Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sense Of Smell

You need only scroll down a few posts to read how I feel about big tasting events, and long time readers have more than once been subjected to my tight-jawed rants about the subject. The crowds, the wannabes, the schmooze, the greasy buffet grazers, the “Listen to what I know” turds that block the table while barfing up their knowledge all over the poor bastard that’s pouring, the heavily perfumed and walking…um, stumbling around on six inch heels. Not to mention the tight pours and distraction of it all. I pretty much hate them and have always lamented that there could not be a worse setting for truly evaluating wine. I get why they have to happen and outside a handful of importers, (my hands are smallish so that means about three) I have simply accepted that these events are akin to having to go to a coworker’s baby shower or your third cousin’s open house. Something you do as to show support, which really means you don’t want to be the dick that didn’t show. I get it, will do it and find humor, maybe a little sympathy, in the folks that stand their feverishly scribbling tasting notes on the photocopied brochures or balancing their i-devices in their palms while they peck away. Okay yeah, those guys are just funny, maybe I should just go and watch them. Anyway I understand that they are a necessary evil in our business, (and do be thankful that I spared you all the recantation of my recent nightmare, Southern Wine & Spirits “Best of the Best” tasting. Fuck me, what a joke that was. Never seen more spray tans and tweezed brows in my life, but hey least the cast of Jersey Shore has a home should they ever tire of their celebrity status. Ugh. SWS Best of the Best is about as special as a BevMo Best of the Best, a packed and sparkling show of medium. Lame) and as a member of this crazy business I have to swallow my ire, buck-up and go. So that is trade tasting, so what about the others?

Another long standing rant, well much more a conversation than a rant really, is that I don’t think that tastings, be they blind or not, can really tell you accurately what the wines are about. Sitting there taking notes, sniffing, sipping, spitting and moving on to the next can merely give one a hint or idea hat that wine is really like and does almost nothing as far as telling the consumer what it will be when they get it home, share it with friends, have it with food or what it might be after the second or third glass. Part of the reason points and scoring have never made sense to me. Sure that swish of wine may have tasted like 92 points after the last five and before the next ten, doesn’t say shit about how it will be on its own, let alone with food. The whole idea is silly to me although I blame the score chasing consumer and lazy retailers/salesmen more than critics for the popularity of the point system.  Thankfully I deal very little with that, our customers aren’t score chasers, they buy wines to drink, often that evening or week and are confident that whatever it is we have, or suggest for them, will be to their liking…no numbers needed. That being said, the ugly tasting truth can still rear its ugly head from time to time.

“She needs to return this” and then in a slight whisper, “It’s gone bad” a pleasant looking woman in her late forties speaking for her much younger friend that was standing there, looking somewhat embarrassed, eyes locked on her buddy that was taking the lead in this attempted return of product. “Gone bad, really?” I said reaching across the counter for the vacuum sealed baggie and its circular wood encased contents. The bag had been turned upside down and I could see through the sealed plastic that the expiration date read April 29th. “Oh I saw that too but I assure you, there is something wrong with this cheese. Again with the whispering from the one and silence from the other, “She brought it in to work today, she was pretty sure something had gone wrong, that it had turned, so she put it in the work refrigerator to show me and Oh My God, it stunk the whole fridge up!” I flipped the bag to see exactly what I expected, Epoisses, one of the world’s most notoriously stinky cheeses. 

“Do you mind?” I asked making a gesture that I wanted to crack the seal on the bag. “Oh no, go ahead, we only sealed it because it smelled so awful.” She replied. I grasped two fistfuls of plastic on either side of the cheese and gave a good pull, the women now staring at me with their eyes wide in anticipation, waiting for my “Oh My God!” face. The second the plastic tore my nose was met with an unmistakable aroma, meaty, gamey, mushroom and sweaty socks…..Epoisses. I did my best to keep my game face on as I pulled the round box from the plastic and removed the lid, brought the disk to my face and took long, probably extra long, deep sniffs of what is to me one of the most mouthwatering smells in the world, a perfectly ripe piece of what I think is one of the best cheeses on the planet. “See! Isn’t that awful?” this time the younger woman interjecting, “Well I can see why you would think that but” I began to say, “Really? You don’t smell that?” she interrupted. “Oh yeah, I smell that but that is what it is supposed to smell like” I explained. I went on to tell both somewhat astonished faces that Epoisses is known for its pungent and rather funky aroma, a reason my husband throws a super-model sized bitch fit every time a bring a piece home. “I will take it back but I highly recommend you stay away from washed rind cheeses, especially this one” I said with a grin, both because I did understand that not everyone finds pleasure in the funkiness of Epoisses, and because it meant I had this whole glorious piece of gooey deliciousness that I could not resell…which means we eat it, literally. “That’s so weird because I loved it at your tasting”….

A few weeks ago I did my annual Cheese & Wine Fest at the store. An event where I pair 10 cheeses with 10 wines that is always a huge draw and in fact this year we had 121 people crammed in our too-tiny-for-that-event tasting room. One of the hardest events I do all year, from the labor involved in slicing and plating cheeses for that many people to the picking appropriate wines to the hardest part, picking the order. A massive undertaking actually that has me stressing for weeks before and has me icing my back for days afterword. The stress comes from first getting all the cheeses in, there is almost always some shortage or something I wanted to showcase out of stock, then the picking of the wines which is not as easy as people tend to think, there are all kinds of chemical reasons that certain things don’t work and I am in the kitchen days before my event cramming pieces of cheese down my coworkers throats and popping corks. Then the putting of things in order, where both the progression of wines and cheeses makes sense, dude….wicked difficult. Do I need for it to be “perfect” no, but I put my name on this event and I am going to make damn sure that I have given it my all, period. I have one coworker that laughs at me every year, “You know Sam, it really doesn’t matter” he says with a rather dismissive tone, might not to him but it does to me so I refuse to call that shit in or look to books or the internet for someone else’s pairings. My gig and I’m going to make sure everything is presented in a way, and order, that makes each thing taste its best. So turns out, I did too good a job with the Epoisses….

Epoisses was my fourth pairing on the table that day, which is fairly early on for such an aggressive cheese but I had paired it with a beautifully delicate domestic Pinot Noir, the 2010 Grochau Cellars Commuter Cuvee, a wine that had I placed it further back in the lineup would have likely been squashed by the bigger more assertive to tannic wines on the table. Had to go early this “Yin and Yang” couple, and if I do say so myself it was a fantastic pairing. Light pretty fruit buffering some of the funky and aggressive flavors in the cheese. The thick, palate coating, oily flesh of the cheese being lifted and balanced by the wines perky acidity. I loved the pairing, as did the rest of the crowd, including the woman that was now standing before me wearing a “I smell poo” face. The thing was, that in that setting, with all those people, the residue of the wine and cheese pairing before the Epoisses pairing still on her palate, this woman was so smitten with the cheese that she plunked down the $25 dollars to buy one, but once at home, on its own the true nature of Epoisses was reveled….not what she remembered tasting, or smelling as it turns out and honestly, not all that surprising, least to this “Tastings are kind of bullshit” chick. 

As I said, tastings are necessary evil on the wine business side and they can be a bit of a minefield for the consumer as well, albeit one that can be a lot of fun when taken for what they are, a great way to spend an afternoon or evening, getting an idea what those wines are about and taking in one of the best and most important parts about wine, the community of it all. Dig that about what I do….


Savvy Working Gal said...

Originally, I began reading blogs over my lunch hour to perhaps add something “interesting” to an otherwise bor-ing workday. I have to say this rant is one of the best reads I’ve come across in a long time. If I ever make a trip wine trip to CA I definitely want to visit your shop – I wanted to come this year for my big 50 birthday, but DH thinks airfare is too pricey.

And a huge thank you to Webb of The Garden Bench for introducing me to your blog.

Anonymous said...

Savvy- if you ever have the chance, you should stop in! This blog introduced me to Sam, and then the store, and then to a whole new world of wines that I love that I would have never experienced otherwise.

Sam- love the Epoisses, but yes, the smell is definitely... errr, funky if you aren't expecting it! Will have to try and source that Pinot here. What did they think of that divine mustard cheese that I can't get enough of?

Romes said...

Dude, I so wish I could have been there to watch the exchange! Hee hee. I'm not sure if I have had Epoisses, we'll have to do that at my next visit.

I so concur with ADoC that meeting you and finding the Wine Country has been an amazing life changer for me and luckily enough you can ship to my state so I get to keep enjoying at least the wine from afar!

Samantha Dugan said...

Savvy Working Gal,
Well welcome! Always nice to see and hear a new face/voice. I do hope that should you make it out this way that you do in fact stop into the shop and make a little extra time to hang with me. Love visitors and have found that I've made some amazing friends that way. Speaking of which...

I didn't end up using the mustard cheese and have yet to find the one you emailed me about....what was that again? All the cheeses did well, with the exception of Chesire and I must confess, that's a stupid cheese. Epoisses was by far the hit that day, just turns out that one woman, well two I guess, didn't quite get why we all puddle over something that essentially smells like ass. Oh well, more for us!

Was tricky for me to hide my, "WTF?" face but I can see why someone might not be so open to that rather assertive aroma. I love it and to me it equals something amazing but....whadda ya gonna do? You and ADoC, meeting you both and being able to call you my true friends, well that has always made this blogging thing worth it. Can't thank you both enough.

Anonymous said...

DaVinci Mediterranean Gouda. It's an imported Dutch gouda, studded with garlic and brined olives.

Yes, it's a lame-ass name, but it's yummy as hell.

webb said...

Can't wait to try that cheese and I promise to put a Pinot Noir with it, altho there is probably no way to get "that" one. Maybe Savvy and I can come west together one day!

I feel sort of the same way about tasting wines at a winery. Wine after wine, something will take good, but when I get it home it's not exactly what I was expecting. You are right about how the taste "changes" in real life.

That's not stopping me from trying, tho. thanks for all your help.

Samantha Dugan said...

Be sure when asking for a replacement Pinot, to ask for one with no new oak. You don't want to cover or crush the cheese. It is wickedly pungent, and fiercely stinky but man, makes the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about it. I freaking adore you enthusiasm and it is a joy writing knowing that you might sink your teeth into something I've written here and seek it out. Do you have any idea how amazing that makes me feel?!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,

I'll weigh in with all the girls here...

Sense of smell is certainly the weakest human sense, aside from common. And it's certainly the least understood by science. And it's, therefore, the most easily influenced. Especially by someone seen as an expert. Maybe the woman was swayed by your enthusiasm into neglecting her own impressions and going with the expert's. Everyone in the biz has seen this happen. It is so easy to persuade consumers, occasionally intentionally, but mostly inadvertently.

One of my first jobs in wine was working at the wine shop in Larchmont. I still can't eat ripe Gorgonzola because the owner, a Brit, would answer the phone after having eaten a particularly ripe piece of that pungent cheese (the older the better, for him--I think some of those cheeses were from the Pleistocene), so when I would answer the phone after he was through, I'd get a huge, unexpected snootful of ripe Gorgonzola. Ugh. I still can't eat the stuff.

Smell is contextual too. What smells appealing in one context may smell offensive in another. Such a complicated sense, which you point out here. I also love Epoisses, but not every time. Some days it just smells like old jock strap.

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
I could see the customer being swayed by my excitement in any other setting, but that day, didn't happen. There were way too many people crammed in that room and I didn't have the time to talk to anyone, let alone people at the Epoisses, which was down the table from me and being manned by another staff member that isn't as in love with it as I. It was obvious that the smell was masked by all the other competing aromas, (not the least of which was 120 other tasters at the event) which is why I wanted to write this piece and probably why no one, on the industry side that is, is commenting.

The idea that you can take a few sips, (or nibbles of cheese) of wine, after a bunch of others and accurately convey what that wine is really like is nonsense really. Sure there is no other way for those of us in the industry to go about it, the writing and evaluations, but it really is a steaming pile of incomplete....or manipulated information. I know in your many years that you have seen it, how the switching of an order in a lineup changes the way a wine what does the consumer taste when they get it home? That was what I was getting at, or trying to anyway. I love you!!

Sara Louise said...

The funkier the better, I say!

Samantha Dugan said...

I'm with you girlie! In fact that smell isn't even bad to me anymore because of its association with deliciousness.