Winery Feature – Weather Station Raises the Bar

Weatherstation Interview with Kristina thiefing June 2019
Kristina “thiefing” the barrel. – Carpe Diem Images/Russ Miller

Spokane has a new winery project, dedicated to the idea that wine’s character begins in a place – and that some places imprint grapes with distinctive flavors producing distinctive wine.  From the patchwork that comprise Washington State’s vineyards, this is evident to every experienced wine lover.  Kristina Mielke Van Loben-Sels and her husband Jim have steered Arbor Crest Winery to be one of Washington’s most successful family-owned wineries.  When most wineries in Washington have scaled back to less than 10,000 cases, Arbor Crest continues to grow.  Fueling that growth is the attention to detail that she and Jim and their winemaking team bring to the grapes they source.  When the opportunity arose to concentrate some of these vineyard’s grapes into a few special wines, they took the opportunity.  That opportunity is bottled as Weather Station.

Kristina’s story as a winemaker began almost 30 years ago in classrooms at the University of California, Davis, where she was one of three women enrolled.  Her career blossomed through the wineries of Mondavi and Ferrari-Carano before joining her family in Washington.  Whether she knew it or not, she was a role model for female winemakers then and remains one now.  Today, she leads the winemaking team that splits wine down to the vineyard level, a winery whose attention to the influences on the flavor of the wine is as clear from the design of the label to the first taste and the last.

Weatherstation Wine Team June 2019
Weather Station winemaking team – Carpe Diem Images/Russ Miller

She sat down with me and entertained questions about her family, her winemaking history and the distinctions of Weather Station wine.  Tasting notes follow for those intrepid readers.

Weatherstation Interview with Kristina and Eric Cook 2 June 2019
Interviewing Kristina in the Weather Station Barrel Room – Carpe Diem Images/Russ Miller

Where did you grow up? I was born in Boston, MA but moved to Marin County when I was one. I grew up in San Rafael, CA.

Have there been any other winemakers in your family? The only winemakers are on my mom’s side of the family. My mom’s family is Italian, and my great grandfather and generations before him made wine every year for the family.

When did you know winemaking was going to be your profession? Growing up, I thought I was going to be a veterinarian but when I started classes at UC Davis, I soon realized that the sight of blood was not my strong suit.  I decided to take a Wine 101 class. From that point on, I fell in love with wine and the creation of it.  It had all of the science and creativity of medicine with none of the blood!

What would you be if you were not a winemaker?  I would absolutely be a singer but unfortunately, I can’t sing. So, if I couldn’t be a winemaker I would choose to work with kids.

How many years has it been? I have been making wine for 27 years. Wow – I can’t be that old!

Ballpark number of wines you have made? My very first wine made was in 1992 and over the years with different brands and varietals, I would say about 800 wines. (Wow.)

What do you wish more people knew about wine? I wish more people knew that wine is a labor of love and that it is a creative expression from each vineyard and winemaker. I also wish people had more fun with wine pairings. Trying different dishes with different wines, finding what doesn’t work and then finding what does is magical!

Besides your own wines, do you have a wine region or wine style that really hits the center of your palate? I love Pinot Noir so I tend to gravitate towards all different regions. However, I am a true fan of Burgundy, California’s Russian River and Oregon.

The idea that a vineyard site influences the taste of wine has some people downplaying its importance. What do you think? The vineyard site is extremely important on how it influences the wine.

Do you have any favorite chores at the winery? Yes! I love to fill barrels, especially new ones. The aromas are so intoxicating (not literally).  At harvest time, I love to operate the press so I can smell the juice as it runs out and imagine what the wine will be like!

How do food and wine link together for you? I love to make wine that pairs well with food – this is why my wines are not heavily oaked. I find it so exciting when you find an unusual pairing that just works. When I go to a restaurant, I pick my wine only after I have decided on my meal. When I am crafting at home, I choose a wine and then build a menu around it. So fun!

How do you describe your winemaking style? I would describe my style as a combination of Old World and New World.  None of Weather Station wines are heavily oaked so that the fruit can show through and showcase the beautiful vineyard. These wines are food friendly with depth and structure to lay down for years.

How are the Weather Station wines distinctive for you?  Weather Station wines are distinctive because they showcase the vineyard in which they are grown. Strict attention to every detail in the vineyard and then once it arrives at the winery, come through in every wine. Choosing Weather Station Wines will showcase the area in which the grapes are grown. This cooler location combined with soils that stress the vines allows for longer hang-time in the vineyard  – warm days and cooler nights yield wines with intense varietal character and excellent structure and backbone. Weather Station wines are vineyard specific to set them apart from other wines.

Do you have any winemakers whom you would count as influences on your style? Yes, I have two winemakers that have influenced my style over the years – Karl Wright and George Bursick (both CA winemakers originally). However, Karl Wright has collaborated with me in the WA industry for the last 20 years and he was the inspiration to plant the Weather Station Pinot Noir at Conner Lee Vineyard.

What advice would you have for people wanting to get into the winemaking industry? My advice to getting into the winemaking industry is to make sure you have a true passion for it. It’s messy, dirty and hard work. For me, it’s truly a labor of love! So only get into it for that reason because when you are knee deep in grapes and the press is broken and you are being swarmed with yellow jackets in 100-degree weather – you may need to remind yourself why you got into the business in the first place!

Weather Station wines are available at select retailers and restaurants in Texas and Washington.  Around the Spokane area, they can be found city-wide at retailers like Yoke’s at Argonne, Atticus, Petunia’s Marketplace, Rocket Market &  Vino! Restaurants featuring the wines are as diverse as Inland Pacific Kitchen, Hay J’s, Wanderlust Delicato, Park Lodge, Spencer’s Wild Sage, Max at Mirabeau, Ambrosia and Thai Garden among others.  By the range of chefs who work with the winery, the range of appeal for these wines is broad and discriminating; I recommend trying the Cabernets sooner and letting the Pinot and Merlot age for a few years to express the broader range they possess.  The Fume is a treat for the heat of summer and the fresh foods that come out of our land and sea-gardens.

Weatherstation bottle shot
Weather Station Cabernet Sauvignon – Carpe Diem Images/Russ Miller

Eric Cook’s Tasting Notes – June 2019

(Sauvignon) Fume Blanc, Columbia Valley 2018

There are not many Fume Blancs produced anymore! The process of aging of Sauvignon Blanc in oak barrels for a brief period fell off as the style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc established its broad audience in the 1990s.  Despite the oak aging on this wine, these aromas only hint at the mineral smokiness that usually marked these wines.  What is markedly present is an almost tropical fruit perfume to the wine’s aromas usually found in Sauvignon Musque varieties. By contrast, the flavor impressions of the wine are more of the high citrus, honeydew and green apple tones associated with Bordeaux Sauvignon, without the higher alcohols/textures. It is a remarkable wine for Washington State and will satisfy many palates for foods as diverse as Red Pepper Scampi, Roasted Chicken and Mango Salsa.

Pinot Noir Connor Lee Vineyard 2016 

Pinot Noir’s appeal shows up in the mild earthy and floral suggestions, as in this wine, but the tannic bite of darker wines is replaced here with the brighter, more lively side of crisp acidity.  This version is not as intense as some of Oregon’s examples, leaning more toward the red cherry/plum end of the fruit spectrum.  Initially, the wine was so crisp and bright.  We let the bottle stand on the counter with the cork for two days as well.  The technique of leaving the wine to breathe in the bottle enabled it to really blossom and show off its mild spice and cigar aromas.  This technique correlates to a few years of bottle aging where the crisper acidity mellows and the earthy notes come to the forefront.  This wine will be memorable for the developed floral, darker plum impressions that caused the balance to match our Porcini Lamb Raviolis – and be drunk rather quickly.

 

Red Blend (Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon) Columbia Valley 2017 

For fans of red blends, this wine fills expectations of dark, oak-aged red at a great price.  The crisp acid of the Sangiovese and the mellowed tannins of the Cabernet let the charred, sweet vanilla tannins of the oak show through to accompany grilled foods and preparations including bleu cheese.  The oak influence is prominent, so for lovers of the style, this is a clear win.

 

Merlot Connor Lee Vineyard 2016

I understand why many people wrestle with choosing Merlot; there are light versions and tannic versions that confound those of us looking for a comfortable choice.  This Merlot is a comfortable choice.  This wine responded well to aeration and three days open – wow!  The crisp red fruit and tannins mellowed into a structured and easy-drinking dark cherry, cedar version that was a delight to finish.  What this means is that it is built to save in the cellar for a few years.  Ageable wine does not come at this price very often, grab it while you can and save it for the 2024 presidential campaign when we may need to remember how good people and wine can be.

 

Cabernet Franc Connor Lee Vineyard 2017

Brighter, but not vegetal as so many Cabernet Francs, the ripeness is all fruit with finer tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, built for highlighting the beefy New Yorks and Tenderloins of the world.  This version does not display the bold oaking, nor the bell pepper, herbaceous quality that turns off so many Franc taste testers.  The finish shows the broader spectrum of red and blue fruits with mild tannins.  If this is the direction for Washington Cabernet Franc, it will be a more popular variety.  These wines place somewhere between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for most tasters and choose it next to dishes with goat cheeses, mushrooms and grilled lamb.

 

Cabernet Sauvignon Stillwater Creek 2017

There are many powerful Cabernets of the world and this is not among them; instead it is among the beautiful Cabernet wines of the world – the wines of Graves, maybe or Spring Mountain definitely, where typicity is plain to see, but the force is restrained by a cooler climate or a lighter touch by a winemaker.  There is a mild influence of charred oak.  There are cherry fruits to this wine that do not always indicate Cabernet Sauvignon – but in the context of Washington, these redder fruits indicate a wine balanced to the lower tannin side of the spectrum.  The wine will also age well for the next decade by the brighter acidity.  I would choose this wine on hot, humid summer days over the next 4-6 years where the cuisine is fresh or grilled, or both, and the wine needs to have both in it as well.

Weatherstation Wine Team with Eric Cook June 2019
A beautiful day to taste at Weather Station – Carpe Diem Images/Russ Miller

Small Grower Champagne Review

…the art of connoisseurship is the art of ignoring the label…

Elements of Champagne stand out as its cardinal virtues: prestige, rarity, purity, but before we get to these, a word about effervescence.  The entire world holds effervescence as Champagne’s defining characteristic, the frothy mousse that so many wineries attempt, and a few outside La Champagne bring off well.

Veuve-Rose

These bubbles, the erstwhile remnant of bottle fermentation, once loathed by Dom Perignon himself, define the identity of this region’s wines. In every instance, bubbles are a glass of wine’s loudest advertisement that this is a special beverage, drunk with abandon and care at the same time.  Karen MacNeil points out in The Wine Bible (updated 2015) that, “…one stands taller when holding a flute of Champagne”.  I have also found true that those charming, minuscule bubbles of CO2 rush alcohol to the bloodstream like firemen to a fire – and that straight posture resembles bravado.

Plenty of wine can be effervescent. Plenty of wines are refreshing when served straight out of the icebox (even red wines). In short, while Champagne is the most imitated style of wine in the world, what renders this peculiar authenticity worth attention, or worse, higher cost?  Prestige is a thing – but the habillage, the bottle’s clothes, communicate this more clearly than the most consistent house style.  Is that it? As in so many human interactions, if the clothes make the man, can the label makes the wine?

Peripherally, I would argue that the art of connoisseurship is the art of ignoring the label – and the fiery pride of Champagne’s grape growers are doing their best to get drinkers to ignore the labels of famous negociant Grandes Marques in favor of their single vineyard and single commune wines.  The purity, rarity and prestige of these wines rests in their unique, flavorful, tiny productions, some as low as a few hundred cases per year.  None of us can remember Champagne as a vineyard specific wine – now we are getting a chance.

Dropping-into-Moet

Grand marques are the image of modern Champagne, their marketing budgets alone consist of kajillions of dollars for image and prestige.  All growers in La Champagne benefit from the image-building of these négociants, while the negoce idea of terroir rests firmly in the backseat.  The échelle des crus attempts to recognize the effects of context on fruit, but this ladder is more an industry scale than a consumer scale – and in the big houses, even the best vin clair gets the blending. The Grandes Marques Emperor is delicious, but in the context of the wider wine world, he has no clothes.

By contrast, these small growers are trying to put the clothes of terroir back on the frame of Champagne’s image, imitating their neighbors in Burgundy.  It’s usually a regal picture.  Recent, warmer vintages render sites more likely to withstand the scrutiny of single-vineyard bottling.  However, success remains a mixed bag of regal and pedestrian – the importance to wine lovers is that the attempts are showing up.   Please show a sense of adventure when choosing your next Champagne, your palate will thank you.

Champane and Morels by Mael Balland

What follows is this taster’s impressions of a selection of 42 small grower Champagnes, presented by the region in which the wines were sourced.

The Aube – controversial in its re-inclusion to the Champagne AOC, the Kimmeridgian limestone surfaces here and is again recognized as comparable.  While all grape varieties are planted here, the region has yet to make an outstanding wine.  One highlight:

Tassin Brut NV exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit of Aube and grower Champagne at once with its 80/20 Pinot/Chardonnay blend and lower wholesale pricing.  The wine displays a bright, light mousse, appley citrus and barely ripe tropical impressions to a light finish.  This wine provides a fine example of how Champagne can be enjoyed by a broad range of drinkers.

 

Cote des Blancs – centered around the communes of Avize, Cramant, Mesnil-sur-Oger and Cuis – featuring the white grape that ripens enough in this slightly cooler region of limestone exposure.  Some highlights:

Pierre Gimonnet et Fils “Cuvee Gastronomie” Brut Premier Cru 2014 was a very effervescent example of a fine Champagne; the bouquet was notable for its deep lemony grapefruit characters and mild chalk/yeast/dough.  The palate was creamy with mousse and actual texture echoing the bouquet with an almost limoncello character, almost invisible yeastiness and a delicate, ethereal finish.

Pierre Gimonnet et Fils “Special Club Oger” Brut Grand Cru 2012 provides a dramatic difference to the Cuvee Gastronomie in its normal effervescence and robust, red fruit impressions from tart cherry to unroasted coffee.  Remarkable and deserving attention alongside heartier cuisine.

Pierre Peters “Cuvee de Reserve” Brut Grand Cru NV (based on 2015 with reserve wine dating back to 1998) despite older reserve wine, the revelation of this wine was its absence of evidence of battonage or autolysis.  The clean, brisk chalk impressions were firmly underpinned with brilliant lemon citrus and a lingering lemon, mildly tropical finish.  Weightier as a GC might inspire but not heavy.

Varnier-Fanniere Brut Grand Cru NV showed a brilliant hybrid of Champagne and rich Meursault.  On the Champagne side, there was a mild oxidation to the fruit that played well off of the chalk and nutty citrus flavors.  The effervescence was low-key by comparison to its peers but with a richer almond, pear and mild roast coffee finish that was more reminiscent of Meursault than La Champagne.

 

Vallee de la Marne – warmer with more of the rough-hewn impressions of the Pinot Meunier grape, the region traditionally gives heft and longevity to the region’s best wines.  Some highlights:

Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs d’Ay Brut Grand Cru NV despite the warmer region, this wine displays the lightness and ethereal qualities of a blanc de blancs with a delicate balance between almond shortbread and lemon meringue.

Marc Hebrart “Special Club” Brut Premier Cru 2013 runs the gamut of Champagne flavor with a medium plus texture, the ripe, roasted almond plays off of the red appleskin and yellow grapefruit flavor impressions to a lingering finish. Remarkable.

Geoffrey Rose de Saignee Brut Premier Cru NV displays an almost pet-nat character with indigenous yeast influence and robust plum, dark cherry and mushroom flavors on the complex palate.  If this is the beginning of the complexity Champagne is assuming, the future is bright for lovers of the region’s wines.

 

Montagne de Reims – wines are based on Pinot Noir and typically among the more robust, ageable and complex of the region.  Some highlights here include:

A. Margaine Rose Brut Premier Cru NV has become a light, bright and crisp example of the area but with a pale rose color echoed in the refreshing red cherry, bright raspberry  and crisp citrus finish. 

Jean Lallement et Fils Rose Brut Grand Cru NV makes an intense rose with a funky, mild mushroomy character alongside the clear, clean plum, dark cherry and sheer character of flavor.  Another standout.

L. Aubry Fils “Aubry de Humbert” Brut Premier Cru 2009 smells like a fruit bowl of banana, pineapple and smoky lemon.  The texture and mousse is moderate allowing the melange of flavors to show off on the palate before cleaner citrus arrives on the finish.

Pierre Paillard “Les Mottelettes” Blanc des Blancs Extra Brut Grand Cru 2012 registers as the single most assertive BdB in memory.  The robust, almost dried lemon, almond shortbread and guava impressions are heavy enough as to not be appealing to every Champagne fan, but it remains a remarkable wine with a long life ahead.

 

These wines were tasted with labels showing and expectations based around growing region and color of the wines.

 

“…the art of connoisseurship is the art of ignoring the label.”

The Edges of Wine Knowledge

Relax.

 

It is an understatement to say that fermented grapes inspire anxiety. Am I doing this right?  Will I know if this wine is good or bad?  What is this salesperson/sommelier trying to push off on me?  Am I paying too much for this?

As a one of the wine folk of the world, I consider it every wine person’s first job to reduce that anxiety – after all, that’s what wine does, in the end.

Toward this task, we earnestly describe grape varieties, wine traditions,  tasting techniques, sulfites, types of soil, food affinities, glassware – to name a few. And we keep it up. And describing and learning more.

 

But, here’s a fun secret. We don’t know.  Even the Master-est Master of Wine doesn’t and can’t know some things.  These things are unknowable in wine and therefore a taster’s opinion will always remain supreme.

 

To balance this perspective, sure, we know plenty about grape varieties and verifiable details, but the rest of the influences on perception and value remains a happy cocktail of hypothesis and fashion.

 

For example, why can’t screwcaps age wine like a cork-stoppered bottle? We don’t know. (There’s a gob of money for whoever figures it out – and synthetic cork producers will tell you they already have…. they are drinking their own kool-aid.)

 

How do we communicate meaningful scent impressions? We don’t know. (More gobs of money…)

 

Which glass is best for capital-C Champagne? The fashion today is for the conventional white wine glass, away from the bouquet-numbing flute and not all the way back to the bubble-flattening coupe. Today’s fashion would would scandalize Marie-Antoinette’s admirers.  Try Champagne in a variety of different glasses to see where you prefer it – and let it be warmer to the 55-65 degree range for optimal perceptability.   Riedel’s Oregon Pinot Noir glass has been a personal favorite for years as it has enough volume to really let the wine express itself and enough closure to concentrate the aromas it offers.   I think I heard one of the kids say, it’s pretty woke up?  In language and in taste fashion, there is always more to explore – even when it’s done awkwardly.  In wine as in so much else, opinion and fashion have shelf-life.

 

Teaching people the pathways to finding their own taste preferences, I find it common to not trust one’s own opinion.  We want to bounce it off other’s like echolocation.  A recurring student at a wine class cleared it up for me one night. I told him I was surprised to have him attend as he had been to so many classes before. He said it was reassuring to hear it again.

 

Ok, I get that.  Hearing a familiar song or watching a familiar play on a new production remains a fine way to make sure your key still fits the lock.   We all play a little bit of Doubting Thomas when it comes to our own wine knowledge.

 

Take heart if you can’t recall all the grapes and their min/max percentages allowed in Morellino di Scansano. Or, why you would (probably) like it better than Chianti with grilled Beef Ribeye…

 

To this end of education and explanation, your questions give good sommeliers job security.  Genuinely curious tasters and diners offer that in return for the informed guidance.   Second, the recommendations with food are all fashion or fashion with a solid dose of nostalgia.  They live, however, as fashion we know, fashion sommeliers represent in context not mere recitation.

 

Away from fashion, back to the edges of wine knowledge, why do grapes taste like the place they grew?  Not one of the world’s wine-folk knows for sure – but everyone agrees it does.

 

Relax, enjoy the wine. Have another glass and talk about it. It will taste even better. Maybe, we get to know more about the wine, but we absolutely get to know more about each other – and I know that’s really the point.

The Community and Commandments of Taste

We taste from where we have lived. Each of us knows food differently because we come from different places, inhabit different spaces and have traveled off towards different horizons.  The contextual differences of everything from food choice to preparation methods to nationality influence diet – context defines diet.  Diet encourages discriminating – after all, we can’t eat it all.  Discriminating preference is taste, and it contains a few defensible universals:

  1. Taste forms from experience
  2. Taste anticipates
  3. “Taste” depends on what we smell
  4. Taste develops with attention
  5. Taste expresses individuality
  6. Taste exhibits culture
  7. Taste connects us
  8. Taste is our first religion

Taste tells the stories of ourselves.  Taste tells us the stories of our foods, our places and the combinations of ingredients and preparations that speak to us.  We change our grandmother’s recipes out of necessity or rebellion but always out of reaction to availability and the willingness to submit to the religion, or agnosticism, of the home kitchen.  Taste is the quintessential human trait.

We craft those stories from the desire to identify with some things and not with others.  The New World of ingredients offered us a way out of the tyranny of our forebears and we took it.  Europeans discovered potatoes, tomatoes and pasta in other lands – made them Italian in their combination of gnocchi and Primavera, exported them to the rest of Europe and the New World as representations of Italy.

The examples of the adoption of ingredients, preparations and foodstuffs are just one of the examples of the topics covered in this website.  We will travel to the source, to the center of diversity when possible to pry open the histories that have brought us to the edges where we may leap off again.

Which wine region has not made wine that reflects its place?  Which cultures do not identify themselves with the produce of their homeland?   Further, how do we read a menu like it was the story of a restaurant’s identity, and in what community of restaurants does it fit successfully?  What does it say about its community?

Aside from the principles of taste above, we explore the obvious greatness of taste in restaurants, books, wineries, cookbooks, distilleries and breweries the world over.  In every one we will find the comfort and the ridiculous of the local culture – that is, we will see ourselves.

Read on and comment if you like, dear reader, and we can begin the conversations that develop taste – proving we admire the beauty around us in many of its forms – and more every day.

1. Taste forms from experience

We like what we know, or more precisely, we prefer it.  Red licorice tastes nothing like black licorice, yet they are shaped the same way, textured the same way and referred to by only color difference.  Nonetheless, the experience of each tastes as different as horehound and apples.  If Mom or Dad provided lots of vegetables on the table for dinner, chances are you have a taste for many different vegetables.  Same for music.  Should your household have played Rock and Roll, you knew Elvis, The Rolling Stones and Sammy Hagar; if they played classical music, you knew Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, the veritable vegetables of a musical diet.  In experience, there is not a correct teacher, but a constant awareness that helps us prefer what we know, or think we know. In this, taste is memory itself.

2. Taste prejudges

My childhood was one of red licorice.  That is, I had never been exposed to black licorice.  In the anticipation of my first bite of the black version, I was hoping for something sickly sweet, maybe root beer or vanilla-esque in its impressions to match the sickly sweet chemically formulated berry-esque impressions of what I knew.  It could have been the paragon of black licorice and I still would have left it behind.  The bastards that stir raisins into Chocolate Chip cookie dough inspire similar cynicism and angst.  Expectation prestiges preference.  Disappointment colors judgment, and more importantly, long-term memory – to which smell is intimately linked.

 

3. Taste is really smell

In an ironic twist, our tongue plays the dumb organ while our nose translates thousands of impressions.  Our tongues are reputed to taste four things (but to be fair, the tongue also gets temperature and texture and others, even if some of those are the “chemical” temperatures of habanero or menthol.  “Our tongues are dumb” does not mean our noses are smart, but that they are more sensitive and highly impressionable to the two paragraphs above.  In a meaningful twist for pairing food with wine, our noses are personal/subjective while our tongues remain more universal/objective.  Tongues are nationalities, noses are fingerprints.  Like any good cannibal can relate, we all taste the same, but we all smell our own way.

4. Taste develops with attention

Do you live to eat or eat to live?  The question often posed by poor souls who believe attention to taste is the devil’s work.  If it were possible to disagree more, I don’t know how.  Being able to discern nuance in flavor does not make one ungrateful for nutriment but able to see the beauty, nay workmanship, in well-grown examples.  One version of this attention to the details of taste is documented in the voluminous wine tasting notes kept by 1000’s of aficionados on CellarTracker.com or the monumental tasting notes of a Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker.  It’s a way of remembering and honoring that which is worth attention.  The best part is that the ability to pay closer attention grows organically from the first attentions.  Some of us quietly keep our tasting notes in random journals and tasting sheets as they come, but also in our heads.  No matter how the reminders are there; reminders and testaments to the level of detail that separates one wine from another or one apple from another or one Jackson Pollack from another.   This discernment exudes value, perhaps the basis for being called paying attention.  At the risk of sounding maudlin, taste behaves like love, once spent, one earns the capacity for more.   The more aware of taste, the more taste-full one becomes – be it in art, perfume, food, music or emotion.

5. Taste expresses individuality

I don’t wear the same clothes you do; I don’t listen to “your” music or paint my toenails the same color(s).  My experience, expectation, ability to discern and remember those discernments causes me to choose a different response to a song on Pandora that reflects more closely who I am.  My taste reflects me and projects me – or at least the me I think I am.  We express ourselves in our language, our pets, our cars, our kindnesses and everything in which we are presented with a choice.  Where we don’t get a choice, we bounce off and move on.   Defining one’s taste happens progressively whether that taste is in baseball teams, books, cars or lovers.  It happens in one’s hairstyle, speech patterns and topics of conversation.  Messy hides it; tidy highlights it.

6. Taste exhibits culture

It is for a more philosophical place than this to decide which of these two principles of taste should have preceded the other.  Does the individual come first or does the culture that begat the person?    The tradition in which one grows and matures shapes one’s taste more than any other single influence.  Strapping wrestlers from the first Olympiad favored beef as a staple of the diet for the intensity it provided their muscles during their competitions.  Buddhists do not value wrestlers in the same way.   Taste exhibits tradition; the culture of one’s region that we cannot help but absorb – like a dialect or inflection in one’s speech that alters when emigrating.  This absorption and identification with various sets of contexts piece together the set of personal preferences and refinements we call taste.

7. Taste connects us

In the items and topics of our taste, we find others who share these preferences.  Knowing each other alters our taste, we each influence the other. In that community of two, there becomes a community of four and so on which continues to expand.  We can see the influence upon our friends and our family, witness their influence upon us.

We meet someone who collects the same comic books or likes the same film director and we bond to them more quickly.  We see each other dress in ways which attract or repel, invite or shield purely through style, color, material and context.

On the most base level, though it’s called taste, it is no more than chemical interaction and our ability to perceive it, even chemically and pre-consciously.  There are researchers who believe that the experience of this taste begins before we are born.  From a 2013 paper, Early Influences on the development of food preferences, Ventura and Worobey write, “The ability to perceive flavors begins in utero with the development and early functioning of the gustatory and olfactory systems. Because both amniotic fluid and breast milk contain molecules derived from the mother’s diet, learning about flavors in foods begins in the womb…”   Mom craved foods for us.  Whether we like those cravings today is up to dispute, but we influenced taste.

8. Taste is our first religion

And a primal one it is.  Religion, the word, draws its roots from the Latin.  The main root of the word forms from lig as in ligament, preceded by re- and finished with the state of being suffix -ion The state of being linked back. Religion connotes a faith in an organized and formal set of beliefs.  Do chefs and sommeliers behave this way in their restaurants?  (Yes.)  Before we can indulge the idea of organized religion like Christianity or Islam(much less their incessant variants), we know if we will eat carrots, hummus, figs or McDonald’s chicken nuggets.  We have a range of experience in taste from which we are offered, repulsed or attracted; we may indeed like other foods in the order of pickled beets or perhaps haggis yet have no exposure against which to test our taste.  In that which we have experienced firstpalate, empirical truth it becomes.  Taste is our first fundamentalism against which we are loathe to rebel, until rebellion means heroing progress, advancing sophistication or championing the places we want to go.  

Life delights in life.

William Blake offered, “Life delights in life.” We could simply amend it to summarize our experiences. “Taste delights in taste.” Thank you for reading, here’s to finding more more easily.

The Delicious Reward of Patience

Age displays its own savory chemistry.

Participating in a wine auction weekend is an illuminating exercise in the physical and sensory changes between newly minted wine and wine that has had a chance to mature. What it offers a taster is the perspective of how old is old enough.

A few Sunday nights ago, Corliss Winery of Walla Walla poured their 2005 Cabernet Franc; on Monday morning, they offer the same wine from 2017.  The 2005 inspired adjectives (that don’t communicate much) like “seamless”, “balanced” and “smooth”.  By contrast, the 2017 had similar texture, similar alcohol, but the “seams” were everywhere.  The alcohol was sharp, the tannins (that were so well integrated into that elder wine as to be unremarkable) were obvious and the fruit aspects of the wine were so assertive as to seem “hard” and “unexpressive” by comparison.

There was nothing intrinsically unappealing about the younger wine.  It was only by contrast to its older sibling that inspired the seductive appeal of the older wine.

The physical and chemical explanations for the changes to our perception lie deeper than this explanation; but the bulk of wine’s changes in flavor find themselves in the reactions of fruit to air.  Fruit oxidizes, flattens, turns a different shade of color with exposure to air – even faster without refrigeration – but ever so slowly in a sealed bottle. Cut an apple open and leave it on the counter for an hour to see oxidation in process.

Next, the other biggest agent of developmental change from young wine to old is reduction of the number of separate, disparate molecules and development of longer chains of similar or compatible molecules.  When we say the wine is coming together nicely, it is as literal as it is figurative.

The impression on a taster needs no such explanation, no matter how simple or complex.  Tasting mature wine is long touted by the viniferati as being “better”, while impatience and proximity to young wine often short circuits the ability to find out.   As with all matters of taste, the difference to a taster is obvious, how to communicate it is not.

If the opportunity presents itself to try the same wine old and young, especially with more than a decade of difference between them, your palate will never be the same – nor will your sense of preference – but you will know if you need a wine cellar or not.

And thank you to the Walla Walla Wine Alliance for sponsoring such an eye-opening retrospective of the region’s wines, their winemakers and the spirit of camaraderie that infuses the valley.