All the Cream of Tartar in the world comes from grape fermentation.
“Waiter, there’s glass in my wine.”
“Oh good for you! You got the diamonds!”
Love Snickerdoodles? Thank wine. Love light, fluffy Angel Food cake? Thank wine again. There are many things to praise in the presence of wine, from sacraments to the corrosion of high density lipids. Since Napoleon’s era, we can add toothsome baked goods to the list.
Unfortunately, it is lost to history who discovered grinding up wine’s tartaric precipitate (tartrates) and adding it to the bread flour, but add it they did, and the world is a better place for it. By the late 18th century, it was common enough in in French cookery to make it a common item in their bakeries – and by the early 19th century it was being mixed with baking soda to make baking powder, as it is today.
Tartrates are the crystalline form of wine’s most abundant acidity. Should the winery wish to filter the tartaric acid out before bottling the wine, all they have to do is turn down the tank temperatures to 45 degrees, or open wintry doors to the barrel room. Either one works. The lower temperature squeezes the acidity out of the wine’s chemistry.
This precipitation, as the chemists call it, takes the form of big chunks in wine vats or as smaller grit in wine bottles. (One will need 6-8 bottles worth, dried and ground, to make a batch of Snickerdoodles.) This grit is flavorless, odorless and has no impact on the resulting wine except that to cold-filter a wine before it is bottled also removes other, desirable flavor characters. These little bits of grit, most easily photographed in white wine, speak of conscientious winemaking, not careless winemaking.
Red wine sediments are also made of tannins and pigments that polymerize and precipitate out as they become too long to remain in suspension. In red wine, that process requires years, if not a decade or two to happen. Tartrates in any color of wine form as quickly as the wine is bottled and chilled, if they have not been previously chilled out at the winery.
The lesson in service is this: old tartrates require slow, gentle decanting to prevent them getting to your guest’s glass; young tartrates or ‘wine diamonds’ are almost as easy to catch as pouring slowly across the shoulders of that Bordeaux bottle, letting them collect there while the wine pours over the top.
Look for wine bottles with these sediments; the wine you find inside will taste better than its peers – and probably better than any Snickerdoodle.
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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.
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:
Taste forms from experience
“Taste” depends on what we smell
Taste develops with attention
Taste expresses individuality
Taste exhibits culture
Taste connects us
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.
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.
Organolepts are people who use their sense of taste and smell to help navigate an industry. Coffee uses them. Perfumiers hire them. The FDA uses them to assess the impact of oil spills on the taste of seafood. If you do it for ice cream, you have the lowest life expectancy of all organolept careers. Cicerones do it for beer, Sommeliers do it for wine.
David Litt of Berkeley Science Review lists a dozen careers in food sensory analysis, and none of those jobs involve thirsty guests, standards of affability, twitchy managers, alcohol consumption or arcane knowledge of Italian labeling laws. “Tasting Panel Associate” has training requirements that are nowhere near as arduous as a Sommelier certification.
But, in truth, there are 6 relatively simple steps to becoming a Sommelier:
TASTE – spit. Taste again. Spit again. Professionals spit because it concentrates experience without the fog of alcohol. If a professional tasting only had 10 wines offering an ounce each, one might make it swallowing the alcohol. The last professional tasting I attended had 48 wines; one would have had the equivalent of a bottle by the 24th wine – and as for remembering the last 5, impossible. Professionals endearingly compare it to fishing; we practice catch-and-release. PRO HINT: practice attention on the first, second and final taste impressions each wine carries – and notice if these change over the space of time the wine is being tasted.
2. TAKE NOTES – Even if it is one line of 8-10 words for each wine, it sticks the impression in the memory far better than no written notation of the wine. “Sour black cherry jam on toast” will bring the experience of that wine back to you quickly. Will your words work for others? Not at first – and that’s ok. Will you look like a dork at the tasting bar? Maybe, but you will have a far better idea of the wines’ applications, nuances and value than those who do not. PRO HINT: step aside while note-taking so that others may taste also.
COMPARE NOTES – Tasting in a group is the most efficient way to learn insights into wine’s impressions. If you are sipping your bottle of Cheval Blanc 1961 out of a styrofoam cup alone in a greasy diner, you can take notes and compare them to any one of a number of publications, websites like CellarTracker.com or WineSearcher.com to triangulate a rounder, more complete “taste-picture” of the wine than any one taster could ever accomplish. There are more sublime ways to taste old Merlot-based wine than aside a cheeseburger and onion rings and your tasting companions can help find them. PRO HINT: when reading a publication’s reviews, keep in mind if the review is formed by one individual or a committee for calibrating your opinion in relation to theirs.
4. TRAVEL – By now, there are favorite wines in your repertoire. Go to the vineyard. Shake the hand of the winegrower. Taste the wines again in situ. Are they the same? Discriminate your own perceptions of the differences. Stand in the vineyard and just soak it in, the views, the smells, the somewhereness of it all. Well-made wine will remind you of the place, bringing it full circle and leave you wondering why more wines don’t do that. PRO HINT: Every offer to taste an older wine from the winery’s cellar is a huge compliment. It will offer unparalleled perspective to how their wines develop in bouquet, intensity, complexity and general appeal.
5. SHARE/TEACH – Just like comparing notes, teaching makes you vulnerable to learning more by pointing out the “taste topography” of a wine or taste combination. Other people will taste differently and share with you. Get a job doing it; this is the ultimate way of sharing. A job in a restaurant, bottle shop or tasting room is the fastest way to curate your own experience and expertise. Further, local community colleges, libraries and restaurants welcome an organizer to lead a wine experience. Even if you just learned the material, you will be ahead of the class. PRO HINT: Be aware of alternate spellings and pronunciations of wine grapes or regions, i.e. – Piedmont is Piemonte as easily.
6. REPEAT – The cycle is repeated by Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine the world over. Taste, take notes, compare, travel and share. Each cycle has a broader reach than the last time around. PRO HINT: The secret 7th step is to ENJOY.
Every cycle gets larger and more inclusive, able to talk to more people more easily about deeper segments of wine. The next best reward is to earn the confidence of a diner with enough speed to choose their dinner wine for them. The absolute best is when they return to have you do it again.
Do you have a story about becoming a Somm? Did I miss any steps?
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.