So I have been wrestling with this post, not the writing part (which is my usual issue) but if I should even bother. It’s been done, the argument had and the outcome is always the same…nothing is ever resolved, both camps believing they are right and the other must be high. So why bother bringing it up again…just not so good with the whole, “leaving well enough alone” deal I guess. After tasting and commenting on a bunch of California wines this past weekend the whole thing came up again….sweetness.
Now before anyone goes jumping on my neck let me just say, sweetness, perceived or actual is all in the palate of the beholder. I don’t wish to continue the argument about what is sweet and what is not, or if the, “perceived” sweetness is from actual residual sugar, alcohol or oak…wanna know why? Because it doesn’t freaking matter! Who cares what is giving the “impression” of sweetness, if the wine tastes sweet, it is freaking sweet. This thing drives me nuts, every time I taste something and say, “it’s a little sweet” I get to hear the speech again, “Oh no, that wine is not sweet, there’s no RS on that wine. If you are getting a perceived sweetness it might be from the oak” this speech is always delivered with the slightly aghast, how dare you say that, face.
Two things about this whole thing twist my undies; one is the arrogance of one person telling another what they are tasting or worse, that they are tasting wrong…who the hell do you think you are?! What I taste, how I taste and my perceptions are correct…for me. Would I turn around and tell a customer that the wine is sweet, probably not, not unless I knew their palate well enough to know that it would likely taste sweet to them. All taste is subjective, some people have a higher threshold for sweetness than I do, matter of fact I think most do. I don’t drink soda, will take cheese over dessert every time and I even put salt on my fruit for balance, I don’t find pleasure in sweetness but I would never call it a flaw. The other thing that gives my knickers a twist is the fact that those people that scrunch up their face when I say I am getting sweetness on a wine, see that as me pointing out a fault or flaw….when did, “sweet” become a bad word?!
I just don’t get it, some of the world’s greatest wines are sweet, some of the most respected, most sought after, most expensive…but I mention that I got sweetness on a Marcassin Pinot Noir and I get the scrunchy face and speech. Did I say I didn’t like the wine? Did I say that it was in any way jacked up?! No, as a matter of fact I rather liked the wine, it was sweet to me but I still liked it, was still able to taste things beyond the initial, “perception” of sweetness…so what gives? Why the defensive attacks on people’s palate when they mention sweetness? Why be defensive at all? Somehow we can talk about animal pee and poo but mention sweet and the fancy pants wine police thump you about the head and shoulders. Fruit is supposed to be sweet right; I mean you rarely see a shelf talker that says, “aroma of nowhere near ripe cherries” now do you?
"This wine was sort of created for the U.S. market. You know, to be a crossover wine" the second the words leaped from my lips I could feel the fur beginning to gather around the neck of the woman I was pouring it for. "And what is that supposed to mean?" the lips pulled into the start of a snarl, the eyes now narrowed and suspicious as they honed in on me like heat seeking missiles. You know that high-pitched sound that a landmine emits right before it blows up....this felt a little like that. And Ms. What'sWrongWithMerica was clearly on the verge of being offended. I went on to explain to the now way-too-focused-on-my-every-flipping-word woman, that the wine in question, the one with the edgy label sporting in big chunky script the word Grenache on it, that it was made in a more fruit forward, flashier, more showy...on the fruit side, style. "What does that have to do with American palates?" she asked, those eyes taking in my every wrinkle and laugh line, nose raised high and alerting me of just how bent out of shape my words, or moreover the implication, was making her. Now this is where a salesman/woman might have started a tappy dance of, "Looka this way!" but it was the educator in me that ached to have the woman understand, so I went for it, "Well the American palate tends to favor things on the sweeter side" yeah, took less that half a second to know that I had peed all up in her Frosted Mini Wheats.
What followed was a sort of tennis match of comments, hers assuring me that she didn't like sweet things in the least as she sucked back Banyuls like it was iced tea and mine, trying to be soothing and far from accusatory as I brought up things like pancakes, waffles, cinnamon rolls and breakfast cereal all of which are foods so sweet they might be served as dessert in other parts of the world.....not that there's anything wrong with that. The soda pop and catchup culture that has shaped the American palate and how even our wine culture, which is younger than most, has been shaped and molded to suit a particular critic's palate that is very much drawn to ample, supple and ultra-ripe fruit. Maybe I should have worked on my tap dance moves because this woman was about a million miles away from cutting me any slack. I felt a little defeated but as I watched Ms. America grab her bottles of Rombauer Zinfandel and Peach "Champagne" I realized that it wasn't sweetness in wine that offended her, it was simply the word sweet that put a hitch in her get-a-long....really?! What the hell gives? When did sweet become a dirty word? I mean, it's not like we use sweetness to make things like medications or vitamins all candy like so we'll take them....oh wait.
Sweet in no way implies inferior when I use it and it is miles away from a negative sensation or flavor when it comes to wine but pretending that certain things don't leave the impression of sweetness is just silly and creates an even bigger divide or hurdle when trying to get the consumer what they really want to drink. When you've been selling wine to the general public for a long time you start to pick up on the little reads or tells, pulling the important, (to the person that will in fact be drinking the wine) names from in between emphatic assurances of "I like a big, bold, dry red!" nodding when the name "Opolo" or "Rombauer" follow, I have figured out how to do it but it would just be so much easier if we stopped treating sweetness as if it were a suggestion of an immature palate or somehow a bad thing....dang it.
That feels better.