker’s stemmed glass. But does where you’re drinking wine, who you’re drinking it with and why you’re drinking it in the first place make a difference? I wanted to investigate if these factors play any part in one’s perception of a certain wine.
Honestly, I’m all for the Parker corollary of not being intimidated by a wall of wine in a store because you have at least some idea of what to expect. But is one man’s rating scale universal? Is it even worthwhile to think that way? There’s just something about the notion of one man’s palate and judgment being universal that doesn’t sit well with me.
Studying wine perceptions
In 2008, a group of scientists from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University ran a fascinating study that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Why? Because it turned the notion of wine and objectivity on its ear.
In the study, a group of participants were given samples of five cabernet sauvignons and informed that the wines ranged in retail price from $5 to $90. The participants were given a functional MRI brain scan while they tried the wines to see what was going on in their cerebral cortexes.
So, what’s the kicker?
The wines were not what they appeared to be. There were only three distinct wines among the five samples. Two of them were not priced at their normal retail. One was higher and one was lower than actual. What did they find?
“The results showed that increasing the price of the wine increased the participants’ subjective report of the pleasantness of the flavor. However, the MRI scans also showed a higher level of oxygen-level-dependent activity in … the medial orbitofrontal cortex.”
Since I’m not a doctor, I asked Barry Southers, head MRI instructor at the University of Cincinnati’s Advanced Medical Imaging Technology program, for a translation:
“This means the medial orbitofrontal cortex, believed to be a pleasure center of the brain, had increased brain activity (or simply, increased oxygen in the blood going to that region of the brain) when the subjects believed the wine to be more expensive. Basically, they are saying if it is more expensive, people generally feel this is a better tasting wine because the brain believes it.”
In a separate test where the participants weren’t given the prices and were simply asked to go on flavor alone, the $5 wine was rated highest. So, scientifically, marketing affects price, price affects perception and our minds bend the results of those perceptions into a reality that may not be, you know, real.
Into my own hands: a blind tasting
I was so fascinated by this study that I decided to do my own version. I invited a dozen or so of my thirsty wine-drinking friends over and set up my own little test, sans the MRI scanner.
I set out five carafes of wine, labeled A through E. All of them were red blends from Washington State of similar construction – blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. I put them into two groups.
A and B were identical wines from Renegade Wine Thieves which retail for about $40. I told people that one wine was $15 and the other $40, but I didn’t say which was which. I put C, D, and E in a group. C and E were both a $25 wine called Script and Seal. D was a red blend from Hogue Cellars that you can snag for $8 in most Kroger stores. I said the three wines were $8, $15 and $35, but again, didn’t identify which was which.
I had my guests complete a short survey after tasting the wines. Thanks to some statistical assistance from the Sweet Partner in Crime (a quantitative researcher in criminology in her other life), I ran the data.
When I asked which was most expensive in the first pair, the group split almost evenly between A and B. People’s preferences correlated. 80% of the people who said A was more expensive said they preferred it. People clearly thought there was a difference in flavor – making comments that one wine was “smoother,” “fruitier” and “more complex” than the other.
Among the three-wine grouping, the wine most frequently listed as most expensive was D – which was actually the Hogue, the least expensive of the group. Looking at the identical wines, the findings were similar to the A/B choice. People who thought C was most expensive tended to prefer it, as with E. Interestingly, 100% of the people who listed E as their first or second choice identified C (the identical wine) as the least expensive.
So, what does all this mean? Fun with perception, semi-pseudoscience and an entertaining evening aside, all my partygoers know me well enough to figure that I was probably up to something, so that may have swayed their perceptions (one survey was left blank except for “Dude, they were all the same wine!”).
Much like the difference between Miller Lite, Bud Light and Coors Light, the partygoers’ brains identified differences between identical tastes because I told them there were differences to be found. And, in most cases, people’s preferences tended to follow the wines that they thought were higher priced, and thus, higher quality. One person commented that she selected the wine she thought was most expensive because she liked it the least, which doesn’t change the substantive conclusion in the slightest (this person tends not to like “snooty” wines, so she figured the one she preferred most was the least expensive).
A change of scenery
Even though we have a scientific method for proving that perceptions are mutable, we don’t generally drink wine out of unlabeled carafes and we know what we’ve paid for a bottle we’re uncorking, more often than not.
So, what happens to the flavor and the perception if we “keep the wine constant” in different settings? I thought I’d find a decent bottle in a few different locales. I settled on Steltzner Claret, a red blend from Napa that you can score reasonably easily for around $18.
Thanks to the largesse of DCP’s dear publisher, I had the opportunity to dine at a Dayton institution, the Pine Club. As we nestled cozily into a corner table amidst the 50s décor, I felt a little like Don Draper – minus the skinny tie, multiple infidelities and ubiquitously acrid stench of Lucky Strikes.
When my bone-in filet arrived, I had a glass of Steltzner right by my side. As I made my way through the meal, the wine turned out to be an excellent, flexible pairing with everything from the perfectly-cooked steak, to the creamed spinach, to the rye salt sticks.
I realized I hadn’t paid much attention to the intricacies of the Steltzner during much of the evening. It was there and it was good, but it wasn’t the centerpiece of the meal. The Pine Club isn’t a place for lingering and tasting notes. It’s a place for boisterous conversation and the consumption of mass quantities of cow. At a dining establishment heavy on scenery and the indulging of various carnivorous fantasies – wine should be seen and not heard. It worked wonderfully.
As part of my “other life” when I’m not writing about wine, I had to attend a conference in Columbus. I eventually made it home after sitting in interstate traffic for a couple of hours. My wife was kind enough to put together dinner – roasted swordfish steaks with asparagus sautéed in butter, garlic and crystallized ginger.
Like a good wine writer, I tried to break down what I tasted in the wine. I thought the wine had more of a depth than I remembered from the Pine Club … I tasted more dark fruit. I asked myself, “Is that blackberry or currant?” Then I stopped and asked myself, “What the hell am I doing?”
Instead of the combo hustle/bustle of happy hour and an early dinner, there was quiet, there was swordfish and there was room to appreciate what I had in my glass. Yes, I was able to be more analytical, but since I had time to experience the various flavor pieces, they all stepped up and let themselves be known. The wine’s flavors were the same, but the atmosphere gave the wine a different vibe.
Merlot, he wrote…
So, as I sit here at my desk and tap out the last few lines of this little tale, remnants of a nice big glass of Steltzner sits not far from my left hand. I’ve been sipping on it while I’ve been writing this article. Drinking wine engages both taste and smell – the senses most closely tied to memory.
While I may not have my own functional MRI handy, I can guarantee that blood is rushing to memory centers in my brain. I can close my eyes and see the Pine Club’s wood paneling and hear the buzz from the bar. I can feel again how tired I was eating my swordfish and picture my wife’s sympathetic smile.
But the flavor of the wine itself as I’ve been writing? Couldn’t really tell you. I’ve just been drinking it while my attention was focused elsewhere. Stopping for a moment, I can tell you that it’s a medium-bodied blend that’s a less tannic alternative for a Napa wine. Nice full fruit with a chocolaty, coffee-filled finish. And it went really well with my evening’s dark chocolate after I finished this draft (by the way, Parker gave it an 87).
Breaking a wine into its component parts is a skill. There’s certainly a call for that sort of thing. I enjoy learning the differences between wines and being able to articulate how various flavors mesh. There’s a necessary limit, however. One can describe the wavelengths of light in a sunset as well, but why bother? A glass of wine is always as good as we believe it to be.