Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Palate Sensitivity

At a recent wine tasting I brought a glass of Paso Robles Zinfandel to my mouth, took a sip and the second the wine hit the tip of my tongue I felt and tasted a surge of sweetness, not fruitiness but definite sweetness. When I let the, “Whoa that’s sweet” escape my lips the gentleman that was pouring was quick to correct me, “That wine is not sweet. It has that baked, stewed fruit but it is not sweet”. I shrugged and moved on down the line but when another long-time-in-the-biz taster puffed up their cheeks, raised both their eyebrows and upon lifting their head from the spittoon said, “Wow, sweet” I was left wondering yet again….who’s right?

Now like myself the other taster that picked up sweetness on the Paso Zinfandel was a European wine drinker, and buyer so what might be going on it that our palates are calibrated for wines that have more delicate flavors and with far less sweetness, (that Zinfandel was sweet, I’d be willing to put money on the fact that there was residual sugar in that wine) so the pronounced sweetness was a hurdle that stopped our palates flat. Does that mean our palates are finer or in any way better…hell no and in this case it was clearly a hindrance, we were unable to evaluate the wine fairly, unable to adjust our palates to taste beyond that sweet upfront fruit….there may have been some other nuanced flavors but for me the wine was sweet oak juice. To the gentleman that was pouring, and had a palate much more accustomed to that level of “fruit” the wine was chock full of layered flavor. The same gentleman, when poured a glass of what I thought was a very classic Cotes du Rhone, furrowed his brow, smacked his lips together and said things like, “Thin, too earthy, not enough fruit” I couldn’t help but smirk and say, “Now that wine is not sweet”.

Even Randy and I with our very similar palates, find that we but heads when it comes to what is considered sweet, I put little tags on my wines that say things like, sweet or semi-sweet and he calls me out on it all the time, “Sam, this is not a sweet wine” he’ll point out but to me, my palate it is. Those conversations have made me rethink my signage, not to change them to what he says but to remove them all together….I mean if two people with similar tastes in wine can vary so much I doubt that the signs are at all useful and in fact may be giving bunk information to someone that is less sensitive to sweetness than myself.

I really have no taste for anything sweet, I don’t like dessert, the only candy I ever really liked were those super sour kinds, and I even find many Kabinett level Rieslings just too sweet for me to enjoy drinking. Randy on the other hand, loves dessert, adores every level of Riesling, he has a sweet tooth….the one place we both agree is that dry red wines….well, they should be dry. The reason I am explaining all of this is that the other taster that was shocked by the level of sweetness in that Paso Robles Zinfandel, it was Randy.

So there you go, 3 wine professionals with very educated palates with varying degrees of sensitivity to sweetness, just what we need right…one more thing to make an already daunting process even more difficult. The most important thing to remember….no one is more right about a wine than you are….no one. This is where we retailers, (well, the smart ones) have a slight edge over critics or sommeliers when it comes to helping you find wines for you, we get the chance to understand your palate, figure out through trial and error, what it is that you like and where your palate sensitivity is. From there a good retailer will follow the evolution of your palate and taste, with any luck you will find that there are so many wonders, delights and adventures for each of you….all in a glass of wine. Don’t be intimated when you walk into a wine store, don’t be afraid to tell them what it is you like….even if you are not comfortable using, “Wine Geek Speak” just tell them which wines you have enjoyed, and if possible why you liked them.

Now I will be the first to admit that there are far too many “I’m the person with all the answers” people in the wine business, blowhards that like to hear themselves speak and think that their ability to memorize factoids makes them know more than the average bear….I hate those assholes and when you come across one in a retail shop….run! They are never going to have your best interest at heart, if anything they will try to mold your palate to be more like theirs, an exercise in arrogance that I have seen more than I would like to admit and leaves me cringing that I am in the same business. I have to wonder how many wine drinkers we have either lost or turned over to the chain stores…people willing to “take a chance” on a bottle from Safeway or Costco rather than be made to feel like their taste is inferior by a “professional”. I don’t blame them, it burns my ass….but I can’t blame them. My only hope is that they will hold the rest of our feet to the fire to punish those self inflated schmucks!

The key to truly enjoying wine is to discover your sweet spot, voice and palate sensitivity. Don’t be turned off by your retailers incessant questions, we are not grilling you or judging your knowledge, we are simply trying to extract as much information about what you like as we possibly can…..I say this as someone that has watched new customers shrivel a bit under my interrogation. After listening to a very dear couple tell me that they had to stop drinking wine with a friend of theirs because they couldn’t stand to sit there while he barfed up his “knowledge” all over them and were made to feel like they were wrong because their plates were not calibrated the same as his….the story broke my heart a little, I didn’t feel bad for the pompous asshole guy but the thought that there was a couple out there that would rather give up wine than listen to one of those jack holes….well it inspired this post.

Couple things to remember:

You are never wrong about what you taste in a wine.

If talking about residual sugars and north facing slopes bores the shit out of you it doesn’t mean you don’t like wine or are less into it than anyone else….just means you are not a dork.

If wines never taste like anything more defined than wine, if you cannot extract cherries, coco or berries but you still love it, who cares?! Drink all the wine flavored beverage you wish.

Just as with anything specialized, be it a career or a hobby, you will run into people that think they know more therefore are better than you, let them think it, go home open a bottle and laugh your ass off at their expense.

If you like red wine with fish….drink it.

If you like white wine with steak….drink it.

It’s okay to like sweet wine.

It is also okay to not like sweet wine.

Each glass is part of your education, exploration and hopefully with the help of a really interested retailer you will find what it is you are looking for….and more.

No comments: